In honour of Star Wars Day – May the Fourth – I thought I’d share a nostalgic short story that was published back in 2016 in the Sunday People newspaper. It’s one of the few stories I’ve written where the title came first – and it amused me. Sadly, the title was shortened to something more whimsical in the published version so I’ve returned it to its rightful length here.
Waiting in Line for The Empire Strikes Back
It’s not a date. She’s made this as clear as possible. He’s been asking her out indirectly for a while now, by saying he’d be at this school disco or that youth club outing, and would she be there too? But they’ve never been on a date, and this is not one either.
She’s agreed to go with him because she really wants to see The Empire Strikes Back. Princess Leia and Han Solo and Luke Skywalker – especially Luke Skywalker – changed her life in Star Wars. She’d never before seen a film where you came out of the cinema not knowing the end of the characters’ stories, never before cared about what happened after the end credits rolled. But she’s desperate to find out if Leia will realise she should be with Luke, who is perfect in every way, rather than Han, who doesn’t really care about her and is old.
It’s the first time her parents have let her go out in the evening with a boy. They think 16 is too young for all that, and the only reason they’re letting her go now is because it’s with Donal. He’s been her friend since they were babies, their mothers bonding over coffee mornings in the parish hall while they crawled around on the dusty floor. Something has changed a bit recently, what with him acting peculiarly, but she’s doing her best to overlook it.
“It’s boys’ hormones,” her mother has explained, uncomfortably. She doesn’t like broaching adult topics, and Margie doesn’t want to hear them in any case.
“He’s a loser,” her friend Brenda says.
He’d looked so pleased when she said she would go to the film with him, but then her friends, and his, started messing about and chanting: “Margie and Donal, sitting in a tree…” She set them straight immediately, saying it was just two pals going to the cinema. Nothing more than that. He’s paying, of course, because it’s his idea, and he’s the biggest Star Wars fan in the world. It’s the only thing he wants to talk about, and she’s the only one willing to listen. He collects the cards, has covered his bedroom walls with posters, and listens to the story serialised every week on the radio. She asks him what the point is of just hearing it when he’s already seen it, but he says he likes to picture it all in his head and relive it.
Sometimes she tries to picture him as a boyfriend – or anyone as a boyfriend, for that matter – but it’s difficult to see him seriously in the role. He wears this shiny nylon anorak zipped up to his neck, fur hood framing his face like an Eskimo on rainy days when they walk to school together. He keeps pens in the pocket of his short-sleeved shirt, and his sandy hair is always neatly parted. Brenda reckons his mother spits on her hand and sticks it into place before sending him out in the morning. She’s not keen on Donal, not keen on anyone other than Margie. She teases Margie about him more than anyone else does.
Margie’s earliest memory of Donal is of a small boy in huge glasses, one lens covered with a plaster, the other peering out intensely with the responsibility of doing double the work. The kids in the neighbourhood used to call him Cyclops, but Margie didn’t – not within hearing, anyway. Most of the other boys in town have long, rock star hair and wear tie-dyed jeans and faded denim jackets, with AC/DC and Status Quo written out in marker pen on the back. They sit at the back of class and forget their homework. Donal sits at the front of the class, and is top of the class, and likes lists. He spends days if not weeks working on annual top 10s of his favourite books, favourite songs, favourite films. At the top of his film list is Star Wars. Margie’s too, although her list is far less thought out than his. She likes romantic films like West Side Story and Gone with the Wind and Grease. He doesn’t agree with any of her film choices other than Star Wars, but has the decency not to tease her about it. And when he saw her song top 10, all Abba and the Bee Gees, he just made a mixed tape for her of his own favourites, Louis Armstrong and Leonard Cohen and Mozart.
She’s agreed to meet him outside the cinema and has been given special permission to walk there by herself. In honour of this newfound freedom, she’s wearing her best dress, the ice blue one with the batwing sleeves. It’s cinched in at the waist with a thin silver belt. Her shoes are flat because Mum and Dad won’t allow heels, but they’re narrow and pointed, not clumpy like her school shoes. As soon as she gets around the corner from her house, she stops and pulls a mirror compact out of her small handbag and applies slashes of blue and pink eye shadow like Brenda showed her, and dabs on the strawberry lip gloss that came free with Jackie magazine. She digs out a plaster to put on her ankle where a blister is already forming from the chafing shoes. Then she straightens the silver cross and chain that her mother suggested would finish the outfit.
It’s a gorgeous evening to be out in the world, the light pink-streaked as the sun sets behind the new trattoria on the square. The cinema is at the top end of Main Street, the sweep of the road seeming to draw you towards it. It’s a squat, unlovely building from the 1930s, with one screen and a sluggish turnover of films. Inside is dingy and musty, with sagging seats and tacky floors. The air is always pungent with the smell of popcorn grease, stale cigarette smoke and rarely cleaned toilets. But none of that matters once it whisks you off to endless deserts, and cities filled with light, and galaxies far, far away.
As she draws near, she’s surprised to see that a much longer queue than normal has formed. There’s an excited buzz in the air. The sense of anticipation is almost palpable. She’s not sure whether to take her place at the end of it or whether he’s already secured a spot further up. She walks along the line nervously, scans the crowd and – oh, God – there’s Donal, right up towards the front. He’s wearing what appears to be a dressing gown. Up closer, she sees that it’s a white towelling robe, with a brown velour belt – from another dressing gown – around his waist. In his hand is some kind of stick. When he spots her, he starts swinging it about and making a loud voom-voom sound.
“What the hell is that?” she calls out, still quite far away and mortified as those around them turn and snigger.
“A light saber,” he replies, an elated smile on his face, “I made it with cardboard and tin foil. I’ve come as a Jedi Knight.”
He swings the stick thing again, entangling it in the sideways ponytail of the girl standing behind him. She roars at him, calls him a freak, and everyone laughs. Margie spots several seniors from school, looking her up and down in amusement.
She doesn’t know what to do, flushed with the shame of being seen with him. As she’s debating whether to turn on her heels and go home, she spots Jamie Ryan just ahead. He’s wearing a leather jacket with the collar turned up, a whiter than white T-shirt and has his dark hair slicked back like Danny Zucko in Grease. He’s sharing a cigarette with a pouty redhead. She’s 19, the same as him. She’s Brenda’s older sister Katie, coldly glamorous and determined to bag Jamie, according to Brenda. She was the one who told Margie there was a chance he might be here tonight. He doesn’t even know Margie exists, and the more he fails to notice her, the more she wants him to. But even standing next to a boy in a dressing gown swinging a tinfoil-covered cardboard roll, he still doesn’t see her now.
She takes out the strawberry lip gloss, dabs at her lips, tosses back her freshly crimped hair and flashes a Hollywood smile at a bedazzled Donal. She decides to stay, see the film. The story hasn’t ended yet.