Once the excitement of The Empire Strikes Back subsided, the Gaumont returned to its usual lacklustre performance. Many a boring September evening was spent throwing popcorn kernels at the foyer light fittings and trying to fill the gaps in the display of sweets. It was surprising how quickly the more popular lines ran out. Miss Baines had said they weren't allowed to order any more stock because they were due to close so soon.
'Sorry, we don't have any chocolate raisins,' became the refrain each night.
'What about sherbet lemons?'
'None of those either.'
'Sorry, but if it's not on display, we don't have it in stock.' Cat became fed up apologising for the lack of variety. 'We're shutting in a couple of weeks, you see.'
'Really? But I've been coming here for years.' They always sounded slightly indignant.
'Yes, a lot of people say that.' And if you'd all come here a bit more often, then maybe we'd be staying open, she thought.
The second week of September brought cooler evenings, and the inevitable happened when Steve went to fire up the boilers after the summer break – they wouldn't work. Cat arrived at six one evening to find large notices advising patrons that the heating had broken down.
'They won't let us get it repaired,' Mr Watkins said. 'It'd be a waste of money as there's only four weeks till doomsday.'
Each day, the auditorium became noticeably chillier, especially as there weren't many patrons. Lily brought in a fan heater and sat behind the pay desk with her feet on it. People came in, saw the signs and asked if it was much colder inside the cinema than in the foyer.
'A little bit,' Cat lied. After a week of no heating, she couldn't sit in the auditorium for more than twenty minutes before her feet turned to blocks of ice. Most people decided to get back in their warm cars and drive the five miles up to Fairham instead.
That week, they were showing The Shining and Cat managed to convince a few people that the chilly surroundings would increase their enjoyment of a film set in a snowbound hotel.
Suddenly it was the last week; the last few shifts before the Gaumont became history. A reporter from the local paper saw the signs outside advertising the final night's entertainment - The Last Picture Show followed by Monty Python's And Now for Something Completely Different and wrote an article about the sad demise of a local institution. Following the publication, there were lots more phone calls from people who couldn't believe the news. Many of them sounded indignant too. 'But it's my local cinema. I'm going to complain to your head office.' Cat gave them the address willingly, for all the good it would do.
With just four days to go the tab cable snapped. Clive and Steve had to drag yards of heavy material open by hand.
'There goes the dramatic last closing of the curtains,' Steve said gloomily. 'Let's hope the projectors keep going or we'll be in real trouble.
Cat hated the sight of the stark, grey screen as she locked up each night in the freezing auditorium. Due to a mild spell, it now felt warmer outside the building than inside. It was as if the cinema already knew of its fate and had decided to die slowly, piece by piece.
Eventually, the last day came. Only a few hardy souls came in for the regular evening performance. A young man searched in vain for Orange Matchmakers while his girlfriend looked on. 'You don't have much variety here,' he complained.
Cat said sadly. 'I know. I'm sorry about that, but -'
He cut her off before she could give him the rest of the bad news. 'Is there anything worth seeing next week?'
Mr Watkins took over. 'Rubble and redundancy.'
'I've not heard of that. Is it any good?'
'I doubt it.'
The last three hot dogs stewed in the steamer. They had been in and out of the fridge all week due to the lack of patrons and were in a sorry state. There was no point in taking them back up to the ice room, as they would never have another chance to be eaten.
Betty dared Geoff to eat one, but he refused. 'I want to survive a bit longer than this place, thanks.'
All the remaining staff clustered around the kiosk, which was a small island of relative warmth. The sound of revelry, increasingly riotous as the evening drew on, drifted down from the circle lounge; the venue for the traditional closing down party. Managers and projectionists from other sites were the principal guests, along with former members of staff, family and friends. Even those who were still on duty, like Cat, were invited up for a drink, all normal rules of conduct having been suspended. There seemed to be a touch of desperation in the way people were drinking. For some, it was simple determination to get through as much of the company's booze as possible. Others were out to celebrate their own fortune in having escaped closure so far.
'Got to make hay while the sun shines,' a middle aged man said. 'It might be us next.'
One of the projectionists had brought tools, and was dismantling an Art Deco light fitting, packing the pieces carefully into a holdall.
She almost fell over an expensive SLR camera at the top of the stairs. 'Whose is this?' She asked several people, but no one was sure.
'It might belong to the chap from the press. He went off with a bottle of gin about an hour ago and hasn't been seen since.'
She put it to one side, in a corner where it was less likely to get trodden on and went back downstairs. People were arriving for the late night double bill. Many of them had clearly been to the pub next door first and were in a similar state to the party guests.
'This lot's going to be trouble,' Geoff said.
The Automaticket machine chimed merrily as it disgorged the last ever roll of tickets. The sight of so many people in the foyer brought back memories of better times. All those bodies even made the air feel slightly warmer.
Cat and Geoff tore tickets as fast as they could. Some of the drunks looked ready to fall asleep or throw up. Inside the auditorium, someone started shouting. Cat went inside to see what was going on. A fire extinguisher lay in the side aisle, fizzing and foaming as it rolled around under its own steam. A loud banging noise was coming from the Gents.
'They're running amok already,' she told Geoff. 'Letting off fire extinguishers. And it sounds as if they're vandalising the toilets too.'
He shrugged. 'Do we care? Do we hell. It'll be a bit less work for the demolition men.'
It didn't feel right to Cat. She'd grown to care about the place, even in its decline. But what could she do, alone?
'They'll quieten down once the film starts,' he said reassuringly.
But they didn't. The Last Picture Show was the poignant story of the demise of a small town cinema in nineteen-fifties Texas. It was quiet, understated, and filmed in black and white. The crowd had mostly come to see Monty Python and to carry on drinking after hours somewhere a bit more comfortable than in the local park. It wasn't to their taste at all. The noise from inside the auditorium began to rival that from the party upstairs.
Ray, one of the part-time doormen, went inside to use the loo and reported back. 'They've pulled the condom machine off the wall and broken into it.' He sounded impressed. 'That takes a bit of doing. Those things are built like Fort Knox.'
'Maybe we should tell Mr Watkins?' Cat suggested. She headed for the stairs. Just as she reached the foot of them, Mr Watkins himself came down, taking two steps at a time.
'Excuse me…' she began, but he ran past her unheeding. Three other managers and Miss Baines almost knocked her down as they went by in hot pursuit. They caught him as he struggled to unlock his office door and dragged him back over to the kiosk. Two of them held him while Miss Baines pulled his trousers down, and then took a photo of him sprawled among the popcorn in just his underpants. Shrieking with laughter, they went back upstairs, leaving him to try and regain some kind of dignity.
'Sorry about that,' he said. 'Apparently it's become some sort of tradition. What were you going to say?'
'Just that the patrons are vandalising the place.'
'I've heard that's traditional too. Best leave 'em to get on with it. Enjoy yourself. Come and have another drink.'
She followed him up the stairs. Now the circle lounge looked like a scene from The Fall of the Roman Empire. People in various degrees of undress and unconsciousness slumped over the trestle tables. Food had been trampled into the threadbare carpet. The smell of spilled alcohol overpowered the usual mustiness. She took a glass of wine and went through the open doors into the circle. Others had taken refuge there, too. She supposed that if you had drunk as much as some of them, you wouldn't feel the cold too badly.
The wine was too sweet for her taste. She sipped it and stared across the empty seats, illuminated by the changing scenes of the film. Cinemas such as this – super cinemas of the nineteen thirties - had been described as 'an acre of seats in a garden of dreams' in a book she'd borrowed from the library. How grand it must have been on opening night. Even now, in its final days there was still something awe inspiring about the place.
A cue dot caught her eye. She waited for the changeover. Steve was running the show and it was perfectly timed. Several anorak-clad enthusiasts had made their way up to the box earlier, and were recording every moment of this last picture show at the Gaumont.
A dark shape stumbled toward her, nearly falling over a seat. He clutched at the arm rest for support and it came off in his hand. 'Excuse me,' he slurred, 'I seem to have lost my camera somewhere. Have you seen it?'
She recognised him as the press photographer. 'Actually, I did. Come on, I'll show you where it is.'
She had to help him to the exit doors. He was a big man and she worried that if he fell she might get squashed beneath him; another casualty of the last night. But they made it, and she handed him the camera, which luckily was still where she had stashed it.
'Be careful with that. It's a nice piece of kit.'
He smiled. 'You into photography then?'
'It's part of my course at college.'
'Do you want a drink.'
'No, I've had enough. I'm still on duty, officially.'
'I was going to have another, but I've mislaid… my bottle.'
That might be a good thing, she thought.
'Suppose I should be getting home anyway. Have to work tomorrow.'
'I'll give you a hand down the rest of the stairs, then.'
Once he was safely in the foyer he waved goodbye and carried on weaving his way toward the exit. He pushed the inner doors far too hard and hurtled through, crashing into the outer set. Cat winced. Fortunately, the glass didn't break. He stood, poised at the top of the three shallow steps onto the street, toppled forward, and in a move Charlie Chaplin would have been proud of, half fell, half lurched, then miraculously found his balance as he reached the pavement. The last she saw of him, he was leaning against a parked car, being sick all over the driver's door.
It was one thirty in the morning. The audience had quietened down, having passed out, fallen asleep or exhausted themselves from the earlier mayhem. An occasional ripple of laughter from the auditorium indicated that the Monty Python film had started. A couple of elderly men made their way down the stairs. From their sober appearance, their anoraks and the large bags bulging with two thousand foot spools, they had obviously spent the evening in the projection room. They nodded goodnight to Cat.
As had always been the way, the last hour was the longest, waiting for the film to end with nothing left to do. Tonight, there wasn't even any point in clearing up or wiping down the kiosk shelves. She turned off the steamer. The hot dogs had vanished. Surely no-one could have eaten them?
Cars slid past soundlessly out in the orange-lit street. The sign above the Chinese take-away went out abruptly as they shut up shop for the night. Leaves and polystyrene cups blew along the pavement like modern day tumbleweed.
There was something desolate about the bright and empty foyer at this hour of the night. It reminded her of an Edward Hopper painting. It would be called something like Late Night Show or Bored Usherette. The stark fluorescent lighting would accentuate her tired features as she sat behind the pay desk. She should probably be filing her nails or reading a trashy magazine.
The auditorium door opened and a few of the staff emerged. 'That's it, then,' Geoff said. 'Credits are rolling for the last time.'
They lined up at the top of the stairs and watched the patrons file out, shoes echoing on the terrazzo floor. Once they had mostly gone, Cat went inside to see the last few names disappear at the top of the screen and the houselights being raised. No swish of closing curtains, of course, because they were broken.
'This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper,' she said softly, to the acres of shabby seats and the auditorium that would never dream again.
They locked the doors as usual, so no-one could break in and checked the vandalised toilets. A few more people came down from projection, carrying souvenirs and saying what a good show it had been. Steve had already got a job in another cinema. Clive was leaving the business to run a mobile disco.
Mr Watkins rounded up the last of the partygoers and told them it was time to leave. The booze had run out anyway, so there was nothing left for them here. Last to go was the gloomy Union representative. 'There are three more closing tonight,' he told them. 'And another two next week. It's a bad time for the industry.'
The lights went out in the foyer. Mr Watkins switched on his torch and led the way down the centre aisle and up onto the stage, illuminated by two fly-spotted lights far above their heads.
'I've always wanted to know what that does,' Cat said, pointing to the large lever at the side of the stage. Above it was a red-lettered sign saying, 'DO NOT TOUCH'.
'It's the self-destruct switch,' Mr Watkins joked. 'Want to try it?'
'It's just the safety curtain,' Steve added. 'But it's not been dropped in years. We were worried that if it was let down, it might never go up again.'
Now that it had been mentioned the temptation was there.
'Is it dangerous?'
'Mr Watkins should have the honour.'
'Yeah. Go on, Mr W.'
He grinned. 'I don't know how I'm going to explain this to the Regional Manager, but then, I'm leaving anyway, so why should I care.' He reached up to the lever, brushing away cobwebs. 'Stand clear, everyone.'
He pulled it firmly. For a second or two, nothing happened.
'It's broken, just like everything else,' Geoff said.
But then, far above, there was a creaking sound, followed by the panicked flurry of pigeon wings as their roosts were disturbed. The safety curtain began to move, slowly at first, gathering momentum as it slid inexorably downward, sealing off the darkened auditorium like an ancient tomb.
'Ooh, er…' said Brenda
'Awesome,' Ray muttered.
Dust and droppings fell with it, swirling in the pools of light. A heavy, grinding noise accompanied the descent. When it finally touched down the stage floor shook and even the walls shuddered. A few feathers floated down.
'Must have been the vandals,' Mr Watkins said. 'Impressive, eh?'
He pushed the panic bolt to open the exit door. They stepped out into the warm October night. Steve reached back inside and turned off the last few lights. It was over.