FILM by Chris Green
I have never watched an interactive film before. IF, as it is becoming known, is a revolutionary idea to get the audience involved in what they would like to see happen on the screen. I am watching with an open mind. I feel that democratising cinema in this way has great potential, so long as it avoids the perils of lowest common denominator that have befallen 3D. IF is being hailed as a way to combat dwindling cinema audiences. You will not get this experience at home, is its slogan. The idea behind IF is that at the end of each scene the screen fades to black and the audience is given a multiple-choice question about what they would like to happen next. The director, in this case, Leif Velásquez, might have filmed many different options for each segment. Film budgets have reportedly gone through the roof since IF’s introduction.
There are some very odd camera angles. It appears that Leif likes to keep the cameras running all the time to catch the actors even when they are out of character. He must have had cameras everywhere to get some of the shots. Leif is what is often described as a cult director and this is one of the smaller productions running at the Cinelux. Modest though Screen 19 might be, it seems most of the audience have firm ideas about how the narrative should be driven. With so much audience participation the plot becomes almost incomprehensible, marred by more gratuitous violence and profligate sex than is strictly necessary for a story about the life of an ageing landscape painter in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Bradley and I leave our seats a few minutes before the film is scheduled to finish to catch the 10:30 bus home.
I insert my CineCard into the checkout machine in the foyer and begin to answer the barrage of questions that appear on the touch screen. Did I enjoy the film? How many stars do I give it? Will I recommend it to friends? How often do I visit the cinema? How many are in my party? How far have I travelled? The database has information about me that it tells me I am overdue to confirm. Is Source Code still my favourite film? Is Purple Rain still my favourite movie song? Cinema feedback has become intrusive. Last time I came it was a simple yes or not to did you enjoy the film. Now they seem to be doing everything possible to keep you in the cinema. It gives CineLux yet another opportunity to advertise their upcoming productions, which they fire at you from every corner of the prodigious foyer generating information overload.
A queue of people has formed behind me and Dale, the young male assistant in his turquoise CineLux uniform can see I am struggling with the questions. He comes over to help. Dale has a supercilious customer-service grin. I tell him that I have a bus to catch and he says he will be as quick as he can. You don’t need to answer all of the domestic product questions, he says, deleting the list, and you can skip the ones about your income group if you press this. He guides me through the rest of the questions and as the barrier lifts, I thank him. I cannot see Bradley. I wonder where he has got to. I imagine that he must have made his way through his checkout quicker than me and will be waiting outside.
I leave the warm interior of the CineLux and find myself in the midst of a thick fog. This has descended since we have been in the cinema. I probably shouldn’t see this as too much of a surprise as city fogs have become a regular occurrence. Pea soupers they are calling them, after the London fogs of the nineteen-fifties. Meteorologists blame them on industrial air pollution. There has been much talk about taking measures to tackle them, but with the political impasse little has actually been done to clean up manufacturing processes. The loss of life through tuberculosis is constantly trumped by the drive to match China’s output. The argument put forward by many industrialists that the fogs were made worse by the atmospheric conditions of the summer months is wearing thin now that it is November. There have been half a dozen in the last few weeks, sometimes lasting for days.
Despite the thick fog, the streets are busy. I do not come to these parts often. I try to get my bearings. To move out of the way of the masses that are now leaving the cinema, I carelessly step off the pavement into the trajectory of an articulated lorry which is going much too fast for the conditions. The leviathan narrowly misses me. Why do they have to come through the city at night? Isn’t it time that they re-opened the ring road? Is it really because of a nuclear leak? The driver gives a blast on his horn which sounds like a rock concert. I step the other way and a black Mercedes van with tinted windows narrowly misses me. It has a white logo on the side, MovieMax or something. Isn’t that the name of a film production company? Someone shouts something at me out of the window.
Bradley is nowhere to be seen. I imagine that he is making his way to the bus stop. Bradley is three years older than me, but as his brother, I feel responsible for him. While his autism is what they call high-functioning, it does give him the tendency to go on ahead, unaware of any companions or any complications there might be. He does not always see the need to put his intentions into words. It would be fair to say that he sometimes has difficulty with communication, and social interaction. He might have been fired by a sudden interest in something and already be back at the house we share.
It is but a short distance to the bus stop, but with visibility down to a few feet, I get lost somewhere along Church Street. There is a lot of redevelopment and scaffolding is everywhere. The shops seem to have all changed since I was last in this part of the city and I can’t even see the church. The miasma is all-enveloping. Even if I can find the bus stop, the buses will have surely stopped running. I begin to worry again about Bradley. What on earth could he be thinking, going off like that without me? I wonder about catching a cab. It is unlikely that cabs ever stop running.
I have to wait half an hour for a cab. I ask my cabbie, Gayna if she has by any chance picked up Bradley. I tell her that he is about six two and he is wearing a dark green padded hoodie with an orange logo on the front. I explain that he can be a bit direct and does not make eye contact when he speaks to you. She says that she hasn’t seen him, but she kindly radios her fellow cabbies and puts the word out on the street to look out for him. I am her last fare tonight, she says, as we trundle out to the suburbs at about ten miles an hour. She thinks the fog is getting worse and comes out with stories of the near accidents she has had. Her colleague, Maccy was not so lucky she says. He got mown down last week by an army truck at the Mason Williams roundabout.
Bradley does not turn up that night. I am not at first unduly alarmed. Although we have no family nearby, Bradley does have a number of friends; perhaps not friends in the traditional sense, but people who look out for him. He may have taken it into his head to drop in on one of them. After I have phoned round the ones I have numbers for and drawn a blank, I begin to feel a little concern. I let myself into his room and have a look around. It looks just as it always does, meticulously tidy, books lined up neatly in alphabetical order on pristine shelves and clothes neatly folded in drawers, shirts ironed and hanging neatly in the white-wood wardrobe. Nothing looks out of place. What in these circumstances would constitute a clue? I really do not know what I am looking for.
Heather, Bradley’s Support Worker returns my call from earlier. She says, ‘Bradley was fine last week. We had a great chat about probability. He really knows his stuff with numbers and IT.’
‘Can you think of any reason he would go off?’ I ask. ‘Or anywhere he may have gone?’
‘No. But he is quite capable of doing things by himself, Parris. Don’t underestimate his abilities. He is more capable than a lot of people think. He practically runs the centre when he’s here. His only weakness is with customer-facing issues. Although he helped out with a performing arts workshop recently. He seemed to lose his inhibitions a little one he got into it.’
‘He did say he likes playing online poker. He can calculate the odds. Card counting, he calls it. Between you and me I think that he’s won a bit of money. But I think that he thinks you don’t approve.’
‘I haven’t said that,’ I say. ‘I don’t think we’ve fallen out about it.’
‘He was excited about being in a film’, Heather says. ‘Excited probably isn’t the right word when you are talking about an ASD with HFA, but he was let’s say very positive about it. While he’s not OCD, he has a strange POV for an HFA.’
What on earth was she talking about? ‘We went to see an interactive film together,’ I say. ‘I think it must have been that. That’s when he disappeared in fact.’
‘Probably,’ Heather says. ‘I’m always getting details wrong. Look! I’ve got to go into a meeting. But I will have a think and get back to you.’
Heather doesn’t get back to me. When I phone back she is in another meeting.
I don’t feel that Heather has done enough to convince me that Bradley is safe. I decide to report Bradley missing.
‘Do you know how many people go missing in the fog,’ Sergeant Sangakkara says.
I tell him that I don’t. Does he want me to guess?
He doesn’t give me a figure, but neither does he show much sympathy as he takes the details, even after I mention Bradley’s autism.
‘How do you spell that,’ he says.
He tells me he will be in touch if there are any developments. It is clearly a practised line, which means he doesn’t give a damn. He doesn’t even ask me to phone him if Bradley turns up. He probably didn’t want to be a policeman, he would have liked to be a pro-wrestler or something.
I rack my brains for an explanation. Am I missing something? Has Bradley said something that might have given me a clue? I begin to look at everyone suspiciously as if they might know something about his disappearance. I keep an eye on the news. The winds have picked up they say and the fog is dispersing. Flights are to resume from several airports. Two hundred people are trapped in a mine in North-East China. Antarctica is now even smaller than they thought. There is tension in Iraq, Iran and Syria. There is always tension in Iraq, Iran and Syria. Why is it still on the news? The ring road is still closed. There is speculation that there might be some connection with terrorism. No-one it seems is available for comment.
I phone the CineLux. Perhaps they can give me some information about Bradley, from his checkout answers. I realise as I am dialling that it is a longshot.
Someone called Keisha introduces herself.
‘My name is Parris France,’ I say. ‘I came with my brother Bradley France to see Landscape on Screen 19 earlier this week, eleventh of November. That’s 11/11.’
She makes a joke about my name.
‘Yes, a lot of people remark on that,’ I say. ‘It’s Parris with a double r.’
‘How can I help, you, Mr France?’
‘My brother is missing,’ I say. ‘I was wondering if you could have a look at Bradley’s checkout record to see if it might throw any light on his disappearance.’
Do I mind if she puts me on hold? I listen to a minute or two of Miley Cyrus. Ugh!
Keisha comes back on the phone. ‘I’m afraid we have no record of Bradley France being here that night, or in fact any other night. Are you sure you have the right cinema?’
I confirm this and suggest that she may be mistaken. She assures me that there is no chance of a mistake. ‘Perhaps he used another name,’ she suggests. ‘Several hundred people visited that evening. It would take a long time to go through each one and check out if they were genuine.’
I am by now desperate for news of Bradley and keep the phone by the bed just in case. It is a day or so before the silent phonecalls start. There is no pattern to them. They come at all hours. None of them brings up a number on caller display and each time I pick up, there is no one at the other end. I want to believe that these are automated calls, but once or twice I detect some background noise, traffic passing, or a dog barking. The information is too vague to offer any real clues. Predictably each time there is no call return number. I don’t want to think that it is Bradley trying to reach me because his silence during the call would indicate that he is in a particular kind of situation which means he cannot speak. On the other hand, even if he is in danger, it would mean that he is alive. I recall seeing a psychological thriller about a woman who is driven to suicide by silent phonecalls. I cannot remember what it was called. Perhaps it was Silence or Mute or something like that. All I can recall was that it was incredibly scary.
Syreena, my married girlfriend, usually comes round to visit me two or three times a week, depending on when she can get away. To my chagrin, she is only able to come round on Thursday evening this week and the phone rings right in the middle of our lovemaking. I have the impression that Syreena secretly resents my continued support of Bradley. Although she has never said as much, she feels Bradley might be pulling the wool over our eyes with what she refers to as his condition. I hope we don’t fall out over it.
She has to get back, she says because Mikhail will be back at ten. She does not specify where he will be back from. I do not know much about Mikhail. Syreena has never offered the information and I have never asked. Our clandestine liaison probably works better this way.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I will make it up to you.’
‘I’ll try and come over at the weekend,’ she says. ‘I expect everything will be fine by then.’
After about a dozen silent calls, I register with a call tracking service. TracknHack promise results, but it seems that they just want my money; they don’t actually have access to any special technology that would enable them to do so. I think about phoning Sergeant Sangakkara to chase up the police’s progress, but something tells me there won’t have been any. I’m sure that he won’t step up the investigation based on a few silent calls. I decide to leave it for another day.
I experiment with different passwords and am finally able to get into Bradley’s Facebook account, but after a good look around I find no clues. Bradley has surprisingly few friends and there are no recent status reports from those he does have. I can’t put my finger on why I feel it, but it feels as if he, or somebody else, has been tidying the account up. I turn my attention towards his gmail account. After an hour of trying to get into his account, I give up. His password is too difficult. He has not chosen something easy like IwntAstrONGpasswd28!! Someone has deleted his file history and there is nothing at all in Documents or Pictures. I do not have a lot to go on.
If there has been a fatality, the authorities surely would have come knocking. Bradley always carries ID and this is after all his home address. I try to use this as comfort, but my sense of optimism seems to be on a rest day. I begin to fear the worst. I do some internet research into the methods investigators use to find a missing person and discover that I am already employing them.
Bermuda is a small British overseas territory near the western edge of the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. The nearest landmass is over six hundred miles away. Bermuda is famous primarily for The Bermuda Triangle. This is unfortunate if you live in Bermuda and your family fly a lot or sail a lot, as many aircraft and ships have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. My family were in such a position. My father ran a courier business, although it is widely believed this was a cover for his undercover activity with the secret service. My parents light aircraft disappeared with both of them aboard shortly after taking off for Martha’s Vineyard. Searches were not so sophisticated back then; There were fewer satellites and GPS had not come in to being.
The loss of one’s parents in tragic circumstances is not a thing that you ever come to terms with. The pain does not go away. It is nearly twenty years since it happened, but I often think back to the carefree summer days when we enjoyed a family picnic on the beach at Horseshoe Bay with a gentle breeze coming in off the sea. Or swimming in the calm waters of Jobson’s Cove with its pink sands and volcanic rocks. Or Bradley and I playing volleyball with our friends on Elbow Beach in the school holidays. In Bermuda, you are never more than a couple of miles from the coast. This idyllic life was taken away by a freak storm, or was it a magnetic fog that blew the plane’s instruments. Losing my brother in the dismal fogs in Britain’s second city would be adding insult to injury. I’m praying that lightning never strikes twice.
When they finally called off the search for the plane, we moved to England to stay with Uncle Cliff and his partner, Richard in Gweek in Cornwall. I was fourteen and Bradley was seventeen. Gweek is a village on the Helford River which is not, in fact, a river but a ria, a series of creeks flooded by the sea. Activity centred around boats and once we became used to having two uncles, we settled in easily. Bradley became very interested in boat engines and could spend all day taking one apart and putting it back together, withdrawing into his shell. Gradually Bradley’s ASD was diagnosed and his needs became a priority, although it wasn’t until eight years later after I had graduated from Birmingham University, that he moved in with me here. Despite the fogs that over the years began to envelop the Midlands, there are more facilities here that take account of Bradley’s condition and he can more or less lead a normal life.
My neighbour, Dermot is at the door. He looks sober.
‘This parcel came for yer man Bradley earlier,’ he says. ‘I took it in for the UPS delivery man, so I did.’
‘I must have been asleep,’ I say. ‘I didn’t hear him.’
‘No worries,’ he says. ‘I haven’t seen Bradley around a lot lately. Is he all right?’
‘He’s disappeared,’ I say. ‘Don’t you remember? I told you about it the other day and you said the same thing then.’
‘I think I may have just got back from O’Reillys’. You’re as full as a catholic school, Niamh says to me sometimes. I like that, full as a catholic school. She’s got a grand way with words, Niamh.’
‘I was telling you about Bradley disappearing,’ I remind him.
‘Oh, that’s right. I believe you did say something. Hey, wait a minute! A week ago, no it might have been a bit longer, some men came round for Bradley and they looked a bit odd, so they did. I thought at the time, what’s the craic, they don’t look like they’re from around here. They were in a black Mercedes van with tinted windows.’
‘But there are lots of vans with tinted windows driving around here.’
‘No, not drug dealers vehicles. I think this one had some big white writing on the side and a logo.’ Dermot sketches something in the air.
‘What do you mean, they didn’t look like they were from around here?’
‘Well they didn’t have Al Qaeda beards, I reckon …… and they weren’t Irish. And they weren’t Caribbean either. The van had a lot of …. you know, equipment in it.’
‘Would you be able to describe them?’
‘Some of them had, ……. like suits on, dark suits.’
‘You don’t remember when this was?’
‘There was a soft rain fog I remember, but that does not help ye much now does it?’
The fog seems to be descending again as we speak.
‘I expect you noticed but the ring road is open now that they’ve finished filming, Dermot says. ‘Must be quite a big film, don’t you think?’
With a cheery shrug of his shoulders, he says he must crack on. We have only been talking for a couple of minutes but his departure leaves a vacuum. A creeping desolation settles over me. I’m not very good on my own any more. I need company. What I really need is for Bradley to come through the door and everything to be all right. It would be good to talk to someone. I wonder what I have done with my counsellor’s number. I can’t even remember her name now. Janelle Council? Milly Stover? No, she was my acupuncturist. Clora Kaiser? No! It’s not coming. It was a few years ago that I had my problem.
I am racked with indecision. I don’t seem to know what to do with the parcel. I should open it. Should I open it? It is addressed to Bradley. I think perhaps I should open it, but scared of what I might find, I just stare at the large rectangular box wrapped in brown paper and parcel tape. There is no return address on it, just Bradley’s name and address in black marker pen. What might be inside? The more I look at it, the more I become paralysed with fear. It is very light. Much lighter than a box this size should be. Everything about the balance of the package is unsettling. The chilling thought runs through me that it might contain Bradley’s soul. I recall seeing the film 21 Grams. The title refers to the apparent loss in body weight when the soul leaves the body. Bradley’s soul boxed up, what an absurd idea. But the package is so light. If I put it down I think it might just float away, like a helium balloon. Gingerly, I shake it. There is no sound.
I take the plunge and start slicing at the package tape with a kitchen knife. There is no torque and I have to hold the package down firmly with my other hand to stop it slipping away. I too have a sense of slipping away. My mind begins to wander, my thoughts become more and more fluid. I think about what Dermot was saying about the black van with the tinted windows. I didn’t let him finish telling me about the men who came with the van. He told me about the ones in dark suits but he was about to tell me about the others. There was equipment in the van, he said. Could they have been a film crew? And, what he said about the ring road. They were filming, he said. Filming. I think back to Landscape, the interactive film Bradley and I watched, what now seems like aeons ago. It was Bradley’s idea to go and see the film. With IF, they film lots of different scenes and let the audience choose. Lots of different scenes! Very odd camera angles! I wonder …… It begins to dawn on me what is happening. I notice there is a camera lens in the smoke alarm. And another in the ceiling light. There are small cameras all around the house. There is even one in the flowering bird of paradise plant and two in the eyes of Bradley’s OwlMan poster. They are everywhere. Why haven’t I noticed them before? Isn’t that Leif Velásquez peering through the window? He is wearing a jacket like Bradley’s. It has the same logo on.
© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved