Author: Helen Merrick

Cigarette smoke. No doubt about it. What idiot was smoking in the cinema? I take the steps two at a time determined to find the culprit before the smoke alarms go off. Bursting through the door, I intend to head for the toilets – the usual hiding place – but there’s no need: a tall blonde is leaning against the wall by the balcony doors, cigarette dangling from scarlet lips. Startled, she stubs it out in a wall-mounted ashtray.
“Sorry,” she says with a nervous smile, “I was gasping for a ciggie. You going in?” She winks. “Sneaky peek?”
She hauls the door open before I can reply and the chastisement on the tip of my tongue dissolves into mute horror as the blaring soundtrack hits my ears. Oh no! My heart lurches violently. I’d recognise the soundtrack for Blade Runner anywhere and Sean Young’s heavily made-up, emotionless eyes stare at me from the screen. What’s happened to Toy Story 4, my Saturday Kid’s matinee?
Panicked, I turn tail and charge full-tilt for the projection box. I prepare to stop the film and mentally rehearse my apology to the audience. But, through the viewing window, I see Woody enjoying a tearful reunion with Bo Peep. The audience, silhouettes against the screen, jostle gently as they laugh.
“What the…” I stare at the screen, afraid to look away. Everything seems normal and the digital projector purrs placidly. I clutch my head. What is going on? I try to think, rationalise. Did I just hallucinate? Surely not. My thoughts whirl and something nags at me, something’s not right. Think!
“The ashtray…” Of course. We don’t have ashtrays in the cinema, haven’t for years. “I’m going mad,” I mutter, “totally mad.” Then another whiff of cigarettes sends me hurtling back downstairs.
She’s there again – the blonde, smoking.
“Sorry,” she says with the same nervous smile. “I was gasping for a ciggie.”
For the first time, I notice she’s wearing a navy button-down dress; the uniform ushers wore, years ago. I remember them complaining that they looked like airline stewardesses. And the carpet beneath her patent leather heels is red, not blue.
“Going in?” She winks. “Sneaky peek?”
I can already hear Blade Runner. “No. I… I’ve got to…”
Waving a hand, I dash back to the projection box but that, to my horror, is different too. The noise is wrong; even before I’m upstairs I can tell it’s not the digital projector making the clanging clatter. “Victoria five,” I murmur as the familiar, hulking shape looms into view, a bent spool clanking against the frame as it turns.
I rub my eyes. I know this projector: I used it, loved it before it was scrapped in favour of digital technology.
“Did you get a look?”
The voice startles me and, turning, I catch my breath. It’s an incredible moment. Astonished, I study the face of a woman I thought never to see again – auburn hair, laughter lines, lopsided smile. My mother.
“How…” My voice is weak, head filled with memories, emotions – Mum bringing me to work, letting me watch her lace the projector, teaching me how it’s done. Her warmth as she hugged me. Her scent. Mum…
My head hurts.
“Darling, you okay?”
My hands are shaking and raising them, I see they look different: no wrinkles, no wedding ring. I touch my head, feel hair that’s soft and long. Then, looking down, I see the body of a child.
Tears of joy fill my eyes.