THE BLACK-AND-WHITE DANCER
It began with a film canister. He found it in the corner of the Classic screen’s projection room. It couldn’t have been there long; he would’ve noticed it sooner. Or someone else would have.
He showed it to his boss but she had no idea where it came from or what it contained. They opened the canister and unwound some of the reel, revealing black and white scenes of a ballet dancer shot in thirty-five millimetre film. She agreed to let him play it before the cinema opened the next day, reasoning that they at least still had the equipment to do so.
It was only twenty minutes of film. It was obviously part of a longer piece, going by the cue mark, but wherever the next reel was it wasn’t here. The projector, which hadn’t been used in over a year, hummed loudly as it played, louder than any other machine in the room. He stared through the small window from the projection room for that whole twenty minutes enraptured by the woman on the screen.
That night he dreamed of her. He dreamed that he too could dance and that they danced together before she threw herself into his arms and kissed him. He woke up panting, covered in sweat, the covers kicked away. He played the film again the next day, without telling his boss. He played the film every day for the next two weeks before his boss found out and threatened to fire him if she saw him playing it again. So he did the only rational thing he could think of and stole a key for the building.
It took time to convince himself to enter the cinema at night. The first two nights he backed out, sure losing his job wasn’t worth it though deep down he knew it was. The dancer drew him to her. He tried searching the internet to find out what this film was, if he could get his hands on a complete copy, but nothing turned up in any of his searches. On the third night he cracked, convincing himself he needed to see her just one more time.
He tried to wait until the middle of the night, tried to stay at home until four in the morning at least, but by one o’clock he was desperate. He threw on jeans and a jumper and left the house, pacing through the dark streets. Every step brought him closer to his dancer.
The cinema was different at night; not exactly scary but definitely unsettling. He knew the building was supposedly haunted but no apparition disturbed him as he made his way to the Classic screen’s projection box. He left the door of the projection room unlocked and open behind him before hurrying up the metal stairs, shivering in anticipation. There was a note of finality in the air, as if tonight would be his last chance to play the film.
The projection room was silent. The whirrs, hums and buzzes that normally filled this room had shut down for the night. He turned on the thirty-five projector and the whirring sound started up. It seemed almost hollow without the accompanying sounds but he didn’t need to turn the other machines on, not tonight.
It took three attempts to thread the film reel through successfully because of his trembling hands. He didn’t play the film, not just yet. Tonight was different; tonight he wanted to watch her dance from the circle instead of through the porthole. He wanted to be closer to her. He took a deep, steadying breath and then set the film into motion.
He ran down the stairs, not bothering with the usual checks, rounded the corner and stumbled into the circle. His plan had been to watch her dance from one of the comfortable leather sofas but he bypassed them completely and leaned over the balcony, aching to be closer to her. If he could’ve made it to the stalls without missing too much he would’ve been in the front row, or perhaps pressed against the screen, as close to her as he could get.
There she was, dancing across the black and white stage with a graceful smile on her face. Her light hair fanned out behind her as she twirled and leapt across the stage in elegant movements. She was beautiful, enchanting. She was everything.
By now he knew her routine like the back of his hand, knew where every twist and turn would take her. Never relaxing his grip on the balcony, he leaned closer as her steps increased in tempo and complexity, as her dance reached its crescendo, breathing heavily as if he were the one dancing. He was mesmerised by her every movement, spellbound by her every step. She was all he could think of, all he wanted, all he knew.
The cue mark appeared on the right-hand corner of the screen. The reel was nearly finished and he readied himself to reset it. He wanted to spend all night watching her. Then time froze. Or so he thought for a moment or two. Then he realised that the film reel had stopped moving on, that it must have jammed in the machine.
She had stopped, mid-step, with her hands over her head, standing on her left toes with her right leg lifted, the foot resting on the left thigh. Her eyes seemed to burn into his, seemed to stick him to the spot. He couldn’t move, not even a step. But he knew he had to unjam the machine before the frame was ruined. He struggled, torn between wanting to stare in her eyes forever and knowing that he had to save this image.
Then she moved. Her leg came down to rest on the floor and her arms lowered to her sides. Panic consumed him. This was wrong. This wasn’t part of her routine. This was wrong.
She stepped forwards, repeated the movement again and again until she was so close to the camera he could only see her breasts filling the screen. The feeling of wrongness overcame him and he managed a shaky step back though he couldn’t peel his eyes away from the screen. Bile rose in his throat and his body shook harder than ever.
Then he was looking at an empty stage. His ballerina had disappeared. No, that couldn’t be. That was impossible, wasn’t it?
A movement in the stalls caught his eye and he moved forward, pressing back onto the balcony, peering over the edge. There she stood below in full colour. Her hair was pale gold and more beautiful than he could have imagined. Her outfit was pink and when she moved her head to look up at him he could see her eyes were endless pools of blue. He blinked, unable to match her stare, and when his eyes opened she was gone.
No, she was here, up in the circle with him, making her way towards him gracefully with a small smile on her face. If he’d thought her beautiful in black in white it was nothing to how she looked standing in front of him now. Her lips were a perfect cupid’s bow. Her tongue reached out to swipe over them and he had to shut his eyes and thank God for this moment. She moved closer, close enough that he could count the freckles on her cheeks. She stopped less than a foot away and just stared at him.
“What’s your name?” His voice was barely a whisper as if he were trying his hardest not to let anything disturb this moment. But he had to know the answer to his question.
Her smiled widened, reached her eyes. “Gabriella Bellerose.”
She stepped closer towards him, until barely an inch separated them, until he could smell the floral scent of her perfume, and pressed her lips to his.
His head spun. His eyes flickered close. He was overwhelmed by the situation, lost in the smooth feel of her lips. He felt her hand tangle in his hair and pull him closer, felt her lips work desperately against his own. He reached up to grab her waist and touched nothing. And suddenly the feel of her lips and her hand vanished.
His eyes popped open. He was alone.
I wander aimlessly. Through the monastery. Through the house. Through the cinema. Through time itself. I wander aimlessly, endlessly. I wander through purgatory. I wander alone. Always alone.
Faces come and faces go but none of them can see me. I scream. I chant. I flick the lights on and off, on and off. I try my hardest to be seen but nothing changes. They think this building is haunted. They’re right. But it changes nothing. They just leave me here to wander. Because none of them can see me and those that have seen me doubt themselves.
Father why have you confined me to this torment? Forgive me of any sin I am guilty. I would confess but I know not what it is that I have done to deserve this. I would confess…
I served all my life. I’ve served you for hundreds of years. All I ask now is for peace. My faith has never wavered, never broken. Even now I turn to you.
Father close the gates of heaven to me as you will but do not leave me trapped here. Send me to hell. Send me to hell or destroy my soul but do not leave me like this.
Father, why have you forsaken me?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lucy Crook is 22 and studying towards a MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University. Lucy studied Archaeology for her undergraduate degree at Newcastle and her writing has been heavily influenced by archaeological concepts and periods. Originally from Northumberland, Lucy now lives in Newcastle and has been heavily influenced by the architecture in the city. She has written short horror stories from a young age and has recently developed an interest in writing for the fantasy and science fiction genres as well.
TYNESIDE CINEMA – MONOLOGUE
I’ve seen all sorts here: from Churchill’s newsreels to a Love Story unfolding on the back row of the ‘Classic.’ It started with the news, and now its space exploration, night crawling, code breaking – the lot. I’ve seen Brief Encounters, Goodfellas treating their wives to a night away from their Domestic Life and Bridesmaids sauntering through the cinema. Lifetime commitments are made, against the backdrop of red velvet. True Romance.
It once was High Society, now Raging Bulls, Taxi Drivers and Deer Hunters all find solace in The Classic. Chicago kicks off in the bar, murder and mayhem the side dish to your wine. And the Roxy runs a sparkling scene, A Bright Star to rival the Interstellar Electra.
Les Choristes are singing upstairs while Sali dishes out beauty advice below. It’s Playtime in the Gallery and The Usual Suspects arrive for the quiz in the bar.
It Happened One Night after the quiz, the Psychos brawled on The Road below. ‘There Will Be Blood’ I thought, and soon after The Rear Window was smashed and a Fight Club escalated Into The Wild of Newcastle. Scarface hobbled home through Chinatown.
Morning comes, The Birds sing and The Breakfast Club arrive, watching the silents and they dunk their dippy egg.
The City awakes and it’s Baby’s Day Out as they arrive with their mams. The lights dimmed, the gentle sounds soothe the Precious Babes in Arms.
Upstairs the Silver Screeners are enjoying a biscuit and a brew, settling down for some Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Little Women saunter into The Digital Lounge, Pretty in Pink and ready for a party.
And The Reader arrives to lead The Book Club – A Room With a View in The Figgis.
In the Solitude between screenings, The Hours pass and and I reflect.
Turner, Cash, Keats and co. have joined me here over the years. Their voices mingle and permeate the walls, their beauty etched in my memory, a joy forever.
The Artist, The Pianist and The Illusionist have performed, charming, haunting and shocking this place of steadfast community.
Now Christmas is coming, will you be Home Alone or enjoying Jimmy on the big screen?
Before Sunset, hundreds file in, dressed to the nines. A Serious Man straightens his tie, A Single Man eyes up a Pretty Woman and The Perfect Man pops some champagne to share with his wife.
The few hours of escape Enchanted them all, transported to another place and time.
As the applause roars over the closing credits, I take in the final words:
‘No man is a failure who has friends.’
Surrounded by mine, the projector rolls on and I wait for the next chapter of my wonderful life.
I can remember her walking down High Friar’s Lane, pulling the collar of her fur coat closer to warm her from the icy air. Beneath her pelt, she wore a burgundy dress that clung to her womanly frame. She had red nails and lips and her dark hair was curled like Bette Davis. She wore small heels so was still just about shorter than me. I wore my tweed suit that had to be taken up by the tailor because my legs were too short. I hoped she wouldn’t notice.
I opened the door for her and instinctively reached for her hand. My doubts about being too forward were soon quelled when she reciprocated my touch with a firm grasp.
Martha worked with my sister in law in the council offices. My brother and his wife were sick of me hanging around like a spare part so decided to set me up. Initially I was nervous, thinking she would be too good for me. As soon as I saw her I knew she was, but I wanted to make her mine.
We sat side by side watching the newsreels for what seemed like hours. It was Churchill’s 70th birthday and there was a special piece on about his achievements. I couldn’t help but think of all the fellas I went to war with and all the friends I’d lost over in France. Death is never an achievement. Anyway, I put aside my reflective melancholy and returned to Martha beside me. Her eyes seemed to bore into the film, taking everything in, flicking from one corner of the screen to another, unable to soak up everything that was being said and shown.
Afterwards we visited the Coffee Rooms and sipped coffee all night, talking about anything and everything. I told her selectively about the war – I didn’t want to damage her fragile disposition – and she told me of her desire to become an actress. I could imagine it, seeing her on the big screen, the femme fatale – she was beautiful. School productions had given her a taste for acting but her parents encouraged her to learn to type and so she ended up in the council offices.
As the dark early evening set in, I walked her home, giddy with excitement at the possibilities of our burgeoning relationship. We walked arm and arm down the lane and I could imagine us doing the same thing in fifty years. I do not feel foolish to say that I was in love with her and I hoped she was in love with me. On her doorstep I kissed her hand and wished her goodnight. The thought of her soothed me to sleep that night and was a welcome respite from the nightmares that usually haunted me.
After the war, I became a postman. Early rising suited me to the ground, I could never sleep well anyway. The fresh morning air always woke me and set me up for the day. After my rounds, I popped to the florists on Leazes Road and bought some carnations for my girl. On the card, I wrote, ‘Meet me at 7 at Tyneside Cinema, Yours, Ted’ and arranged for them to be delivered to the council offices. The Cinema had recently started showing feature films so I thought I would take her to a screening, bringing her one step closer to her dream.
Rubbing my hands to warm against the bracing wind that swayed the carnation in my button hole, I waited for her. 7 o’clock came and she was nowhere to be seen. As the minutes passed, my giddiness slowly turned to disappointment. Maybe the flowers were too much. Maybe I’ve come on too strong. All my worries dissolved when she sauntered smiling down the lane towards me.
She apologised profusely, kissed my cheek with her cold lips and thanked me for the lovely flowers. All was well.
We stopped several times walking up the stairs while she gazed at the décor above. With her neck thrown back, her long hair cascaded down her dress. She told me it looked like Persian décor which I doubted as I’m positive she had never been to Persia. She then asked if I had read anything by Rumi, the Persian poet. I lied and told her I had heard of him but made a mental note to visit the library the next day to research.
I led her into the auditorium, embarrassed by my lack of literary knowledge and we settled on two red velvet chairs at the back of the cinema. Her fingers wrapped around mine and she stroked my hand with her thumb. Something about her seemed so vulnerable and I wanted to scoop her up and look after her for the rest of my life.
Now Voyager played and the breath-taking beauty of Bette Davis was nothing to match my Martha. Her eyes sparkled the whole way through and her mouth turned up at the edges with pleasure. She was enchanted by the moving image on the screen and didn’t seem to notice me sitting beside her.
As the credits rolled she applauded and threw her arms around me telling me what a wonderful film it was. Over coffee she revealed that it was the first feature film she had ever seen. She had watched newsreels and seen stories about actresses in the paper, she had even seen one or two plays but never a film. She gushed about it so much at one point I thought she would knock over the china cups with her expressive hand gestures.
I was in awe of her and longed to imbibe her excitement and zest for life. For the next few months we continued courting, taking chilly walks in Leazes Park, then warming up in the Coffee Rooms. We saw two more films and countless newsreels. The laughter lines on her face increased – surely a sign of her happiness.
She lived with her father and I was never invited into her house. However, she would often come back to mine after we had seen a film, eager for warmth and comfort. We would lie together on my double bed, talking about poetry and films (I had discovered Rumi by this point and he wasn’t bad!)
One afternoon, there was an urgent knock at my door. There she stood on my doorstep, in the mild Spring air, armed with bags both in her hands and under her eyes. She smiled helplessly and I ushered her in before embracing her tightly in my hallway.
Sitting at my kitchen table with a cup of tea and fruit cake, she cried and told me she’d finally done it. She’d finally left the council, stood up to her father, and she was going to move to London to pursue her dream. My heart stopped. What about my dream? Our dream? Marriage, children, a long life of contentment? I knew she wanted to be an actress but she could join an amateur dramatics group.
I tried to focus on my breathing but could only focus on her eyes, pitying me. No longer sparkling, they were dull, glazed over, and one was edged in purple and green bruises. At some point I must have fallen to my knees. I was begging her to stay. I would look after her, provide for her, love her completely until the day I died. She wept heartily, embracing me as she picked me up from my knees.
‘Nothing lasts forever Ted’ she told me.
She wiped her eyes, applied a new coat of lipstick and walked out the door.
When she left, I would visit the cinema most days, watching the same newsreel over and over, watching the monthly films and remembering when she stroked my hand as we watched Bette Davis. I would sip coffee for hours, alone, on the same table where we said we loved each other.
A few years later, there she was, back at the cinema where we first met. My body froze with excitement then felt full and energised, ready to live again. She had come back to me, her laughter lines and red lipstick intact. The most beautiful actress in the world still comes by the cinema to see me, smiling at me from behind the screen. Her name is no longer Martha, I suppose it didn’t seem stylish enough for show business. She named herself Layla. Journalists speculated where her name came from – did she have Persian ancestry? Is she mixed race?
I knew immediately why she picked Layla. Rumi. We read the poem together many times, she was my Layla and I was her Majnun.
Now here I sit, in the flashy new cafe, cradling my coffee. My body is weakening, my mind wandering, but there is one thing I am sure of: she may be Layla to the nation, but to me she is and will always be my Martha.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lucy Jones is from Stockton-on-Tees and is currently writing a young adult novel based around the theme of psycho-dermatology. Her experiences as a secondary school English teacher influence her writing and she also writes a monthly blog for the charity Mind & Skin, the only psycho-dermatology charity in the U.K. You can read it here: http://mindandskin.co.uk/your-experiences-lucy-psoriasis/