As the Curtain Falls – Tim Frank
October 31, 2020
I started bringing movie characters home with me when my mum fell sick with a mysterious illness. As she became bedridden, her skin turned a bilious yellow hue and her natural dry grey hair was exposed for all to see as she was too poorly to attend to it.
I was a cinema usher, ripping tickets, directing the public to the kiosk and the toilets, guiding them to their seats – brainless, juvenile work that meant I was able to catch all the films that premiered each week, sometimes several times if I wanted. Despite its drawbacks it offered me a world of imaginative possibilities.
Images on the screen stayed with me like snow settling on grass, gradually thickening. There were ghosts who feared sandalwood incense, super heroes who toiled undercover in factories, rapists who lived in palaces made of pearls, dinosaurs that threatened ancient cities and they all had a purpose beyond the silver screen.
One time a detective cuffed me and led me up to my front door, watched while I rattled the keys in the lock and urged me to rush down the end of the corridor where I could hear the groaning of mattress springs as my mum turned in her bed.
“Go on,” said the detective, fingers adorned with pointed spiralling rings, blinking as he lit a cigar, “there is much to discover.”
My mum was wheezing and an empty plastic bucket was by her side. A digital clock flashed zero beside her head.
“Mum? Are you OK?” I said. She responded with a murmur and then flipped over allowing me to see her intricately threaded bloodshot eyes. It seemed for a second that she mouthed the words, “They’re coming, they’re coming.”
I backed out of the room, whispering to the detective, “I can’t handle this, I’ll come back some other time.” But he had gone. I was left alone in a cold dark flat, the lights from the opposite building beginning to glow at dusk.
The next day I gathered up my mum’s duvet and replaced it with a sheet as she was beginning to sweat so much the stale stench polluted the whole apartment. I laid the sheet across her body as if she was a corpse and she grabbed my arm firmly, urgently. I shrugged myself free and saw movement in the corner of the room. There was a devilish apparition – a figure with a furnace of fire behind its eyes and a black mist obscuring its mouth. I steeled myself and repeated a protective prayer. But then I realised none of it was real. I wasn’t in my mum’s room at all. I was seated in the back row of a cinema screening, watching a ghost movie. I vomited into a bag of discarded popcorn and then went to the cinema bathroom to clean up.
In the toilet, I dowsed my face with water and then analysed the violent outburst of fresh spots infesting my cheeks. In a stall behind me a toilet flushed and a muscular man with bronze armour shielding his chest and a cape cascading from his shoulders, all black and gold, stepped out to rinse his hands in the sink beside me.
He addressed me like we had known each other for years.
“Just be with her, all she wants is to feel your presence.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to, I really do,” I said, accepting the reality of the situation.
“Then what is it? What’s the problem?”
“What if she doesn’t make it? I’m not… I’m just not strong enough for that.”
“We all fear disaster, even I do sometimes. But I have learned that loss is the natural expression of life. They coexist.”
“No one else will help her, it shouldn’t just be left to me. I’m no doctor and I don’t know the procedure. If she dies it will be because she hasn’t been seen by a professional, and trust me I’ve made phone calls, but nothing.”
That night, I knelt beside my mum, washed her down and repeated the words, “I’m doing my best, please mum, I’m only doing my best.”
As my mum entered a feverish state, she became lost in a swirl of manic words.
“Live, sin, roll, return!”
She stood on her bed, arms outstretched like a zombie and she stomped back and forth. Then in one jolting movement she turned her ankle and collapsed down into the foetal position in agony. After struggling and spinning for a while she finally fell into a peaceful slumber.
Back at work the next day I watched a film that featured a young woman with too many white teeth and a thin upper lip, who was being seduced by a man who had travelled back in time to find her. I gripped the red cloth armrests of my foldout chair and I berated myself for crying about such a soppy movie. Then the lead actress in the film turned to the camera and addressed me directly, saying, “Who are you to judge? You leave your mum at home on her own for hours at a time and she suffers for it.”
“I can’t help it if I don’t know what to do. I have work, you know.”
“That excuse is tired now. You’re simply not trying.”
Before the actress could continue, I fled the cinema in a panic. Then she forced herself out of the screen, stretching it like a hand manipulating the surface of a balloon. I rushed out onto the main street and dashed onto a bus to anywhere. Her voice echoed as if it were being transmitted on the bus tannoy.
“You can’t escape me that easily,” she said. I looked up and down the aisle to see if I could locate the source of the voice. I caught sight of a woman wearing a long purple tie-died dress that was fanned out on the ribbed flooring. But before I could investigate, a crowd swept onto the bus and I lost sight of the woman.
“You won’t be able to find me,” she said. “Listen, if you want to help your mother, you’re going the wrong way about it.”
“Tell me what I can do, then. Please.”
“Things can only change if you become honest with yourself and everyone around you. Tell your mother your dreams and your greatest fears. Let her in and you will see immediate results I promise you. We all believe you can do this.”
I took this advice to heart and when I returned home, I drew up a chair next to my mum who was sat upright, eyes open as if staring at a slowly sinking moon. I held her hand, feeling its rough exterior and squeezed it until the blood gathered at her fingertips.
I said, “I have so much I want to say to you. If only you would talk. I miss our conversations. I just don’t know what is happening to you. Can you even hear me? Do you even care about the position you’ve put me in? Well? Do you have anything to say? Or are you going to keep pretending you’re out of it? You make me so angry with your selfishness. Jesus, things can’t keep going the way they are. I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to leave you now. Maybe after dinner you’ll have found your voice.”
As I fried some eggs, clouds of smoke bellowed from the pan and realising the food was thoroughly burnt and couldn’t be salvaged I dumped the eggs into the sink and opened the windows, letting in a cool breeze.
A light flickered against the far wall and I turned to face a projected image. For a moment I believed I was lost in the illusion of a cinema screen but when I saw the footage of my dad sitting on a football in the garden wearing a baseball cap, sweltering in the summer heat, I decided this couldn’t be categorised as one of my usual daydreams. The film had no drama, no intrigue, certainly no joy. It was just a turgid scene that made me realise how dull my past was and that when my dad left us, nothing really changed because he didn’t add anything to our daily lives. It occurred to me though that it wasn’t long after my dad left my mum began her steady decline. There must be more to the past than I first assumed.
I had to work the late shift and my mind kept obsessively returning to memories about my dad. But just as I was beginning to put the pieces of the past together, I was distracted by a rowdy bunch of kids piling into the middle row of a slasher flick, resting their feet up on seats in front of them and making too much noise, disturbing the rest of the audience who were afraid of confronting them. As they laughed and joked during the trailers, I approached the gang of youths with a torch and aimed the beam of light into their eyes one by one as if I was a cop.
“Guys,” I said in my most authoritative voice, “if you can’t keep it down, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
The group were intimidated by my presence and they fell silent. They sunk back into their chairs as the opening credits rolled, and the soft lights in the cinema dimmed further.
As the first image appeared the scene looked strangely familiar. I was back in my mum’s room again and somehow the group of youths were there too, huddled up in a bunch in the corner of her bedroom, shovelling popcorn into their mouths, sipping coke from paper straws, watching. My mum slept serenely as one of the youths whispered to another, “I bet the dad’s the killer, he always is.”
“Whatever,” said another kid, “she’s weak, she’s got it coming.”
I carried a steaming tray of food into the room, cutlery rattling with each of my steps and sensed the youths analysing my every move as they squatted by my mum’s chest of drawers. My mum became aware of my existence, sat up, dug her fingers into her eyes to wipe away the crust and accepted the tray onto her lap. I almost gagged from her foul breath as I helped guide spoonfuls of tomato soup into her mouth. After she’d finished eating, she looked revived and sat up straight.
She said to me, “I’ve been struggling with these words for a while now – things I want to say.”
“This must be one of those ultra-realistic slasher movies,” said a youth in the audience, “been done to death.”
“No matter how many times you turn your back on me,” continued my mum, “I will be there for you, constantly supportive, always looking out for your best interests.”
I said, “I’ve been doing some thinking too. If dad was here things would be different but you had to push him away. Don’t you see I need a male role model? You can do nothing for me now and that won’t change.”
I turned to the audience of teens whose backs were now aching as they shifted about uncomfortably on their haunches. They kept digging their greasy mitts into their boxes of sweets, licking their fingers and drinking in the performance.
“This is becoming weirder,” said another teen, “but I’m getting into it.”
I stood over my mum, bearing down on her and said, “My problem is I can never get a straight answer out of you. Your illness seems to fluctuate on a whim and our past is nothing less than a mystery. There are so many memories that are in doubt. Did my dad guzzle so much liquor that he suffered ulcers? Did he turn his alcoholic rage on us behind closed doors? Did he leave his family for his niece and hide out in motels in the city suburbs? These are all questions I doubt will ever be answered. Fuck it, I’ve got to get out of here. I need some fresh air.”
With their images plastered across a stretch of moonlit clouds, characters that had haunted me during the progression of my mum’s illness let rip at me as if I was a naughty schoolchild.
Light from skyscrapers picked out the knitted brow and bruised face of an action hero and he said, “We can’t protect you from the truth any longer. You have taken advantage of your mum – leaning on her, using her since your dad left and now when she most needs you, you abandon her.”
I said. “How can I believe in my mum when she runs lines with me as if we were rehearsing a play?”
“This is the modern way, surely you know that?”
Suddenly my mum’s voice reverberated through my mind, “Come back, my son, please. All that is important is that I love you. Forget about what everyone else says, it isn’t important. It’s too late to go back to the way things once were, so I want you to take action yourself. I want you to put an end to my life. I don’t have much strength left in me to live anymore so you’ll be doing me a favour. Anyway, it’s the perfect way to end things. Remember, we must always consider the needs of our audience.”
“The audience? Yeah, I guess so,” I said.
So, I went back home to find a knife. The youths had left my mum’s room by this point, leaving behind wrappers and empty bottles in a heap. However, I still felt eyes on me from every angle – glares from unknown spectators, critiquing, reviewing.
Separating fiction from reality was impossible but I had to assess what my mum really meant to me, in this world and the next. Although I loved her, my decision came naturally for me. In fact, I felt compelled to act out her grisly call.
As my crowded thoughts suddenly dispersed, I was able to focus on my one simple task. I held my knife aloft, dangling it over my mum’s neck. It would be my closing cinematic flourish before the curtain fell. Finally, I would be at peace.