Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Monday, 20 April 2009

The Old Rex

This is not a story about a beloved but ageing GoldenLabrador nor about a raffish clubbable chap going to seed, this is a story about the Rex Cinema in a prosperous town halfway between London and the South Coast.

Charlie Hepple sheltered from the rain under the only section of the cinema’s canopy that remained intact and watched the neatly dressed woman with a red umbrella approach.
“Carol Timperley from Biggin-Newbold.” She proffered the hand not holding the umbrella. “You must be Mr Hepple. I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
“No. Just a couple of minutes” said Charlie.
“Shall we go in?” Ms Timperley burrowed in her handbag and produced a bunch of keys and after peering at the dog eared labels selected the largest and thrust it into the lock of the foyer doors. The Rex had been built in the 1930s and for a long time had been an outpost of the Gaumont chain, third in the cinematic pecking order behind the Odeons and ABCs. At some point in the 1970s the Rex had descended from showing exotically titled Horror double-bills to soft porn and finally closed as a cinema only to reopen briefly as a Punk Rock venue. At about this time the Rex was bought by a local businessman who tried more porn (insufficient dirty old men), Indian movies (the local restaurateurs and their families preferred to go up to London for their Bollywood dreams) and Bingo (the Rex’s Jackpots were no match for the Top Rank Suite’s at the bottom of the town). It was this businessman, now in his 80s, who was selling the Rex, freehold and all.
Charlie Hepple and Carol Timperley stood side by side in the gloom of the foyer.
“I haven’t been in here myself before” said Miss Timperley. “Mr Baildon at the office said there was a light switch on the right. Ah! There it is.” She flicked the switch and a fluorescent tube sputtered into life. The foyer was small, the ticket window boarded up and the sweet stall ceiled had collapsed, the walls were painted a nasty blue. There was a framed photo of a chubby bespectacled man in a dinner jacket that was captioned “Ron Pickles – Our Manager at Your Service”.
Ms Timperley gazed around at the dismal scene. “It’s been closed a very long time you know” she said rather failing in her estate agent’s duty to accentuate the positive.
“Yes” said Charlie “shall we go inside?” On the left of the foyer was a staircase that led to the circle and to the right three steps that led up to the stalls. He led the way to the right and Ms Timperley , who had brought a torch out of her handbag, followed. The double doors at the top of the steps opened into utter darkness and the light from the torch seemed to peter out after a few feet. Ms Timperley turned to her right and shone the torch along the back wall of the stalls until she located the switch that she was looking for. A single bulb dangling from the front of the circle gave out baleful yellow light. They heard rustling from around the room.and Ms Timperley stepped a little closer to Charlie. “I’m OK with mice” she said “but I’m not very good with rats. I can smell something. Do you think there are rats?” she asked.
“Probably” said Charlie cheerfully. But Charlie Hepple wasn’t smelling rats he was smelling profit and Charlie had come out of the womb smelling profit. At school he never paid much attention in class but on the playground he was the king of the free market and profitably wheeled and dealed his way through dozens of schoolboy crazes. He wangled a place on a business course at his local Poly (now the University of North Surrey) and found his niche as Student Union Entertainment Secretary. This meant that he got to book the bands, he got to meet the bands, he got to load the bands’ vans and he got to sleep with the girls who failed to sleep with the band. His wife Sandy had failed to get off with the bass player of a band called Sputum Test and their relationship had started in a moment of post-gig triste in the Union building car park. Twenty years on they were still together, Sandy is Finance Director of Charlie’s business. After college Charlie became the booker for a circuit of pub venues in the south-east and when a distant relative left him a lump of money he bought a bankrupt restaurant just outside Guildford which he converted (despite strenuous protests from local residents) into his first Rock venue. The Rex, should he go ahead and buy it, would be his fifth venue. The other four were all doing well with a mixture of cheap eats, expensive drinks and good music.

Charlie walked down to the front of the auditorium. By modern Multiplex standards it was big, 500 seats in the stalls with another couple of hundred in the circle. The walls had once been red but were now pockmarked with crumbling patches of crumbling plaster, there was some nasty 1950s fretwork around the proscenium framing some once gold drapes that in turn framed the screen which had a three foot gash near its bottom edge. The seats had been partially covered with dust sheets, Charlie peeled back the nearest to reveal moth eaten red plush.
Ms Timperley followed him down to the front. “Mr Baildon said that there was a mains switchboard or something backstage. I could go and try and switch some more lights on if you like”. She looked as enthusiastic about this expedition as she would if presented with a free holiday in Somalia.
“Great” said Charlie. Ms Timperley pluckily headed for a small door to the right of the screen and vanished through it.
Left to himself Charlie’s thoughts returned to profits. The Rex was certainly big enough, the auditorium could be levelled, he could put a bar at the back of the stalls and another up in the circle. As always where to put the kitchen was a problem. Perhaps Ms Timperley would reveal something, but at that moment the light went out leaving Charlie in complete darkness.
“Shit!” he said, she had the only torch, he could only wait in the dark for her return. He heard a faint clattering noise and beam of light from the projection room window flicked on. Ms Timperley had obviously found the switch room. Scratchy images of countdown numbers appeared on the screen accompanied by a hissing crackling soundtrack, a barely legible title came up I’m Here. Then the film seemed to break, the rattling projector momentarily sounded louder, the screen showed pure white for a couple of seconds before everything went dark and silent once more. The single bulb hanging from the circle came back on and Carol Timperley emerged through the little door at some speed looking somewhat less elegant than when they had first met under the canopy.
“You found the switchroom then” said Charlie
“No I didn’t. Sorry it’s all locked up back there. What a bugger! There must be more keys somewhere”.
“But this light went out and the projector came on”
“Really?” said Ms Timperley, “well not from anything I did. To tell the truth I didn’t look too hard for the switchroom, there are a lot of scuttling things back there. “She looked into the gloom above the circle, “I don’t think that there are any projectors up there. Are you sure?”
“Yes” said Charlie, but as he said it he felt less confident. “Perhaps we could look upstairs”
“Certainly” They both went back through the foyer and up the stairs. The circle was in worse condition than the stalls, most of the seats were broken and the wreckage piled up against the rear wall.
“How do we get up to the projection box?” asked Charlie.
“I don’t know” said Ms Timperley. There appeared to be no access from the circle until Charlie pushed open the fire doors at the far end of the upper foyer and found a fire escape that led up onto the roof and to the projection box. The door was firmly locked.
“Sorry” said Biggin-Newbold’s finest. “I’ll have a rummage around for the other keys when I get back to the office.”
Charlie took pity on her. “I tell you what, leave me the Foyer key and the torch. I’ll have a look around for a while and I can drop them off at your office later.”

After Ms Timperley had left he spent a few more moments in the circle and then went slowly back down the stairs inspecting two foul smelling toilets on the way. Back in the stalls he took out his digital camera and took a dozen shots of the auditorium before going backstage where Ms Timperley had feared to tread. With only the fading beam of the torch to guide him he stumbled on to the tiny stage behind the screen, which housed the remains of a bingo-caller’s rostrum and a few chairs. On the side of the stage was a staircase leading below where he discovered the locked boiler and switch rooms. There was an exit door down there which Charlie presumed opened onto the small car park at the back.

A few minutes later he was standing on the other side of the street studying the Rex’s battered fa├žade. One half of his brain was thinking that there were possibilities here. The location was perfect, the top end of the town had been going steadily upmarket over the past few years, the surrounding streets buzzed with life in the evenings. He could probably buy the Rex for a song and he didn’t expect any licensing problems from the local authority. The other half of his brain reran those few frames of scratchy film that he had seen or thought he had seen. The projection room had been securely locked, he and Ms Timperley would have met anyone coming down the stairs. It made no sense and Charlie Hepple didn’t go in for magic. He walked own the hill to Biggins-Newbold, returned the torch and keys, and told them he would come back the following week with his surveyor and builder.

After supper that evening he downloaded the photos that he had taken on to his laptop and showed them to Sandy. She clicked through them casually but then asked “Who’s that bloke?”
“What bloke?” said Charlie
“Him. In the doorway” she said pointing to the screen. Sure enough, standing in the doorway that led from the auditorium to the foyer was a man rather formally dressed in a dark suit with a raincoat over his arm. Charlie zoomed in as far as he could before the image became impossibly pixilated. The man appeared to be in his thirties with short hair, he looked unfashionably dapper, he had an almost black and white movie look about him.
“He must have turned the projector on” said Charlie.
“What do you mean?” asked Sandy. Charlie explained his ‘hallucination’.
“It’s still a bit weird isn’t it? Why didn’t he say something?”
“I don’t know” said Charlie uneasily “he must be some sort of caretaker I suppose”.
Charlie shut the computer down and went to watch football on television.

A week later Charlie was in the Biggins-Newbold office, Carol Timperley cheerfully brandished a bunch of keys that she had produced from desk drawer. “Here you go Mr Hepple. I’ve found the right bunch this time with the boiler room, switch room and everything”. Charlie took the keys and paused at her desk. “You didn’t see a man in the Rex last week did you?” he asked.
“No. Why do you ask?”
“Well when I got back and downloaded the photos that I took, in one of them there was a man standing in the auditorium doorway”
Ms Timperley frowned. “Really? Do you know what. I don’t think I locked the street door when we went in. He probably just walked in off the street. Just a curious passer-by.”
Charlie mentally kicked himself for not thinking of the obvious solution and set off for the Rex to meet his surveyor Keith Wallace and his builder Harry Dunphy.
“Welcome to the Rex gents” said Charlie as he ushered them into the foyer “soon to be Rock Dreams V “
“Good site Charlie” said Keith. He took out a laser measurer and started to map out the dimensions of the foyer. Charlie led Harry into the auditorium where he turned on the baleful yellow light.
“The boiler room and the switch room are through there Harry” said Charlie gesturing to the door to the side of the proscenium “do you want to check them out?” The builder nodded, took the keys and disappeared backstage. Immediately the single bulb clicked off and immediately a projector beam stabbed through the darkness.
“Oh shit!” said Charlie but this “Oh shit!” was not said just out of fear but also from expectation. Somehow Charlie had known that this would happen and indeed, by sending Harry off, leaving him on his own, had engineered it. This was the “Oh shit!” that you might say as you strap yourself into a white-knuckle ride. Just like the week before the scratchy image of the countdown numbers appeared on the screen and then the title ‘I’m Here’, but this time Charlie had a powerful torch with him. He swept the room with it focussing particularly on the auditorium door but there was no sign of the man with the raincoat. He looked back to the screen, he could hear a crackling hissing soundtrack. Had there been sound the week before? He couldn’t remember. The title faded into a snowstorm of scratches before the figure of a woman appeared. She was walking along a street towards the camera, she was smiling, a pretty woman with tight blonde curls, wearing a jacket over a full skirt. Charlie had no claims to be a student of the history of fashion but even he could tell that this was definitely pre-miniskirt. 1950s perhaps. He shouted out “Keith! Keith could you come in here please. Harry!” There was no reply, no sound except the relentless hiss and crackle as the woman neared the camera, her face nearly filling the screen. Charlie studied the smiling eyes, while the woman was pretty she was no film star and the quality of the film was that of a home movie. Why was he being shown this? He shone the torch up at the projection room windows but as he did so the film cut out and the single bulb hanging from the circle came back on. He strode out to the foyer where Keith was poking about in the box office.
“Didn’t you here me calling?” said Charlie.
“No” said the surveyor. “You OK Charlie?” He could see that his client was agitated.
“Yeah. Yeah I’m fine. Let’s check out the roof”. Keith sighed, stopped what he was doing and followed Charlie up the stairs, through the circle foyer and out onto the fire escape, Harry followed a few moments later.
“Let’s check in here” said Charlie as he unlocked the projection room. Keith and Harry exchanged glances, of all the aspects of the Rex the projection room was easily the least relevant to the job in hand.
“Shit!” said Charlie as he stepped inside. The room was empty apart from some rickety Dexion shelving in one corner.
“What were you expecting Charlie?” asked Keith
“Er nothing… I suppose” muttered Charlie. The curved steel runners embedded in the concrete floor on which the original projectors would have been rolled back for maintenance were the only trace of the room’s former use. There was a thick steel plate door at one end of the room. Charlie tried all the keys on the bunch but none fitted.
“That would have been the film store originally” said Keith “when this place was built film stock was still incredibly flammable and they had to keep it in fireproof rooms”.
Charlie shrugged, went out and leaned on the rail of the fire escape gazing distractedly across the rooftops of the town, gazing as it happens at the rooftop of Biggins-Newbold where Carol Timperley was keeping her fingers and her legs crossed in the hope that Charlie Hepple would make an offer for the Rex. It would be a feather in her cap to shift a property that had been on the books for so long.

At lunchtime the three men met in the pub across the road and compared notes. The builder and surveyor were relieved to see that their client had recovered his composure and was ready to do business. All the news was good news, the fabric of the Rex was sound and, for a building that had been unoccupied for most of the three previous decades, was in surprisingly good nick. Even the boilers which probably should be replaced eventually were good for another couple of years.
Charlie was decisive. “Ok guys I want to go for this. Let’s do some preliminary costings and let’s meet in Keith’s office next Monday morning. I want to make an offer next week. OK?”
As they left the pub Charlie said “Bollocks! I’ve left my torch in the Rex. I’ll have to go back for it. I’ll see you on Monday” As Keith and Harry wandered off to the NCP Charlie went back into the cinema and sat in the stalls. “Come on then. Show me the rest” he said out loud. There was silence. He sat there for nearly half an hour. At one point he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. A mouse trotted boldly along the floor by the skirting board and glanced casually at him as it vanished under a dust sheet. Charlie got up to leave and as he did so there was a familiar clattering noise and the single bulb went out. He sat down in the dark watched the screen intently. There were no clues in the in the initial numbers or title and the street background to the approaching woman sequence was so blurred that it could have been anywhere. The film cut to another close-up of the same woman. This time the camera was pulling away revealing more of the woman as it did so. She was smiling but not in the same open cheerful way as in the street, there was something sly in this smile. The scene was an interior, she cast a clear shadow on the white brick wall behind her, her bare arms were raised above her head. The camera drew back further, her wrists were manacled together and chained to a ring in the wall, she was wearing black bra and pants. “Bloody hell” thought Charlie “I’m watching a 1950s home-made S&M porn movie which is being projected by magic. What the fuck is going on here”. By now the screen was filled with a full length image of the woman chained to the end wall of a narrow room, from behind the camera a man emerged. He was stripped to the waist, showing a fair amount of paunch and he wore a black hood. He looked absurd, a Pythonesque member of the Surbiton Sadomasochists Society but then Charlie saw the whip in his hand and he said “No!” to the empty auditorium. The man started to lash the woman and through the incessant crackle of the soundtrack Charlie could hear her gasps of pain which soon turned into screams. In his career on the fringes of Rock & Roll Charlie had been to some wild parties and seen some weird stuff, but this was different, there was nothing mechanical about the scene on the screen, there was an emotional intensity about it which made it hard to watch. He wanted it to end. The whipping did eventually stop and the camera moved in to a close-up of the woman’s face, her eyes were full of tears but her expression was exultant. The film snapped off and the light came back on. Charlie sat stunned for a moment or two then something made him look back over his shoulder to the doors to the foyer. The man with the raincoat over his arm stood there watching him.
“What did that mean?” asked Charlie gesturing at the screen. “Who are they?” The man didn’t reply but stared steadily back at Charlie, who got up and started to move up the aisle towards him. The man stepped back into the foyer and the doors swung to behind him. By the time Charlie burst through those doors the man had vanished. Charlie had locked the street door and so knew that the man was no passer-by and that the only way he could have gone was up. He raced up the stairs to the circle and then through the circle foyer and onto the fire escape. There was no trace of the man but Charlie had not really expected any, he realised that something very strange was going on. He stood on the roof in the early summer sun for a few minutes before unlocking the projection room door. He went in and stared down at the auditorium through the projection windows for a long time, then he relocked the room and went downstairs and out onto the street. Across the road a traffic warden was enjoying writing tickets in the early summer sun, Charlie went over and asked for directions to the Public Library.

Mrs Pardew had been a librarian for many years, in fact she had officially retired some time ago but she still came in to man the Information desk. When she saw the flashily dressed young man stride into the library that afternoon she recognised a fish out of water. Charlie for his part was no scholar, no reader, he could just about manage a John Grisham on holiday. In his entire life up to that point he had probably not been inside a library of any description for more than a total of 7 ½ minutes.
“Can I help you young man?” asked Mrs Pardew who on closer inspection had decided that flashily dressed or not this was a rather good looking young man.
“Yes. Maybe. Do you keep copies of old newspapers here?” asked Charlie
“We do. On micro-fiche”
“Yes. I’ll show you. We only keep the local paper here, for the nationals you’ll have to go to London. What year?”
“Erm 1950s I think” said Charlie haltingly. Suddenly he had no idea what to look for.
“We probably need to be more specific” said Mrs Pardew kindly “what exactly are you trying to find out?”
“I’m interested in the Rex. The old cinema. Do you know it?”
“The old Rex. Yes I certainly do” she chuckled,” my second husband and I did some of our courting in the back row there. But it’s been closed for some time now hasn’t it?”
Charlie had his elderly helper down as an archetypal spinster and was surprised to discover that there had been at least two Mr Pardews.
“I’m looking for an event in the 1950s, something out of the ordinary. I’m not sure what.”
“Well apart from the Etherington murder there’s nothing that comes to mind”.
“The Etherington murder?”
“Yes. Mary Etherington was a usherette at the Rex. Her husband killed her but it didn’t have anything to do with the Rex as far as I can remember.”
“When was this?”
“I’m not sure but I think I can find out”. She went away and returned a few moments later thumbing through the appendices of Capital Punishment in the UK by J M Sturges. “This is a list of all the executions that took place in the UK. There were only a dozen or so per year in the 50s so we should be able to find it”
“The husband was executed?”
“Oh yes” said Mrs Pardew “They hung him. They did in those days. Ah here we are. Stanley Etherington executed at Wandsworth Prison on the 26th June 1954. it’s notable as one of the few cases where a murderer was executed when the victim’s body has not been found.”
“Is there a picture of him in there?” asked Charlie
“No” said Mrs Pardew “it’s not that sort of book, but I’ll get you the Evening Argus micro-fiche scrolls for 1953 and 54. there will be plenty of pictures, this was a big story locally.” She fetched the scrolls and showed Charlie how to use the viewing machine. Left alone he went immediately to the 25th June 1954 and below a banner headline reading Etherington to Hang Tomorrow – Final Appeal Fails was a picture of the man that Charlie had seen only an hour before. It is one thing to have the feeling that something strange is going on but it is altogether different when you are confronted with incontrovertible proof that you have been talking to a man that was hung for murder more than 50 years before. He felt a chill dread steal over him. What was he supposed to do now? Numbly he scrolled back through reports of the appeals and the original trial. Apparently the alarm was raised by Mary Etherington’s mother when her daughter had not turned up for a planned weekend visit. When she confronted Stanley Etherington he claimed that Mary had run off with another man and that he didn’t know where she was and didn’t care. For a while the affair was seen only as a ‘missing persons’ case by the local police but eventually at Mary’s mother’s insistence they started to dig deeper. A veritable army of family members, neighbours and local publicans presented themselves to the police to testify that Stanley Etherington, a local printer, was an evil tempered bastard and that they had heard him threaten his wife on many occasions. Eventually the police discovered traces of Mary’s blood in the boot of Etherington’s car (which he claimed were the result of an accident with a broken beer bottle on a picnic outing) and more traces of the same blood on a spade in his shed. The evidence was all circumstantial but overwhelming, the prosecution case being that he had done away with Mary in a fit of jealous rage by means unknown and then buried her body somewhere up on the Downs. Charlie scrolled further back past the reports of Etherington’s arrest back to the time of the alleged crime. There was no mention of the Rex but finally he noticed a tiny item in the bottom right hand corner of the front page of the June 2nd 1953 edition. ‘Local Projectionist Dies’. The report continued ‘Mr Percy Howland, projectionist at the Rex Cinema tragically died yesterday. Mr Howland was crossing the High St when he suffered a heart attack. First Aid was administered at the scene by a passing midwife but he was found to be dead on arrival at St James Hospital. Mr Howland was a respected and popular local character, he lived alone and leaves no family’.

Charlie sat quietly for a few minutes then pulled out his mobile phone and punched in Harry Dunphy’s number. Mrs Pardew scuttled across and said “Give me that. You can’t use it in here!”
Charlie ignored her.
“Harry I’m sorry and I know it’s late in the day but could you come back to the Rex and bring Sean or one of your other boys with a gas axe?”
“What?” said Harry
“You know. Oxy-acetylene cutter”.
“Yes I know what it is but what’s it for?” demanded Harry
“Humour me “. said Charlie and cut the connection. He turned to the outraged Mrs Pardew, “Sorry and thanks but I’ve got to go now”

45 minutes later Harry Dunphy pulled up outside the Rex in a Toyota pick-up with his son Sean.
“We need to get the gear up to the projection room” said Charlie.
Harry started to swear but Charlie raised a hand and Sean started to lug his equipment up the stairs. A few moments later Keith Wallace arrived having been alerted by Harry that something was up.

“Cut round the lock” said Charlie.
The three men and Sean were looking at the plate steel door of the store in the projection room.
“At the very least it’s criminal damage Charlie” said Keith.
“Someone’s going to notice eventually” said Harry
“Just do it “ said Charlie “it’s important”.
“Don’t I need a Hot Works Permit?” asked Sean nervously.
Harry caught Charlie’s grim expression. “Not today son. Just do it”.
As the room filled with smoke and the smell of scorched metal, the three men went out onto the roof while Sean worked. Nothing was said.

After a few minutes there was a clang as the lock fell out of the door, Charlie was about to shove Sean aside and open the door when Harry grabbed him.
“Wait Charlie! It’s red hot, let it cool”
Charlie looked round the room, picked up a piece of wood and levered the door open.
As the smoke cleared a different smell, a smell of dead things caught at the back of Charlie’s throat and he gagged. Mary Etherington sat on a mattress staring sightlessly past him. Mary’s neck was still ringed by a steel collar attached to a bolt in the wall, her underwear hung loosely over her mummified flesh, a few scraps of blonde hair clung to her withered skull. The room was the room that Charlie had been shown on the screen the only difference being that Mary had written, in her own blood, the words ‘I love you’ on the wall beside her.
Mary had run off with another man, run to Percy Howland’s S&M dungeon on the roof of the Rex. Percy must have left her chained there while he popped out for some cigarettes and dropped dead in the High Street with the only key to the store in his trouser pocket. Poor Mary must have died of thirst. Stanley Etherington had been hung for being an evil tempered bastard and nothing more.
“Christ! What a balls up” said Charlie. He pushed the door shut with his foot and took out his mobile to call the police.

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