The Odeon was closing down. It had been a landmark on the High Street for all twenty-six years of Ray's life and had stood there for as long as anyone could remember. It was a part of the town and a part of his history. Admittedly, it was looking its age these days. The once pristine frontage was stained with pigeon droppings, the entrance flooring was more cracked than whole. The poster frames had been defaced too many times and were covered in smears that might be spit, or vomit, or whatever it was the cleaners used to try and remove the graffiti that flowered there every Friday night.
Inside it was equally shabby. No carpet could withstand the continual assault by muddy shoes and spilled sugary drinks. Between the rows of seats in the smaller screens it had turned to something more like flypaper, unwilling to release feet as customers edged their way along.
The manager had tried to get new carpet, but his pleas had been turned down again and again. 'It's not looking good, folks,' he'd said to the staff, almost a month before the official announcement. 'If they won't fork out for a bit of carpet, then…'
'We're doomed.' That was John, the chief projectionist. No-one had taken much notice of his predictions back then. He'd been convinced the cinema was marked for closure since nineteen eighty-something. Now he'd been proved right and kept telling everyone, with gloomy satisfaction, how he'd known it would happen all along. Ray stood on the balcony outside the main projection room, drinking tea from the mug he always washed himself. John didn't believe in washing mugs too often. 'You want to leave a lining on,' he'd say. 'It gives the brew more flavour.' There he was now, down in the car park, locking up his car. It was a Nissan Sunny, almost as old as Ray, but it looked as shiny as if it had just come out of the showroom. Obviously he washed his car more frequently than his mug.
From this height, Ray could clearly see the old chief's bald patch, and his attempt at a comb-over succumbing to the wind's best efforts, as always. Through the open door behind him he heard the click as a join went through the projector gate. 'The Return of the King' was on its final reel. The good thing about long films is that there were only enough hours in the day for three shows. The bad thing was when you had to carry them down eighty-seven stairs to another box. This film wouldn't be moving though. It would finish its run upstairs and be packed off to another cinema on Friday. He stared up at the bruise coloured clouds moving rapidly across the darkening sky. In just a few days it would all be over. There'd be no more evenings standing here watching the lights go on across the town. The box would be silent, the screen dark. John had told him that when the power was switched off in a cinema, it was only a matter of days before damp and decay set in. A bit like a corpse really.
He'd been offered a transfer to another cinema; a multiplex in the next town. He'd visited the place for a short interview (although the job was his in any case) and had been awed by the sterile brilliance of the projection suite. Fluorescent lights, shiny new machines, the latest sound systems. No windows. No comfortable staff room. Even the mugs looked as if they'd been polished.
'It's like working on a production line in these places,' John had said. 'That's not real cinema, lad.'
'The customers seem to enjoy it.'
'Oh, the customers…' He gave a wheezy laugh. 'What do they know about it anyway? I remember when this place was a single screen. Two thousand five hundred seats, circle and stalls. We showed 'The Sound of Music' for six weeks and the queues stretched all the way past Woolworth's. There were five of us working in the box then, and we put on a real show. Back then, all the lights up there in the ceiling worked, and they used to twinkle, just like real stars.'
Ray hadn't ever known those glory days. By the time he'd been old enough to pay his first visit to the Odeon it had already been tripled, or 'butchered' as John put it. But most of the stars had still been alight, and he always used to strain his neck looking up at them until he felt dizzy and dad had to tell him to stop before he made himself sick.
In the staff room, he sat in the old armchair that had started life in John's living room many years ago, before being demoted to the cinema when his wife insisted on a new three piece suite. His glance flicked, as it often did these days, to the gold framed picture of the auditorium on opening day. 'An acre of seats in a garden of dreams' read the caption.
His eyes were drawn along the curve of the balcony, where plushly upholstered seats waited for the first ever paying audience to sink into their luxurious comfort. The rich decoration of the side walls, artfully sculpted to appear like a Spanish village with tiled roofs and narrow windows lit softly from inside, led up to the famous ceiling. Although the photograph was black and white, Ray's memory of its deep blue colouring filled in that detail. Back then they'd had a special projector that made the moon appear over one of the houses. The slide was changed every night so that it was always showing the same phase as the real moon outside.
'Day dreaming again?' John's voice brought him back to the present day.
'Just thinking about how it was when that picture was taken.'
John nodded. 'It was a grand place, this.'
'What happened to the stars? I mean, why don't they work any more?'
'The old dimmer board packed up, so they were disconnected.'
'What a pity.' Ray had seen them often enough when he was up in the void above screen one; a network of tiny bulbs connected by miles of steel conduit.
'Too expensive to replace, they said, and not necessary anyway. The houselights are bright enough for the customers to see their way in. Who needs stars these days?'
'So do you mean to say all the wiring's still up there?'
'Yes. Just no dimmers.'
'Then...' he paused, wondering if the idea was stupid, then decided to chance it. 'If they were connected up to a switch, would they still light up?'
John shrugged. 'Probably. Why?'
'What if we got them all going for the last night. Just to show 'em.'
John said nothing for a few seconds. Then his face cracked into a smile. 'You're mad.'
'Yeah. It comes of working in this place for to long.'
'It'd be hard graft.'
'I don't mind that.' It would be worth it, just for a glimpse of the Odeon's former splendour, even if the audience didn't care.
John was right. It was hard, mucky work, running cables through the void, stirring up dust that had lain undisturbed for twenty odd years. Ray, being small and nimble, was the one who had to drag them through to the parts John couldn't reach. In doing so he found two empty packets of Players cigarettes, a birds nest containing three pale blue speckled eggs and a neatly chalked message on one of the girders. 'Bill Cooper built this. Feb. 36.' He went home each night filthy and exhausted, and the days counted down inexorably towards the last.
A party had been arranged after the last performance. It was apparently old cinema tradition. 'Back in the eighties there were two or three closures each week,' John said. 'We'd go along, help out with the show, then take anything we wanted. Light fittings, projector spares, bits of carpet. Then we'd all get drunk - the ones who were losing their jobs to drown their sorrows, the rest of us to celebrate still having jobs to go to.' He spoke as he worked, threading a handful of wires through the trunking into a large grey fuse box that still had power running to it. 'I must be bloody nuts doing this on me last day.'
'Do you think it'll work?'
'I hope so. Mind you it'll probably blow a fuse or burn the place down. Then they'll have to sack me.' He gave a wheezy laugh. 'Nearly there now.' He tightened the last few connections, and replaced the fuses. 'If you want to go down to the auditorium to watch, I'll throw the switch.'
Ray hurried down from the box, through the double doors at the back of screen one. It had its usual early morning smell, a rich, distinctive aroma of aged wood panelling, wax polish and the detergent the cleaners used to remove marks from the stair nosings. He waited, leaning on the partition and breathed in deeply, imprinting it in his mind, so that he would remember the old Odeon forever. Each cinema had its own, particular smell…
All of a sudden the house lights dipped very slightly and a second later the stars sprang to life. Tiny pinpoints of brightness against the deep blue ceiling, just as he remembered them. He could pick out all the constellations; Orion, Cassiopeia, the Great Bear. In contrast to their whiteness, a warm amber glow shone out from the windows in each of the tiny houses. He could almost imagine that inside, families were settling down to dinner. This was how it must have been on the first day, in that hushed stillness before opening. Another, long dead projectionist, just like him, might have stood at this very spot and felt proud to be a part of it.
The door behind him creaked open as John arrived. 'Look at that. Bloody marvellous.'
They stood there companionably for several minutes. Ray though about what had been achieved. He realised they had managed to salvage something from closure. The cinema would have its last day of glory after all those years of decline. Someone else, coming here for the first time in years just because it was the last day, might notice too, and feel the same sense of wonder and loss.
Up above him the tiny lamps twinkled just like real stars.