A Majestic Man
1985 Halifax, Yorkshire
The cinema was nearly empty, but then it was midnight and all the punters had gone home. The shutters had been pulled down. Mabel, after applying her usual extra coat of lipstick to her rouge red pout, as armour against the bus ride back, had departed, with the spare confectionary for her nephews and nieces. Only The Majestic’s owner, Rigby Rogers, was left sitting in the front row, with a pair of swollen-bellied tubs of popcorn on either side, staring at the flickering monochrome images on the screen.
He liked to run his favourite films after hours, he’d always been a night owl. He was mouthing the dialogue along with the film’s bleached-out figures, as he watched a fat be-hatted, bow-tied man alongside his sad-faced, scarecrow companion, tramp across a studio desert in boots and kepis. Their neck drapes were blowing back into their faces courtesy of the wind machines” breeze, all captured on nitrate nearly a hundred years before and thousands of miles away, across an ocean, in Hollywood. Their familiar antics flowed from the screen, flooding Rigby with nostalgia…
A sick day and an escape from the hell of Rigby’s daily life at the local secondary school. He was lying in bed, cosy, whilst hugging a hot water bottle wrapped in blue rubber, watching, as a rare daytime treat, the black and white portable TV.
“Let”s watch Laurel and Hardy, son,” his mum said.
The sound of her knitting needles interwoven with Hardy’s high-pitched giggles and Laurel’s sobs were a wonderful tonic.
His mum carried on. “I saw them, Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy, in person. Oh, about seven years ago in t’ middle of town, at the old Odeon.” The needles clicked. Rigby stared in amazement. “That Hardy fella, he was double the size, sweating buckets, the poor man. The thin fella, well, he looked like he’d not eaten in months. End of the road for them really.”
Rigby fiddled with the patterned Paisley bed cover, hardly daring to believe that right here in his bedroom was a living link to these celluloid ghosts and his comedy heroes.
“Hung around the back door of the Odeon I did, for hours, but they didn’t come out. Perhaps they were hiding?” Mum added, looking thoughtful.
“Who from?” Ten-year-old Rigby was confused.
“Dunno, Rigby. From Halifax? Or themselves? They couldn’t have wanted to be here – not really? I mean – Hollywood to Halifax– it’s the wrong way round that journey.”
Dear old Mum, thought Rigby. She” d been dead these past ten years, but he still remembered her knitting needles, the luridly bright sweaters that grew from them and her stories.
Rigby roared with laughter, his face lit by the screen’s silvery glow. He turned to the pair of figures standing at the head of each aisle.
“See, fellas, you’ve not lost the old magic. You’re still making us laugh in Halifax.”
The two silent companions – wooden, life-sized figures, one thin and sad-faced, Mr Stan Laurel, and the other rotund and bow-tied, Mr Oliver Hardy, stood upright, rigid and unbending, with painted lips and eyes.
They were quite the talking point for the cinema’s customers, and Rigby, a familiar florid-faced figure, poised in the foyer, liked to tell everyone, “They were a gift, you know, from Mr Laurel. To The Majestic, when I opened in ’62. He was born just over the border in Lancashire. He’d family there and used to visit. Especially after Mr Hardy died. One of them told him about me opening The Majestic and showing one of their films, so he sent these two fellas over. Worth a bomb now, I expect.”
Rigby had told this fable so often he half-believed it and indeed, there were nuggets of truth woven into its warp and weft. Rigby was, as he saw it, in the business of selling dreams. He offered an escape for a couple of hours, from life’s dreary toil, all the while sitting in red plush velvet seats holding hands in the dark with your beloveds.
“Gift of the gab, Mr R. is what you’ve got.” His box office manageress, Mabel, often told him, fond but disapproving.
“What’s the harm, luv? It’s just another story. We’ve got a million of them here, trapped in the walls of this palace.”
The L&H companions, with Rigby standing proud between them, had had their photograph in the local press, The Courier. Then, to everyone’s surprise, a national picked up the story and ran with it. The phone started ringing at all hours, and the fans started turning up, knocking at the closed doors, hanging around the back alley, pestering for a chance to pose with the companions. Mr Laurel’s gift. A piece of cinema history.
“It’s getting out of hand now, Mr R.,” Mabel said, one bleak Monday afternoon, as she patted her perm into place prior to pulling up the shutters on the box office. “They’re camping outside overnight now. Look! And we’re running out of Rowntrees fruit gums, they’re eating them by the bucket load.” She pointed at the scattering of tents and umbrellas outside the glass doors cluttering up the pavement and the handkerchief-sized patch of grass.
“But it’s good for business, Mabel. You can’t deny the coffers have been filling up nicely. Usually it’s very quiet at this time of year. Can’t look a gift horse in the mouth, can we?”
Mabel lowered her voice, so the two lasses, training as usherettes, couldn’t overhear. “But what if they find out it’s all a… fib.” She blushed. “You’re charging them money to pose with Mr L and Mr H.”
“And, just to remind you, Mabel, I’m giving you a cut.”
Mabel blushed even deeper. With her Wilfred not working he was sure the extra shillings were coming in handy. No doubt they could have fish and chips and steak pie every week now, plus there were the perms, colour tints and little luxury treats from Harveys department store.
“Go on, girls,” Rigby told the usherettes, “open up the doors, and let them in.”
At midnight Rigby sat smoking in his office counting the evening’s takings. A nearly empty bottle of whiskey sat beside him. He was a happy man, though, if he had to be honest, a tinge of guilt was taking the edge off his mellow mood. He hated having a conscience.
He stood up, flicked off the lights, and took his usual late-night promenade around the premises – up to the reels room where the camera lurked, and back down to the cloakrooms, box office, foyer, and then into the heart of The Majestic, the screening room.
The companions stood in their usual spots, silent, waiting.
“Nice work, lads. You’ve done me proud. What a gift you’ve turned out to be.” He patted their wooden shoulders fondly.
Behind him the screen flowered into life, black and white images formed, familiar faces, staring out at him. Rigby turned around to face –- Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy, but both were sad, and frowning, shaking their heads, saying, “No more, enough is enough. Respect our legacy, Rigby Rogers.”
Rigby staggered backwards, and collapsed into one of the front-row seats, his heart pounding. In the dim light he believed he saw the companion figures moving towards him, heard the creak of wood, swore their arms lifted up to shake admonitory fingers… as they juddered nearer and nearer…
He woke up a few hours later, on the floor of the cinema, face down, blurry with the booze and a banging headache.
The screen was thankfully empty and dark, and the companions were in their usual spots, motionless.
* * *
Mabel arrived breathless, her hair still in rollers. She’d come straight over from “Curl and Cut”. “What’s the trouble, Mr R.? Why did you phone me at the hairdressers? Is there an emergency?”
Rigby sat behind his desk, feet up, sober, and shaved. “Film festival. That’s the ticket. We’re going to start a regular Laurel and Hardy film festival. Right here in Halifax, with photographs of when the boys toured here. Advertise for people’s memories of them. Like me dear old late mum’s. Get them interviewed and put up a little exhibition. Pull those fans in, give them a meal, too. Pie and peas. Open up the rooms upstairs and run their comedies over forty-eight hours. A weekender. I’ve realised that the greatest gift, Mabel, of Mr L and Mr H – their legacy – of laughter.”
Mabel nodded, and out of the corner of her eye she could have sworn the two companions nodded too. Just a tiny movement, and then – nothing. But their faces seemed brighter, as though the paint had been refreshed overnight.
About the author
Aly lives in the UK, with her family and rescue-Labrador, Roxy. She is a tutor, editor, mum, dog-walker, wild water swimmer and avid film buff.
Her fiction has been published widely - in Space and Time #141, Brigids Gate Press' Were-Tales, Musings and Daughter of Sarpedon, by Perpetual Motion in Night Frights 2, on ‘The Casket of Fictional Delights’, Coffin Bell, various Sirens Call e-zines, World of Myth and Unsettling Press' Still of Night.
Her stories can be downloaded on various podcasts, including this summer at ‘The Other Stories’ as part of their Gothic showcase :- After the Gloaming. https://pod.link/1693204342
Other film-related articles penned by her can be read here:- https://alyrhodes-99284.medium.com
Her work has been read out on BBC Radio, local radio and won or placed in several competitions.
She is a regular on the West Yorkshire open mic circuit.