Queuing Behind Crazy People
a short story
His name was King.
The more we looked at the name, the stranger it appeared. Words could often accomplish that, but especially words like 'King' which made us first think of 'Ping', like a pop gun, then, inevitably, 'Pong'. Then, of course, 'Kong'--like the toll of a bad-tempered bell, its metal sheath cracked, its clapper a creature's wagging tail.
Why any parents with the surname King should have called their son Kenneth is beyond us. Stephen, yes. Tom, at a pinch. Dick, the mind began to boggle. But when Ken King came into our life, we had to cringe. Not just because of the name: his manner suited his name, too--as did his features and the way he spoke: not exactly a sneer, more a knowingness that exceeded simple knowledge. We first met him in a queue...
The Toy Gun Schawarzi was billed the film of the century, but we were already accustomed to hype. As the queue shuffled nearer to the grand entrance of the Odeon, the buskers gathered around, all vying for the toss of our old pennies. One in particular was a pretty nifty juggler with the very coins which we tossed to him. So, he would have had no act at all without our generosity. Made us feel warm and good inside, full of mother's rice pudding, skin and all. But we wanted to tell of our experience of the film, not the queue. Queues are OK in their place: we even had makeshift friendships amongst the most patient of them. Some wind on forever, coiling around the back-doubles of a city growing in mystery. Once, when the lamps were lit regularly by faceless men beside arrays of consoles, streets had been two-a-penny. Now, they became dark tunnels where buildings and sky were often indecipherable, if not made of the same substance itself. So when queues lengthened into the shadows, a friendly word here or there to a neighbour never went amiss. As long as it was friendly. But then there were queues and, on the other hand, there were queues. One of the latter was that to The Toy Gun Schawarzi--and a half! But it was the film we wanted to describe--and plainly at that, mainly because they banned it after the first showing.
It started with opening credits that lasted as long as some of those B features used to do. Apparently, they were symbolic of something that would become clear later in the film. But what the hell was the Best Boy, Gaffer and Lens Shifter to do with poetry in the soul? Well, we might as well have returned to the queue for a further dose of chin-wagging!
We had indeed gabbled about this and that in the queue, trying at first to turn a blind eye to the buskers.
"My father was a lobster fisherman."
"Yes, he went out at the crack of dawn in the smallest boat you can imagine--just big enough to take his oilskins and him--the mist hugged the sea like breath that didn't want to leave the body--the pink claw-things he found clamped together in the baskets were his prey."
Further up the queue, some geezer of a cinema-goer had gone off his top and was gesticulating at a pretty ludicrous busker who had dressed up specially as an animal. An ape of sorts. We could see its red eyes from where we stood. Its spasmodic snorts were quite off-putting.
"Were they always there, the pink claw-things--waiting?"
"Yes, most days--with plenty of red flesh salt-spume stained. Often, there would be one with over-large pincers, using them to tear the others to shreds, as if it were his last meal, which it was, of course!"
"Only lobsters, crabs, crustaceans, nothing else?"
"Well, the odd monkfish, squid, hoki ... and, oh yes, the famous occasion when he found a human head in it."
"God! That must have been a shock--whose was it?"
"At first, he didn't know, since it was in the same basket as one of the Big Claws--and was pretty unrecognisable."
The queue straggled lugubriously forward, reinvigorating the hope of eventually reaching the lights of the esplanade and the first view of the Odeon's entrance. This had better be a good film, we vowed.
The buskers came thick and fast now. Harlequins. Pierrots. Punch and Judy men. Clowns with Russian-doll masks they kept taking off. And stripper women who had grown too long in the tooth for the clubs, but who could not quite give up their act as easily as they could their dignity.
"Is he retired now?"
"He's dead--it turned out to be his own head, you see..."
"In the lobster pot!"
We could not continue the conversation, since the queue took a sudden spurt, as cinema queues often did when the lights lowered inside. Our backs were now up against the wide towering walls of the Odeon: night's way of providing a barrier against emptiness. We felt the vibrant hum of the early features, things like trailers and publicity hooks. And then we saw the film straight through. It was about a man who had never been a boy, not even a baby, it seemed. A toy gun in his chest holster was never explained--or as far as we could tell. Symbolic of his lost childhood, we supposed. It was difficult to follow such an artsy fartsy film, for many members of the queue had struck up relationships and had fallen to embracing inside. The whole auditorium had become one huge distracting echo-chamber of squelches and groans. But, of course, when there was some meaty action on the screen, all faces lifted up from where they were immersed and attempted to follow it. The Toy Gun Schawarzi was a bit like that, with moments of sporadic interest. No wonder it had obtained such good previews from the hacks. Pity it was panned later, with that one brief scene that got it closed down after the first public performance.
There were other things we forgot to mention about the queue. When we reached the lighted esplanade, we drew level with the coin juggler. Only the best buskers were allowed to perform thereabouts. The more money we threw at him, the more we were impressed by his ever-growing prestidigitation. At one point, he had about twenty to thirty coins spinning in the air like fireflies. By this time, we were holding hands, light touches that are often more erotic than penetration. Mother's rice pudding was fermenting.
The coin juggler continued his tricks for those that followed us. The geezer further up the queue had now quietened down, but how he had changed in appearance, too! Queue jumping made a true art form, no doubt.
It seemed some other people even further up, almost within the gilded foyer itself, were acting the goat. Some were even drifting away from the queue, having spent their entrance fee on the juggler. They mouthed obscenities at the likes of us queue-groupies further back. Was it our fault, they were so damned crazy? Further back still, behind us, we heard the sound of clattering coins. Apparently, those who had now no hope of gaining entrance to the film, by being so far back, were mugging not only the buskers, but each other too.
We shrugged, didn't we? What else could we do? We were not here to be good citizens, but merely to enjoy ourselves. A bit of thought-provoking entertainment was hard to come by these days. We would only too soon fall into the trap of the stay-at-homes: thinking that the hired videos were really the same films as they put on in real cinemas. Poor suckers.
We were the last ones allowed in. By the skin of our teeth, since the usherette's arm came down right behind us, causing a few choice words to emerge from our erstwhile neighbours' lips. The last busker by the entrance was one of those elderly strippers. Her rouge and mascara in the intense glow of the foyer made her seem like one of the clowns: the final, pitiful mask. But she was the best of a bad bunch. She started peeling her own skin off to reveal a bruised mushy pinkness--her curtain-call. But then we were already inside.
The Toy Gun Schawarzi was banned, panned and whatever, because of just one scene. A split second, apparently. But since we were not paying much attention to the screen at that time, we could not elaborate further upon the whys and wherefores.
And so we came back to Ken King, who was in that queue. We didn't know it was him at the time. We recognised him in a backstreet pub nearby, afterwards. Not that strangers usually became fast friends from spotting a familiar face which had simply been a previously unfamiliar one in a public place such as a cinema queue. One did not accost a person one had only seen, say, at the end of a row of cinema seats and pump his arm vigorously when one encountered him again in another public place, did one? Well, Ken King did--to us. And told us his name, up front.
He was full of the film. Various crackpot theories as to its meaning. Like one could not wander the city streets merely with a toy gun as protection. Ken King himself was an ape of a man. Heavy-set and prehensile. We took an immediate dislike to him. Even his liking for us, on the previous slightest evidence, was not particularly attractive. It made us suspicious. If he could pick us up, at a whim, as it were, who else had passed through his hands? Any Tom, Dick, Harry or Stephen, we thought. So, we wished him good day and left the pub. It was for his benefit as well as ours. Strangers were too many, those days. The streets were full of them.
That night, we believed Ken King would have an itch in his brain.
A terrible itch.
Such an itch, if it were at a point on one's back which could not be reached without a degree of bodily contortion, was bad enough. But an itch in the brain--well, Ken King pawed at his ear, trying to dig in as far as he could go. The itch became so unbearable, he prodded his eye, until it wept blood. Then thrust fingers up his nostrils. If he had been able to do so, he would have peeled back his face with a rip-roaring wrench, simply to uncover a route to the bone basin of the lobster brain. And scratch it to his own delight. His last resort, of course, was to detach the head in its entirety, with the neck-flashings removed.
Thoughts themselves were itches he could not remove, whatever method adopted. And tonight Ken King's thought was an itch too far, one that told him he was really us two queue-junkies in disguise. But, not only us. He was everybody else in that cinema queue. But, not only them. He was all the strangers that he had ever seen or heard undergrunting with thin lips and squeezed eyes--complete strangers as well as incomplete ones. He was, in fact, the world stranger--without whom there could be no thought--simply an empty wall-less auditorium with a meaningless negative of a film flickering on a black screen. So, Ken King took his gun and pointed it into the roof of his mouth.
Ping! It was of course a toy gun. But who was Schawarzi?
© DF Lewis 1997, 2003
This story was first published in Night Dreams #7 and re-appears in print in the major collection Weirdmonger (400 pages, 1 October 2003, Prime Books; ISBN: 189481584X).
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