It was December 1923, about a week or so before the anniversary of Father’s death. He was blown to pieces in 1914 on his way to the lighthouse when the Germans bombarded Scarborough from their ships in the North Sea, but I’ll come to that later.
Ruby and I spent the evening watching A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate at the Futurist cinema where I worked in the box office. I loved the movie. The director was Charlie Chaplin and it starred the fabulous Edna Purviance as the feisty heroine, Marie St Clair. It was a story of love and loss, extravagant parties and tragic death, and finally hope for the future, and it had me smiling, weeping, laughing and sobbing by turns. I felt as if I had been on an emotional merry-go-round. And it awakened in me a desire to go to Paris, a city of fashion and excitement and glamour, unlike wet and windy Scarborough on the North Yorkshire coast. At the age of nineteen I hadn’t been further afield than York or Whitby. As the credits rolled and the orchestra played, I wanted to sit there and savour the memory of the characters on the screen, but the lights in the auditorium were coming up and the people in our row were standing and putting on their coats and shuffling along, politely indicating to Ruby and me that it was time to get up and leave. We always sat in the back row of the stalls, right next to the aisle. Because it was my job to sell the tickets, we could only take our seats after everyone else had arrived, so we used to slip in at the last minute, whilst the four-minute newsreel was showing before the main feature.
Oblivious to the people waiting to leave, Ruby snapped open a powder compact and dabbed her face with quick, deft strokes. Like me, she must have shed a tear or two, but Ruby was going to emerge from the cinema looking like a film star herself. That was just the way she was. Ruby slipped the powder compact back into her handbag and stood to put on her coat, a black wool one with a fur trim around the collar and the cuffs. Then she pulled her cloche hat down low over her brow. It was a new hat, dark burgundy in colour and decorated with a wide satin ribbon in black. It suited Ruby’s dark hair which she wore fashionably bobbed so that the ends curled around her cheeks.
“I just have to tidy the ticket office ready for tomorrow,” I said as we stepped out into the foyer. I’d left the place in a bit of a mess because I’d been selling tickets right up until just before the film started.
“I’ll wait for you outside,” said Ruby, reaching into her handbag for her cigarette case. “Don’t be long.” She turned up the fur collar on her coat and headed towards the double doors that opened onto the sea-front.
I let myself into the box office, a little glass-fronted booth in the foyer. In 1923 the Futurist was Scarborough’s new movie theatre, only three years old, a huge art-deco building prominently positioned on Foreshore Road, overlooking the South Bay. It seated over two thousand in the stalls and circle, and I was proud to work there. Its name alone expressed exactly what it represented: the future and all that was modern and forward-thinking. It was just what we all needed after the tragedy and gloom of the war and people flocked to see the latest films from America. Of course, they were black and white and silent in those days, but everyone loved them. There was something magical about the way the beam of light from the projection room shone through the darkened auditorium, bringing to life the characters on the screen. Mr Thompson, the cinema manager, was happy for me to slip into the auditorium and watch the films after I had served the last customer. Tragedies, comedies, romances, I saw them all. I knew all the famous actors and actresses from Hollywood, well not personally obviously.
I tidied the counter, rolling up the reel of tickets and putting them away in a drawer. Then I emptied the contents of the till into a metal money box, sorting the shillings from the coppers, so that Mr Thompson could count the evening’s takings. The foyer was gradually clearing as the last members of the audience came down from the more expensive seats in the circle and headed outside.
I heard the arrhythmic click of a walking stick on the shiny floor and looked up to see Mr Thompson limping across the foyer towards the ticket booth. He had been wounded in France sometime during early 1915, spent the remainder of the war on sick leave and always seemed to resent having missed out on most of the action. There were rumours around the town that he exaggerated his limp to make himself appear more of a hero than he really was. I just thought he should consider himself lucky to be alive when so many hadn’t survived, like my brother Frank. Despite his gammy leg, Mr Thompson had that military bearing that comes from having fought and survived a battle.
“I’ve nearly finished tidying up here,” I said, thinking that Mr Thompson had come in search of the money box. He was a stickler for punctuality.
He cleared his throat. “Miss Fairbright, could you go and fetch Mr Drinkwater from the projection room please and then come to my office? There’s someone I’d like you both to meet. You can bring the money box at the same time.”
“Yes, of course.” I watched him make his lopsided way back to his office, a small room off the main foyer. Then I picked up the money box and carried it up the narrow service stairs to the projection room at the top of the cinema.
I peered through the glass panel in the door. Billy Drinkwater, the projectionist, was carefully removing the reel of film from the projector and rolling the end into the protective metal case. He always worked with his shirt sleeves rolled up and I felt my pulse quicken at the sight of those bare arms with the fair hairs, and his strong hands with the long, slender fingers. He handled the reels of film with such nimble dexterity. We had been courting for five months, going to dances at the spa and for walks along the coast, and I knew in my heart that Billy was the one for me.
I tapped on the door and went inside. Billy had given me a tour of the projection room once, pointing out the fire equipment (apparently film reels were notoriously flammable) and showing me how to operate the projector, even saying, laughingly, that if he was ever off sick I’d have to stand in for him, but it had all seemed terribly complicated and my fingers had fumbled over the reel of film, trying to load it into the projector. There was a window overlooking the auditorium but I always felt slightly queasy when I looked down on the audience from such a height. I preferred to keep my feet on the ground selling the tickets.
Billy looked up and his face broke into a smile when he saw me. He was blessed with youthful good looks, his fair hair swept off his forehead and his eyes a deep blue, the colour of the sea on a sunny day. He ran the fingers of one hand through his hair, a familiar gesture that I had come to love.
“Hello, Lil. How did you enjoy the film?”
“I loved it,” I told him truthfully. “I really felt for the characters in the story.”
He looked delighted. “I thought you’d like it,” he said. “It’s a masterpiece. One of Chaplin’s best.”
“Even though he’s not actually in it?”
“He’s a brilliant director,” said Billy. “He understands what makes a good story. And he was in the film actually.”
“Oh? I didn’t see him.”
“He has a walk-on part as the railway porter.”
“Really? I’ll have to watch it again and see if I can spot him.”
He came over to me and embraced me, kissing me on the lips.
I could have happily stayed there all evening, but Mr Thompson would be waiting for us. “Actually,” I said, laying a hand on Billy’s chest, “Mr Thompson sent me to come and get you. He wants to see us both in his office.”
Billy’s face fell. “What about?”
“I’ve no idea. He said there was someone he’d like us to meet.”
“Oh, well, better not keep the boss waiting,” said Billy, unrolling his shirt sleeves and picking up his jacket.
Scarborough Ball is the second in the Scarborough Fair series, a thrilling historical trilogy.
Margarita Morris was born in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. She studied Modern Languages at Jesus College, Oxford and worked in computing for eleven years. She lives in Oxfordshire with her husband and two sons.