Freddie looked up at the abandoned cinema. Surely George couldn’t have meant this place? He hurried to push George and his wheelchair under shelter before the fat, single raindrops turned into a torrential downpour.
He perched himself on the wall beside George, careful to stay out of the rain.
“So”, he said, when several moments had passed and George had still not spoken. “Are you going to tell me what we’re doing here? What is this place?”
“This used to be a place that was very special to me”, George said. “It holds a lot of warm memories. Or at least, it did at one time.”
Raising one eyebrow, Freddie peered around the building. Wind had started to pick up and form a gust, blowing in leaves and rubbish from the surrounding streets. In one corner, a small group of pigeons were taking shelter, pecking at the littered ground for any traces of food.
“Memories?” Freddie looked around the cinema in disdain. “Forgive me for saying this, but this place doesn’t exactly scream nostalgia. It must be years since anyone has set foot in here.”
George sighed. “It has. At one time, this place used to be my second home. It was a refuge when everything else in my life was a mess. Before you, things were very different. I doubt you would have recognised the person I was. I know I didn’t. You’d have hated me almost as much as I hated myself.”
“What do you mean?”
George gazed into the abandoned building, as though waiting for it to materialise in front of him. Once upon a time, this had been a place bustling with life and activity. If he closed his eyes, he could still see the way that it used to be, as though he was looking at an old photograph.
He remembered the deep red carpets lining the floor of the entrance, where crowds of people passed through the doors. The ticket master would sit in the booth, printing hundreds of tickets and occasionally denying entry to groups of underage teenagers. Posters for the film hung from the walls in a neat row. They depicted a huge green monster with blazing eyes and a wide, toothy grin, standing amidst a pile of burning rubble. The tag line underneath read ‘Watch Only If You Dare!’.
When George opened his eyes, it was an unwelcome return to reality. The old cinema was bleak and abandoned.
“Sorry, I went into a world of my own there.”
“That’s alright. Though I really would prefer not to spend longer here than necessary. But what possible reason could you have to hate yourself?”
There was a pause before George spoke. His eyes remained fixed on the pigeons still scurrying on the ground.
“I never told you about the person I used to be before we met. There was a reason for that. Before you, I lived most of my life in denial and hurt people by trying to be something I wasn’t. This place saw me through some of my toughest times and inspired me to try making something of myself.”
Freddie’s eyes widened. George had never said this before. Rain continued to fall and bounced from the pavement outside.
“From being a child, all I ever wanted to do was make films. I was obsessed with them and would stay up long into the night, after my parents had gone to bed and watch horror films I had borrowed from my friends. The scarier, the better. God knows what my parents would have said if they caught me.”
Freddie suppressed a smirk, thinking of all the videos that George had brought with him when they moved in together. Neither of them owned a video player but he refused to get rid of them.
“When I was a teenager, I managed to save up enough money from my wages to buy a cheap video camera. I’d talk my friends into coming out with me and attempting to make short films from scripts I had written. Looking back, they really were naff, but we had a lot of fun trying.”
Images of a young George flashed through Freddie’s mind, playing the part of a would-be director. “Fancied yourself as the next George Romero, did you?”
George looked at Freddie, his expression hurt.
“I know it sounds daft but at the time, I had real dreams of becoming like some of my film heroes. I didn’t care about fame or notoriety. I just wanted to see one piece of my work shown on a big screen. Even if the people watching it never knew who made it.”
He gazed around the abandoned cinema with a sigh. Freddie felt a pang of guilt at his own remark.
“I’m sorry” he said. “I didn’t mean to mock you. If it makes you feel any better, I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. There was only one problem. I was terrified of flying. Never even been on an aeroplane. When I was a kid, most of the money in our house was reserved for the barman at my mother’s local pub.”
The pigeons had given up on looking for food and took off into the sky. For all they were annoying, it was peaceful to watch them fly. They had a freedom that George and Freddie had never known in their own lives. Until now.
“This place inspired me every time I came to watch a film. I’d listen to the reactions from people in the audience, whether they were scared, laughing or crying. I wanted to evoke those emotions in people. I wanted to show them something that allowed me to connect with people in the same way.
“Eventually, I plucked up the courage to start showing my films to other people. I submitted them to different agencies, though always under a different name. If it was successful, I didn’t want to surrender my identity. If it was a flop, nobody would know who to blame. In my young, naïve mind, my plan was flawless.
“Reality, however, was not working out so well for me. I was working in a supermarket. The wages were rubbish but they allowed me to just about get by. I did everything I was supposed to do; move out, meet a nice girl. We were married by the time I was twenty five.”
Freddie blinked at this. He stared at George in complete shock. “You were married to a woman?”
George smirked. “Yeah. She was young, pretty, everything my parents wanted in a wife. In their minds, our lives were set. We’d work, give them some grandkids and all would be well.”
“How long did you manage to keep that up for?”
“About three years. I couldn’t take it any more. I’d known from being a teenager, but I’d bottled it up and convinced myself I could get past it. I wanted a wife and to raise a family. I wanted to make my parents proud. But I couldn’t keep up the lie any more.”
George took a plain gold ring from out of his pocket and passed it to Freddie. The name Eleanor was engraved inside.
“I blurted it out one night in the middle of a row. She wanted to know why things were distant between us and despite all my talk, I was reluctant to have any kids. We were hardly ever intimate together and when we were, she said it felt forced. She was right.”
“It was as though I’d dropped a bomb in the middle of the room. She exploded. She wanted to know why I’d lied to her and made her believe that I loved her. She asked me if I’d cheated on her and didn’t believe me when I said, honestly, that I hadn’t. She swore that she would never trust me again, made me pack a bag and leave.”
George paused for a moment, but Freddie didn’t speak. He was still trying to process this story and picture the idea that George could have ever been with a woman. It wasn’t an image he liked to think about.
“It looks wrong even in my head. You… and a woman.Why did you allow it to go on for so long?”
George looked at Freddie. Tears welled up in his eyes.
“Have you ever made sacrifices for people you love? For so many years, the idea of being a disappointment to my parents was unbearable for me. If it meant a lifetime of unhappiness to make them proud, I’d have gone through it. But eventually, I had to admit that lying to someone I cared about was wrong. I’ve had to live with that guilt ever since.”
Gathering himself, George rubbed his eyes and sniffed hard.
“After she kicked me out, I trawled the streets that night looking for somewhere to stay. I didn’t have a phone. My parents would have turned me away in shame. Eventually, the only place I could think of was this cinema. I had enough money to purchase a ticket and snuck into the back row as the film was playing. I don’t remember what it was. When everyone else had gone, I hid myself between the chairs and slept. It was a wonder nobody found me or told me to leave.
“I went back to our house the next day. It was terrifying, but I knew there were things we had to sort out. I shouldn’t have been surprised at what I found when I walked inside. She had gone. Packed up all of her things, left a note and scarpered. Probably back to her parents. In the note, she had made it very clear that she never wanted to hear from me again.”
He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his coat and passed it to Freddie. But Freddie did not unfold it. Some things were not meant for his eyes to see.
“It’s the last letter she ever wrote to me”, he explained. “I wouldn’t have kept it otherwise. I keep it to remember what her handwriting looked like.”
Returning the folded note to George, Freddie placed a hand on his shoulder. He had a bad feeling about where this story was going.
George went on.
“From that moment, I was lost. Even though the life I had been living was a lie, at least I knew what my purpose was and that I’d have someone to come home to each night. Now, I was on my own and I didn’t have a clue where to begin.”
“Films became even more of a focus for me at that point. I put more and more of my time into making them, though the quality of them was shocking. Looking back, I should have realized that it was a waste of time. One or two of my friends became worried about me, but I wouldn’t talk about it with them. I didn’t want to drag them into my problems.”
Cars were cruising up and down the road. Freddie watched them go before looking at George. Tears were starting to fall down his face. When he spoke again, his voice cracked with emotion.
“Then one morning, the newspaper came in the post. I never read it, but something told me that morning to pick it up. That was when I found out that my wife had been killed in an accident after crossing the road drunk.
“It hit me like a brick. I couldn’t believe it had happened. She had always liked a drink but in all the time that we were married, it never occurred to me that she’d lose control like that. I’d always assumed she’d known when to stop. Of course, I blamed myself.”
After a lot of thought, Freddie knelt down beside George’s wheelchair. His face was serious. “Are you trying to tell me that you’ve been carrying this around with you all the time we’ve been together? Why?”
“I was frightened you’d leave me. After I found out that my wife had got killed, it took me so long to go back out into the world again. Sure, I had a home and a job. But for such a long time, it felt like I was existing instead of living. I was too frightened of poisoning the life of anyone else I came into contact with. It seemed safer and easier to cut them out altogether.”
George sniffed and wiped at his face, rummaging through his pockets for a handkerchief.
Freddie did not break eye contact with George. His voice was firm. “You were not to blame for what happened”, he said. “It was a terrible, tragic accident. She lost control.”
George sniffed again and cast another long look around the abandoned cinema. The handkerchief had been stuffed back into his pocket. “This was the only place I ever felt safe. Even though I never picked up a video camera again. I still came to see the films, to escape from a reality that was cold and harsh. Looking back, that was the only thing keeping me alive. Coming here got me through every day.”
By now, the rain had stopped. The sky was beginning to change from a murky grey to a bright shade of blue. Sun was starting to appear from behind the clouds.
“So”, Freddie said when George had been silent for a few moments, “why did you want to come here and tell me all this? It sounds like it’s all been painful for you to relive. It must have been hard enough going through it the first time. Why would you want to do that to yourself again?”
George stared at him in amazement.
“I guess I wanted to give you the chance to walk away. There’s a lot about my past life that I’m not proud of and for a long time, I wanted to leave it all behind. But I love you. I didn’t want to keep secrets from you any more. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be heartbroken if you left. But you deserve to know the truth about me.”
Clicking the brakes off from George’s wheelchair, Freddie kissed him before pushing the chair out onto the sunlit pavement.
“You’re a daft sod, do you know that? You really think you’re going to get away that easily? But for all that standing in the cold and talking, you can buy me a coffee.”
They looked at each other. There were still tears in George’s eyes, but he was smiling.
“I love you.”
Freddie replied without hesitation “I love you too.”
They walked back up the street to the coffee shop, leaving the abandoned cinema, and the past, behind.
Image by @lymmerick.