Saturday 7 December 2019

The Palace of Dreams

by David Gower

a small gin but see also the cocktails listed in the story

The builders had been working a long shift in their effort to avoid penalty clauses. Bad weather, sickness and unforeseen structural problems had contributed to delay and the deadline for completion drew ever nearer. Everyone, other than Tom, had left the Palace of Dreams for the beginning of the Christmas break. 

This derelict picture palace could wait until they returned after the holiday to complete the transformation into a bingo hall. The 1960s meant progress and that was evidenced by sweeping away the old in favour of the new. Soon clouds of cigarette smoke would fill the auditorium again and bodies would hunch over bingo cards in the race to shout ‘House’ before anybody else. 

As he packed his tools he realised he had left his Screwdriver on the bar counter.  The bar area felt cold – colder than even a winter day. He could see his quarry amid the detritus of glasses and empty bottles. The sign San Francisco Bar hung by a thread. This was all that remained apart from photographs of stars from the past hung on the walls. As his hand reached for the missing tool a woman’s voice behind him said; ‘Welcome to our Christmas party’. It had a warm and gentle quality that went some way to dull the shock. He was sure he had been alone. As he turned the woman before him was resplendent in a vermillion, satin evening gown slashed dramatically and cut on the bias to emphasise curves yet respect decency. A spectacular sight indeed.

‘Christmas party? Here? What…?’ His words died as her cold fingers touched his lips to quiet him.
‘Do you recognise me? I’m Mary. You can see me in the picture behind the bar.’

The picture behind the bar showed the woman in the same dress she wore now. The caption read Mary Pickford. The dress imprinted the phrase Bloody Mary in his thoughts.

Her voice continued ‘It is never a party until After Eight, I do so hope you agree.’

‘I agree, though some younger people might think it a bit Old Fashioned.’ ‘Time is an abstract concept here. We are in a sense immortal. As long as those alive remember us is some way we have life. Our pictures give us life. More than most other mortals can wish for. Don’t be alarmed. You are quite safe and in a sense you have asked to be here with us.’

‘Asked to be here? I don’t know what you mean.’

Mary smiled knowingly. ‘All of us here have seen you in your favourite seat when the Palace was showing our films. We know you enjoyed them and that is why we make ourselves visible to you now at our party. How rude. I should introduce you to our guests and tell you something about how they came to be – how can I describe it –frozen in time. Our costumes, in a sense, represent our most memorable roles. I wore this dress at a Manhattan soiree in a film. You must be hungry after your work, would you like a Jammie Dodger or a Garibaldi? Jack the barman makes them so well.’

By now the bar was filled with characters from the silver screen. Mary pointed to a soldier still in battledress and whose face was smeared with black and green face paint. For all the world he could have been in the Asian jungle moments earlier. 

Mary continued ‘That’s Jack’s Godfather who was killed by a Hand Grenade thrown into the bedroom when he was enjoying Hanky Panky with Juicy Lucy. Delicacy prevents me going into unnecessary detail. He says he would rather that than suffer the after effects of Agent Orange or poison from a Rusty Nail in the jungle. Penicillin was hard to come by. We  never showed such things in the days of the Hays Commission. One foot on the floor in the love scenes.’  

Standing at the end of the bar was a tall, moustachioed man in a dark blue military style jacket with gold braid. He was engaged in an unheard discussion with a strange figure who had a very odd skin tone, reminiscent of a Zombie in an Old Cuban scenario. 

‘That is Alexander, our White Russian. He came to grief when he was hit by a Snowball and fell out of a Sidecar. They found him lying in the road, all Blood and Sand. The gentleman he is talking to responded very well to a Corpse Reviver. He is quite adjusted to life with us now.’

Tom was caught between fascination at the spectacle in front of him and a desire to escape to some place where sanity and normality reigned. 

His host continued ‘Here comes Father Edgar. Such a sad story. What was that film now? He was doing good works in South America and as he rode his Mexican Mule it suffered a Bee Sting.  That was the Missionary’s Downfall. His saddle broke. They found him with a Gimlet in his hand. He had died in the sun trying to fix his girth strap. The heatstroke made him take off his clothes so in addition to misfortune he was Naked and Famous in the clerical press.‘

‘Sad. Very sad.’ Tom replied but was unsure what he should say other than how sad it was. 

‘Here come Jane and Jean, look out for action.’ They are always such fun at our gatherings. Jean always likes the Last Word. They had an argument last year as to what was nicer, an English Garden or a Blue Lagoon.’ 

Turning, he saw Jean Harlow, her platinum blonde hair and startling white floor length gown made her every inch the White Lady

‘They always argue over the best looking males at this party and I am sure you will be the subject of their squabbling this time.’ Mary laughed as she spoke.

Jane, her companion, was Jane Russell famed for her links to Aviator Howard Hughes. He had made her a Paper Plane as a souvenir of their first meeting. Then they had gone to the Casino to meet Scott Fitzgerald.  The chatter fascinated him. It was such a Cosmopolitan crowd.

‘Should you be here mate? Building is closed. Everyone should be somewhere safe.’ A night watchman stood in the doorway and the spell was broken. He was in an empty bar again.. ‘You should go ‘ome. Are you all right, guv? What’s your name? Let me get you some fresh air.’ 

‘Tom. Tom Collins’ answered the builder.

George, the night watchman guided Tom to the main entrance. The night was Dark and Stormy as the builder turned to thank the man. Only an empty foyer presented itself. By the box office a plaque read In Memory of George Potter killed by enemy action 1942. He saved many lives.

It was time to go home and lie Between the Sheets of his Bramble Road house. Then a Christmas watching black and white films. A gangster B film set in the Bronx or Southside or a ghost story?

In Tom’s hand was the picture of Mary Pickford. A memento from the Palace of Dreams.

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