It’s a great thing for a town to have a cinema and even better if the cinema has two screens. A town without a cinema puts me in mind of a town with neither river nor sea, the beating heart of its own landscape hidden, obscure even from those who live there. It leaves the visitor to forever ponder ‘yes, but why the hell here?’ It causes me to think about the value of motion, things that move and things that are fixed. Yes, it’s a great thing for a town to have two screens, but as great as it is for a town to have them, it saddens me to say that even those two screens can’t turn a bad town into a great town if there are other stubborn issues and affairs blocking its progress. At that point, the cinema, one screen or more, is but a salve, at best a sanctuary, and often from the actions or inaction of the very people who go there.
So it is now, was in the beginning, and ever shall be, but I think it was especially true in 1984.
In Screen 2, the group agrees that rows 1-5 are too close to the screen, nods and murmurs do the job so there’s no need for motions or votes, but they just can’t seem to turn and reassess the situation with any grace. So it often is with leaders when assembled, peers with everywhere to turn for guidance often do just that, turn everywhere for guidance.
How do rows 12-15 grab us? asks Harry, the great organizer, the numbers man, the matchbox of light and luminary in a long tunnel of darkness. And it’s made clear, with silence the slayer this time, that the proposal has no legs, or that its legs have sustained an unfortunate injury which will likely limit its future behavior, restrict mobility and serve as a warning against future proposals of this kind.
Clearly Harry (think of him as he thinks of himself, as a vizier among grunts, the organizer, the one who knows where everything is because he put it there) should have realized they couldn’t locate themselves at the back, shoulder to shoulder with the sweaty smoochers and gropers of Crossmaglen and surrounding townlands. A fool could have told him as much and would have, had a fool been so inclined.
Leave the stickies to the stickies thought Harry to himself and he was briefly saddened that the situation stopped him from sharing the joke openly with present company.
“So then, there you are,” he said, somewhere in rows 9-20 it would have to be, but there was no room for the seven of them to sit in one row and they hadn’t really discussed if this was what they wanted to do anyway.
And so steps forward the venerable John Markey (Mr. Secretary himself, Minister of the Eucharist in his home parish, itself in a politely bovine corner of far distant Clare, owner of the most expensive watch in the republican movement, proud steward of a head of bouncy salt and pepper curls, a man who understood the value of a supportive shoe long before any of his peers). He clears his throat, swallows the duly liberated phlegm and makes his proposal: “Four in row 15 and the remaining three directly behind in 16.”
There was room for that.
“Great idea, no need for a vote,” said Ollie (Chief of Staff, physical education teacher at a school for young ladies in sunny Belturbet, the only member of the leadership to retain his sideburns even now, a man of some focus and no little gravitas) “we can talk there gents.” He enjoyed saying the word ‘gents’.
But we can’t talk here at all, thought Seán ( Adjutant-General and one of Derry’s finest, a human melting pot of wisdom and doubt, and as good a shot with an AR-18 as any man west of the Bann), it’s a cinema, we can whisper, he thought, but not Thommo, he can’t whisper to save his life, we all know that.
Jaysus, I can’t sit beside Thommo, thought Pól (the youngest Belfast man, autodidact extraordinaire if you exclude his 12 years of schooling, lover of Roxy Music and Camus, a keen follower of modern principles relating to hygiene and political empowerment of grassroots communities). Aye, he thought, it’s bad enough having to listen to him trying to whisper but he’ll have his hand in anything you get, he’d take the bit out of your mouth and he doesn’t wash his hands from one end of the week to the other. God spare me from sitting next to dafla.
All things being even, events had gone well in recent months. If setbacks are put aside, thought Ollie, his right hand absentmindedly scratching at some dry skin sequestered within a sideburn, things were still humming and banging depending on the local context, as befits an organization of its sort. But the unity of vision and purpose that had let them progress the movement, that had framed this strategy, seemed to be dissipating before his eyes. He now watched as six of the group, himself included, jostled awkwardly to avoid sitting next to Thommo Sheridan (mid-Ulster Commander, proud father of eight beautiful little republicans, incomparable relocator of petroleum products and Deputy of Strategic and Semi-Strategic Operations). The selfsame Thommo made his way through the middle of their proposed occupation of row 16. The others, at least those who were too slow or polite to take evasive action, had to take up seats beside him. Pól cursed his luck, Seán did the same on Thommo’s other side.
“I love the ads,” said Thommo.
“The trailers? Aye yea I love them too,” whispered Seán.
“No, the ads,” said Thommo.
Great, thought Pól, yea there’s nothing like a good ad is there? He could hear the four others in row 15 having a right old giggle, and he knew it was Thommo they were laughing at, well Thommo with him and Seán stuck on either side of him for the next two hours.
“Well, I think I’ll go and wash me hands before I get me sweets, how about you lads?” said Seán, “sure it’s only the ads.”
He was a smart one was Seán, as you’d expect from someone widely tipped in his youth to be a priest, teacher or both, but Thommo was too thick, and enjoying the ads too much to get a message like that, never mind act on it.
“I love the ads though,” said Thommo.
So Seán, Pól and Ger went to wash their hands and get their sweets and minerals.
“Yer man’s hands are filthy you know that, and he’ll buy nothing but still have his hand in anything we get”, said Seán.
“Sure I know well, I’m not going to get anything now ‘cos I won’t be able to enjoy it with him there, I’m already gonna have a pain in my back from leaning away so I can’t smell his hair,” said Pól, who returned to the theatre while Seán made his way to get his sweets.
‘What about you Ger? You not getting anything?”
“Argh, you’ve put me off now. I’ll get a bag of chips in the Italian on the way back home.”
Back in the theatre, the meeting and the movie were both about to begin.
“What’s this about anyway lads?” asked Ger getting back to his seat.
“I saw Shirley MacLaine’s in it, I saw her years ago in a yoke with Jack Lemmon, it was about a flat in America,” said Thommo.
“The Apartment?” asked Harry in an unusually brief display of rhetoric.
“Aye, it was about an apartment, I saw it in London with Jean twenty years ago, it’s great she’s still going.”
‘What’s this one about though?” asked Ollie, patience fraying.
“It’s a drama,” said Seán, returning now to his seat.
“Your Ann-Marie likes the films Ollie, did she say what it’s about?” asked John.
“I didn’t tell her where I was going, sure you know yourself. Anyway if I knew I wouldn’t be asking would I?”
‘Why this film anyway John? Isn’t Octopussy on in the other one?”
“That’ll be packed Ger, we’re not here for pleasure remember, we’re here to meet and because we know we can’t be heard here as long as we’re a little bit discreet.”
“Anyway, fucking Octopussy Ger, are ye havin’ a laugh? You think we should sitting together watching a British agent run amok?”
“I’m just saying it’s probably a better movie and there’s a bit of craic in it, I heard this one’s a weepie.”
‘Weepie me arse,” said Ollie “the only one making us weep will be Thommo.”
“Aye, if he takes his shoes off like he used to do in O’Reilly’s.”
Even Thommo himself guffawed, prompting a “ssssshhhh”, from someone on the other side of the cinema. And with that the council was indeed shocked into momentary silence for the first time since Stiofáin MacRaighnaill’s anti Eurovision Song Contest motion in 1970.
It was Pól, thirty seconds later who belatedly responded with a muttered “hasn’t even started yet k’sake.”
But just then the movie did indeed start and Seán returned to his seat with his sweets and an extra paper cup. Pol and Thommo looked on as he put a generous portion of Maltesers and popcorn into the cup and passed it to Thommo.
“There y’are, don’t say I don’t look after ye, you share that with Potser.”
Ollie looked back at Pól and gave him a knowing wink. ‘Do you see?’ said the wink. ‘Do you see what I mean now?’ it said.
“Now, Seán,” said Ollie, “you know Pól doesn’t like being referred to as Potser and I can’t blame him, you’re not doing anyone any favours.”
“Sure I’m only messing,” he replied “it’s only a bit of a laugh for God’s sake.”
There were actually two possible explanations for the recent security lapses, the first was that key locations frequently used for meetings had been somehow compromised and the second, unmentioned one, was that an individual, one of the seven, had himself been compromised. Ollie knew he needed to find a place that wouldn’t be bugged so he could test the theory that he and Pól, his head of security, now shared. Namely, that the problem was a person and not a place.
“This won the Oscar didn’t it?” asked John.
No one answered.
“Sure let’s watch a bit of it anyway,” said Sean, “it won’t do if we’re pulled in or something and we know next to nothing about the film we sat through, just twenty minutes so we can get the gist.”
No one objected, indeed Thommo and one or two others seemed tranfrixed by the first appearance of Shirley MacLaine on the screen.
“That’s a great line isn’t it?” Harry turned to ask the group, “you’re not special enough to overcome a bad marriage.”
“It’s a very American thing to say,” replied Ger, “I could never see meself saying something like that.”
“Grand,” said Harry, who clearly didn’t appreciate the response to his observation, “I’ll add that to the list of things you don’t have in common with Shirley MacLaine.”
“Alright then,” whispered Ollie, “Let’s get down to business, Harry what’s the latest on the procurement front.”
“Jaysus, it’s your little man off Taxi, look lads, your man off Taxi, do yous ever watch Taxi?”asked an excited Sean.
“Danny de Vito,” replied Pol.
“That’s it, yeah,” said Sean.
“Sorry Ollie, but we can’t hear you well at all,” said Ger “why don’t you sit back here, I’ll swap with ye.”
“We’re fine where we are,” replied Ollie, glancing at his own popcorn.
“Well, could you turn around a bit then when you’re whispering, we can’t hear you when there’s music.”
“Alright,” Ollie turned around so he was facing everyone except Harry, to whom his question was addressed “what’s the latest on procurement Harry, when will we see something?”
“Ssshhhhh,” once again from the other side of the theatre.
“Ignore it,” said Ollie, “go ahead Harry.”
“Jack Nicholsen is great, isn’t he? I mean he’s great in everything isn’t he?”
Harry started to speak again, outlining details of the next shipment, what it contained and what different units could expect.
“… but for the training you should probably ask Pól or Thommo.”
“Well,” said Thommo at a volume that immediately made some of the others wince “I’m lining something up for October in the same two places as before, maximum five at a time though, local commanders will have to decide who gets ...”
“Ssshhhh” there it was again and this time a couple of other people backed it up by joining in.
“Fucking hell,” said Seán “Thommo you have to whisper better than that.”
“Who the fuck is it anyway?” asked John, losing his temper now “it’s the same fucking shush every time.”
“I think it’s that pair back there,” said Seán.
“Aye, it’s them,” said Pól, “wouldn’t you think someone sitting at the back would have better things to do.”
“Look, why don’t we wait another little while, until there’s a loud bit or at least until it’s started and then we can start to go through the agenda.”
‘What’s on the agenda anyway?”
“John, read the agenda there will ya?”
“I can’t read something that’s not written down, we’re going to discuss the usual three standing items and something proposed by Ger on the political side of things.”
“Jaysus it’s a grand house they have all the same isn’t it?”
“I know, but how can they have no money and him a teacher, is it drink or the horses or something?”
After about forty minutes of the movie there was finally a scene where John felt it was right to ask for an update from the members on standing agenda item number one.
“Ssssshhhhhh,” came a voice from a few rows behind them
“Pol, did you see who that was? Could you tell?”
“Aye I think so.”
“Well go back and have a quiet word will ye?”
“We should have had the place cleared of people so this wouldn’t happen.”
“There’s only about fifteen people here anyway John, it shouldn’t be a problem, Pol, maybe you’d like to have a word with them all.”
“Ah no, I’d feel shocking doing that, lemme just talk to this fella.”
And so Pol went back to talk to the shusher while most of the other council members turned their attention back to the movie. Harry set aside his worries about the Libyans for a short while and wondered what it would be like to kiss Debra Winger. He concluded that it would be nice, especially if he could stroke her hair while he was doing it.
“106 astronauts!” exclaimed Thommo, “when did that happen, I thought there’s only be about twenty.”
“You took the words out of me mouth Thommo,” replied Harry, “I thought there’d be about twenty, do they not send them up more than once anymore?
“Maybe they’re counting the Russians,” said Ger.
“The Russians are called cosmonauts, not astronauts,” said Sean.
“Ah sure it’s the same fucking thing,” snapped Harry.
“The Libyans Harry?” asked Ollie.
“Oh aye lovely, I mean… yea, what?”
“You were telling us about our friends in Tripoli.”
Pol, returned and informed the others that he thought the problem was now remedied but that it would still be wise to be as discreet as possible.
“Maybe we could all restrict ourselves to just talking about concrete things where we have an update or something?” he suggested, drawing only blank expressions from his colleagues.
Thommo just looked into his cup, now exhausted of sweets, and then turned his gaze to the remaining goodies arrayed on Sean’s lap. Sadly for Sean, he was too preoccupied with the dialogue between Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine to notice.
Ger and John looked back toward where the shushing had come from and saw the couple making their way out of their row and leaving, closely followed by two other couples who had probably been within earshot of Pol’s little pep talk.
“Octopussy,” said Harry.
“What?” asked Ger.
“They can all fuck off to Octopussy,” he clarified.
“Ok so, Thommo, you have the floor.”
“Just wait until this scene is over,” said Thommo, “Sean go on and give us a sup of that.”
Sean pretended not to hear and the council turned its full attention to Debra Winger’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent trip to New York.
“Did you hear that?” said Thommo “two of the women told her she should have an abortion.”
“That’s not what she said,” replied Pol “she said that two of the women told her that they’d had abortions.”
“Well, I didn’t think it was that kind of film,” said Thommo, speaking now more loudly than ever. Even in the relative darkness of the cinema Pol and Sean could see that his face was reddening.
“Now look,” said Harry, “it isn’t that kind of film, will ya relax, it was just a comment intended to show how different Emma is from them, ok?”
At this point, Pol, who was highly strung at the best of times, was enjoying neither the meeting nor the movie. First he got stuck with Thommo, then that bastard had called him Potser, which he knows is just not on, not on at all, and then he was asked to go over and hassle a couple. Now to top it all off, Thommo was breathing through his nose like a tired racehorse, Pol was sure he could pick up the frequencies of the individual snots rattling around and banging against each other. It was a clear sign a rant was in the offing and the abortion thing had got Thommo in the mood to talk about the referendum again.
“She’s dying is she? She’s not gonna die is she?” asked Ollie.
“Shush,” said Harry.
Pol thought he could hear sniffs coming from Sean on the other side of Thommo, timed to coincide with Thommo’s own noisy breathing.
MacLaine screamed at the nurses to give her daughter her painkillers, John
who’d been quiet up to then, held his arm out and pulled back his sleeve to
show Ger his hairs standing on end.
“See that?” he said.
“Here’s looking at you kid? Sure that’s not new, that’s in Gone with the Wind,” said Thommo.
“He didn’t say that, he said ‘I love you too kid’” said John.
“I’m going out for a fag, this thing is too long,” said Thommo standing up, shuffling past Sean on his way out and muttering about ‘American shite.’
Pol looked at him go and realized there was now no one left in the theatre.
“It’s all ours lads by the way,” he told the others “I can’t see anyone else here, unless someone’s hiding or getting his end away on the floor back there.”
“Ah now lads,” said Harry reproachfully.
John turned around and gestured at the screen, inviting everyone to pay attention to the impending death.
“MR. HORTON, SHE’S GONE.”
“Ah Jaysus,” said Ger.
“SOMEHOW I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE A RELIEF”, said Shirley MacLaine.
Pol looked at the four men sitting in the row in front of them, all of them slumped low in their seats, deadly silent, looking straight ahead. He moved over into Thommo’s empty seat and nudged Sean, intent on asking him if he’d noticed the same thing but Sean didn’t respond. Just like the others he sat there in uncomfortable silence until the closing credits had finished and the lights came on.