There was a bunch of them going to the cinema that evening: Sunday session, five o’clock at the local multiplex.
This one wasn’t so bad, though. It only had five screens and although it was part of a big chain, they had tried to give it the feel of a smaller, independent venue. The seats in the lobby were red plush and it had an Art Deco vibe about it, with geometric blocks in pastels and stronger colours, so you actually felt like you were in a cinema, rather than an airport.
She would normally have gone with Julie, but Julie was away so she had taken the leap and decided to meet up with the others in the foyer. Sunday night usually meant dinner, TV and an early night with a book, but the film was not on too late and if some of them wanted to go out afterwards, she would make her excuses and head home. She didn’t know the others that well, they were a group she knew through Julie, who had an older brother.
They all arrived and grabbed their tickets as they did: there was Linda and Tom, who had been together for ages and were practically engaged, Ant, who claimed to be in a band that no-one had ever seen play, Desmond would probably be there – he was quite shy like her, but tended to turn up to things when Tom was around and Susy and Jen. They sat together on the red plush seats banked together in the foyer, like a rehearsal for watching the movie. Susy was telling her about a nightmare date she had been on.
‘I knew it was going to be awful, I should never have said yes,’ she explained.
‘Why did you go, then?’ She asked
‘Oh Elaine,’ said Susy, ‘You have no idea! You are so lucky being single and happy.’
‘Well nothing BAD, I mean, he didn’t rob a bank or anything. It was just awkward, you know? There were these huge gaps in the conversation – I think maybe he was nervous – it felt like dating a foreign exchange student, you know?’
‘I can imagine,’ said Elaine. She couldn’t. She had never really been on a date, much less one with a foreign exchange student.
‘Oh look,’ said Susy, ‘Mark’s here! I didn’t think he did movies. Must go and powder my nose.’ She slipped off to the ladies.
‘Hey mate,’ said Ant as Mark approached, ‘How are you? You know everyone?’
Mark shook Ant’s hand. She felt his eyes flicker over her dismissively as he scanned the group.
‘Yeah, pretty much,’he said. ‘Hi guys.’
‘Come on,’ said Ant, ‘I haven’t got my ticket yet either, you can shout me mine.’ They walked, laughing towards the kiosk.
Elaine had been sitting next to Ant on the chairs and now had an empty seat beside her to her left, at one removed from the others. She did not mind. They would be going in soon and she didn’t really need to hear any more about Susy’s nightmare date. It had been giving her a faint headache.
The boys were heading back from the ticket area, laughing. She liked Ant, he was good fun and always seemed to enjoy life without taking it too seriously. He had bought the most enormous bucket of popcorn he could find and was trying to balance it and a vat of soft drink in his arms as he walked, talking to Mark. Mark was listening, head down and laughing occasionally.
Ant sat on the seat beside her, put the drink on the floor and the bucket of popcorn in his lap.
‘Who we still waiting for?’ He asked to no one in particular.
‘Desi said he was coming,’ said Linda, ‘but that if he wasn’t here by half past to go in without him.’
‘Set your watches, people,’ said Ant, ‘T-minus three minutes.’ They all laughed.
Then it happened. Without any kind of warning that she could remember.
‘I guess if it is going to be that long, I’ll take a seat too,’ Mark said and in one swift movement sat on the two arms of the chairs in between her and Ant. She froze for a second, then wriggled across her chair to make more room.
‘It’s OK,’ he smiled at her, ‘there’s plenty of room. You don’t need to move.’
He turned his head to speak to Ant. She could see the back of his head, with its neat lawn edges where the barber had run a clipper. As he spoke, his arm dropped to the inside arm of her chair.
She watched it, dangling millimetres from hers like a live wire. She didn’t know whether to move her hand away or not. If she did, she might brush against his and he might think she was being rude again. Or maybe he did not realise where his arm was just now. She decided to keep quite still. They would be going in any minute and he would be on his feet.
Without warning, he swivelled to straighten up on the armrests. As he did so, his hand brushed hers. Without meaning to, she jumped, more from embarrassment on his part than hers.
‘My apologies,’ he said, ‘I had my back to you. I promise not be so rude again.’
He smiled and patted her hand, then left his hand lying on top of hers.
‘That’s OK,’ she smiled,’ I wasn’t offended. You go ahead and finish your conversation with Ant.’
Her hand hid under his like a tiny frightened mouse. Her mind, though, was racing. What was going on? She searched frantically through her memory for information about Mark. Wasn’t he going out with someone? Was he in the band with Ant? What was she supposed to do? Where was Julie? She would know this stuff.
It was insane, all he had done was to sit next to her and now his hand was over hers. She felt sick with nerves. This had to be some kind of mistake. Maybe she should check her handbag, that would give her a reason to move her hand without offending him. It felt like they had been sitting there for about half an hour.
She moved her hand from under his, it suddenly felt improbably cold as if now devoid of shelter. He turned to face her.
Dammit! What to do now? Her handbag was on the ground a million miles away. It might as well have been on the sun.
She lifted her hand to her nose, and scratched it foolishly, then placed it back down on the chair.
If Mark was embarrassed, he didn’t show it.
‘So you like films about the Cold War?’ he asked.
‘Not necessarily,’ she said, ‘but I like the lead actors in this one and I think it is a good story, from what I heard.’ She was amazed at how normal her voice sounded, given that she was sure her face was crimson. She had thought that her throat was completely closed over before she had uttered the words, but that was ridiculous. If her throat was closed over she would not be breathing and then her face wouldn’t be red, it would be blue.
‘What was that?’ Mark said.
‘Huh?’ she replied.
‘Oh, I thought you said something about blue,’ Mark said.
‘Oh, no. I mean, I was talking about the director. I said I liked his last one too,’ she said.
Who was she all of a sudden? Where was this coming from, this ability to lie? Obviously it was the nerves. Is this what adrenaline did to you? Is this why people took cocaine, so they could lie?
She felt sick with confusion. She tried to replay the last two minutes in her head. There must have been some mistake. He had probably accidentally brushed her hand and had not wanted to upset her by jolting it away. That was it, that was definitely it. She had imagined the whole thing, letting her head get carried away as usual. If Julie had been here this would never have happened. She would tell her about it next week and they would have a good laugh. God, she was stupid. Mark was speaking again.
‘Well, don’t worry. If the thriller gets too thrilling, I’ll look after you.’
He laid his hand over hers again her hand – there it was, he was just being friendly. She felt relief flood over her, followed almost immediately by a prickling sensation on the back of her neck as his hand once again stayed over hers.
He was laughing with Ant again, some story from a hiking trip they had done when Ant had forgotten his boots and had to make footwear from Gaffer tape.
What should she do? She could leave it again, or say she needed to toilet. Or she could see if it was an accident.
The hand lay over hers, like a secret between them. Slowly, gently she spread her fingers under his palm.
Immediately, his fingers slid between hers and held them, interlocked.
It was time. The group had decided that Desi was not coming and they should go in. They stood to go. Mark detached his hand from hers and she felt a rush of shame. He had just been messing about after all and she had got it all wrong.
He turned as he jumped off the arm rests so he was facing her. She was still in the seat, her face probably camouflaged perfectly against the red plush. She looked at the floor.
He leaned in towards her, his mouth by her ear.
‘It wasn’t an accident,’ he whispered, then stepped back to give her room to stand up.
She stood up, and together they walked into the film.