But once patterns do emerge, the trouble starts. What were once common decisions become points of negotiation. Hence expressions such as: ’Why don’t we...?’, ’How about... ?’, ’I’d rather/prefer...’. From that point it’s only a matter of time, and this period of time is highly variable, from a few days to a few decades, until these expressions give way to a different kind: ’I’m sick of...’, ’I’m fed up with...’, ’I’ve had it with...’. By the end of their first year together Nick and Penny ranged over all three phases, usually within the same night. One memorable debate centred on an important practical question: was Thai Traffic really halfway?
It felt halfway enough, but what did that mean? For Nick it was downhill, for Penny uphill: Nick had the clear advantage. For Nick it was largely undercover, for Penny there was a long walk down an awningless side-street that offered no protection from the rain: another advantage for Nick. But Nick liked walking less than Penny. Penny loved a good long walk when Nick would have just as happily caught a bus: advantage to Penny. But Penny didn’t like the food at Thai Traffic as much as Nick. She only really liked the larb, whereas he loved the larb. Nick had an easy down-hill, under-cover walk and he loved the larb. It just wasn’t fair.
Nick pointed out that Thai Traffic, as far as he could tell, wasn’t exactly halfway, it was closer to Penny’s: advantage to her. Furthermore, the cinema itself was closer to her place, which meant if she was meeting him there from her place, and he was meeting her there from his place, and they decided to go home to her place without having eaten at Thai Traffic (the sporadic economy drives usually cut into their eating-out budget), then he had to walk further. Penny disagreed that it was closer to her place anyway.
Short of measuring the distance, there was no way of telling. Measuring it would have been easy enough, they could have used the street directory, or the odometer on a friend’s car. But that would have been pedantic, that would have threatened to end the dispute, and they might have started arguing about more serious things, like living together. Then buying a car. Then buying a house. Then having a baby.
And it was a little too soon for that, it was all too much, times were way too tough. It was easier for Nick and Penny to do what the crowd outside the Stanmore Cinema was doing, the crowd made up of people who milled on the street as they queued for tickets; who cast impatient glances at watches as they waited for late friends avoiding the interminable ads and trailers that preceded each session; who, still stunned by the film they’d just seen, hovered on the footpath like birds caught in a crosswind; who strode off towards cars and bars and restaurants and living rooms, talking about anything but the film they had just seen, as if the two hours of murders, explosions and infidelities had never happened.
It was easy and pleasant for Nick to sit there with Penny in the four-screen multiplex, its operations stripped to the bare minimum of cashier and candy-bar staff, no ice-cream seller with her tray, no usher with his torch, no projectionist in his booth (the film reels now automatically loaded by a central computer), for Nick to cuddle up with Penny in a darkness never quite allowed to fall, always kept at bay by the green exit signs that flanked the screen, by the tiny lamps that glowed at the end of the rows and swept down the aisles like the lights of a runway, to happily share the armrest (which sometimes became a bitterly contested frontier if a stranger sat in the next seat), to press shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh, for Nick to put his arm around Penny and Penny to rest her head in the hollow of his neck, every now and again Nick prying himself loose to stretch a little and sneak a glance at her when she wasn’t looking, at her serene expression completely absorbed by the film, her face bathed in the reflected light that depicted an endless series of lonelinesses, courtships, consummations, periods of crisis and separations or reconciliations depending on the genre, some of these scenes viewed again and again over the years, in Sunday night first-release presentations, in one-a.m. TV reruns, in big-budget restorations, in one-off independent cinema screenings scheduled at inconvenient times, key scenes that, with their shocking invariability, formed references points in their lives, like the scene in the Italian epic Nick had seen with Penny in this very theatre not so long ago, a real morality tale with young bourgeois anti-heroes who are rich and beautiful and flawed in endearing ways: she drives a car and wears floppy silk hats and writes bad futurist poetry; he hates fascists, visits brothels and rebels, ineffectually, against his father; they make love on a haystack at the back of a barn, his lean muscled body thrusting between her spread legs, her belly and breasts pressed close to his chest, to the hard, tensed body that clasps her tight in its arms, that burrows into her body with silent concentration, that presses her soft golden flesh against the dried blades of grass, that kisses her when she begs to be kissed, her words the only sound above the crackle of hay, above the distant music of the country dance they have slipped away from to fuck like pampered dogs, she begs to be kissed and they kiss a deep long kiss that finishes when he, with a final arch of the back, a final thrust of the hips, finishes, and then, stretching out close beside her, propping himself up on his elbow, says with a smirk, ’Why didn’t you tell me you were a virgin?’ to which she smiles and answers ’Because you wouldn’t have believed me,’ at which he smirks even more and replies ’You’re right. I wouldn’t have believed you,’ and she rewards her now future husband, this lusty satyr and his cheeky wit, by putting her arms around him and throwing her head back with a blissful smile that fills the screen, a dreamy smile haloed by her fine blond hair, by the bed of fresh hay she rests against, Penny’s smiling face bathed in her light but, unlike the richly coloured composition on the screen, stark against its background, pale skin emerging out of the darkness of the theatre, the surrounding rows of staring faces faintly illuminated and receding into a night ocean horizon, the theatre a black box that allows light in only through a tiny, controlled aperture, a concentrated beam that hurls image after image into the blackness of the theatre, so different to the blackness of the street, the black of tar and bitumen, of accumulated dirt, of oil-slicked rubber, of surfaces fissured by cracks and potholes, although these fissures and cracks also appeared in the darkness of the theatre, in the form of drifting masses of bruised purple, in the jagged lines of rust that proliferated in all directions, in the milky filaments — primitive life forms — that floated before the eyes when it became too dark for too long, when the film was momentarily forgotten and the act of seeing was thrown in upon itself, these modes of perception co-existing for Nick as he looked at Penny’s smiling, contented face, at the deeply etched line where the lips met, at the emerald-green eyes whose surfaces reflected and distorted the rectangle of the screen, at the pores of her nose, at the fine, downy hairs — unnoticeable in any other light — that shone silver beside her ear, and he would look at her in this darkness, snatch glances of this blissful, unaware happiness he was so much a part of, a happiness he enjoyed most in these calm, near unbearably still moments, and he would see his own happiness and the moment of perception itself concentrated in her image, in this mask of white paint smeared over a field thrown and dribbled and daubed in fistfuls of black light.
Nick wove his way through the cinema crowd and continued his journey. Ever hopeful of stealing some of the cinema’s trade in sweets, the Olympia Milk Bar, right next door, was still open. Glancing in as he went by its entrance, Nick saw its three bare fluorescent tubes struggle to even dimly light the shop’s palatial interior, serving mainly to show how much grease and dust had collected along the edges of the vine pattern that swirled across its pressed-metal ceiling.