LISP 2022 Short Story Finalists, 'Imagine if that was your Dad …' by Kate Bailey
The summer of 1996 had been disappointing so far. The heatwave that the Manchester Evening News had feverishly been prophesying for the last few months had never emerged, instead giving way to day after day of slightly damp, dismal greyness. But nothing, nothing could dampen my mood today. It was my 13th birthday, and I was at my favourite place in the whole world - the cinema. The blue Touchstone logo swept across the screen as the music rose in volume. I felt it thrumming up through my chair and into my chest. As the lights faded, I sat forwards in excitement, my senses drunk on the thrill of it all. I felt a pat on my arm and looked up at Dad.
‘This’ll be good. I’ve not been to the cinema in ages.’ he whispered, smiling down at me. I smiled back, somehow nervous as well as excited. It’s strange how that happens sometimes. The burger and fries I had eaten earlier seemed to bubble in my stomach, but in a good way. Dad’s cheeks were flushed, and there was a slight tremor in his hand resting on the armrest. I ignored it. Today was a good day. And he had promised, promised that things would be different. I nestled back into my velvet chair, cocooned in darkness, jiggling feet that barely brushed the floor despite my recent growth spurt. I squeezed at my tub of popcorn, the salty kernels tumbling tipsily over the top and onto my lap. Dad laughed as he brushed them away, grabbing a handful for himself at the same time.
‘Watch out, clumsy,’ he teased. He glanced at his watch, though he couldn’t possibly have been able to see it in the dark. ‘You are old enough to watch this, right? I’m not going to get in trouble?’ he asked.
‘Of course I am. It’s a twelve!’ I replied, indignant - I wasn’t a baby. He was always saying stuff like that, just because I was the youngest. He opened his mouth to say something else.
‘Shhh, Dad, it’s starting.’
He raised his hands in mock surrender and threw a couple of pieces of popcorn into my hair. I shook like a dog to get them out and stuck my tongue out at him, but stopped when I remembered that I wasn’t a little kid anymore.
We were sat towards the back of the cinema in the centre of the row. The room was full. The film had only been released the day before, and we had been lucky to get tickets. I had queued up for ages to get them.
A man appeared on screen and began talking lightheartedly to a dog. Dad groaned but stopped when I gave him a Look. He sat for a short while, not really looking at the screen, tapping his foot and occasionally glancing at his watch. I tried to ignore him, but before too long, he leaned toward me. He squeezed my knee.
‘Sorry, love, I need the bathroom. I’ll be right back,’
‘But Dad, it’s only just started,’ I began to protest, but he waved me off.
‘You’ll be fine. I’ll just be a minute,’
‘No, you’ll miss it. This is the important part.’
But he was already standing, side-shuffling down the row, whispering apologies to people who half-heartedly moved out of his way. I watched as light spilt through the double doors to the foyer as he opened them, watched as the doors thudded closed behind him.
I tried to watch the film, I really did. I tried to let the intoxication of the cinema wash back over me. But as the man onscreen started trying to fix a car, talking randomly, it all felt a little foolish and stupid. I picked at my thumbnail, it had grown long, and I had an urge to rip it off.
It felt like Dad had been gone for ages, though I don’t know how long it really was as I didn’t have a watch. The only mark of time was the film playing in front of me. The stupid, useless film. I wished I had never come. It was a horrible idea. I should have known better. But no - he promised. It was going to be ok. It had to be. It was my birthday. I was a teenager now. I could handle this. I was practically a grown-up.
I began to look around at the people near me. Their faces were slack, some befuddled, as they stared at the cinema screen. The blue-ish light cast eerie shadows across their faces giving them a strange, un-human look. A man nearby caught my eye and smiled at me. He had grey hair and crooked teeth. The light of the screen made his eyes glint oddly. Scared, I turned away quickly and sat poker straight, staring resolutely ahead, hyper-alert to any movement nearby. Now and again, I looked back at the double doors, but they remained firmly shut. I sipped at my enormous cup of Coke. It was so big I had to use both hands to lift it. The icy cold sweetness coated my tongue, and the bubbles popped fizzily, making my nose sting. The minutes dragged by, but finally, the doors opened, and Dad stumbled through. The moment I saw him, I wished he was still gone. His rolling gait told me he had done more than just go to the bathroom. He bumbled back down the row and flopped into his chair. A slightly stale and cloying smell wafted from him. It seemed to drift up from his pores and made me feel sick - I hated that smell. Hated it.
I sat, frozen for a moment. The dark theatre seemed to tilt drunkenly. It seemed to shudder. Suddenly, it was too noisy and dark, yet the screen was too bright. The people on all sides of me were too close. I could hear the man with grey hair and crooked teeth breathing. I wanted to go home.
‘Dad,’ I whispered. My voice trembled slightly, and I hated myself for that. Unshed tears glazed my eyes, making them burn hot. I stared straight ahead and took a shaky breath, talking out of the side of my mouth, refusing to give him the satisfaction of seeing me move even a centimetre.
‘Dad, you promised.’
He pretended not to hear me, suddenly interested in the antics on the screen. I felt the weight of his lie settle around me. It pushed me down, down, into my chair. I stayed very still. I watched Dad from the corner of my eye, his eyebrows pinched to form a frown that creased his forehead. That was a bad sign. His eyebrows always seemed heavy when he was like this like they weighed so much that they were trying to sink down his face. Though he stared at the screen, his eyes were unfocused. He began to rub his nose. I leaned away instinctively. I knew what would happen. He sneezed loudly once and then twice, his arms and legs flailing as his whole body convulsed. He always sneezed twice. I don’t know why. People always said it was funny when he did that. But I didn’t find it funny at all. A few people glanced quizzically at us, just for a moment, but quickly returned to the film. I cringed, sinking in my seat. Snot coated Dad’s upper lip and chin and dripped from his hand onto his trouser leg. I thought I might be sick. He leaned close to me, and I scooted as far away as my chair would let me.
‘I’m gonna go blow my nose,’ he slurred into my ear, breathing booze fumes into my face, the snot on his chin wobbling as he spoke. ‘Stay right here, ok?’ he said, waving his snotty hand vaguely around. I swallowed, turned my head away, and nodded. I kept my head turned as he stumbled off, whispering incoherently to people he passed. The door to the foyer creaked as it opened again and then thudded shut. I let out a breath I hadn’t realised I was holding. I realised I was shaking. With trembling hands, I put a piece of popcorn in my mouth, feeling the sharp sting of salt melting on my tongue, but I couldn’t swallow it. My throat felt closed off. I picked at the edge of my popcorn tub, shredding the thin cardboard. The screen’s bright light gave me a headache, and I couldn’t focus on it anyway through the unshed tears. I didn’t look at the people around me anymore. I didn’t want to be seen. He had promised.
Too soon, I heard the door creak back open. Dad staggered back down the row of seats, bumping into chairs and stumbling over bags and outstretched legs. I could hear tutting and murmured complaints following him. He finally reached me and sagged into his chair. He seemingly forgot about the folding seat and slipped down with a bump as it gave way. As he fell, his arm connected with the cup holder and made an odd clunking, sloshing noise. I wrinkled my nose as the smell of beer wafted back over me, stronger now. He pulled a half-drunk pint out of his sleeve, shaking spilt drops from his fingers, and slurped at it.
The sound was like sandpaper on my skin. It was like fingernails being scratched down a blackboard. He promised. I found that I couldn’t breathe in properly. It felt like there was something really heavy on my chest, as if an elephant was sitting there or something. I chewed at my thumb, ripping off the excess nail and biting at the soft flesh underneath. Dad smacked his lips together as he drained the last of the glass.
After a while, Dad got really still. His eyes were closed, and his breathing was deep. I looked around, scared that there would be an attendant nearby, but I couldn’t see anyone. You weren’t supposed to bring glasses from the bar into the screen room. There were signs up all over the place about it. Dad knew that. He knew it and did it anyway. I reached over to tug the pint glass out of his hand. However, as I touched the glass, Dad shifted and let go. I clutched at it, but it slipped through my fingers and landed with a loud thunk on the floor. I was amazed that it didn’t smash. Fear pushed at me. Had anyone noticed? Was I going to be shouted at? Forced to leave the cinema in shame for breaking the rules? But no one noticed, despite me feeling like I had neon lights pointing at me.
When no one came to kick us out, I forced myself to sit back as if nothing was wrong. The film seemed to have reached a crucial moment as everyone was sitting very still, and it seemed that the whole room was holding its breath. But as I watched, I slowly became aware of another noise, a rolling, rattling noise that was getting louder and louder. I looked around, but it was coming from under the chairs. I ducked down and saw with horror that the pint glass was rolling away, picking up speed and following the slope of the room. People all over the cinema started looking around, trying to identify the source of the noise. I sank lower in my seat, face burning, wishing I could turn invisible. Finally, the glass stopped with a thunk towards the front of the room and silence settled again.
A short time later, Dad began to snore loudly. The people closest to us started to stare, so I poked him sharply in the ribs.
‘Nnno, ger off,’ he shouted, batting my hand away. He turned and continued to snore. I shook him by the shoulder.
‘Dad,’ I hissed, glancing around self consciously ‘you’ve got to be quiet,’ he looked at me blearily.
‘M’ok,’ he slurred ‘M’jus closin my eyes.’ he patted my arm and went back to sleep. At least he was quiet now. Thankfully the film was nearly finished. However, a moment came when a loud noise shook the room. Dad jerked, startled, shifting around in his chair. He couldn’t stretch his legs out fully, so he lifted them into the air, placing his feet on the headrest in front of him. His shoe bumped into the head of the person in front. Horrified, I tugged his legs down, but he did it again, catching the man in front harder. The man turned around and glared at me.
‘Dad,’ I whispered, desperately tugging his legs back down. ‘Dad, please, please stop it.’
I spent the rest of the film staring into my lap, willing myself not to cry. As the movie ended, the lights brightened. Several people looked over at me but looked away again quickly. I shook Dad, hissing at him to wake up. He staggered to his feet and lurched towards the door. I followed, nudging him occasionally to get him to walk in a straight-ish line. We stepped out into the foyer’s bright lights and stale popcorn fog.
‘Need a piss.’ Dad said, loud enough for those around us to stare, scandalised. He tottered towards the Men’s without looking back. I stood against the wall as I waited for him, trying to keep out of people’s way and watching the rest of the audience file through the double doors. A few stared at me as they passed, but nobody said a word. I could see them start to whisper as they got out of earshot, looking back over their shoulders at me. I slipped into a small alcove, watching the happy families and groups of friends chatting away about the film, laughing together and having a good time. I was angry at myself. Angry I had believed that this birthday, this birthday would be different. Different from all of the others. Things would never be different. He lied.
It was dark outside. The foyer was mostly empty now, apart from a group of older teenagers. I stared at the floor and scuffed at the stained carpet with my shoe, hoping they wouldn’t notice me. There was still no sign of Dad.
‘Well, that was shit,’ one of the boys said loudly. The others guffawed.
‘Do you think we can get our money back?’ another quipped.
‘Did you see that old drunk, though?’ the first boy said. ‘He was hilarious. What a loser.’
He did an impression of stumbling around, bumping into his friends. They all laughed. I stood quietly, listening, chewing on my lower lip until I tasted metal.
‘It’s the kid I feel sorry for,’ a girl said, ‘Imagine if that was your Dad?’
‘Maybe he wasn’t the Dad, if you know what I mean,’ he said, nudging her playfully. I felt heat rushing into my face, I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but his tone let me know that it was something horrid. The girl squealed and tapped the boy on the chest. I peered around the corner of the alcove to see them better. It took a moment before they noticed me watching, but they all went very quiet when they did. The boys walked away, smirking and sniggering. The girl went pink and took a step towards me, looking like she wanted to say something, but then she shook her head and walked away.