The Oracle at the Adelphi
By David Gardiner
This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that
It was only when Satan Coil died that any of us discovered that Satan hadn't been his real name. He died in 1956, the year that the Russian tanks rolled in to Budapest to crush the Hungarian Revolution. Of course the Hungarian Revolution was of no concern to me, I was nine years old and what I cared about was my new black Raleigh Junior bicycle, the TV set with the huge mahogany cabinet and the miniscule, blurry and often rolling black-and-white picture, and the Glenalough Adelphi, the local cinema that was owned and managed by Satan, where my friends and I spent every Saturday afternoon, transported to other lands, other times and other lives by the magic of the flickering screen.
The idea of a cinema being owned and operated by Satan was one that must have appealed mightily to the local Roman Catholic hierarchy, it may even have been them who gave him the nick-name, but I suspect that it emerged more from his habit of running up and down the cinema aisles during the Saturday matinees when the building was taken-over by hordes of runny-nosed pre-teenage youngsters intent on admitting their friends without tickets through the fire-doors, while brandishing a high-powered flashlight and screaming at them in his thick Galway accent to "Sate in yer sates!". It was but a short step from "Sate-in" to the popular familiar name for the Prince of Darkness. And the Prince of Darkness, in a manner of speaking, is exactly what he was.
Satan was not a well man during the time that I knew him. He had been tall, and may even have been handsome in his earlier years, but by the beginning of my cinema-going career he had become unnaturally lean and bent-over, wore a permanent hang-dog scowl on his scrawny pallid face, and seemed always to have last shaved a couple of days prior to any encounter. He spoke in little short bursts, punctuated by attempts to catch his breath, each of which resulted in a cough-like gulp from somewhere at the back of his throat. One could chart from Saturday to Saturday the decline in his ability to climb the stairs to the projection room.
Looking back across the decades to those distant Glenalough days, things become obvious that were far from obvious at the time. I could make a good stab now at putting a name to the condition from which Satan suffered, but more importantly perhaps I can see some of the underlying causes for the slow atrophy of his will to continue. Satan had originally come to Glenalough and purchased the Adelphi in order to be close to Dilly Morgan, the Widow Morgan, as we knew her, Sean Morgan's mother. Sean Morgan was a couple of years older than me, a street-wise thick-set ginger-headed boy with a penchant for bullying, whom nobody liked but many secretly admired at the coarse Christian Brothers Primary School at the south end of the town. Whether the Widow Morgan was really a widow, or whether this was a courtesy title awarded to any woman who found herself alone with a child in the hypocritical and moralistic society of 1950s Ireland is anyone's guess. There were even rumors that Satan Coil might have been Sean's father, but we discounted that theory on the simple grounds that everyone knew that the Coils were Protestants, and the idea of a romantic liaison between a Catholic woman and an unbeliever was even more unthinkable than the notion of fornication itself. More likely Sean was the result of some ill-fated affair in Ms. Morgan's teenage years, and Satan, whose devotion to Dilly was perfectly genuine, hoped that despite his apparent disqualification on religious grounds he might still merit consideration as a suitor to a Catholic woman who was, after all, somewhat damaged goods herself. In the event Dilly Morgan never, to my knowledge, showed the smallest interest in Satan's amorous advances, and drifted into middle-life in the sole company of her thuggish son, the two of them living in one of the smallest cottages within the town boundaries of Glenalough, on the bank of an overgrown, littered and rather foul-smelling stream that only flowed if there had been a few days of heavy rain in the mountains. The cottage was called "Riversdale House".
As well as being unlucky in love, the value of Satan's business investment and the income that it generated declined rapidly and steeply during his years in Glenalough. He often complained that it was the Roman Catholic Church that had engineered his ruin, because although Glenalough was technically within the Protestant dominated and British ruled state of Northern Ireland, it was a border town and peopled predominantly by Catholics. This Catholic/Protestant divide was enormously important in every aspect of Irish life then and still is to this day: about twelve years after Satan's death it led to the armed uprising of the Northern Catholics that is still tearing the unfortunate country apart. In fact Satan was less than honest about the part played by religious affiliations in his floundering fortunes. The truth was that the religious division functioned entirely to his advantage, since the Catholics would come to see all the slightly risqué or anti-clerical films that had been banned by the Church in the South. Indeed when he had something particularly controversial they would flood across the border in their hundreds to taste the forbidden fruit, so that whatever official line the Church may have taken about Satan's picture-house the proximity of large numbers of its members had never done his takings anything but good.
What really destroyed the Adelphi Cinema as a viable concern were factors for which nobody in particular was to blame. The world was changing. Television had taken a major hold, a lot of businesses like pubs and hotels had purchased sets for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth some four years earlier, and as the economies of both Ireland and England emerged from war-time austerity into an era of expansion and relative affluence more and more people could afford a TV of their own, to rent if not to buy. Television meant up-to-the-minute news and live or near-live coverage of major sporting events, which the cinema news-reels could never match, as well as a good selection of films, plays, music, game-shows and all the rest that encouraged the older generation to stay in their houses. The excellent coverage of the highlights of the Melbourne Olympics, only hours after the actual events had taken place, was perhaps the final death-blow to many a small rural picture-house.
The younger generation of course still wanted to go out to the cinema: where else could you get away from the prying eyes of your parents and family to sit with your boyfriend or girlfriend for several hours in near-darkness on the pretext of attending a respectable and socially-sanctioned mass-entertainment? But car-ownership or (for the more adventurous young) motorbike ownership was becoming widespread, and the fifteen or twenty mile drive to Belleek or Sligo to attend one of the bigger and flashier cinemas was becoming part of the Saturday evening ritual. No self-respecting teenager who was in a job would invite a girl to the local flea-pit: he would make an event of it, drive her to the county town, include a snack in one of the newly mushrooming coffee-bars, and maybe park up for a while on the way home and make sure that he got value for his evening's investment. At the same time the standards of sexual explicitness permitted by the British Board of Film Censors and the Roman Catholic Church began to draw closer together, so that the occasional suggestive piece of dialogue, lingering kiss, or even the fleeting glimpse of an exposed female nipple was no longer sufficient to curb a film's distribution in the Irish Republic.
In addition to all of this, an era in which patrons would accept almost any double feature that the cinema manager was able to hire was giving way to one in which people expected to be able to see whatever Hollywood's latest offering happened to be. Three-or-four-year-old circuit faithfuls, of which there were many, were no longer acceptable to the cinema industry's younger customers, and new films cost so much to hire that effectively they were only available to the larger chained outlets. The role for cinemas like the Glenalough Adelphi was simply melting away, and there was nothing that Satan Coil could do to change that.
Satan became a bitter man, and the bitterness showed in his features and sounded in his voice when he spoke. The young projectionist that he had trained-up, Alfie McCormack, left to join the RUC in Belfast and, some thirteen years later, acquired momentary fame as the first Northern Ireland police officer to be killed by sniper-fire on the streets of Dundalk.
For a while, Satan tried to run the cinema almost single-handed. He arranged for the distributors to send a projectionist from Sligo along with the film reels themselves four nights a week plus Saturday afternoons and drive back when the show was done. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays there was no program. He hired a girl for the box office, sometimes sold the tickets himself, and usually showed people to their seats wielding his famous high-powered flashlight. In the daytime he could be found inside the darkened theatre clearing the litter out from between the rows of seats, or outside attaching the letters that made-up the title of the evening's program to the illuminated display-board over the front entrance. The Saturday matinees when the children got in for half a crown to watch a cowboy film, a few cartoons and an episode of "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe" or Bella Lugosi's "Phantom Creeps" show were always his most profitable sessions, and his stern commands to "Sate in yer sates" sprang from a well-founded neurosis that he was losing a significant proportion of his takings because of gatecrashers entering through the fire-exits at each side of the screen. He tried locking the fire-exits and received an immediate and strongly-worded rebuke from the Town Hall threatening to withdraw his entertainment license if he ever did it again.
Satan was effectively a cornered man, his economic future and whatever capital he had taken with him from Galway were tied up in a venture that was obviously nose-diving, his physical condition was deteriorating at an approximately parallel rate, and his hopes for a future with Dilly had long ago crumbled to dust and drifted away on the breeze. There came a point at which Satan realized that he had nothing left to look forward to, whereupon he turned to the traditional self-medication for depression that comes in bottles and is sold at all corner-stores everywhere. From that point onwards, things became dismally predictable.
The summer that Satan Coil died was one of the hottest that we had ever had in Glenalough. A shimmering haze softened the outline of the distant Sligo hills and the stream outside Dilly Morgan's back door turned into a desiccated white roadway with a surface hardness approaching that of concrete, in which old packing-crates, tar drums, bicycle-frames and iron bedsteads had been artistically half submerged. My friends and I didn't have a great deal to do in the long school holidays so we took to hanging around the cinema and annoying Satan as he went about his daily tasks.
Between Satan and the local schoolchildren there existed a powerful and subtle relationship based on fear, fascination, irritation, admiration, distaste and probably a lot of other elements as well. There was something of the bogey-man about him, especially when he shouted at you in the darkened theatre, but deep-down you knew that he wasn't going to do anything to you, unlike the Christian Brothers who would give you a clip around the ear as quick as look at you. He filled the same role as fairytale ogres and giants and horror-film monsters: you could enjoy the thrill of being scared of him in perfect confidence that the threat was unreal. For the braver among us it was fun to tease him and mimic his Galway accent, to chant "sate in yer sates!" as he walked down the road, but he had learned that the best way to deal with this was not to react at all, and that caused us to lose interest fairly quickly. The nick-name "Satan" was an important part of his image for the local schoolchildren. Steeped as we were in religious superstitions of all kinds, we had no difficulty in accepting that he was indeed the embodiment of all that was evil and corrupt, and that when he was not in the cinema he was somewhere in the deepest pits of Hell prodding with a long three-pronged fork the roasting souls of people who had died in mortal sin. Mothers would say to their wayward infants: "If you don't come in here this minute I'll send for Satan Coil and get him to take you away!". At another level of course we knew that he was just a lonely old man trying to make a living out of a run-down country picture-house, but children have no difficulty in simultaneously accepting contradictory beliefs. That was one of the topics that Satan and I used to talk about. If you wanted to make it sound impressive you might call it the extent to which art is real and to which reality is art.
I was one of the least boisterous of the local swarm of school-age brats, and because I was an only-child living with my father I got to stay out later than most of the others, and sometimes managed to see the more expensive evening programs intended for adult consumption. Satan took an obvious interest in the fact that I attended these and if he found me on my own would open the conversation with a question like: "What did ye think o' thon fill-em last night then?". The word "film" is pronounced by most Irish people as though it has two syllables.
In a one-to-one conversational setting there was nothing scary about Satan Coil. In fact I began to realize that he was an intelligent and sensitive man, who was able to guide me into seeing a lot of things in "fill-ems" that I would otherwise have missed.
"What did ye think 'o the scene where the two of them was up in the air in the big wheel," he would probe, "an Harry looks down at the people the size of ants and says what would it matter if one 'o them ants stopped moving?"
"I don't remember that bit," I would say, "I liked the shooting in the caves at the end."
"They weren't caves," he would explain patiently, "them was sewers. Th' sewers of Vienna. What is it that you find in sewers?"
"Rats. Aye. Rats. Harry was a rat. Anybody that doesn't care about one 'o them ants stopping moving, that's a rat. Harry was an evil man, but he was th' other fella's friend. The fella' that shot him in the sewer."
"You mean he shot his friend?"
"Aye. But if your friend's a rat, what should ye do? Should ye stick by him, or should ye do the right thing?"
And so it would go on. Satan Coil had the skill of a true educator, the ability to lead his pupil to a critical understanding of a work of art, and the forbearance never to force his own conclusion on his student. All that he lacked was the trained academic's facility with words: he was not an articulate man, and perhaps that had been his undoing with Dilly. Through the few conversations that I had with him that brief summer I began to realize quite a lot about why some films were better than others. For example, one mark of a really good film is that it is possible to look at the story in more than one way. I began to understand that not everything in a good story, and maybe not everything in a person or in life itself, is sitting right there on the surface for you to see at the first glance. Satan Coil was my first real teacher, the one who showed me how to take the first step along the bridge that links childhood to maturity.
It was the Monday of the last week of our summer holiday when we heard that Satan was in serious trouble. He hadn't bothered to put up the title of the Monday night show over the front entrance, and in the early evening the projectionist arrived in his car from Sligo and pasted a notice on the glass door saying that there would be no more performances at the Adelphi until further notice. A couple of us were there on our bikes and saw him arrive, so we asked him what was going on.
"None 'o your business," he told us brusquely, but he stopped off at Flannigan's pub on the way back and within about twenty minutes the news had reached us that Coil owed them so much money they were refusing to rent him any more films until it was paid. Even at nine I could see the illogicality of this, for if he couldn't show films how was he going to pay his debts, but I could see no way into the circle. Evidently, neither could Satan. At about eight o'clock that evening, the time when the film would have been starting, the rumor reached us from the Police Station that Satan Coil had been found dead in his rooming-house by the landlady, who had come to collect back rent. He had taken a cocktail of prescription sleeping-pills and Old Bushmills Whiskey, whether deliberately or accidentally there was no way to be sure.
Satan Coil's funeral was a far bigger event than any of us would have expected. A brother of his that none of us had ever heard tell of came up from Galway in a big black Austin car and paid for the funeral, with a fine mahogany coffin and a horse-drawn hearse and a plot at the top end of the Protestant graveyard where it didn't flood in the winter. I wondered why the brother couldn't have done something for him while he was still alive. Before I'd had those talks with Satan something like that would never have occurred to me. A huge number of people came to that funeral, even though it was in the Protestant church: nearly all the children in the town, as well as the most of the older folk, and, to my great surprise, Dilly Morgan and Sean. I saw Dilly shed a few tears when they finally lowered the big dark wooden coffin into the hole, and I wondered the same thing about her that I had wondered about Satan's brother.
As you can imagine, we were a bit subdued in the couple of days that followed the funeral. We hung around outside the cinema on our bikes and talked in low tones about Satan's death, and whether or not he had gone to Hell, which seemed pretty inevitable, having a name like that, and being a Protestant. It was Friday, and we had no Saturday matinee to look forward to, and school would be starting again on Monday. I think that secretly a lot of us were feeling bad about the way that we had treated Satan: even the business about getting in without paying to the Saturday matinees seemed a bit mean and unfair now. We were beginning to discover that as well as religion with all its random rules and regulations about not eating meat on a Friday and never taking the name of God in vain and all the rest of it there was a genuine moral order in life which was based on kindness and justice. It mattered how you treated other people.
About sundown, when we were thinking about heading home for our tea, Sean Morgan arrived on his bicycle with that sly expression on his face that generally meant he had a scam of some kind on his mind. Being older than us and due to move up to the big school at the end of the term he wouldn't have bothered to talk to us unless he had.
"Have yez ever heard of a séance?" he asked, pronouncing the silent "e" at the end of the word. Of course we hadn't. "It's when you all gather around and call-up the ghost of a dead person," he explained. "Why don't we go to the Adelphi tonight and call up the ghost of Satan Coil? I'll show yez how to do it."
We protested that the cinema was shut and we couldn't get in, but Sean assured us that the green fire-exit would be open at midnight for anybody with enough guts to come along. It was the kind of challenge a nine-year-old boy couldn't really refuse.
I think there had been six of us leaning on our bikes when Sean had issued the challenge, but only three of us showed up at midnight. That wasn't particularly surprising, considering that it involved getting dressed and sneaking out of the house without being heard or seen. I had put my trousers on over my pajama bottoms and slipped my bare feet into my sandals before sneaking out through the bedroom window and climbing down into the back garden by way of the flat extension roof and the water-barrel.
Ernie, the butcher's son, had a watch, and we waited until 12.15 in case anybody else was going to come. Then with racing hearts, we gently pulled open the fire-exit and peered into the empty theatre.
The huge inner space was in total darkness except for two yellowish flickering lights right at the back, high up on the wall near the projection room. We tip-toed in and soundlessly ascended the sloping aisle towards the back of the cinema.
As our eyes became accustomed to the dark we saw that the light was coming from behind the two projection slots high up on the wall. Someone had been busy with a paintbrush and had sketched-in the shape of two enormous eyes around them, the fiery projection slots forming their glowing slit-like pupils. I felt myself enter into that complicity in make-believe that participation in theatre or performance of any kind requires. Part of me knew that the giant eyes had been painted on the wall by Sean, that the eerie light was coming from candles that he had positioned behind the projection slots, and that he was in the projection room right now getting ready to give us the "meeting with the dead" that he had obviously planned; but another part of me was completely willing to accept the reality of the supernatural dimension, eager to believe that the blazing eyes drew their light from the deepest recesses of the Inferno, from which the ghost of Satan Coil would soon address us.
We stopped before the weird apparition and sought each other's hands for reassurance. Ernie the butcher's son was the first one to speak. "Is that you, Mr. Coil?" he inquired with a meek politeness that he would never have proffered the living Satan.
"Sate in yer Sates!" thundered a voice from behind the projection slots, in a somewhat forced bass register and a very passable Galway accent. It was such a shock that we literally fell over one another, tumbling to the floor in a tangle of startled bodies, not knowing whether to laugh or scream. No sooner had we fallen in front of the mighty idol than a piercing white beam shot from one of its eyes to light up part of the screen behind us. It was a good touch. This time, at least one of us screamed. The scream seemed to break the tension and from the middle of the little huddle of bodies I looked up in time to see the beam cut and the flickering firelight replace its brilliance.
"Are ye.... Are ye in Hell, Mr. Coil?" Ernie piped-up nervously, entering completely into the spirit of the occasion.
"Aye, I'm in Hell sure enough," came the blood-curdling imitation of Satan Coil's voice. At the same moment there was the clatter of a falling object and one of the eyes lost its flickering inner light. We heard the faint sound of someone shuffling around on the floor of the projection room.
"Are ye.... Are ye burnin' up, Mr. Coil?" Ernie probed anxiously.
There was no immediate reply but the quality of the light issuing from the two projection slots seemed to change. It seemed to become noticeably redder and also brighter. Ernie repeated his question. There was still no answer. We stood up almost simultaneously, keen to see what change was taking place inside the imagined head of the fiery-eyed monster. The light from the slots became brighter still and we fancied that we could smell something like burning plastic. Within a few moments the smell had become completely unmistakable and there was smoke issuing from the two holes in the wall. We could hear the crackling of material catching light and as we watched flames began to snake outwards from the projection slots, lighting-up the whole scene like a bonfire in a dark forest, staining the wall above the slots black in their path, bending and thrusting to touch the high ceiling. Behind us our three shadows danced insanely as we backed away instinctively towards the aisle and the safety of the fire-door.
"God almighty! I'm out of here!" I heard one of the others announce, and the two of them were gone in the wink of an eye.
But as for me, I found myself transfixed like a rabbit in the headlight beam of a car, unable to avert my gaze from the gathering inferno, hovering somewhere in the hinterland between two realities. The smell was becoming unbearable and the intensity of the heat made me back further away involuntarily, but something inside me told me that it was not yet time to leave, that this night still had something more to teach me. And so it proved.
With a single exception which I will presently explain, I have never spoken to anyone of the things that took place in the Adelphi that night. Neither have any of the others. Sean must have been able to get out in time when he knocked over the candle, because he appeared at school at the appointed hour on the Monday, and there was never the least suggestion of his having had any part to play in the cinema burning down. The destruction was so complete that the fire officers were unable to say what had started it. It occurred to me afterwards that if Satan had still been alive the insurance money might have been his salvation. But as far as our midnight séance was concerned, it was simply an event that had never taken place.
So what was it, you may be wondering, that happened between the time the others fled and the time that I made my own escape? Well, I don't expect you to believe this: I'm not sure that I believe it myself. After all, I was a nine-year-old boy with a highly active imagination, and the night's events had put me in the ideal frame of mind for accepting the incredible. But if I were standing this moment before God himself and had sworn to tell the truth or forfeit my immortal soul, I would have to announce that the voice of Satan Coil spoke to me one more time that night. It spoke quietly and calmly and it sounded nothing whatever like Sean Morgan's adolescent mimicry. It asked me to pass on a message, which, for what it is worth, I have since done. It spoke to me politely, as a friend requesting a favor.
"Would ye do something for me?" it gently entreated from somewhere within the flames, "Would ye tell Dilly Morgan thanks for comin' to the funeral?"