Bill left school at the age of fifteen, in the summer of nineteen sixty two. He'd always been more practical than academic, so there was no point in staying on. Besides, he wanted to start work and earn money. His older brother Freddie had left two years before and got himself apprenticed to an electrical company, but Bill didn't have the necessary qualifications to do the same. His dad had mentioned that a mate of his who was in the plumbing business might need a lad to train, but nothing came of it. Then one afternoon as he was walking past the local cinema a sign on the doors caught his eye. 'Staff required. Part time ushers/usherettes. Full time rewind boy. Apply within.'
Regular cinema going had been a part of his childhood; Saturday morning pictures most weekends and visits with the family, but he'd never thought about working in a cinema. It seemed slightly exotic; just a few steps away from joining the circus.
Anyway, he went inside, spoke to the lady in the pay box, filled in a form, had an interview with the chief projectionist the next day, then started the following Monday. That was how his career in the cinema business began.
He worked a forty eight hour week, with one day off. Most of the time was spent cleaning; sweeping and polishing the already shining projection box floor, emptying arc trays, wiping down the rewind benches, washing light fittings while lamps were being changed, dusting the black felt masking around the screen. Despite his job title, it was several weeks before he was allowed to actually touch film. Even then he learned the skill of rewinding on a reel of old trailers, standing in front of the bench with burning fingers as he tried to keep the tension even and the film perfectly wound with no proud edges that would catch the sides of the spool.
Apart from Harold, the chief, who was in his late fifties, there were three others employed in the projection box. One was the co-chief, Charlie, who had been a chief in his own right at one of the company's other sites nearby until it was turned into a bingo club. He only had a few years left before he retired, so they had allowed him to transfer and keep the title. He never seemed to do much actual work, just sat in the staff room eating biscuits, drinking tea so strong it was a wonder the spoon didn't dissolve, and chain smoking. Many of the fag ends were flicked out of the window into the gardens below. The ones that missed ended up on the floor, along with layers of ash and biscuit crumbs, all of which Bill cleared up as part of his daily duties.
Brian, the second, was an ambitious man. He took pride in keeping the projection equipment well maintained and spotless. Bill took care not to get on the wrong side of him as he had a sharp tongue and seemed to enjoy finding fault in other's work, particularly that of John, the unlucky third. Whatever John did was never quite up to Brian's high standards. It didn't help that he was slightly clumsy and tended to get flustered when he knew he was being watched. The more Brian criticised, the worse John's mistakes became. On one memorable afternoon he missed a changeover, leaving the screen black for several seconds.
'If I was chief, you'd be out that door quicker than I could throw you,' Brian said. 'And you'd not get into any projection box in the country if I had the chance to tell them about you first.'
Bill kept his head down, did as he was told and learned as much as he could from watching the others, so that when it was his turn to perform a new job he wasn't wholly in the dark regarding what was required. He got a reputation for being quick to learn, and although he made mistakes, they were never serious ones, or ones he couldn't put right before anyone noticed. And despite the disadvantages of working in a cinema; the low pay and the unsocial hours, he knew he would stay and make his way up the long ladder. There was something about getting everything just right that gave him a great deal of job satisfaction. Even the never-ending cleaning had a purpose – tiny specks of dust on the film were magnified into huge black spots on screen and could scratch the film too.
'Don't know why you bother,' John said to him one morning as they cleaned out the arcs. 'Projection's a mug's game. My old man says cinemas won't last, not once everyone's got a telly.'
'So why are you still here then?'
'Biding me time until something better comes along, ain't I?
When John finally left, Bill was made up to third projectionist, after passing a test set by Harold and the Regional Engineer. Even Brian had to agree that he did a good job.
Of course, working several evenings each week made it difficult to meet girls. Both Harold and Charlie had ended up marrying women who worked in the cinema. 'It doesn't work, going out with someone who isn't in the business,' Charlie said one afternoon. 'They'll moan about you never being around. They don't understand. My first wife tried to get me into another trade. Then she buggered off with a plumber.'
He was right. Bill had kept in contact with the mates he'd known at school and some of the girls as well, but their social life centred on nights out, while he was at work. He soon lost touch with who was seeing who, where they'd been and where they were planning on going. After just a few months, they had little in common any more. It was almost inevitable that he ended up on a date with one of the ice-cream girls.
'That afternoon when you came down to the ice room and changed the battery on my tray, I knew there was something between us,' she said later.
'Yes, five raspberry ripples and a choc and nut sundae,' he joked.