Life becomes a silent movie when he slips his headphones on. Listening to old brass bands. The Floral Dance. Scores of other compositions for which he doubts he’s ever known the name. Getting off the bus at the station, passing through the crowds. Colour bleeds away, building tripping back in time. Showing itself as it used to be known, tiles chess-piece-placed upon the walls and floors; doors made out of heavy oak and windows frosted, ice-white stencil-work upon the glass declaring someone’s office, the head conductor’s name. Lightbulbs replaced by mid-range antique chandeliers. Crystal-refracted glow so much like a torchbeam through the back of this monochrome print.
The right word for the world in which voiceless movies take place.
Mouths open and close – muscles move exaggerated to convey a sense of the subtleties of what’s being said but not being heard. He blinks – a single second at a time – and title cards shunt into line of sight:
‘Have you heard what our Marion did?’
‘Which bus do I take to get back there?’
‘Damn. Look at the backside on that!’
He weaves and whirls between the mass of people, all of whom are heading in the direction opposite to his. He sees himself from an out-of-body point of view, light on his feet, his face a mask of nervousness, apologizing to the onrushers with the whiteness of his eyes.
The doors – which ordinarily whoosh open as soon as they detect his feet – spring wide and large as barn-sized things, and the few cars on the road outside are old Rolls Royces, Model Ts. Horses and carts trot at a calm, collected canter amongst the slowly-turning wheels.
A tuba solo. Rife with bass, with a full-gutted timbre.
Policemen patrol the street with faces set hard as gargoyle stone. Unforgiving. Truncheons swinging in their hands like some marching girl’s baton.
He is cautious, from both the inside looking out and the outside looking in. He isn’t in the mood to be pursued. He has always been a law-abiding citizen, but still he does not entirely doubt he won’t be chased, should he find the wrong woman on which to focus his attentions. The daughter of a wealthy banker. The mayor’s much younger wife.
Hijinks wait like muggers in the doorways around here.
Most of the shops seem to be selling cakes, custard pies. There are many more houses than he remembers there being in the centre of town. There are many more washing lines, garden fences with at least one plank loose in them somewhere.
He slips, trips on the cobble stones, pratfalls as a trombone sounds a long slide in small caves of his ears. He forward-rolls back up to standing, notices for the first time the soles of his shoes hanging loose from the toes. His trousers are slightly half-mast, his jacket too tight.
Crowd, en masse: ‘HA! HA!’
He feels poor suddenly, becomes aware that people are crossing the street to avoid him. From out of his body, he sees his face as simple as that of a sad clown’s. Pathos. Emotions monochrome and direct here as well.
Cinema, the great communicator.
And then he sees her. Clear through the window of a café, seeming to burn like a streetlamp inside.
She looks up, sees him, blushes.
She’s dressed demurely, face coated gently in pale make-up, hair curling loose only slightly from under a hat. Warm eyes. Warm smile.
He walks past the café, shy. Stands facing the window of the shop next door, smoothing at his too-small jacket, at his trousers which have become more half-mast still. Exposing his raggedy, shitly-darned socks. Tapping his feet on the ground, in the hopes that this will make the soles get their act together and stick back as they were. It doesn’t, so he stops.
He takes off his hat, smoothes his hair into place.
A coil near the back of his crown springs up.
He smoothes at it again.
Again it springs up.
He frowns, and the frown is all he can see in the mirror of the shop window glass.
He looks left. He looks right. No-one is watching. Furtive, he spits into his palms. Smoothes his hair again. This time the coil stays down. He smiles. Happy clown face.
He puts his hat back on and the tempo of the brass music has lifted. His chest puffs out, his shoulders slide back with a confidence that he rarely knows. Back towards the café.
And then through the door and inside.
As the bell rings to signal a new customer, the lady at that table by the window looks up, grins. Teeth perfect white, not crooked at all.
She waves to him, trusting.
He begins walking towards her, waving back. Paying so much attention to her that he doesn’t notice the step up onto the section in which she’s seated.
Straight over a table, sending empty cups flying. He glides from the tabletop to the floor, slides over towards her. Almost gracefully. Until his head hits a chair leg, crumples his small bowler hat.
He stands up, swaying. Again a trombone holds a long, descending note.
He smiles, shrugs.
She shakes with quiet laughter.
Then gestures for him to sit down.
He does, before recalling his manners, removing his hat. Inspects the damage. He punches the crumpled part from inside and as it pops out, the coil of hair jumps up again on his head. The lady giggles, soundlessly. He blushes, crumples the hat again, places it out of view on his lap.
Her lips begin to move, so sweetly that at first he doesn’t notice. Until it becomes clear that she’s asking him a question. Wide-eyed, doe-eyed, awaiting response.
He begins to panic. He blinks, hoping for a helpful title card…
He panics more. He shrugs, unsure how else to lay plain his predicament. He stands and tries to pantomime it out, but feels he’s getting nowhere.
Eyes go whiter still and pleading.
She stays calm, points to his ears, to the headphones.
He dials the pleading in his eyes back down again, and rolls them, feeling foolish.
She smiles her understanding. Her patience.
In response to that patience he can feel certain thoughts stirring. Impulses. But, in this colour scheme, they feel noble, somehow; old-fashioned, well-meaning. Good clean family fun.
She doesn’t mind that he’s shabbily dressed and playing this deep-rooted depression for movie-house laughs.
In fact, he thinks, she actively likes it.
He can read in her face signs of corresponding thoughts stirring.
Sits in anticipation of the circle-fade, the happy ending blackness of the screen.
She still smiles back.
But still, as well, has a question. Repeats it.
He reaches to take his headphones off.
And life becomes 3D high-def as he does so. Becomes viral and wireless and 48 frames-per-second. He jumps, and he lets out a gasp like there’s things coming out of the screen. If he had popcorn, he’d have spilled it all over. As it is, his coffee cup rattles a bit in its saucer but no further damage is done.
Not to him, at least.
But she wasn’t as lucky.
She’s just vanished. Just gone. No pause for effect, no pathos, no nothing.
All bloodless shock and no bloody substance. Anything for that PG-13.
He looks around the room, quietly wild, frantic. Feels for the spring of loose hair near his crown. Pats about for the bowler hat under the table. Checks if his shoe-tops are affixed to the soles.
Finds all as it should be.
That is, he finds all as it was.
His eyes want closure, want fade-out, for a moment, but there’s just enough of her left caught behind the lids to shake his peace. A haunting by poltergeist, by flibbertigibbet. By a yellowing poster in a museum vault.
He jumps again, a little, but chides himself after. Feels foolish.
Knows it’s nothing to worry about, really.
Just a bit of retro styling and some fancy special effects.
Dan Micklethwaite lives, writes and film-watches in West Yorkshire, UK. His stories have featured or are forthcoming in a range of magazines and journals, including BULL: Men’s Fiction, Emerge Literary Journal, Notes from the Underground, 3:AM Magazine and The View From Here. Other examples of his work can be found on his blog: http://smalltimebooks.blogspot.co.uk