GILBERTINE & THE EXCHANGE (Volume One) — Chapter 9, Part 4: “A Great Escape and a Forbidden Stage”

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If we couldn’t enjoy the entire remainder of the film that way, then I have to confess that the fault was mine.

Just about the point in the film in which Ringo goes walking down a canal, as a Muzak version of “This Boy” played in the background, my breathing transcended simply sounding like a bellows, and became so labored I knew I couldn’t stay there any longer without ending up in an emergency room after leaving the theatre feet first.

Surfer Boy looked at me as if he thought I was about to buy the farm; even Angles and Charlie looked concerned. “He hasssssta get outa here now!” Surfer Boy hissed, sounding truly worried. I bit my lip again. “Y’know that route the kid told the Head Usher you took?” he continued. “Take it now – we’ll cover you.” He gestured to his companions. “Jussst get us all back in when the show lets out. You know where.”

Angles nodded. “No problem – and thanks.”

We crept out from behind the curtain, and made our way to the balcony exit.

“When I say go, get behind the trash bin,” Surfer Boy whispered. “As we draw them off, take him round behind the snack bar to the upstairs bathroom. Stay in there until the heat dies down.”

Angles nodded again. “Wait ’til most of the crowdt’s gone – but not everyone – and before a new crowdt gets in – easiest time for us to get you in, up and over.”

This time, it was Surfer Boy’s turn to nod. “I know.”

We waited another few moments, Surfer Boy peering anxiously out a crack opening we’d made between the doors.

“Go!” he suddenly shouted.

Angles and Charlie grabbed me, nearly pushed me behind the large trash bin immediately adjacent to the door and followed me behind the bin.

To my confusion and amazement, Surfer Boy ran into the middle of the lobby and began jumping up and down straight-legged, and going “Woo Hoo,” like Daffy Duck. His companions followed suit, and suddenly there were three goony 12-year-olds in the middle of the lobby, acting completely demented, as if they’d just stepped out of a cartoon. The ushers stared at them in surprise, then irritation, then indulgent amusement.

Soon, however, the ushers recognized them as part of the group who’d dumped drinks on “the banshees” and felt obliged to go after them.

The trio bolted downstairs, several ushers giving chase, still whooping it up, sounding, by now, more like three Hollywood Indians on the warpath than a trio of Looney Toons.

From where we stood, we could only see through the theatre’s front window. Thirty seconds later, I saw Surfer Boy running for all he was worth on the sidewalk outside the Fox, Head Usher and two others trailing further and further behind.

I couldn’t see the other two, but assumed they’d run through the main section of the theatre, likely one down each aisle, then plowed out the two rear exits – ushers doubtless halfheartedly chasing them too.

Angles and Charlie half pulled, half dragged me through the back of the snack bar. Angles dragged me from there to the men’s room. Charlie at first was nowhere to be seen, but he arrived a minute later with – what else – a half-filled coffee cup of stolen Teem.

I still had a bit of Tedral, left over from earlier asthma attacks and another trip to the emergency room. Mum made me take the stuff along every time I went to the Fox. Charlie and Angles had ragged on me for hauling the Tedral along, but now we were glad Mum had insisted. Slowly, it kicked in; I began to breathe more naturally. But, by the time my breathing became close to normal, the show was over, and the crowd was letting out.

We allowed ushers to “guide” us towards the stairs, but once we reached the ground floor, slowly eased back into the auditorium, Angles in the lead. But, I was unprepared when, to our terror and trepidation, Angles pushed Charlie and me into the centre of the back row of – Amorous Acres. We were both convinced Angles had lost it.

“Measure us all for our caskets,” I moaned quietly.

“Dig a hole and bury us,” rejoined Charlie.

“We’re dead,” we groaned in unison.

Ssshhut up andt keep your heads down,” Angles whispered, with the hushed stridency of air escaping from a bicycle tire. “They’ll never look for us here.”

Sssssuper,” I replied matching his whisper hiss for hiss. “It means they won’t find wot’sss left of our corpsssess ’til at least – oh – sssssometime in late 1984. Do y’know where we are, Frankie boy? We’re in the rear of the flippin’ Flatsss.”

“Yeah,” he whispered, grinning. “Brilliant, huh?”

Brilliant?!?” I replied, keeping my voice down the best I could while wanting to blow my top at him at something way past ear-splitting volume. “What’s so bloody brilliant about getting our lungs ripped out – which, Frankie boy, is precisely what is going to happen to us – if we’re lucky – if any of the goons in here catches three kids creeping ’round.”

“We’re not going to get caught, Reggie ladt,”[*] Angles whispered calmly

“Just stay down in the seat and button your lip, until I say you can move or talk. Uncle Frankie’s got it all figuredt out.”

I hated it when he said that.

“All figuredt out” invariably meant that Angles didn’t know sweet Fanny Adams how he was going to do it, and was improvising as he went along.

Two rows up, we became aware of a couple moaning. It was barely audible at first, then quiet, sustained but random moans, finally louder, faster, more regular.

We weren’t alone.

Charlie looked terrified; even Angles let out an obscenity under his breath.

The moaning got even faster, louder – the higher voice on the downbeat, the lower on backbeat.“Oh God, Oh God, Oh God   ogodogodogodogodogodogodogodogodogdogod . . .” Charlie’s puppy-dog eyes had Keane painting proportions, big as those of my “Doll-girl.”

“Are they – you know – doing it?” he whispered.

“Who knows? Who cares?” Angles growled.

“Wow. This is incredible,” Charlie continued, clearly so awestruck by what he was witnessing as to actually be articulate for once in his life. “It might be a first, even for the Flats,”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Angles hissed.

Then, he looked reflective.

“But it’s ideal moving time. Rounding up two people, in flagrante delictouh – so t’speak – trumps nabbing a trio of soda dumping squirts; any stray ushers still in the auditorium are gonna be far too busy busting them to notice us – and those two are obviously in no position to chase us.

“So, now’s the time to get outa here – pronto!”

From that day to this, I’ve never seen any of us, individually or collectively, move nearly as quickly or silently as we did then. I doubt devices have been invented that could have registered any sound we made, and I challenge anyone to do a Chuck Berry duck walk from the centre of a theatre row to the aisle in under three seconds, as we did at that moment. It’s been said that, in moments of extreme stress, people exhibit abilities transcending those of normal humans. In our case, though, I’ve never ruled out that some angels simply felt sorry for three hapless twerps, and that it was nothing less than a case of divine intervention.

The next few seconds remain a blur to me. We somehow bolted to the screen, jumped on the proscenium in front of it, ducked inside the curtain in front of the screen and eased our way a meter[3] or so past the screen’s edge, where we found ourselves face to face with a door whose lock worked as well as everything else in this theatre. Angles jemmied it open in the time it took me to completely mentally absorb just what the Sam Hill we were doing. In less time than it takes to say it, ducked inside and Angles slammed the door.

“See,” he panted proudly, “I toldt you Uncle Frankie hadt it all in handt. Now we’re safe.”

A black cat in the depths of a coal bin during the midst of an arctic winter midnight would hardly have had anything on the darkness of wherever and whatever this place was. Something hadn’t only eradicated every possible source of light, but had injected an extra layer of darkness, just to make sure none of us could see so much as a millimeter in front of him.

“No, Frankie boy, I can’t ‘see’ anything  at all – which, at the the moment, is rather the point,” I said edgily. “This is obviously a brand, spanking-new definition of the word ‘safe,’ hitherto unknown either to me or to any other sentient life form. Where exactly are we – the Black Hole of Calcutta?”

Yet, even as I said it, enough dim light was beginning to emerge from nooks and crannies to hint that we were  standing on some kind of stage area.

“A thousand pardons, Reggie ladt,” Frank answered, unperturbed in the least by my irritation. “I forget you don’t know the history of this showplace.”


[*] Angles was, and he remains, the only person I would ever have let, or will ever let, add that irritating suffix “lad” (or, in his case, “ladt”) to my given name. Even Gramfer called me “Reggie,” or “lad,” but never “Reggie lad.”


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