Carolyn tilted her umbrella, gripped firmly in black leather gloves, to better peer through the rain at the clock tower. The filigree hands pointed at twenty past seven. He was late. Only by five minutes past the time they had agreed on in earlier emails, but he was late. Carolyn added this to the mental notebook she had been keeping on Kevin.
A hand gently patted her left shoulder, making her quietly cough on the e-cig she had just pressed to her lips. She turned to face Kevin’s easy smile. The line in the notebook became a little smudged.
“Hello Caro,” he greeted her, with a peck on both cheeks. She was not entirely sure about the nickname. Usually she would only sullenly allow her (older) brother and (younger) sister to get away with it, but when it was said with such warm enthusiasm and with such a dazzling, dimpled grin, she found it harder to protest. The two were on their third date. They had met on a dating website, Carolyn (‘Carolyn1234’) having messaged Kevin (‘AutoCad’). She had selected him on the basis of the dashing smile, age, income, interesting yet tolerable hobbies, and the various calculations she had made by reading between the lines of the anecdotes and witticisms which littered his profile. She rarely engaged with those that messaged her first; the ones who had detected an ice queen and believed themselves to be rogue king. She knew what she wanted. Children. She had been too career-focussed over the last dozen or so years, stolidly building her way up from junior lawyer in Deakin Wenham & Baker Solicitors to a level where partner was in her reach. As her friends invited her to be godmother and uploaded pictures on seemingly every digital social platform available to them of their toddler’s birthday parties, it was during one rare free evening she had given up to babysit that she began to realise what she might be missing out on as she tucked the little person into bed.
“A pleasure to see you again, Kevin.” She rarely smiled, knowing what it did to the creases on her face, but she allowed herself a small one for him.
“Shall we go in? And get out of this horrible weather.” He had cycled there, whereas she had taken a taxi and was relatively dry. That hand on her shoulder again, this time steering her towards the cinema’s entrance. Her tan heels clicked on the pavement, satisfyingly bringing her petite frame inches closer to her date’s shoulder. The canopy shouted at passers-by that tonight they could see Unterseeboot and The Waitress, but the budding couple were there to see Zombollywood. Zombollywood, although not Carolyn’s usual choice of film genre, was to be presented in ‘Sensoreveal’. The whole town of Tredwell had been buzzing with the news of the installation of this multi-sensory screen in their local cinema. Kevin was buzzing at the prospect of zombies. Carolyn’s phone was buzzing inside her suede handbag. She fished around for it and angling her manicured fingertip carefull, switched it off. Previous dates had walked out on her for taking overlong phone calls where she proceeded to talk sense into some poor inept secretary or intern. She had fixed photocopiers in this way, prevented meltdowns, and often secured clients for the company. What it had not done was net her a husband.
They queued together for popcorn, Carolyn opting for a small unsalted portion, given she had been watching her figure since the age of fourteen. Kevin, who had only watched his figure when he had come off his mountain bike, broken his arm and watched his friends cover his cast in obscene marker pen scrawls went for a large portion of salted, with a bucket-sized soft drink.
“Would you mind holding this while I visit the Ladies?” With both of his (tanned, broad – don’t think these details had escaped the notebook) hands full, Kevin offered the crook of his elbow for Carolyn’s carton. “I’ll keep it warm for you,” Kevin said brightly. Carolyn rewarded him with a bigger smile this time, that showed expensive dentistry which she had bought to conceal the brown stains of chain smoking since she had moved out of her parents’ home at sixteen. She would be in the Ladies soon and be able to fix the cracks in the make-up that beam would have caused on her now 35-year-old face.
Carolyn opened the door of the toilets to the sight of a male employee of Tredwell Cinema straightening his uniform. She gasped and took a step backwards, half-closing the door, then half-opening it again to apologise. “Sorry, I thought this was the Ladies.”
“It is,” the man replied. He was an odd-looking fellow. Squat, pigeon-toed, hook-nosed, with a jagged scar in almost the shape of a question mark on his right arm. He looked too old to be working there, his rheumy eyes staring unapologetically at Carolyn’s stern grey ones. “All the cubicles in the gents were blocked up.”
“Oh, I see, err, I’ll just give you a minute then…” The strange worker grunted in acknowledgement. She pulled the door fully closed this time, but not before noting him taking out a broken-toothed comb to run through greasy black hair peppered with specks of grey.
In the maroon corridor, her embarrassment quickly switching to annoyance, she tapped her toe impatiently. Weren’t there staff toilets? Glancing around the wall, she was pleased to note Kevin patiently examining the posters of upcoming films, rather than the legs of the many attractive women who were there in giggling droves, all ready to squeal at rotting flesh and gropes from eager boyfriends.
The door swung open again, and the greasy-haired man shuffled out, blowing his nose on a hanky that looked like it had last been washed around the time Fritz Lang picked up a pen. Carolyn pressed herself to the wall so he could pass, and he nodded solemn thanks at her, while his eyes thanked the modest top of the line of cleavage she had carefully selected to display. With a quiet tut Carolyn entered the loos, relieved to be alone at last.
“Thank you,” Carolyn said graciously as she claimed her popcorn from her obedient date.
“No problem” said Kevin. He nodded towards the door of Screen 8. “Shall we?”
As they handed over their tickets for the smiling assistant to tear, they were in return handed a small white paper cup each, about the size of a shot glass, with a clear liquid filling it almost to its brim. “Compliments of Tredwell cinema,” the pimply ticket checker explained. “A sign will appear on screen letting you know when to drink it. It’s very important not to touch a drop until then, you don’t want the surprise to be all out of sequence!” Carolyn lifted a thin wrist to sniff hers. It didn’t smell of anything. It might as well be water. In fact, given how much of their budget the cinema had proudly declared they had spent on the installation of the new screen to any press outlet that would listen, it probably was.
“Well isn’t this fun?” Kevin was easily pleased. Carolyn liked that.
Despite Kevin’s tardiness, there was still time for a little bit of small talk while the other cinema-goers found their places through the dim light surrounding them. Kevin rolled his soggy coat up in a ball and placed it under his seat, answering questions about his week spent in building design. Carolyn’s clasped her bag rather primly on her lap. She may have learned to turn her phone off, but still felt the urge to have it close by. It was like a plastic limb to her.
Their exchange was interrupted by “oohs” as the lights were dimmed further. The crackling of dozens of bags of sweets was amplified as voices fell. The eerie yet familiar mood was broken by the trailers that crashed and thrashed on to the screen. The booming assault finally gave way to the certificate signalling the horror of Zombollywood was about to launch. The tension in the room now overtook the crackling of the sweet packets. Kevin gave Carolyn’s hand a brief friendly squeeze, and she silently thanked the ambitious heavy metal score with its Hindi vocals on the opening credits for drowning out the intake of breath this caused her. She scrambled in her handbag for her 3D glasses before he tried to touch her hands again. It had been so long since she actually liked a date she was with, her mind was having trouble communicating to her body how exactly to respond.
Nothing particularly ‘multi-sensory’ happened for the first twenty minutes, but then there came a scene where zombies had to traverse a river, whilst ridiculously swathed in colourful saris which spread out like water lilies. As the deadly green-tinged lumps inelegantly flopped into the muddy water, the audience were squirted with (what they hoped was) water from devices concealed in the backs of the chairs in front of them. Those in the front row had their ankles splashed by the same devices located under their seats. There were deafening screams by the dampened and delighted punters as the actors tried to recapture their attention by showing their brown incisors emerging from putrid maws to tear into human bodies.
Carolyn, always prepared, brought a packet of tissues out of her bag to pat herself down with, offering one to Kevin. She noticed small shimmering droplets glistening on his stubble, and crossed her stockinged legs. A question whispered over to her on popcorn breath: “Wonder what on earth’ll get thrown at us next?” Inhaling the scent of his demolished snack and sandalwood aftershave, she only smiled demurely in response, putting on a good show of being transfixed by the events unfolding in front of her.
The shrieks gradually died down as something like a story tried to keep itself together amidst the gratuitous gore. Approximately fifteen minutes after gunfire aimed at bindis and dance sequences that evoked screams of a different nature – namely laughter – from viewers, a large horde of zombies were penned into a hut which was then set fire to by a man in a three quarter length coat, its intricate embroidery shot through with flashes of gold that matched the wearer’s teeth. Black, curled nails screeched uselessly at windows, and creamy eyes bulged in sockets.
Faint revolted gasps began to sound around the building, as it filled with an unfamiliar smell. A bit like pork, Carolyn thought, as her delicate nostrils twitched. With a layer of something else. Something musky and sweet. Somewhere behind her right shoulder, there was the unmistakable sound of a teenage girl retching. Somewhat exaggeratedly, as certain teenage girls like to do in many of their public outings. Carolyn turned and glimpsed a clumsy hand at the end of a white jumper sleeve attempting to comfort the girl by patting her back too heavily, causing her nose to dip into the empty popcorn container she was using as a receptacle, in turn causing real sounds of disgust. Despite her unease, Carolyn found herself having to hide a smirk at the spectacle. It distracted her from thinking that undefined base note could be the stench of actual decaying, once-human skin and bone.
As a bonus touch, somebody must have turned up the heat. The room became uncomfortably hot within minutes. Luminous shards of flyers and any other substitute fans that came to hand fluttered in the surrounding darkness, and jumpers were huffily draped over the backs of seats.
As the film cut to a scene depicting an Indian beauty being brought a soothing tea before retiring to bed, oblivious to the carnage mere miles from her home, a female voice from speakers instructed it was now time to drink from the paper cups members of the audience had collected on their way in. Carolyn thought hers tasted like gripe water. Kevin said his reminded him of Lucozade.
He was lapping it up in every sense. “Well, you certainly get what you pay for!” he commented, obviously. Carolyn arched her eyebrows, nodded her blonde bob absently, and awaited the next sensory attack.
Thankfully the smell began to fade, as the storyline progressed before their shielded eyes. Carolyn self-consciously pushed the thick 3D glasses up towards the bridge of her nose, hoping they weren’t leaving streaks in her make-up, which was probably already melting down her neck due to the theatre’s stuffiness. Some cinema-goers were hushing the relieved chatter of those who had been most sensitive to the curious smell.
3D entertainment took up much of the next twenty minutes or so, with the audience ducking as axes seems to come for their heads and raising their hands in fear as the screen appeared to explode outward, splinters of wood falling upon them. A light rain of lollypop sticks showered the front few rows at this part; Kevin letting his disapproval at the downturn of the special effects be known. Carolyn politely agreed, but thoughts of dreadful barbeques still danced around her mind. Swallowing carefully, a movement from the bottom left of the screen drew her attention. She spied some sort of continuity error, a large-nosed cameraman or some other member of the production team, with arms crossed, watching and seemingly enjoying the film. Glancing around to the other corners, she noticed that no shadowy ushers seemed visible, no outlines of heads appeared at the projection window, and the lighting for the exit signs was turned off.
The action was momentarily interrupted as an instruction for audience members to place their hands on the armrests appeared on screen. A murmur rumbled throughout as everybody obeyed.
But to unquestionably obey can often lead to questionable consequences. On this occasion, it led to manacles shooting smoothly out of the armrests, pinning every last viewer to their seat.
Carolyn twitched like a startled rabbit trapped in a snare. For someone so used to being in control, managing others, calling the shots, this was not the laughing matter Kevin seemed to think it was.
While the film started up again from where it had left off, and the cinema became a writhing mass of hands trying to escape, feet pummeling the floor in a drumroll of gullible joy at the experience, with her heart hammering in her chest she said “I need to leave.”
“What?” said Kevin, his eyes still on the unfolding drama.
“I said I need to leave.”
“I don’t think that’s happening any time soon, Caro!” he said, the amusement in his voice strengthening her resolve to get as far away from the place as quickly as she possibly could. An image of the mound of paperwork on her bedside table flickered into her mind, and she felt a strange pang of homesickness.
There was nothing to do but sit and hope to be released quickly. The elaborate mechanism did not seem to have anything to do with the storyline, Carolyn thought, when her mind got on track to the present again.
There was more milking of the 3D technology, now that viewers were unable to remove their glasses. Bullets fired above their heads and glittering saris sparkled as ridiculous battles bled on. A cut back to the beauty, who this time had family members fussing around her while she daintily sipped her ever-present tea, preparing to be wed. This film really was a bad idea, concluded Carolyn. Even Kevin’s chatter had subsided to faint snorts.The film then froze. Another trick or a fault in the projectionist’s room? In the silence Carolyn realised those sounds she heard Kevin making was actually snoring, not laboured breathing. Even in the fright of the moment she jotted ‘snorer’ down in a rather overused column in the notebook concealed inside her head. Although with the room so excessively darkened, from the glow of the paused screen she noticed everybody around her had followed Kevin’s suit. There only movement was the rising and falling of chests.
The crew member with the unfortunate snout she had spotted earlier shuffled up to the screen until Carolyn could count his nose hairs. His chin was streaked as if he’d been drooling, and when he leered at her she could only see three rotten teeth remaining in his mouth. She dug her heels into the floor, scraped her wrists on the unyielding shackles, eyes never leaving the pixelated ones fixed hungrily on hers.
They were the only two animated characters in parallel rooms filled with slumped bodies; the difference being her cohorts were intact and his were torn apart, entrails and glass shards from windows which had been broken in the last kerfuffle making a slick carpet of the wooden cabin floor on which he stood.
“Hello darlin’,” the creature snarled. Carolyn’s blood ran cold at the sound of its unearthly voice. It was of course the voice of the man she had seen in the toilets earlier, but filtered through speakers it crackled as though coming from a place no-one traveled to and came back sane, if indeed they came back at all.
“I need to ask you a favour, princess.” Carolyn wriggled and almost turned her head 360° desperately looking round for help. No reaction. John McClane could have run in, guns blazing, and nobody would have raised so much as an eyebrow.
“No use love, everybody’s conked out.” He managed to clear enough crust out of an eye to perform a comedy wink for his audience of one. “I’ve got something for you.” Carolyn’s eyes dropped downwards. “No, not that, you filthy mucker!” he cackled. He pulled something out of a pocket of his stained trousers, which may once have been grass green. “This ‘ere,” he said, brandishing a long-tipped needle emerging from an off-white tube roughly the size of a cat’s leg, “is the antidote, my lovely.” He turned it from side to side, as though to hypnotise Carolyn, and the needle glinted in the remaining light. “Theirs was just a sleeping draught,” he explained. “Yours is actual poison.
“Now, to get this antidote, you’re going to have to do something for me, and do it well. We’re missing a leading lady. And we want a sequel. And we know what you want. We need you to come up here. Or you can stay there with a bunch of dodos, and continue your dodo life.” Carolyn wondered who ‘we’ were.
“To take the antidote, my little lamb, you've got to come through to this side. That means giving up the career, giving up the apartment you own with all your precious trinkets and knickknacks, and coming to work for me. We need someone with your skill and determination.” Was that a degree of respect creeping into his sneering tone?
Carolyn’s racing thoughts threatened to take her closer to the edge of hysteria, and dive right off. Thoughts swam through her head entertaining notions of elaborate pranks constructed by Kevin – he seemed like the sort full of surprises in the brief time she had got to know him. She became aware of both his presence and his absence next to her, finding another surprise in the fact she missed him. Another idea angled for her attention: what if it had actually been acid she drank and this was all a bad trip? No, the walls were not swirling; everything was static. Except for the hideous man, who continued to shake the tube. She wished he wouldn’t shake it quite so much.
“You’re not giving me much of a choice here.”
“Yes, that’s right, little one.” Her eyes narrowed at that, as she became more aware of the height the heels afforded her. Inches of lies.
“Release me, then.” Her hands lifting in the manacles in a fed up gesture.
Her opponent and would-be employer slowly ambled to the lower right hand corner of the screen and appeared to push a lever. The manacles slide back into their arm rests, so neatly that nobody would ever be able to tell in a dark cinema they were there.
“You come up here, darlin’ ”.
Carolyn squeezed past Kevin and the others on her row, stepping over bags and discarded wrappers with as much grace as she could muster, then began the gradual ascent to the stage. She was now face to face with the strange little man, first an irritating toilet obstacle, now her only hope of survival. With resignation, she reached a hand out to touch the smoky screen, which was promptly snatched by a cold and calloused one, and she fell forwards into another world.
The audience slowly came to, and were greeted with the sight of the end credits rolling. Kevin blinked, turned to face Carolyn and saw only a folded up seat. Her coat remained, with the black leather gloves poking out of the pockets. The crowd trundled out of the theatre, Kevin overhearing many of them saying what a good time they had had, although it had been a little fuzzy at the end.
Fast-forward nine months.
Kevin closed the tab of the dating website he had been listlessly browsing. He went to check The Tredwell Times, to check on developments for his petition to close Tredwell Cinema’s multi-sensory screen, citing health and safety fears. His attention was caught by an animated advertisement on the left hand side of the page, next to the announcement of the winner of Tredwell’s cutest baby.
Zombollywood 2: Zombabywould would be coming to Tredwell cinema next month.
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