The Floor

By Reuben Lane

floor-stanley-donwood.jpgIllustration by Stanley Donwood

The carpet has been soaked in piss, melted ice cream, trodden-in with popcorn – sugared and salted. It has that tackiness that grabs at the soles of your shoes – a history of grime and stickiness – spilled Coca Cola and 7-Up.

I lay my body face down in the darkness between the back two rows of seats in the stalls and smell the day – as the projectionist kills the houselights – and there is only the dim strawberry red of the NO SMOKING signs glowing on the side walls.

Ralph Vaughan Williams went to the cinema in Leicester Square when they premiered the film Scott of the Antarctic for which he had composed the score – loud, scurrying strings, and then the bleak, quiet woodwind for the glacial wilderness, underscored with the thumping double beat of a snare drum.

At the end, as the credits finished rolling, the cinema organ rose in front of the stage and the organist began playing a piece of loud bombastic music that snapped the atmosphere of the film. Vaughan Williams – then in his late seventies – hurried home and wrote a page of music and sent it to the cinema organist – a page all of his own with which to bring the audience out of the film.

I lick the carpet – pressing my thighs into the hard unyielding floor. Against my tongue a rasp of particles of dirt – a smooth texture of spearmint chewing gum squashed into the ancient carpet, mud from shoes, the cold dirty metallic taste of a coin – a twenty pence piece by the shape of it.

In the dark the usher goes to lock up the exit doors, wrapping a chain around the push-down bars. Footsteps thud vibrating across the cinema floor – through the velvet and felt of my clothes – dispersing through flesh into my bones.

Here a taste of chlorine. The lifeguard who came straight from the swimming pool. Today he had looked into a six year old girl’s mouth – under her tongue she had a ripped femulum – and he had taken the girl’s teacher aside and asked if the girl was noisy at school. And the teacher said – no – she’s the quietest pupil in her class.

The lifeguard, who has been taught to recognise the signs, told the teacher that the girl had a ripped femulum. The teacher hadn’t heard of the word. The lifeguard opened his mouth to show her – he lifted his tongue and pointed to the membrane of skin that links the floor of the mouth to the middle of the tongue. Someone – the lifeguard told the teacher – wants that girl to shut up.

The lifeguard had sat there – he needed a film, any film and he had walked in, bought a ticket and sat in the back row sliding off his shoes and socks – leaving the imprint of chlorinated water on the carpet.

In the cinema – like night indoors where the flickering play of light and shadow from the screen does for the moon and the stars. An old woman untwists the top of her thermos and pours out her tea, breaks off some chocolate from the slab of Fruit and Nut in her pocket. A man who puts his arms around the chest of the man in the row in front and worms his way down his stomach – plunging into his trousers – the warmth and silkiness of his bollocks cupped in the palm of one hand.

And on screen the mother watches from the icy bank as the divers drag the lake. And in the next scene she’s screaming so loudly, furiously heartbreaking – this isn’t acting – this is real.

I cry in cinemas.

You eat your popcorn, your square of banana cake, drink your cup of coffee – and then you cry it all out and it makes the seats, the carpets, the walls damp.

I could sleep on the cinema floor. A mouse runs across the backs of my knees.

There used to be an alcoholic projectionist. He would fall asleep on the concrete of the projection booth and, when the credits had spooled through, the screen would fill with blank whiteness and there would be the loudest ear-cracking boom as the cinema launched itself into the nothingness – floating, useless, unanchored – off into the night sky.

The carpet has been soaked in piss, melted ice cream, trodden-in with popcorn – sugared and salted. It has that tackiness that grabs at the soles of your shoes – a history of grime and stickiness – spilled Coca Cola and 7-Up.

Four friends, four couples, decided one evening to go into the nearby town to drink some vodka at the bar and watch the gymnastics on TV.

They lived in a hamlet that was separated from the town by a giant lake.

It was the dead of winter. Bitterly cold. They wrapped themselves in several jumpers and heavy hooded coats. The walk along the road would take forty five minutes. They set off full of warm borscht.

They walked along the side of the road in single file. Should I give them their names? Lena led the way followed by her husband Kristen, followed by Kristen’s secret lover Vladimir, followed by Vladimir’s wife and Lena’s secret lover Sofia.

The surface of the road was covered in a sheet of black ice.

Each of the four had on heavy, strong, gripping boots. They walked on the verge, a crust of frozen mud. All of them were looking forward to their vodka.

The town’s lights glittered in the clear night air across the lake.

‘This is stupid,’ said Kristen, suddenly stopping so that Vladimir and Sofia, who were both walking with bent heads, knocked into the back of him. He places his gloved hands on his hips. His words come out inside large hoots of steam.

‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ said Sofia, staring across the lake.

Lena shouted out urgently from ahead of them, ‘come on.’ Lena had been a prize-winning gymnast as a schoolgirl. She had trophies for her balancing skills on the beam. ‘A composed steely technique’ the Moscow judge had told her mother and the coach in 1979. There had been mention of the Olympic team.

‘Lena, wait,’ called Vladimir in his gravely bass voice.

Sofia crossed the road, down the bank and stepped onto the frozen ice. It was thick and solid. She jumped to test it. The ice remained firm and unyielding.

‘This way,’ Sofia said, ‘it’ll only take us fifteen, twenty minutes max. Here.’ She held out her hand for Lena to grab hold of. Lena stepped onto the ice.

‘Are you sure?’ Vladimir asked nervously.

‘Come on. Don’t be a scaredy cat.’ Kristen cupped his arm in his and propelled them forward onto the lake. The women laughed, now fifteen slippery paces ahead of them out onto the ice.

The town loomed closer. The church tower and town hall lit up in bottle green. Lights at windows promising warmth and company, laughter and vodka. Lena led the way, imagining herself on the thin width of the wooden beam in her blue leotard and powdered bare feet. She looked behind her at Sofia.

They both turned their heads to look back at their husbands who looked, all bundled up in their coats and clinging onto each others’ arms, like two characters from an Eisenstein film. The women looked at one another briefly, their eyes wide in the cold evening air.

By now they were nearly halfway across the lake. Lena and Sofia stopped to wait for Vladimir and Kristen, who were some way behind, their laughter coming forward clearer than the words they were muttering. Their dialogue rose as steam clouds rising above the dark of the trees and the hamlet on the far shore behind them.

‘We’ll not mess about tonight’ said Kristen, ‘A bottle - a whole bottle and fuck the expense.’

‘You two are so slow’ Lena protested.

‘We need a sledge to carry us,’ said Vladimir.

‘Lazy bones.’ Sofia laughed.

‘Come on.’ Kristen linked arms with Sofia, who linked arms with Lena. She and Vladimir make up the ends.

’Right’ said Kristen, ‘best leg forward. Lena wants to see the gymnastics.’

‘I’m not bothered,’ said Lena.

‘Of course you are,’ said Sofia.

‘Which is that then?’ Asked Vladimir. ‘What?’ said Kristen.

‘Our best leg. Which is the best leg?’

‘That one. The right one.’ Kristen unlinked his right arm to tap Vladimir’s right thigh. ‘Altogether now.’

The four of them swung their right legs and their booted right feet came down on the ice. They began to cross the middle of the iced lake, walking in step, the four of them in a row.

This was a mistake.