By Simon Bewick
13 November 2000
I shuffled into the shop, an old man in a young man's body. A bell overhead clanked once as I opened the door, then again as I let it slam shut behind me. I stole a quick glance around the dust-ridden shop and did my young/old man shuffle to the counter.
Behind the counter, a teenager reading some heavy metal magazine took a momentary break from squeezing the angry-looking spot on his neck. "Help you?" he asked. I caught the look he gave me. I'd trailed round enough of these places to recognise it by now.
"I'm looking for a video," I told him, checking off the name of this shop on my note pad.
"Video? Recorder, camera, cassette?"
"A VCR," I said, matching his pedantic tone.
"Well, you came to the right place," the charmer in front of me said as if by rote. "Honest Harry's has the widest range of up-to-date video recorders in the North of London." That had been the boast on the flaking shop front (along with the sign promising "best prices offered for all electronic equipment in full working order"). I could tell that neither of us believed either promise for a moment.
I stopped him before he could go into a sales pitch. He didn't look as if he had the energy or the interest, but I'd had to stand through a couple already today so I got to the point. "I don't want a new one, I'm looking for an older model. Something like a, like a Ferguson Goldstar."
The shop assistant looked at me like a dog being shown a card trick. "Ah, what?"
I tried to make it simple for him. "Have you got anything over fifteen years old?"
His spot suddenly became more interesting than I was. He looked vaguely around the shop before his eyes rested on a Hitachi, maybe five years old. "Well, that machine over there is--"
I stopped him dead. "No, it's too new--" I saw the look he was giving me, and backtracked. "That is, it looks too expensive."
"Well, I could do you a special deal, being as how we've got new stock coming in," he tried, showing more perseverance than I'd given him credit for.
"No, it'll still be beyond me," I insisted. "Do you have anything older?"
"Well, we've got a couple of prehistoric things out the back waiting to be salvaged, but they're pretty beat up -- some of them are Betamax . . . ."
I felt my heart beat a little quicker and tried to calm it down. I could see the shop assistant trying the old circus "guess the age" routine. He was obviously failing.
"That sounds more like it, more in my price range . . . . May I see?"
He shrugged, lifting up the counter and gesturing into the back room. "Knock yourself out. I can't leave this desk, though, so you're on your own. Give me call if there's anything you fancy."
I walked past him, trying not to build my hopes up, ignoring his look of pity or condescension. I pushed the curtain back and walked into the place where VCRs went to die . . . .
She waited until I humped the thing upstairs, nearly putting my back out in the process, before she declared she wasn't having it in her bedroom.
"Your bedroom?" I asked pointedly.
"Okay, our bedroom. Why do we need a bedroom video?"
I laughed. "I'll remind you of that comment when you're stuck in bed, unable to waddle any further than the bathroom."
She threw a mock punch at me and turned to my bargain purchase. "It's disgusting," she moaned. "It'll probably chew any tape we put into it."
I looked at the Ferguson Goldstar top loader I'd picked up for £20 and shrugged. "Rubbish -- this is solid technology, none of your Japanese electronic crap here. Solid British craftsmanship. It'll last a lifetime."
"Was that the sales line you fell for?"
I stuck my tongue out at her and went about installing the video. As I bent over the television, looking among the jungle of wires back there, I called over my shoulder, "If you must know, I did an excellent bit of negotiation: I made out I couldn't afford a new pair of shoes."
"That's not too far from the truth, is it?"
"Don't be daft. We're a two-income family!"
"For another month and a half."
"Yes, then there's maternity leave, then it's back to work and two incomes again."
She pulled a face.
"You made the deal!" I smiled sweetly and turned back to my work.
"Well, by then maybe we'll have paid off the money we owe for the wedding."
"We're getting there," I said between gritted teeth, not sure if I meant finding the right lead or the wedding bit. Six months gone and still draining us . . . . "Besides, I'll only do it twice in my life -- I may as well splash out on it."
This time the punch wasn't mock.
I flinched away from her and held out my hands in surrender. "You'll get down on your knees and thank me for this when he comes along."
"Or she . . . ." I smiled. "Whatever -- it'll be noisy and whiney. Just like its mother. And we'll be able to sneak away to get some privacy in our bedroom-cum-cinema."
"Yuppie. You just want to be a two-video family."
"I told you if you stuck with me I'd see you all right, kid. Now get out of here -- I have man's work to do."
She was almost out of the bedroom when she called to me.
I looked at her without getting out of my technician's position. "What, wench?"
"Nice cleavage . . . ."
I stood, pulled my trousers up, and said something that I'm sure I promised not to in my wedding vows.
I'd met Sophie five years before, when we went to the same college. She was a history student; I was working my way through a film degree -- a course that no one in my family seemed to take seriously. What none of them seemed to realise was how much work was involved. When it came to making my own film in the final year of study and my prima donna actress walked out citing "artistic differences," I persuaded Sophie to take her place. She protested that she wasn't an actress, but allowed me to cover her in grunge anyway and film it. College Zombie Massacre was the surprise hit of the screenings, standing out as an honest feature in the midst of an ocean of pretentious crap (or so my football pals, drafted in as zombies, told me). I stayed up late nights helping Sophie with her swotting (that had been part of the acting deal), and over the course of our last few months at college we fell in love.
We left college summer of '93 with reasonable but not exceptional degrees, and in a rare moment of synchronicity we were both offered jobs in London, me as a magazine film reviewer (assistant at first but with prospects), and then, a week later, Sophie in the Natural History Museum.
We married in the summer of '95, and after a honeymoon from hell where everything went wrong but we still managed to have fun, we came home. Sophie started throwing up, and a week later we found she was pregnant. The one night on our honeymoon when neither of us had been struck down with food poisoning had been enough.
Fast forward six months, and we were settled in our own house. A two bedroom semi in a slightly dodgy area of South London. The house was a wonderful amalgamation of Egyptian artefacts and old film stills. We felt we complemented each other's tastes . . . except for when I brought home old pieces of junk like my latest brainstorm.
It was two weeks after I'd brought the video recorder home (and one week after I'd actually got it to work, as Sophie pointed out smugly) that I suggested we have (another) quiet night in and slob out in front of a good video. Sophie agreed until I produced the videotape from behind my back.
"I'm not watching King Kong again, and that's final," Sophie said, her teeth clenched and her arms folded. She meant it.
"Oh come on, we haven't watched it for ages," I whined in my most unappealing manner.
"Forget it. I'm not watching it."
"The most spectacular film since the talkies, and a masterpiece of technical ingenuity that marks a milestone in the development of the screen. So said Picturegoer."
"Pretentious git. Okay, I'm not watching it because it's depressing!"
I burst out laughing. "When my munkee die, everybaddy cry." My Dino De Laurentiis impression had been known to crack people up in the office, but it failed miserably on Sophie.
"And you can even contemplate arguing that you're not pretentious. I'm not watching it, so tough. Eastenders is coming on soon."
"Fine!" I said dramatically (but not too dramatically, lest I get the "drama queen" insult thrown at me for good measure). "You watch Eastenders, and I'll watch King Kong upstairs on my video."
"Oh, finally you're going to use that piece of junk."
I stuck my tongue out and went for my beer and popcorn, stomping up the stairs in what I hoped would be a fitting exit.
When I came down Sophie was glued to the set. Eastenders had given way to some dreadful sitcom where the audience was laughing uproariously at someone getting their face stuck in trifle. I barely noticed.
"So, did beauty kill the beast again?" she asked, without looking away from the screen.
"No," I said quietly.
"Yeah, right, I--" she turned, looked at me, and stopped short. "What's the matter with you?"
"Can you get me a beer, please?"
She ran off to get it -- she was obviously worried.
She came back with it, and I took a swig of Kirin before I looked at her.
"What's incredible?" she asked, a little less worried now that she saw I wasn't going to drop down dead with a heart attack.
"The film -- it, it wasn't the original version"
"Oh, God, you haven't sat through that awful bloody remake -- I thought you 'abhorred' it?"
"No, you don't understand -- it was the original, but it wasn't."
"You've lost me, Mr. Norman."
I took another mouthful of beer and shook my head. "Okay, usual beginning, right?"
"Slow and stupid on that ship?"
"I guess. Anyway, same movie, same boat trip, same arrival at the island."
"Same journey through the subconscious of the male lead?" She was mocking my ingenious interpretation of the thing, but I didn't rise to it. I guess I was too stunned. I just nodded. "Everything is hunky dory until we get to the ending. Kong got away."
"Yeah, right," she laughed.
"I'm serious," I said and something in my eyes must have showed her I was, because she suddenly looked puzzled.
"I don't know. All I can guess is that it was some special print that was never--"
"No, I mean how did he get away?"
"Oh, it made no sense. He swatted a few planes, climbed down the building, and swam off down the Hudson. It doesn't matter. The point is that I've never even heard of this print being available. It's incredible. I know there was one version with an extra scene in the middle but . . . ."
"Where did you get it?"
"I borrowed it off Danny at work, but he never mentioned it being a special edition. Knowing Danny, he wouldn't have been able to stop himself bragging about it."
"Where did he get it?"
"I've no idea."
"Duh, why not pick up the phone and ask him, Sherlock?"
I nodded and picked up the phone, speed-dialing Danny's number.
No reply. I put the phone down on his dreadful James Stewart impersonation on his answering machine.
I went upstairs and started flicking through every single movie book and magazine I could find, which was no mean feat.
I heard Sophie in the bedroom ejecting the tape and then a moment later heard her downstairs starting to watch King Kong.
I was just ready to give up, having found nothing, when Sophie walked in. She did not look pleased.
"Ha, ha, I fell for it." I'd never heard someone laugh with such a PO'd look on their face.
"What do you mean?" I asked, trying to stand up despite knees which had gone to sleep over an hour ago.
"So you got me to watch King Kong. Cute. Same ending. You're not big and you're not clever. You're lucky I started to fast forward when I got bored or you'd be in real trouble."
She turned sharply and went to bed. I frowned and headed downstairs.
She was already in bed by the time I got back upstairs from checking the ending. She was right -- big monkey go splat.
I got into bed and tossed and turned. She was breathing heavily next to me, and I couldn't sleep. Eventually I couldn't stand it and went downstairs and ejected the cassette.
I stuck it into "my" machine on our dresser and waited while the screen flickered to life, bathing the room in pale grey. I watched the whole thing again, from beginning to end, with the sound off. Sophie didn't stir once until I leapt up and elbowed her in the side.
She was awake instantly, looking for the fire or burglar or whatever was important enough for me to disturb her. At that instant I realised I'd made a big mistake.
She started to yell at me then. About what a butthead I was and how her mother had been right and that the spare room was going to be my home for the next-- but then she stopped, because there on the television Kong was walking off down the river, presumably back to Skull Island. Then he was on the island and from out of the trees stepped a Mrs. Kong.
Sophie looked at me, and I looked at her.
"That is weird," she gasped, suddenly wide awake.
"No," I frowned, "I'll tell you what's weird: that wasn't the ending I saw before."
Neither of us slept much that night.
We moved my magic video into the living room, and our £500 NiCam beauty was demoted to the bedroom. Then we watched King Kong eight times over the next two days. Each time it gained a little something. It stopped being a clumsy tacked-on ending. It made more sense, and it stopped being just a happy ending. It became a logical end to the story.
We tried just watching the last ten minutes to see what happened. Big monkey go splat.
We tried watching it upstairs where the NiCam stereo provided better remote control features. Big monkey go splat, frame at a time.
It made no sense, any more than the fact that a film with an original running time of 100 minutes was now lasting over two hours.
We tried out other films. I searched out some of my favourites.
It's A Wonderful Life. No change.
Singin' in the Rain. Same steps, same story.
Philadelphia Story. Everybody lives happily ever after.
In the end it was Sophie the museum director, rather than me the film critic, who hit the jackpot. All I can say was that it was due to her lowbrow taste. Can you imagine Thelma and Louise with them getting away? It happened in our house.
I groaned. "That's an abomination. It ruins the story!"
She stared at me. "Oh, you mean like King Kong made sense? Don't you get it? It only works with sad films! It'll make more sense next time," she said and began to rewind it.
I groaned more loudly and headed upstairs, my head hurting.
"Okay, questions!" I said five hours later, emerging as Sophie finished watching The Yearling, her handkerchief untouched.
"It made more sense that time," she smiled.
I ignored her and looked at the piece of paper I'd been scribbling on upstairs.
"Question 1: Why? Question 2: How? Question 3: How does the machine know it's a sad ending?"
"What do you mean?" Sophie interrupted.
"What I mean is, who's to decide what's sad? People die in movies all the time -- what if we were watching . . . ." I struggled for a second for an example to explain the point I didn't quite understand myself. "Okay, what if we were watching Psycho. Is it sad that Janet Leigh gets it in the shower?"
"Well, if it is, then we're talking about a whole new movie -- it's no longer Norman Bates the transvestite killer, it's a cross-dressing comedy . . . ."
She shrugged again. "I'm not with you."
"What if something tragic happens early on in a film -- Four Weddings and a Funeral: nice old Simon Callow drops down dead. Everyone cries when we hear Auden at his funeral . . . ."
Sophie arched her eyebrows, showing me that I was getting into pretentious territory. I carried on regardless.
". . . Does this change the film to Four Weddings and a Bit of a Nasty Turn But He's Okay in the End?"
She laughed, and shrugged once again.
"Question 4: What if it's based on a true story?"
She looked at me with wide eyes, not a clue where I was heading.
"Suppose we've got The Buddy Holly Story. Gary Busey played Buddy, pretty well actually, got an Oscar nomination for it . . . ."
Sophie made a "get on with it" gesture.
". . . Well, my point is, do we get a nice little scene at the end when Buddy decides to take the train instead of the plane?
"Question 5: What if we watch a news item with a sad ending . . . ."
Sophie held up her hands in an "I surrender" gesture. "Okay, okay, what say we leave it there for a moment. Baby's kicking and you're giving me a headache. Why not just enjoy?"
"Because it's spooky and I'm not sure it's right."
She leaned over to me, and put her arms around my neck. "Tell me if this feels right . . . ." And as she started to caress me I remembered how horny she got after watching a nice happy ending.
We didn't watch any more movies that day.
For some reason I didn't mention it at work. It might have been because I thought they'd cart me off to the funny farm. It might have been because I didn't think they'd appreciate the tinkering with an artistic vision, even if they did think it was a miracle. But, I guess if I was being honest, it was mainly because it was our secret, and I was worried that if anyone else saw it the magic might just disappear.
Over the next week we watched a lot of videos. Sophie agreed to watch some of "my" films: the ones she normally said were too depressing to sit through. She enjoyed Leon, she loved The Seven Samurai, she even liked Ashes and Diamonds, despite the fact she "had to read it." (Not a subtitles girl, Sophie.)
It was a Saturday afternoon when I was halfway though Das Boot that Sophie jumped up from the couch (as well as she could in her ever-growing condition) and asked for my car keys.
"Where you going?" I asked, fishing them out from my pocket.
"I've just decided what film we're going to watch tonight," she grinned.
I grimaced; this sounded bad already. "I was thinking we could go out for a meal tonight: there's that new Indian just opened and I thought--"
"Forget it, butthead," she laughed. "Junior doesn't take too well to vindaloos. We can order out for pizza and we'll watch Love Story."
I screamed. "No way, uh uh, not a chance, forget it."
She stuck out her pet lip. "But daarrrling . . . ."
I grinned: it did have an appeal in a masochistic sort of way. What could happen to Ali McGraw when the chemo was successful? I sighed, hoping that if I suffered a bit more she'd pay for the pizza. "Okay, okay. God, the things we do for love."
She laughed and clapped her hands, kissing me on the cheek. "See ya in ten minutes, loverboy."
It was twenty minutes later, and I was wondering whether Blockbuster actually had a copy of Love Story, when the knock came at the door.
I freeze-framed Das Boot, confident of their escape, and went to the door.
I opened it to find a policeman standing on my doorstep.
I groaned. "Oh, Jesus, there's not been another burglary, has there?"
He looked at his shoes, and I felt my heart sink.
"It's . . . it's not a burglary, is it?"
He shook his head and coughed gently. "Sir, I'm afraid there's been an accident. I wonder if I might come in?"
In the movies or on TV this would have been the moment I went ballistic, screaming at him to tell me what was wrong, how bad was it, but I didn't. I let him in, and sat dazed as he told me how the other car had come out of nowhere, she hadn't had a chance, and that if it was any comfort she hadn't suffered at all. I only spoke two words: "The baby?"
He shook his head sadly and put a hand on my arm. "I'm sorry, sir."
I didn't ask him to clarify the answer any more than that.
I let him drive me to the hospital to identify her. I don't know how long it took; I don't remember the trip. I don't even remember which hospital it was. All I could think was that I was sure we had a copy of Love Story somewhere in the house.
I got home sometime later. In a film it would just skip to the next scene, and that was the way I felt -- I had and still have no memory of getting home. I got home later, that's all I know.
It seemed important to me. That sounds stupid, but that's what shock can do to you. I spent three hours looking through all our old cassettes before I found Love Story. I'd recorded it off BBC about six months before for Sophie when we'd gone out to celebrate. Yes, it was perfect timing -- it had been the night we'd found out she was pregnant, and I'd recorded it without telling her because I knew she liked girly stuff like that. It was too perfect.
I stood there with the tape in my hand, the floor around me strewn with films. I pulled it out of its case and saw my own writing on the front. Not the spine, just the front. "Love Story," and under it in purple, "PUKE!"
I burst into tears then, and dropped the video on the pile surrounding me. I looked at the tooth-gap hole on the shelf and continued to cry helplessly.
I only stopped when I saw the videocassette facing me.
I cocked my head, and read the spine. "The Wedding. 1995." It was my dad's botch job home video of our own special day, which suddenly seemed so long ago.
I sat on the floor in front of the television and watched myself say "I will." I watched Danny start his best man's speech at the reception. I'd seen the first bit a million times before as we bored our friends to death with repeat viewings. I'd only heard Danny's speech the once. The video battery had run out and all we got was "I don't want to embarrass my eminent friend sitting before me, but I'd just like to tell you all about a time in--" Static.
". . . in Scotland. It was a cold and windy night." And Danny told, for only the second time, of how I ended up sleeping in a cow shed after my stag night two weeks earlier.
I watched as the video unfolded and showed our evening. The slow dance to a song I'd once serenaded Sophie with (badly). I watched a honeymoon unfold on which we hadn't even had a video camera. I watched us both suffering from food poisoning, but it was the most wonderful thing I'd ever seen.
I watched us moving into our new house.
And then I watched Sophie arriving home ten minutes after she'd last left me, and I watched us watching Love Story, and laughing uproariously at it.
Suddenly I jumped up, screaming like a madman. This wasn't true. It wasn't real. It was cheap magic.
As I went to stop the damned thing, my eyes filled with tears, the picture jumped forward and I yanked my hand back. I saw my own birthday on the screen. My thirtieth. It was coming up in a month's time. Sophie was asking me to blow out the candles.
She was looking at a camera, which had presumably been set up on a tripod but was somehow panning to take in all the action. She was bigger now, but radiant with it. She looked directly at the camera and said that all of a sudden I was an old man of thirty and didn't believe in birthday wishes any more.
"Remember, loverboy," she added, "it may be cheap magic, but it's still magic."
I tried to think if I'd thought it or heard it.
My blood froze. I could have switched it off. Maybe. I could have, if she hadn't said that. Maybe.
But after she spoke to me I kept watching.
I cried twice when my daughter was born. I sat and watched some possible me, a me that could have been, holding my wife's hand and screaming almost as loudly as she did when the baby crowned. I sat on my sofa and wept as I saw how beautiful my daughter would have been.
The next few days passed in a blur. The tape showed the important things. I knew if I were to watch it again, each event would have more detail added. On Monday I watched as we celebrated Robyn's first birthday, me wielding the most horrendous pink frosted cake you're ever likely to see. On Tuesday I sat glued as Robyn took her first steps: she teetered a little at first but she made it to the coffee table before collapsing ungracefully to the floor, tears welling in her eyes before she heard us applauding her, and then she was all smiles again. On Wednesday morning I woke from a half sleep and switched the video on straight away. I knew I needed more sleep but the sleeping hours were worse than the waking ones -- at least awake I had the chance to see my daughter and wife happy, instead of nightmares of burning cars. I watched as we took Robyn outside to see her first snow-covered lawn, and the amazed look on her face as she felt snow in her hand for the first time. She looked directly at the camera and pulled a face -- I knew then that she was a natural exhibitionist like her father.
I was just about to see our first holiday away together when the doorbell rang.
I raked a hand across my unshaven chin and weaved my way to the door, kicking over a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the way (I thought I heard Sophie's mocking voice calling me a poser for drinking such a cliched rock 'n' roll drink, but I could have been wrong). I opened the door to see Sophie's mother and father standing on the step. I like to think the look they gave me was one of pity and not disgust.
"Martin, aren't you ready yet?" Sheila asked, concern now taking the place of whatever had gone before.
"Ready?" I asked, squinting at them as I saw my first ray of sunshine in a few days.
"The funeral . . . ," Raymond explained patiently. "It starts in an hour."
I felt a sickening wrench in my stomach. Had it really been two days since they'd explained to me that they would take care of everything and all I had to do was be ready at eleven on Wednesday? Of course it had -- I'd been watching Robyn take her first bath when they'd rung.
I moved to one side and let them in. Sheila put the kettle on while I staggered upstairs and dug out my old interview suit, the closest thing to black I had.
The vicar who had married us just a short time before saw me for the first time since we left the church then, and told everyone what a good person Sophie had been. He spoke of life carrying on. We had to go on, it was what Sophie would have wanted. I thought of my life and how it was going to go on. I didn't get further than the video. One day I would, but not yet. Those two words were pulsing round my brain. Not yet. Not yet. Not yet . . . . The vicar's words faded out to a drone and I willed it to pass as quickly as possible so that I might get home and continue our life together. Everything took too long. After the service everyone went back to my in-laws'. (Ex in-laws? What were they now?) People told me that although it didn't see it now, life did go on. I almost told them, "Not yet. Not until the video finishes . . ." but instead I smiled as best I could and agreed with them.
Eventually it was over. Raymond drove me back. Even the drive seemed to take forever. I tried to take part in the conversation, I answered most of the questions he asked me, although I could do nothing but stare out the window when he finally plucked up the courage to ask me "What happens next?"
As we turned into our cul-de-sac, I had a sudden feeling that something was wrong, even before I saw the police car outside our (my) house. I vaguely heard Raymond saying, "Now, hold on, lad . . ." before I jumped out of the car. I fell badly, but was up and running before he even had the chance to stop completely. Some young kid dressed in a police uniform tried to stop me as I charged for my front door but I bowled him over, limping drunken degenerate that I must have looked. By the time I got to the door he was back up and was holding me by the arms.
"Sir, can you please wait a moment!" he demanded, and I realised as I struggled that he wasn't a kid after all.
"Is this your house?" he asked, as I sagged.
I nodded spasmodically.
"I'm sorry, sir, but there's been a break-in . . . ."
That was all I needed to spur me on. I broke free again and stumbled into the hallway. I knew what I was going to see; I just couldn't believe it. My legs gave out on me then, a scant twenty seconds or so after they should have done, considering I'd left a car travelling at twenty miles an hour. I crawled into the living room, sobbing, bleeding, and bubbling snot and spit. I collapsed in the middle of the room, head pointing towards the space in the wall where my television and video used to be.
A million miles away I could hear the neighbours talking to Raymond. "What sort of a bastard breaks into a house during a funeral?"
"It's disgusting . . . ."
"They're worse than animals . . . they're destroying any precious memories he could have had left of the poor girl."
I was still sobbing and laughing like a loon at the same time. When they administered the sedative, all they could make out was me crying, "Not the memories, not memories, they've taken our future . . . ."
I shuffled into the shop. The door creaked loudly on its hinges and I guessed I was the first visitor to Ed's Emporium for some time. I looked around at the outdated computers, the black and white portable TVs, and the cobwebbed stereos that came from a time when CDs were only close friends in the alphabet. Then I looked at the latest in a long line of men I'd heard would sell someone their own grandmother for a song, and then write a receipt to prove she had belonged to him.
I ticked another name off my ever-shrinking list.
Ed was standing sweating over a copy of Racing Form. When I got to the counter he looked up and took his glasses off.
"Help you?" he asked in a manner which suggested he doubted it and didn't really care.
I took a breath, ignored the voice in my head, the one that still says, after all this time, "Not yet, not yet, not yet," and tried to smile. I'm not very good at it any more. Sometimes I scare people. "I'm after a cheap video recorder. . . . and possibly a video cassette to go with it."
"How cheap you got in mind?" Ed asked.
Simon Bewick is a film studies graduate now working for Oxford University Press. He is married with one child and lives just outside of Oxford. He has written a number of short stories, even had some accepted for publication. . . . He is currently receiving rejection letters for his first novel.