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  Short Story V  Page1   Page2
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....written by James McKenna author of  Last Exit from Bridgeton          (order his book)


John Garfield Is Dead


Dalmarnock: Glasgow: Late September 1998. ©

It was such a relief to sit down on the small ledge just off the main road. He had been walking now for almost an hour and although it was just after seven pm it was still a fairly warm evening. The sun was sinking in the western sky at the end of another glorious day in what had been a fine and very warm spell for late summer. George liked his walks in the evenings, he wasn’t getting any younger though, time for a wee rest he thought.


He knew the area well; he had lived just around the corner in a tenement building for the first twenty years of his life. He still lived in the area, about a mile down the road from where he sat just now. Recently he had moved into sheltered housing after years of living in the multi-storey flats.


The area was a lot quieter these days than it had been in his youth. It had once been a hive of activity, but now there weren’t as many buses on the main road as there used to be, the tramcars had long since gone. Most of the old tenements had gone too, nearly all the old factories, the mills, the pubs and the cinemas too. Yes the cinemas, it was them he remembered more than anything. When he was young there had been about twenty of them in the east-end, now there were none.


None that is unless you counted the multiplex cinema with it s ten screens, fast food outlets and other attractions, even a lounge bar where you can have a drink before the show. In George’s day it had been the one wee hall, or the local flea pit as district cinemas were sometimes affectionately referred to. In those days you would get a packet of crisps with the wee blue bag of salt, a bottle of ginger and perhaps some sweets. George certainly did not ‘rate’ the modern cinema, at least in its external appearance. “A monstrosity” was how he often referred to the large cinema It was situated  a few hundred yards to the north of where he sat, its lights becoming increasingly starker in the approaching twilight. The cinema had stood for about ten years now; it had previously been the site of a large engineering works.


The main road had become busier over the last fifteen minutes or so. The crowds of mainly young people heading for their Saturday night out. Most of them it seemed going to ‘the Pictures’ or the Hollywood Paradiso as it was called. In George’s day cinemas had much simpler names, such as The Playhouse, or the King’s.


George did not even know what was on that evening; He could not name any of the movies that would be showing on the many screens. Ten screens? What a change from forty-fifty years ago. In those days you got the big picture, the wee picture, The Pathe News, and sometimes a cartoon as well, and all on the ones screen too. If the truth be told he had only been in the Hollywood Paradiso once in the decade that it had been in existence. That had been when a week –long celebration of the Hollywood classics had been shown, one of the ten screens having been set aside for the old movies. And, he had gone with his wife Meg, to see the 1947 film Body and Soul, which starred his lifelong hero, John Garfield.


He had enjoyed seeing this film again, so much so that he had written to the Hollywood Paradiso suggesting that one of the screens be set aside on a permanent basis to show old classic movies. The cinema had replied to him but his idea had not been taken up. He thought that there must be hundreds more people with the same idea. Perhaps if everyone who liked the old movies had written in with the same suggestion the outcome might have been different.


He had been at only one other picture since then in fact, at the Odeon in the city-centre. It was in 1994, and he and Meg had gone one afternoon to see Forrest Gump which they both enjoyed, as it was a good old fashioned type of film they thought. It had been the forty-sixth anniversary of their wedding and they had gone to The Pictures as part of what was always a special day for them, each passing anniversary. He recalled though that they had bought two ‘hot dogs’  from the food stall in the foyer and that the cost of each of them had been more expensive than the actual price of admission to the cinema, they had paid the concessionary rate for senior citizens. He recalled too that Meg had to calm him down, so enraged was he over the price of the hamburgers, what he had called “daylight robbery.”

Still, the film itself had been well worth the money. He tried to remember the name of the main star of the film, Tom Banks? No, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, that was it. He remembered the day fondly. They would only have one more anniversary together after that.


It had started to get a bit cooler, colder almost, the sun sinking rapidly and George realised he had been sitting there for almost an hour, just watching the world go by.

He was about to start his short journey home when a young couple sat down on the ledge beside him.

“Excuse me, which way is it to the Hollywood Paradiso?” said the young man in what to George seemed like an “out of town “accent.

“Just follow the crowds and you can’t miss it son, everyone seems to be going there, its only about fifteen minutes up the road.”

“Thanks” said the girl, “we only know the centre of Glasgow and we weren’t sure where this place was, we have heard so much about tit though.”

“Where are you both from?” asked George

“We are both from Lanark, I’m Steve, this is my girlfriend Michelle, lovely evening eh?”

George introduced himself to the couple. “Sure is, what time does the picture start?”

“Oh we’re a wee bit early, I think it starts about quarter past nine, the adverts and the trailers and all that come on first, but the main feature does not start till after half past nine” said Steve.

Again George thought back to his youth, in his day the picture show was nearing its end at that time.


“So, what’s on? What are you two going to see? I’ve been a film fan for longer than I care to admit but I don’t like much of the modern stuff.”

“Well, I wanted to see the new George Clooney movie said Michelle, I cannot even remember the name of it at the moment but Stevie here  won the day and we are going to see that Al Pacing pic, Donnie Brasco.”

“I have seen it about five times already, said Steve. “This is a re run of it tonight, it was so popular all over the country when it came out a few years ago.”

“It’s not my cup of tea at all said Michelle, but at least I’ll get to see Johnny Depp for a couple of hours” said Michelle. “When we went to see Titanic earlier this year he was not interested in the film at all, he spent the entire picture just ogling at Kate Winslett and making funny noises. At least I’ll get my turn at ogling tonight.”

“You usually do anyway” replied Steve “Hey George you should have heard her when we got Good Will Hunting out on video through at here house a couple of months ago. She never let up going on about Mark Damon, never stopped talking about him all night. Three hours after the film ended and she was still raving about how she would like to be “in his company” if you catch my drift”

“I think I do” laughed George with a trace of embarrassment as Michelle “In my day Meg, that was my wife, would go on about the likes of Cary Grant and what nice eyes he had and all that stuff, Michelle was perhaps being a little less discreet about it.” George laughed again as Michelle rather self consciously giggled in the background.


“Well, I’m going up the road said George, enjoy the picture you two.”

“Wait a minute” said Steve, “do you know where we can find a pub? We want a wee drink before we go in”.

“Well, there is the Bar 2000 just up the road from here, it’s on the road to the cinema and I pass it on my way home, I walk you along part of the way.”


“Coming in for one?” said Steve, as they approached the pub.”

“No, I’m just going up the road>”

“C’mon, just the one.”

“Oh alright then, so long as you’re buying,” George smiled.

“What you having?”

Oh< pint of lager will do fine, pint of Dean Jagger.

Steve ordered a pint for George, same for himself, and a Bacardi for Michelle.

“Don’t you mean Mick Jagger?

“Naw, Dean Jagger, he was before your time,

“Is this Mick’s father then”?

“Naw, Dean Jagger was a Hollywood star of the 1940s and the 1950s. He was in a lot of pictures, but never all that well known really.

“Never heard of him.”

“If you ever see a picture called Bad Day at Black Rock you will see him in that.”

“Is that the one where that Spencer Tracy plays a one –armed man? said Michelle.

“Sure is” replied George, “how did you know that?”

“It was on television last week “came the reply,

“You are as bad as my older brother with your pint of Dean Jagger and that rhyming slang” said Steve. My brother walks into a pub and says give me a pint of Roy. “Nobody knows what he is on about until he says, “Pint of Cider, pint of Roy Schneider>” I think you and Brian would get on well George.”


“Michelle, go up the the bar and get another round in before we go, usual for me and another ‘Dean’ for George here said Steve, dismissing the by now half hearted protestations of the old man.


“So George, who are your favourite movie stars then?”

“Oh I never go to the pictures these days at all I watch all the oldies on the telly, that’s all.”

“So you don’t like the modern films at all” replied Steve?

“Naw, it seems that when you go to the pictures these days all you see is sex, violence, and the language, oh?”

“And all of that before you even get into the cinema, eh George? “said Steve.

George laughed.


Michelle had returned with the drinks.

“You must like some of the modern stars George” said Michelle.

“Well, I do like that Meryl Streep, Meg used to say she was the best actress since Bette Davis. And that other one, Robert Da Nico.”

“Robert De Niro” corrected Steve/

“I like that Mickey O’Rook too” said George, sipping his pint. “I have seen both of them on films on the telly. O’Rook reminds me of an actor who was once a big favourite of mine, not so much in looks, but in the similarity of their type of roles.”

“Mickey Rourke” Steve again corrected George

“I’d love to see Da Nico and O’Rook in the same picture.”

“They were in a film together George, it was called Angel Heart.

“I don’t remember that one.”


“So Steve, Al Pacino is your big favourite then?”

“I suppose you could say that. I have seen quite a lot of his films. I’ve been hooked on him ever since I saw him in Carlito’s Way about five years ago. What a film that was, you would love it George, it’s a real classic, and what an ending. Terrific really. I was only sixteen then, and I have watched it about thirty times since then on video. I have also caught up with a lot of his earlier films on the telly and renting them on video. I’ve seen Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Sea of Love, and the three Godfather films and of course we are going to see Donnie Brasco tonight, this will be the sixth time I have seen it. The guy is simply different class.”

“He’s got Al Pacino pictures plastered all over his bedroom walls said Michelle. Sometimes I think he loves Al Pacino more than he does me.”

A wry smile appeared on George’s face.


“Aye, I have seen this Al Pacino guy on the telly a few times” said George. “He is one of the better ones” “So, if you don’t think all that much of modern stars who was your favourite” asked Steve.

“Well. I would be about ten when I first started going to the pictures, in the mid 1930s. I use to go every Saturday night with my mother. We lived just around the corner from where I was sitting earlier on when you and Michelle first spoke to me. The tenements were about a minute’s walk from there. The wee hall we went to was actually on the vacant space where the ledge is.”

“All those years ago” said Steve.

“Aye, time fair flies when you are getting older. In those days you had guys like Jimmy Cagney, Edward G Robinson and of course Humphrey Bogart were at the time becoming established film stars. There was also Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn, but there were one or two others as well, people who were just starting out. People like good old Jimmy Stewart, and a few years later, Robert Ryan. Then there was this other guy, John Garfield was his name and he became my favourite, just like you with this Al Pacino fella.”

“John Garfield is dead isn’t he” asked Steve. “I have heard the name.”

“Yes” came the reply, he died in May 1952, “only thirty-nine he was, tragic.”


“You were talking earlier on about the first time you saw what was it?  Carlito’s Way? And how you came to like Al Pacino so much. Well, let me tell you both a wee story about the first time I saw John Garfield, it was November 1947 and……………………..

Before George could finish the sentence Steve had interrupted, “Sorry mate we have got to go, look at the time, its ten past nine, I didn’t realise we had been talking for so long the picture will be starting soon. C’mon Michelle, we don’t want to miss the start.”

“Enjoy the picture then said George, good to talk to you both.”

“Great to meet you, might see you again sometime, straight home now mind”

“Byee” shrieked Michelle as the two youngsters disappeared into the by now dark streets of the east-end.


George eyed his emptying pint glass. “Might as well have one for the road” he thought. Even if the ‘road’ was a mere five minutes to his home.

He had enjoyed the company of Steve and Michelle, “nice couple” he thought. Half a century separated him from both of them but they were good company, the way it should be.


He felt a bit disappointed though that he hadn’t had the opportunity to finish his story about the first ever time that he had seen John Garfield in a film at the ‘Pictures.’

It was a Saturday evening in November 1947, the year before he married Meg. They had been going out together for about a year at the time. He wanted to see Body and Soul, the Garfield film, she preferred Intermezzo, starring Leslie Howard and Ingrid Bergman, a film that had been out in the 1930s but was doing the rounds again, a regular occurrence in the cinemas in those days.

Intermezzo was showing down at the picture hall at Cross while Body and Soul was on just around the corner from where he still lived with his parents at the time. He remembered the crowds waiting to see the film had wound round the corner into the main road and past his tenement close. It had turned foggy and cold that evening and he still recalled how they were both glad of the warmth of the cosy little hall as they entered and were directed to their balcony seats. The crowd waiting to get in had been slow moving but at least this had allowed George to dash across to the little café opposite the picture house to get some sweets for both of them. It would usually be jelly beans or something like that. Meg would keep their place in the queue.

They always went to the balcony at weekends. Like the children of most working-class families of the time they did not have much but, well, with both of them working there was usually room for a few ‘luxuries’ at weekends, If the went to the ‘Pictures’ during the week it was always to the stalls, which were cheaper. George liked the balcony best though, you always got a better view of the screen and, well there was the additional bonus of a wee discreet kiss and cuddle in the back row, if he was lucky that is.


George had won out as it were, just as Steve had done with Michelle and they went to see the Garfield film but only on a strict undertaking to Meg that he would take her to see Bette Davis and Glenn Ford in A Stolen Life. This was on at the same hall the following week. It was in fact staring them in the face; advertised in a poster on the side wall of the cinema as they were about to enter, that long ago Saturday evening.

That was how he had come to be hooked on the films of John Garfield. He had wondered at the time why it had taken him so long to ‘discover this great actor. After all he had been in films for almost a decade, starting out in 1938 in that lovely old black and white film of small time America, Four Daughters.

Garfield had got an Oscar nomination for that one; his first starring role. George saw it on the television for the first ever time in the late 1950s and loved it. He always remembered how every time it came on after that his mother used to have a wee greet when that song in it came on. He could not remember the name of it but it was the scene where Claude Rains conducts his singing daughters, played by the three Lane sisters and Gale Page in a beautiful melody. It is heard again near the end of the film and his mother would have another cry, his father gently shaking his head while reading the newspaper in the big armchair opposite his mother.


George had seen a lot of himself in Mickey Borden, the character played by John Garfield. Over the years he had caught up with most of the films of his hero, seeing them on television and taping them with the coming of the age of the video-recorder. To date he had seen all but one of Garfield’s films. He had even sent off to America for the tapes of a few that were not available in Britain. If Steve prided himself in having photos of Al Pacino on his bedroom walls, George’s video cases were full of John Garfield films. He must have seen Body and Soul about fifty times by now. He had bought the video about ten years ago after seeing it on the television many times and a few times at the cinema.

Yes, he did see a lot of himself as a young man in John Garfield. In Four Daughters the Borden character is a loner, a loner with a chip on his shoulder “the whole world is against me” syndrome as it were. George knew he had been like that at times for most of his teenage years, before he met Meg. He always seemed to see the worst outcome in situations, definitely the eternal pessimist. Perhaps that’s why he could identify with John Garfield so much, especially in films like Dust Be My Destiny; They Made Me a Criminal, and perhaps even Castle On The Hudson. He realised though that he identified with him in almost every film he was in. He could never forget the closing scenes in Body and Soul where Garfield’s character Charlie Davis overcomes all the odds stacked against him and defeats the ‘system.’ A system that though that he himself had been part of until deciding to take a stand against this in this his final fight.


George still recalled cheering at the end of the film along with many of the cinema audience when his hero emerges victorious; cinema crowds did that in those days. He still though thought Davis would come to a violent end in the final scene, with the racketeers on his tail. Instead the ending was a happy one and Charlie Davis survives. Even Meg had enjoyed the picture and she usually hated boxing films.


George’s father used to say to him “you’re turning into John Garfield” George knew though that like himself his father was a committed Garfield fan and had been for a long time. He was gently teasing his son.


George thought back to that long ago day in May 1952 when it seemed his world had falling all around him. Meg had gone off to her job at the carpet factory just past the Cross, he was working nights at the time, he worked with the Railways and had just come in as Meg was going out, giving her a quick kiss as their paths briefly crossed. It was a time when they seemed to be together at weekends only.


He had made a quick breakfast for himself as he did at this time every morning before catching a few hours sleep. He had just turned on the wireless. The news making the headlines on that morning was read out. George had barely paid attention to what the announcer was saying. He had been tucking in to his bacon, sausage and egg. Suddenly though George froze, his fork suspended half way between his breakfast plate and his mouth. The news reader had said “Hollywood actor John Garfield is dead, he died of a heart attack at………….” George had heard the words of the announcer, but it was as if he had just awoke from a bad dream, surely it couldn’t be…… there must be some mistake. It wasn’t of course, and there was no mistake his hero was dead and he would read about it in the newspapers later that day.

He turned the wireless off; he sat at the table staring into space for what seemed like an eternity.


He had of course never met John Garfield, never even written to him. Unlike fans in the modern era film buffs found it more difficult to get ‘closer’ to their screen idols in those days. There were little or no opportunities to t write to the stars in those days the way you could now if you had the inclination. But in the short term at least it was As if one of his own family had died, such was the grief he had felt on that May day in 1952. His idol, his role model was no more.


Yes, it was still clear in his mind, forty-six years had elapsed but he still remembered that sunny summer’s morning when in contrast to the brightness streaming through the open window of the tenement, his own world it seemed had suddenly become much darker. He never forgot the words of that radio announcer “John Garfield is dead……..”


George suddenly realised that for a long while now he had been lost to the present as it were, lost in his thoughts of the events of almost half a century ago and it was with a shock that he realised that it was a mere fifteen minutes till closing time.

It was meeting Steve and Michelle and getting into conversation about films and film idols past and present. Yes, that’s what had brought on all this nostalgia. That’s why too for the last hour and more he had sat there thinking of old times, and for the last ten minutes at least, about that May morning in 1952. He had though enjoyed the company of the two youngsters. He didn’t get into company very often these days. Since Meg had died in 1996 he had found he was on his own a lot. He missed her so much and although he had never been one foe socialising to any great extent he increasingly felt isolated. That’s why the conversation with Steve and Michelle had been such a welcome diversion. His ‘local’ was just down off the main road but this was the first ever time he had been in the Bar 2000. He did not have any regular friends at the other pub, he just knew people by seeing them there so it was a nice change of scenery to be in this pub.


He thought back once more to his youth, how after a Saturday night at the ‘Pictures’ he and Meg would make their way along the main road. The streets would be quiet by then with just the occasional drunk or the odd courting couple to be seen on their walk to the Cross. The streets were ‘safer’ in those far off days he thought, or was he just getting old he wondered. Sometimes they would call in at Mario’s the shop just down the road from their regular picture house. Here they would get a sixpenny bag of chips or perhaps a fish supper. Then he would walk Meg down top the Cross where she would get the ten-thirty tram to her home near the ‘Green’ as it was called then and now. He would always give her a gentle kiss as she boarded the tram saying See you Tuesday”

He wondered how Steve and Michelle would end their evening. Would they be going their separate ways after the film? Probably not he thought, changed days.


All in all not a bad evening he thought, In fact a good weekend all round. The next day he would at long last get the chance to see the one John Garfield film that had eluded him all these years. That ‘missing’ film Saturday’s Children was to be shown on Sunday evening on BBC 2 His collection would be complete. He had made sure he had a spare video-tape looked out and ready.


He pictured Steve fifty years from now, perhaps in a similar situation to the one that had occurred earlier that evening, meeting some young couple and telling them about his lifelong hero Al Pacino, and how he remembered him from the first time he had seen him in Carlito’s Way. Perhaps Steve would get to finish relating a story that had been such a milestone in his life. The magic of the movies would never die and George was sure Steve would one day in the distant future be an elderly man reminiscing about Al Pacino while decrying the films of 2048 as “not being a patch on the old days of the cinema. George had seen little of Al Pacino but what he had seen he liked. He and those other two, Robert Da Nico and Mickey O’Rook, yes he liked all three he thought.


The bell rang to signal last orders.

“Might as well round off the evening with a wee whisky” he thought,

“Hey son, give me a n ‘Orson Welles’ “he said to the young barman

A blank, puzzled look came over the face of the youth, “a what?”

“A Bells, an Orson Welles, a whisky,” he was a film star you see.”

The look of puzzlement still filled the face of the younger man.

“Oh never mind, just give me a whisky.”

“Some of these young ones have no sense of history he muttered under his breath as he watched his drink at last being poured.”    © 

~ end ~

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Jun 2009


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