Theatre of the Backwards Play

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I drive
backwards through time,
past shops that sold toy cars,
down the hill I could not cycle up.

I see myself outside the chippie
laughing,
then turning up late
for that date that turned sour.

I remember my weekend job for £1 an hour
where those houses are now
and pass the post box where the post office
is no more.

I wonder how,
with the butcher and corner shop lost,
kids could be sent for messages,
missing out on the penny basket

and so I wonder what is the cost,
as I watch from my driving seat,
from my personal theatre that shows
my own backwards play:
the towers of my knocked down school,
the safety barriers of the once open pond,
and the bush that is no longer able to hide
its kissing occupants,
not that it was I who kissed her that day.

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The Tuchinski Theater

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Colin Casimir took his seat at the end of the row, sinking gracefully into the plush red cushion. He slowly gazed around in awe.

The Tuchinski Theatre, Amsterdam. One of the most beautiful art deco cinemas, nee buildings, in the world. A three-tiered display of theatrical majesty, a world away from the standard fayre of the average ten-a-penny cinema. This place took the name ‘theatre’ and deserved to wear it as an accolade. The décor, the symmetry, the fixtures; all pristine, all displaying an elegance unbefitting of the simple ‘cinema’ tag.

He’d fallen in love with the place ever since he’d first set eyes on it, Colin. Back in his student years. When he and a handful of friends had made the pilgrimage to Amsterdam – a seeming right of passage for males of a certain age in the western world – he caught sight of the place. The exterior façade of the theatre looking less like a cinema and more like a gothic haunted house, sandwiched in between a cheese shop and, most likely, a sex shop of some kind. And whilst his friends had played out an invisible game of tug of war – a few wanting to trudge the remaining 50 yards or so down the street to Rembrandtplein (Rembrandt Square) to sample the beer and nightlife of one of Amsterdam’s most visited tourist ‘areas’, and the others desperate to trudge slightly further in the opposite direction and visit ‘De Wallen’ (or the Red Light District as it is more commonly known) – Colin had chosen to stand stop still on Reguliersbreestraat and peer up in wonder at the beauty of the Tuchinski Theatre, cigarette ember burning away in his hand. Only a flurried concoction of tram and bike bells had managed to shake him from his stupor and move him from the spot. But he had always, always vowed that one day, ONE DAY, he would come back and visit the theatre. Even if it killed him.

And now here he was.

As darkness descended. Yet despite the darkness the beauty of the theatre’s interior was still abundantly apparent. The slightest touches of red forcing themselves through the gloom and into his vision. And through the darkness he sensed how crowded the place was. Barely a seat was left empty. At least that’s the impression he got. In fact, he barely remembered seeing anyone at all as he walked towards his seat, caught in such a daze as he was. As he looked initially ahead of him and then along his own row of seats he could make out heads, limbs, bodies. At least he thought he could anyway. The theatre was shrouded now in such darkness that the others in the theatre appeared only as mere outlines to him, if at all. Adding to this haze was the slightest suggestion of smoke which crept around the theatre, further obscuring the already minimalistic chance of visibility.

Perfect, thought Colin. Very fitting. Well, it was a Vincent Price film celebration after all. What better atmosphere to celebrate the great man himself in than one like this. Ornate surroundings, plunged into a threatening darkness, sporadic wisps of smoke providing the only company. Perfect. He rubbed his hands together, smiling, and settled further back into his chair as the velvet curtains slowly began to open, revealing the screen.

The merest suggestion of an orchestral tune began to drift into his consciousness. The kind of orchestral murmuring commonplace in a theatre such as this, particularly one attempting to evoke a 1950s grandeur on proceedings. A slice of muzak nostalgia if you will. Only. Yes, was that? That was, it was. Colin sat forward in his chair slightly, straining to hear. Was that Townes Van Zandt? It was, he was sure of it. The legendary drawl of the late country singer-songwriter seemed to pierce the orchestral muzak only briefly before dying out again.

‘Wont you give your……

Won’t you give your….

Won’t you give your….

The words seemed to stick, to repeat, clicked back in repetition each time like a stuck needle on an old-fashioned record player. Colin sat further forward, confused and more than a little intrigued. But the music orchestral muzak had kicked back into its unobtrusive monotony. Strange, thought Colin, as he sank back into the chair. Oh well.

Suddenly the screen burst into life. Vincent Price’s image appeared on screen. Flickering, blurring. In the way that all the greatest restored films seem to. An illustrated image, lurking just below the title ‘THE RAVEN’. Colin smiled. Ah, The Raven. A classic. It had to be. Not his favourite of course, but one of Price’s best. But then there were so many to choose from weren’t there? In fact, there they are he thought as small shards of light lit up the walls on either side of the screen, revealing the movie posters of many of Price’s most famous works; The Raven, again; House Of Usher; House Of Wax; House On Haunted Hill; Masque Of The Red Death; Pit and The Pendulum. He gazed from one to the other through the combination of weak light and the cluster of smoke continuing to billow gently from an unknown source.

The screen continued to flicker as The Raven print stared back at the audience, inky blots appearing disparately across the screen as the film reel continued to power through its obvious antiquity. And one…well, not so inky, as, well. What was that, thought Colin. He glanced around to see if anyone else had taken notice of the strange, oddly shaped image that all-too-briefly appeared in the centre of the screen. But he was met with stony silence and darkness. It was almost…well, almost alien-like in its shape, he decided. Not quite cylindrical, corroded even. He laughed to himself quietly. That’s what you get, he thought to himself, for being a devotee of film from an era when they used to pose a risk of burning the theatres down. There was a hell of a lot to be said for vintage film, vintage machinery, vintage things; but thank god technology had moved on since then. Once more he settled back into his seat. Ok, here we go. He smiled…

The theatre shook. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Rocked even. Visibly rocked. Throwing Colin from his chair. Coupled with an almost deafening thud. Or a bang. He scrambled back up onto his seat, wide-eyed in terror.

‘What the hell was that!?’ he shouted. Panicked.

Silence. Stillness. Darkness. The outlines remained there. Remained in place. Jesus, he thought. The weather wasn’t that bad outside was it…I mean, it was…what was the weather like, actually? In fact, I can’t remember noticing the weather, he thought to himself. He clambered back onto the seat, a mixture of embarrassment and perplexity as to why there had been no further reaction to the noise, for lack of a better word, throughout the theatre. Maybe it’s a thunder storm he thought? Are they common in Amsterdam perhaps? Or was it a sound effect by those running this event…no, no it was far too loud for that. The place shook for god’s sake! Well it…it must have been the weather…must have been. He pulled himself onto the seat and turned back towards the screen. He looked up through the increasing smoke, batting it away with his hands. A new image stared back at him –

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL

It had changed. Oh, he thought. The Raven must not have been working. Or something. He’d decided it was best to stop guessing given the absurdity of events thus far.

‘I actually prefer House On Haunted Hill’ he said to the darkness next to him. ‘It’s actually the…’

He stopped speaking. There was that song again…Townes Van Zandt…he was certain.

‘Won’t you give my…

‘Won’t you give my…

‘Won’t you give my lungs to…

And once more the song, ticking back to the start time and again, abruptly blended back into the orchestral muzak of before. Colin shook his head and turned to the seat next to his own.

‘Someone has to get a grip back there don’t you think?’

Shhhh

The command was fleeting, ethereal almost. He couldn’t tell where it came from – it certainly hadn’t originated from the seat next to his own, but sure enough, as he turned to look back at the screen the film had begun. Vincent Price’s floating head commanding the middle of the screen, dictating to the audience the outline of the premise, cleverly laying out a platter of exposition at the very first.

This is more like it, thought Colin as he settled back into his chair for the umpteenth time. Almost instantly he sat forward again, fidgeting as only someone who knows the ins and outs of a specific film can do.

‘There she is,’ he whispered to no-one in particular as the actress Carolyn Craig appeared on screen under the guise of supporting character Nora Manning, ‘Carolyn Craig. So beautiful. So young. Destined for great things. Destined to be a Hollywood starlet. And yet, no. A couple of divorces later and she shoots herself at 36. 36 years of age. A child left behind. Did you know that? Poor thing. Poor thing, don’t you…’

The film flickered. Jolted. Skipped, even. Inky blots. Imprints on the film. And that…that shape again. More prominent than before. A chill ran through Colin’s blood. What was that thing. It was hideous. Jet black. And yet, withered. It was…

‘Won’t you give my…’

‘Won’t you give my…’

‘Won’t you give my lungs….

And there was that song again. What the hell was going on?! Surely not this film aswell? I mean, I come all the way to Amsterdam, to a grand theatre such as this only to…

Vincent Price suddenly appeared on screen again. In the living room, or parlour may be more precise, of the ‘haunted’ house in question. Surrounded by his supporting cast. Holding a gun. Explaining to that same group of actors how there was a gun for each of them should the night turn in a sinister direction.

‘A gun?’

‘Surely he couldn’t shoot…?’

‘Surely he wouldn’t?’

‘He can’t shoot…surely not a gun? No, no, no.’

Colin heard the ethereal whispers around him, floating through the air as the smoke seemingly continued to cluster throughout the theatre. His intrigue of the strange goings-on dissipated all-too instantly as the pretentious film-lover in him leapt to the surface.

‘Actually,’ he announced in a loud voice, competing with the precise, clipped tones of Vincent Price, ‘actually, yes. Of course he’ll shoot the gun. It’s a fairly general rule in film, actually. It’s called Chekhov’s Gun, the rule. I learned it when I was studying film many years ago. What was it he said, oh something like, yes, something like “one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if isn’t going to go off” or “never show a gun in act one if you don’t plan on shooting it in act three”, something like that. So yes, of course he’s going to shoot the gun, it would defy film logic if he didn’t. It…’

Colin gripped the arms of his chair, his pompous film speech ceasing instantly. His eyes widened as the velvet curtains bordering the screen begin to, for all intents and purposes, drip red. Thick, slimy red. Spilling, swilling to the floor. To all appearances it looked like blood. It..it was blood…no it couldn’t be…it. The dripping gathered pace, the flow of red spilling faster onto the floor beneath the stage.

The screen jolted again. Blackening out completely for no more than a second. As it flickered back on that alien-like shape appeared in the centre of the screen once again. Larger, closer than before. It looked evil. Ugly. Rotten. A whole split into two abhorrently broken parts. It…

‘Won’t you give my lungs to me….’

‘Won’t you give my lungs to me….’

‘Won’t you give my lungs to me, mine are collapsing….’

That song.

Again. It stabbed into Colin’s mind, spinning again and again, repeating, clicking, repeating, clicking.

The red continued to gather apace, now beginning to flow up the centre aisle, engulfing the first few rows of theatre, covering the unmoved, indifferent shadows occupying the seats in said rows. The film jumped abruptly to one of the film’s final scenes, Vincent Price collapsing to the floor after being shot. And then darkness again. The screen black. Before once again returning to that horrific image. That charred, venomous, poisonous looking thing. It spoke of evil, of death, of suffering. The red. The blood. It continued to flow. Speeding up the aisle. Closing in on Colin’s row. His hands felt weak. Limp. His body likewise.

The song juddering against his skull.

The image on the screen carving into his retinas.

The smoke. Always the gathering smoke.

The blood flowing, flowing, flowing…from his eyes? From his eyes!? He could feel the thick drip of blood spilling down his cheeks. His eyes oozing, filling with blood, scarlet tears dripping onto his chest. And then…

Darkness.

Complete and utter darkness.

And then light.

A jolt of light. Blinding at first and then gradually bearable.

Colin was standing. Elevated, it seemed. He slowly pulled his hand from his eyes and peered out through his flickering eyelids.

Seats. Row upon row of empty red seats looked back at him from below. He was elevated. He looked down. Behind him. He was on a stage. On a stage staring out at an empty theatre. The screen at his back was blank. A canvas of nothingness. He felt his eyes. Dry. Unstained. No blood. Nothing. No music. No orchestral muzak. No twitching, disparate interrupting country folk music. Nothing. Only the sound of curtains. The curtains either side of him. Gradually closing. Gradually stifling out the light once and for all. Gradually. Slowly. Eventually shrouding the theatre, and Colin, in darkness.

 

When the first police officers arrived at Colin Casimir’s home the smoke, caused by a lit cigarette burning in an ashtray on the coffee table, threatened to overwhelm them. When the smoke was eventually beaten back and the room aired, the officers discovered the body of Colin Casimir lying dead on the floor of his living room. A single self-inflicted gunshot wound to the skull. The carpet beneath him was covered in patches of scarlet-red blood. On the coffee table a photograph album lay open. The photo on the left hand side of the page showed Colin Casimir as a long-haired, fuller-figured younger man pictured outside the ‘Tuchinski Theater’ in Amsterdam – as opposed to the sickly frail, bald-headed appearance he now possessed. The picture was captioned simply ‘This is the dream!’. The living room walls were adorned with several old film posters, most of them containing the famous horror actor Vincent Price. Casimir’s vinyl record player was still playing when the police officers entered the property. Although the needle of the record player had stuck on ‘Lungs’ by the late American country folk singer Townes Van Zandt.

It has since transpired that Colin Casimir was suffering from a particularly aggressive, and fatal, form of lung cancer, a cancer that was at a very advanced stage. Colin Casimir was 36 years old.