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époque press
pronounced: /epƏk/
definition: /time/era/period

Come stand next to me while I wind the crank of the projector. I’d like to show you my new film. I haven’t added the music yet, or written the intertitles, so you’ll have to listen to my voice instead. But you’ve been doing that for a long time now, haven’t you, my love?

     The main character’s coming into the frame now, see? Round the corner he comes, through the portico and into this street of dreams. He goes by the name of Angel Jones. A man, theoretically, but really still a boy. His clothes are worn, his hands glint with herring grease from hours of gutting fish in the market. It would never occur to him these are bad things. He feels blessed. He has a war pension to add to his wages (see the bulge in his jacket), he is not being shot at, he is almost carefree; see how he whistles with his hands snug in his pockets.

     Angel stops, watches the other shoppers with his rose-tinted spectacles. He’s dreaming he is one of them, one half of that lovers’ pair on the corner. Or the loving family hurrying home for evening tea. The shops are shutting, dusk drains the colours around him, but he doesn’t mind. He likes the quiet, doesn’t care to be seen, likes the privacy to dream. The street releases its breath, and the dust settles after a day of tourism, gift seekers, or wanderers by chance - like him.

     He ambles past Harrington’s Maps, Paradise Fabrics, Pelham’s Chocolates. Umber, chestnut, buttermilk– shells of cocoa shine, naked or foiled in the single lamp’s light. He spies a chocolate box shaped as a heart, its crimson ribbon tied without crease. He imagines gifting it to Rocio, the ballet dancer who rents the room opposite him. A valentine box, the likes of which he hasn’t seen since he was little. Forever ago, in a fishing village that feels like the other side of the world.

     His tad gave a box like that to his mam. He can see their kiss now as a small boy standing under the solitary kitchen lamp. An embrace of each pair of hands cupping and owning the other’s face. A soundless joining, so complete they utterly forgot him. As they always did. They were the sun around which he orbited, never able to break free from his allotted trajectory to reach them.

What he would give for such a kiss.

     ‘A kiss from Rocio’s lips,’ he muses aloud, rather pleased (he fancies himself a poet, you see). Like the kisses you see in those old films, with daring escapes and runaway trains, the music dancing on top. The world of silent, soft focus, black and white. The films with captions like love notes typed between celluloid frames. They star plucky actresses like Mary Pickford and Pearl White, with kohl-edged eyes, burnished lips like his mam, hair lacquered and curled just right. The men are wise and daring of course, but the girls. Oh, the girls are the true heroines, brave, surviving against all odds, beating evil foes.

     And by some miracle, as if the street is listening to him, there they are. Inside a corner-shop window, posters of Angel’s favourite actors in theatre and cinema. More stock inside, wooden racks of posters arranged in neat lines. Scenes of the silver screen, the theatre’s footlights, some modern and coloured by hand, a few in between.

     Cinema Amore, it says above the door. How strange Angel hasn’t spotted it before. It used to be a pawnbroker’s shop, did it not? So many closed after the war, their owners injured or dead.

     Through an archway in the back he spies velvet seats facing a white screen.

     When Angel was small, the orphanage put up a screen like that in the refectory one year. A charity event for the Ladies of the Salvation Army in Number 24.

     None of the children were allowed in.

     But Angel spied. Yes, he did. And he saw those silent films. He drank them up like honeyed milk, as he crouched by the crack in the hinge of the scullery door. Another world to which he dreamed he could belong.

Angel’s soft lips turn down, he should be getting back to his attic room. But, he considers, what for? His job that pays just six and four? A bowl of tripe and a morsel of pork? What girl would marry him for that? A life where he sleeps in a garret with scuttling rats.

     On a fanciful whim, he imagines another life in a shop like this. With an aspiring actress perhaps, smooth as ocean-washed glass, willing to take a risk. He even wraps his hand around the polished knob of the glossy red door, the colour of love. But he catches his reflection in the window and looks down like he’s been slapped. He is just a fish gutter, he reminds himself, with red cheeks too full of hopeless hope, black hair that won’t comb down. And a face that’s melted on one side from his lips to his crown. The war saw to that.

     But Angel’s hand does not leave the doorknob. Still tight, it turns as if his hand is defying that reflection to stop him from being what he dreams he could be. The latch unclicks, uncatches; the door opens, the bell tinkles, the base scrapes and in he walks. After all, there’s a light still on in the back. Someone packing up, no doubt. They won’t mind if he has a quick look round. The shop wraps him with the scent of movie goers, their roasted walnuts, discarded orange peel.

     Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap. Like a seagull tapping on a shell, but with an underlying rasp like a wheezing throat. He knows this sound. A square of dirty light pins itself to the screen through the arch. He walks past the displays of posters and film scores, scripts, signed photos of actors and actresses, the kind of thing he would normally want to lose himself in, towards that sound. Through the arch, he enters the miniature picture palace: two dozen cherry-red seats nestled in an auditorium panelled with antique gold and dressed in drapes.

     Numbers count down on the square of light, the taps speed up, black specks, the odd celluloid scratch. The projector at the back of the chamber shudders. Its crank handle revolves once more, slows, stops. So do the taps.

     The numbers on the screen stop on one. One more frame and the story will have begun.

     ‘Hello?’ Angel calls, a hint of urgency in his voice. He wants to see the story, doesn’t want to stay hidden, but at the same time does not want to intrude.

     He did not see who turned the handle, but they have gone now, and he seems to be all alone. Perhaps there is a door at the back. Projectionists sometimes do that. He approaches, and indeed, behind the projector on its tallboy scattered with film reels in grey tin caskets, he finds a small wooden door.


     He’s glad no one responds. By announcing his entry into the shop, he has committed no crime, and anyway, it was open, wasn’t it? The silence gives him permission to stay and to watch.

     Seeing a film is so rare Angel can’t resist touching the black metal and brass projector. Perfect, save for a loose sprocket that’s been secured with a green ribbon. Perhaps the projectionist is a girl, for an aroma of spice lingers over the table, cloves and narcissus oil like they trade on the docks. He places his hand on the dark wooden handle, still warm from the projectionist’s touch. And wonders what it would be like to wind it forward.

     Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap…

     The number one flicks away, but instead of the film’s title the black letter card displays an unexpected sentence:


Test Scenes – Audition for a Love Story


     Angel likes love stories. Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap… Next frame.

     Angel leans forward, smiles. The scene is a dance studio. He has always felt there was something magical about dancers. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors line one side of the room, a wooden practice bar, women in white leotards, stiff net tutus, satin shoes, hair in buns, practising arabesques, pliés, sautés to a silent piano tune.

     One of the girls pirouettes around the room for the examination of the ballet mistress. The girl’s eyes fix on the same location at every revolution. Her smile widens with each spin, and as she approaches the camera she reveals her curiously wide mouth, set in an unusually small face. Her face is frog-like but he cannot see the truth of it, for Angel can only think of two things. The girl is Rocio. And she’s not just looking at a random spot in the room, she’s looking at a person, just out of the camera’s view except for his brogue-toed feet. The film director perhaps?

     Angel wonders what it would be like to be that person, with the power to show Rocio’s beauty to the world, procure that urgent smile. He wills the lens of the camera to move.

     Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap…

     And it does.

     The owner of the shoes has tailored trousers, tailored coat, waistcoat with pocket watch, white shirt and starched collar, tie at the throat. All silk that shimmers in the studio’s milky lights. The man’s long nose is crooked in the middle from an infamous fight.

     Angel knows this man well. He did not go to war. He sent others instead. He runs the gangs in Covent Garden; he decides who lives, who dies, who gets fed. Angel didn’t know the man made films as well. But of course he would. Moving pictures are the latest trend. And anything that makes money, for good or ill, Gascoigne does very well. And now Rocio has caught his eye so he has the best of the immigrant girls too. The idea sickens him.

     Angel stops the film. Wishes he’d never looked. Hopes the projectionist will turn up and shoo him away. But the frame has stopped partway into a new scene. Like one of those new elevators when it’s stuck between floors, the new scene beckons. Watching a film is so expensive and rare, twelve pence at least for half an hour, that Angel turns the handle once more.

     A young man dresses, polishes his shoes so they look like mirrors, fixes his bow tie, combs Macassar oil through his hair, coiffing it into a waved side parting, slides his arms into a narrow tailcoat. He collects a black cane with a silver handle and saunters through a handsome front door. The white-lettered intertitle says:


Rudolph knows how to woo a girl. Do you?


     The young man is now at a club with chandeliers, saucer-shaped champagne glasses, waiters in white jackets and a brass band. He is the centre of attention. The women fawn over him, gossiping behind their hands, following him around the room. He is more graceful than any real man, his shoes more shiny, his tailcoat longer, his cane wider. He bows to the ladies, faux-kisses their hands. Dances with the shyest girls first, making the bolder ones so jealous they swoon. And how he dances, so smoothly his feet barely graze the ground. He floats.

     Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap… Flutter.

     Angel lets out a cry. The reel ends. A new one is required.

     He opens the film tins, searching for the next in the series. The first is empty. The second contains a film about coal barges. The third, elephants. Angel rushes back into the main part of the shop, hoping to find a store of film stacks. Nothing! He rushes back, opens the projectionist door, expecting to find a seating area or back corridor, but finds only a cupboard with projector parts, spare bulbs, handles. He runs to the front of the shop and sees a door behind the cash register. Idiot, he whispers. It opens onto a dark flight down. Angel doesn’t stop to find a light, he feels his way with a hand on the stairwell wall. The door behind slams shut. Black.

     Angel sways like he’s on the deck of a boat, stumbling on the last step, thinking another exists but hitting a concrete floor instead. His sharp intake of breath echoes, bouncing back at him from unseen surfaces. Like sniggering children playing blind man’s bluff. He reaches behind to steady himself. His fingers land on a switch. Switches are rarer to him than films. They mean electricity. He flicks it, thankful he doesn’t need the tinderbox in his pocket and its naked flame. Even he knows celluloid can explode.

     Yellow light responds, bare bulbs. A vastness stretching back into darkness. It is common in this area: cellars bigger than the building above, sometimes they stretch under an entire street.

     Grey film tins fill metal shelves lined in parallel, stacks upon stacks stretching back, more tins in unsorted boxes on the floor, piled around him by the door. Decorated with shipping labels and customs forms from Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin, Shanghai and more. Places of which he has heard only the vaguest of mutterings. Glittering unreachable cities beyond his bifurcated world of hard London streets, and the soft mud of Flanders Fields. He imagines these cities teaming with film-makers and crews and their heroes and heroines. The exotic come true.

     Angel’s thin-soled shoes scratch like sandpaper across the concrete floor of this library that contains no books. Films. Alphabetical, by subject then title. He gobbles their names marked with indelible ink: R– Romance– Shifting Sands, Hearts Adrift, Manhattan Madness. His favourite silent films, his heroes and heroines within. He mutters their names like Hail Marys– Swanson, Pickford, Fairbanks– boys and girls who dazzle with charisma and chiselled chins, seduce with shared cigarettes, and shed tears that speak of swollen hearts and sunken ships. The films are a testament to modern technology and modern romance. Yet as Angel walks deeper into the archive, he notices the older cases are cracked, seeping their decaying scent of vinegar and mothballs behind his back. Like how he would imagine the scent of a tomb. This is surprising, and gouges a small hole in Angel’s surroundings, which are otherwise wholly mesmerising.

     If only Rocio could see this, he thinks. She’s had walk-on parts, dreams of doing more, wants to be the silver screen’s first ballet star. If he had a camera he could film her. Make her that star. Somehow. Then she’d want to be with him. Is that the way to woo a girl? Is that what Gascoigne did?

     Angel crumples the imagined image in his head; he thinks of his parents again. How did his father woo his mother? If only he could ask. But his father is dead. Died in the fishing fleets, overworked, in debt. His mother is dead too. Couldn’t survive without their perfect love, turned to God but it wasn’t enough. God dragged them from Wales to London. Found her a new lover, until her body got used up. Angel doesn’t want to end up empty like that.

     He wants that perfect love. Truly believes Rocio could be the one.

     He must find the rest of that film.

     Remembering the projectionist he calls again, ‘Hello?’ Perhaps they are down here too and can help him? Angel will have to reveal himself, admit he snuck in, but he hasn’t really done anything wrong yet, has he? ‘Hello?’

     The bulbs flicker. Angel turns round expecting to find someone, but all the bulbs wink out, except one defiant globe illuminating a stack in the distance. Angel feels defiant too. He wants that film, and clambers over boxes towards it. A footstool stands next to a stack labelled T. The bulb’s light shines on a toothless gap high up on the shelves where the first reel must have been stored, for next to it is a reel labelled Test, Part 2.

     A test projector stands a few feet away. He rushes to it, fits the reel in place with a bit of trial and error. All the while trying not to make a noise. He winds the handle and watches, hand shaking, as the club scene re-emerges on the cellar wall. The man called Rudolph buys fancy cocktails, compliments the ladies, laughs with the barman. The next scene shows Rudolph out during the day, buying furs and jewels for the ladies, taking them to the races, to five-course dinners with silver tureens and golden sauce boats.

     ‘How can I ever give Rocio that?’ Angel cries and covers his face with his hands. But when men did that in Flanders they usually got shot. Angel whips his hands away, wipes his eyes to clear his vision. The only way to survive is to keep moving.

     A clatter in the distance claims his attention, the bulbs flicker again and the one above him switches off, plunging him into black once more. But another set switches on, even further into the stacks.

     ‘Who’s that?’ Angel says, looks forward, looks back. He swallows, but there’s no one else here, only the sound of his swift breaths, echoing in the expanse. Yet he feels observed. He chuckles aloud at the fanciful idea, walks to the newly lit area. And here, even though the illumination ends and the shadows eat the further stacks so his eyes must strain into their interminable black, he smiles, despair forgotten. In front of him, served on a plate, there are a million more miles of tinned celluloid ribbon. Angel has never seen anything that amounts to a million. He experiments with the taste of the word on his tongue. Its infinite roundness, its flush of possibility. He could watch a film for every hour of every day down here and still not get through it all before dying of old age. Is this Heaven?

     But here, directly under the light, Angel finds the kind of film he has hitherto avoided in life. Broken Blossoms, The Dream Woman, Camille, Nordland. A flavour of film where love is imperfect, antagonistic and often ugly. The opposite of his dreams. Yet, he now chooses to watch each and every one as the night ticks away, perhaps compelled to make the most of this enchanted library. They reveal a different kind of story. Where love grows slowly, link upon link, into a chain of events that creates an unbreakable bond between two people, no matter if the end is happy or tragic. 

     Angel is intoxicated by the marvels of the production and the fine performances, but this style of love makes him wriggle in his seat, stand up and pace. ‘I will prove you wrong,’ he says to the images flickering on the wall. 

     And when the films finish, he does something you are not expecting at all.

     Angel reaches not for another film on the rack, despite the bulbs desperately illuminating several others in the stacks, but for the Ernemann camera standing to the side. He has been watching it out of the corner of his eye for some time now. And he has made up his mind to temporarily suppress the good part of himself. He unscrews the camera from the tripod, tucks the wooden-cased box under his jacket, for it is surprisingly small, and walks to the exit. 

Angel doesn’t look back. All the lights flicker, like angry blinking eyes. Tin reels awaken, shudder and tumble from their stalls, crash to the concrete. But Angel doesn’t hesitate. For in Flanders he learned to navigate the trenches at night amid the cacophony of shelling and machinegun fire. Boxes shift in front of him but he jumps or dodges them, doesn’t falter.

     ‘I will only take it for one night!’ he says, believing in that moment that something in the cinema’s cellar is alive and following him.

     And indeed, Angel only half lies. It becomes so easy to borrow the camera to practise during the day and return at night that he repeats the action again and again. For Angel has discovered a casement window in the cinema’s basement that is always left open.

     Angel’s films are clumsy at first. He runs out of precious celluloid before a scene is complete. He botches the first development, ruining a whole day’s work. He does not even realise he can cut and edit until one night when he arrives back in the cinema’s cellar, the lamps shine on a marble editing table that he has not seen before, tucked in an alcove.

     Slowly, over the course of a month, his practice films become a patchwork of Covent Garden life. The slanting morning sun that strikes the fish in his warehouse with godly light. The gossiping dancers stretching outside the stage door of the Royal Ballet in the afternoons. The painted men in the cookshop on Drury Lane, the wing-capped nurses and gaudy calico queens on Endell Green. He even films Gascoigne when the crook isn’t looking. Ruling his empire from shadowed building corners, fingering his silver-topped knife.

     And the lights in the cellar are always on. Welcoming him. Pointing to a useful new thing every now and then, seemingly to aid his endeavour. Yet Angel never encounters anyone. He begins a fanciful speculation. Perhaps the projectionist is shy and secretly watches his films, thirsty for a life she can’t have. Does he not catch a whiff of her pungent perfume among the film reels sometimes, black narcissus and cloved wine? Perhaps she is impressed by his growing skill. Perhaps she is falling in love with him but some hideous impediment prevents her from confronting him.

     But no matter how hard Angel tries, his films never capture that one thing he craves. That perfect love he desires is absent from his Covent Garden home. Every time he thinks he’s found a perfect moment, it is marred. A woman kisses her lover outside the Sun Tavern, then he slaps her when she begs him for money. A girl hugs two kittens, then drowns them in a bucket.

Angel begins to fear that unless he makes his film with Rocio soon, he might never capture perfect love at all. The time for practice is over.


*                         *                         *


So, a week later, under the light of his single gas lamp, Angel swirls his crayon on the paper one final time, intensifying the yellow circle that hovers like an egg yolk over an undulating indigo surface. A setting sun on a volatile sea. The final shot. A stick figure in a triangular dress stands in arabesque on the shore, her hands reaching out to the tiny silhouette of a man on the horizon. The sun’s vibrancy draws the audience’s eye, insisting it absorbs the final truth. The hero has sacrificed himself to save the girl. Taking her wicked red ballet shoes for himself, and dancing them out to sea, where they will be consumed by the deeps forever. He will not come back.

     Angel places the drawing on the remaining patch of floor next to the other twelve sheets that form the storyboard of his film. The rest of the floor is covered with his new belongings, which he has spent the night organising by scene. Some begged, some borrowed, some found, most bought. He has spent his last pound. His hours at the warehouse, his weekly war pension of five shillings. And eight years’ worth of savings; the money he’s been keeping for a better life. Angel has always been frugal, he doesn’t want to end up like his tad. But isn’t this a better life? The film with Rocio as its heroine will win the ballet dancer’s heart. 

     ‘And the heart is all that matters,’ he says out loud. But in his head it is his mother who says this. He can see her even now, gazing into his father’s eyes the night he bought her a heart-shaped pendant with every penny he had. And other people’s money, as it turned out. He spun her round as her eyes fixated on the pendant’s burgundy depths, a globule of blood on her chest. The house became even barer after that, their last valuables sold. Angel can feel his childhood hunger even now. But wasn’t it a hunger borne of his parents’ love, something exulted above all else? Perhaps that’s why his mother kept the pendant, even at the very end when she could have sold it for good money. That’s why he won’t sell it now, won’t eat a full dinner for a month to keep it. It will be his final gift to Rocio.

     The film he will create will be made of the same perfect love. Every fibre of it will be perfect: the scenes, the lighting, the photoplay intertitles. He has the story ready. It’s been ready in his head ever since Rocio first walked through the lodgings door four years before. Toes pointed for delicate footfall against the coarse unswept floor. ‘Would you mind?’ she had asked, handing him her valise, nodding at the stairs, not wincing once at his ruined face. He was rendered mute in her presence from that very first moment. But tonight he will speak to her for the first time, invite her to star in his film, and their love will be complete.

     Angel hears the front door far below open and close on its squeaky hinge. He hears steps, light and rhythmic as water lapping on a shore. Here she comes!

     He grabs the bouquet of flowers, rushes from his room and clatters down the stairs from the attic, groping for the banisters in the dark. One storey, two storeys, three. He hears a heavy tread, a heavy voice and then a cry, but assumes it’s the couple arguing on the ground floor, who he has learned to ignore.

     Angel rounds the corner of the final landing to the final stair. ‘Rocio,’ he calls, marvelling at the feel of her name in his mouth. ‘I’ve got something to—’

     Rocio looks up. Her face, usually clean as new linen, is stained with dirty tears, ruining her perfection. Angel stops as a shard of artistic disappointment lodges in his heart.

     Gascoigne stands behind her, his leather-gloved hand grips her thin upper arm. Her satin sleeve is torn.

     ‘Back to bed, Freak-face,’ Gascoigne says.

     The jibe is familiar. But the only thing Angel hears is Rocio’s whimper.

     ‘Leave her alone.’ Angel annunciates each word, places a foot on the top step, and has the queerest sensation of being an actor in a film he wasn’t expecting to star in. No sensible person dares tell this God of Covent Garden what to do. But didn’t Angel survive the war? Didn’t he see great men like Gascoigne ripped to shreds like straw?

     ‘Do as he says, Angel.’ Rocio’s voice is rough as tree bark, disfigured by pity.

     Another shard of disappointment grows inside Angel’s heart. Is he so pathetic in her eyes? She should be begging for his help. He takes another step down.

     ‘Please, Angel.’ Rocio’s face hardens. ‘I’ll knock on your door in a few minutes so you know I’m alright. Go upstairs. Please.’

     She sounds like his mother, and he feels like a small, chastised boy. Should he go or should he stay? What would his father have done? What would the heroes in his favourite films do?

     ‘No,’ he says. Perfect love knows no fear, Angel tells himself. ‘Not until he leaves.’ He points at Gascoigne even as his legs shake in the shadows of the stairwell.

     Gascoigne glances at Angel, then bursts out laughing. ‘You’ve got balls, I’ll give you that.’ He pushes Rocio away. ‘You’re welcome to her, Freak-face. But she’ll do more than just steal from you.’

     Angel doesn’t hear, for in his mind he has already made the film, he and Rocio have become famous and they are long gone from this squalid home.

     ‘Don’t move,’ Angel says, and pulls out the black silk handkerchief he’s bought specially for tonight. Everything has to look just right.

     ‘What are you doing?’

     ‘Trust me.’

     Rocio fidgets while he ties the silk over her eyes.

     Blindfolded she turns her head this way and that, tugs at the fabric. ‘How long do I have to stay like this for?’ Her tone is sharp.

     ‘Only a minute!’

     Angel fits his film reel onto the front sprocket of the projector, his hurried fingers fumbling with the celluloid as he threads it through the slots and pulleys.

     He takes Rocio by the shoulders and manoeuvres her so she stands in front of the white screen. He switches on the projector lamp and turns the wheel. ‘Take the blindfold off,’ he says, his hand trembling with excitement.

     Tap tap tap and the film springs to life on the whitewashed wall.

     ‘Finally,’ Rocio mutters and rips the blindfold from her face.

     ‘There’s no music yet, and I haven’t done the intertitles but—’

     Rocio’s hand stills midair as she watches herself dance. Making ciseaux, cabrioles, échappés in front of Angel’s cardboard set of a seafront shop, beach and sunset.

     Rocio approaches the projected image on the cellar wall, caresses the black and white smudges that form her body and face. ‘Beautiful,’ she mutters.

     Angel gazes at her, his fretting forgotten. And then he remembers his notebook, picks it up and begins to read as the film’s frames flicker, like a choirboy from a hymn book.

The girl fell in love with the shoes in the window.

Their red satin shone like the sunset.

But the pennies in her pocket were not enough.

She couldn’t stop thinking about the shoes.

She thought of nothing else, not even food.

One day the door of the shop stood open.

She crept in, took the shoes, and ran.

The shoes fitted perfectly. But the instant the ribbons were tied they whispered, ‘Dance you shall!’ and they swept her away.

They danced her through the streets, past the palace where the handsome prince saw her beauty and cried.

They danced her down the path to the beach towards the raging sea. But she couldn’t stop. The blood from her blistered feet merged with the scarlet cloth.

The prince chased after her on his horse, caught her, ripped her shoes off.

Placed them on his own feet.

And danced into the sea.

Where he still dances now, or is drowned.

And whenever the sunset is red, that is what you see.

     The projector slows, tap taps once twice, halts. Angel switches on the lights. The filaments buzz warm gold, brighten white.

Rocio is motionless except for a single tear that rolls down her cheek.

‘You don’t like it,’ he says, picking up his notebook, pen poised in sweaty fingers. ‘Tell me.’

     Rocio stares at the empty wall. ‘Would you sacrifice yourself for me like this?’ she says. ‘Help me, even if I’d done something wrong?’

     Filled with a warmth like a wool blanket and kitchen fire, Angel crosses to her, reaches out to touch her arm. He doesn’t want to push her into romance too soon, but feels certain this is the bud of perfect love he has always dreamed of. If he tends it very carefully, it will blossom into the same happiness as his mam and tad. 

     He is very close to her. Her eyes are small and flat and brown but to Angel’s sight they are the same as his mother’s, large and warm.

     ‘I’d do anything for you,’ he says. ‘I’d love you no matter what you did.’ He regrets the words as soon as they’re out, feeling sure she will be insulted that a boy like him would have the gall to say such a thing.

     But Rocio claps her hands. ‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘Then I need you to do something for me.’

     ‘Of course,’ Angel says, and dips his head towards her lips.

     The lights go out. The projector stand topples, crashes to the floor; Rocio stumbles, knocks into a stack of reels; the old tins tumble.

     Angel searches for the lights, turns them back on.

     ‘Who’s down there?’ An old man’s voice echoes down the stairwell from the shop above. The owner has appeared at last. But all Angel can do is stare at the broken projector, its casing cracked. A sin that seems so grave to him he almost wants to be caught.

     ‘Come on!’ Rocio pulls him towards the window, but Angel shoves her off. The man will come down here, see the damage, realise how they got in. This is the last time he’ll ever be able to see the archive, ever have access to the camera, the films—

     ‘Please…’ she whispers, and strokes the damaged side of his face, the same face that makes grown men blanch and children run away. And with that touch his fatal decision is made.

     ‘Wait,’ he says, and has just enough time to bundle everything he needs into a bag, before climbing out of the cellar window for the last time.


*                         *                         *


One day later, the kitbag bumps against his back once more, reminds him of the day he left for the war. They were all called up the same day from the neighbourhood: the warehouse workers, the mapmaker, the pawnbroker, the oldest boys from the orphanage. All boys all sons.

     They were full of hope that day. The glory of fighting for something good and true, the hope of becoming heroes, impressing the girls. None of it came true.

     But maybe this time will be different. A glory of a new kind awaits – the love of Rocio, and perhaps even a little fame for his films. Did his story not make Rocio cry? Isn’t that what all the girls love at the pictures?

     Today his kitbag doesn’t contain spare clothes, a metal eating tin or an enamelled pannikin. It contains the Ernemann camera, a developing kit and the now-mended Lumière projector. The wooden parts are polished with beeswax, the moving parts oiled, the brass buffed with Brasso that smells like creosote. He has spent hours working on the projector in the carpenter’s workshop, just as Rocio instructed.

     He has decided it isn’t theft. He’s kept the items safe, hasn’t he? He will return them soon, won’t he? Perhaps in even better condition than they were before. And doesn’t he deserve to keep these things for a little longer? He fought for King and Country. Doesn’t he of all people deserve a bit of perfect love? Oh how he wants to keep Rocio forever. Care for her, cradle her face and kiss her softly like no one else matters. Like his mam and tad.

     But there is a tightness in Angel’s throat, even so.

     ‘When I take the equipment back I will explain in person,’ he says to himself. Instead of leaving an anonymous note he will apologise, pay the owner back for the cost of the celluloid and developing chemicals. Perhaps the old man will be impressed with the films he has created and let him borrow the equipment again. After all, isn’t honesty the most important thing? They will become friends, and Angel will meet the projectionist (perhaps she is the old man’s daughter), and she will be eternally grateful her father has a new friend, for her days are long and hard, caring for him and running the shop and the cinema and the archive. Perhaps the old man has connections, and in time will introduce Angel to producers at Pinewood, Pathé or Hollywood?

     By the time Angel turns down Long Acre to his home, and the rain starts to fall from the flat grey sky, his conscience is almost clean, and his imagined future is almost real.

     He climbs the stairs to Rocio’s room and lets himself in with the key she has given him. She has told him she is dancing late tonight, and even though it is already three in the morning he does not question this. He lays the items out on her faded coverlet next to his mam’s pendant and the red ballet shoes that cost him a whole week’s pay. Everything here is worth a small fortune.

     ‘But nothing compared to you,’ he whispers.

     He places the key next to the pendant and touches it with reverence – the first token of their flowering love. He imagines he will give her his key one day too and one day soon, a ring. He puts his hand to his ruined cheek.      ‘Even with this.’

     Then he closes the door behind him, leaves the building and walks up the street to begin his eighteen-hour shift at the fish market.

     That night, when he comes back to the house, tired, fingers raw and sore, he sees there is no light in Rocio’s window. She doesn’t usually work on Fridays. But, again, he does not question it.

     He lies awake that night, listens for her. But the front door far below never opens, never closes.

     The next day she is still gone, and the next. He paces the floor, forgets to eat, accidentally cuts himself at work. Something has happened, but what? They were to start planning the new film together yesterday. He has bought more paper and crayons and a pinboard he can’t afford. She was going to show her friend who has a friend who has a production company the beautifully restored camera and projector, and Rocio even made a show of taking his film reel of her, ‘All to prove that Angel is a serious filmmaker.’

     Rocio had stood outside his door and kissed him on the cheek then, a chaste kiss that only a sweet virgin would give. ‘We’re going to be stars,’ she had said.

     Eventually Angel braves a knock on her door. He hears the rap echo inside, as if no one lives there any more.

     He tries the doorknob, the door swings open. And indeed, the room is completely empty, except for one thing: a single film reel lying in the middle of the floor, the first one of failed love in Covent Garden. Even his mother’s pendant is gone.


*                         *                         *


Today is Angel’s last. His handwriting is passable but he will not leave a note. There is only one more thing he needs to do before he goes, for every other arrangement has been made. He has worked his last shift at the warehouse, he has given up his attic room on Floral Street, he has donated his possessions to the orphanage. But the props and the film set, he has burned, along with every memory of Rocio. Except the film reel. That he is taking with him.

     He has stood on the street here in front of Cinema Amore three times now and not gone in. This time he rings the tinkling bell, pushes open the door. An old man looks up from behind the cash register.

     ‘May I help you?’ he says.

     Angel wants to stay by the open door so he can make a quick escape. But the man beckons him with a friendly smile.

     ‘Come in, come in,’ he says with the enthusiasm of a shopkeeper who hasn’t seen a customer in a while. ‘Close the door, it’s cold outside. What can I do for you?’ The man shuffles with the aid of a stick to one of the displays.

     ‘Posters, signed photos of the stars.’ He gestures to the archway. ‘A ticket to tonight’s picture, a tour of the archive perhaps?’ His face brightens as he talks.

     Angel almost can’t bear to ruin the man’s excitement.

     ‘I’m not here to buy anything,’ he says. ‘I’m here to pay you back.’

     The man’s vibrance fades.

     Angel feels the heat of his own shame, he looks to the floor. ‘I borrowed something from you’ - he rushes the words out - ‘a lot of things. And now they are gone.’

     ‘What did you take?’ The old man’s voice hardens.

     ‘The Ernemann, the projector from the archive. Chemicals too. I wanted to make a film. I knew you wouldn’t lend them to someone like me, and I never could have afforded—’

     The old man shoves Angel against the counter, gripping him by the neck of his shirt. ‘You stole.’

‘I didn’t mean to’ - Angel twists out of his grip, fumbles in his pocket for a palmful of coins - ‘Take it. It’s not enough but—’

     The old man raises his stick. ‘I don’t want your money, I want my things back!’

     Angel runs for the door. The old man lets his stick fall in front of Angel’s feet, whipping them out from under him. On instinct, Angel grabs the stick to break his fall, but pulls the man down with him. The floor meets his face, cheekbone cracks, the old man tumbles on top of him, crying out as his head hits the floor.


     One minute. Two.

     Angel eases himself out from under the old man, crouches over him and cradles his head, fears he is dead. ‘I… I’m so sorry,’ he says.

     The man’s eyes flicker. ‘I loved that camera. I used it to film my wife before she left.’

     The irony doesn’t escape Angel. A tear dribbles down his cheek. Gently he helps the old man up, surprisingly thin underneath his dapper black suit, and eases him into the chair behind the counter. The old man slumps into its curved back, closes his eyes.

     ‘Is there someone I can get for you?’ Angel says. ‘The projectionist perhaps?’

     ‘There’s only me,’ the old man murmurs.

     Angel folds the man’s wrinkled hand in his and hazards a guess. ‘I mean your daughter then,’ he says. ‘The girl with a green ribbon for her hair?’

     The old man closes his eyes and shakes his head. ‘The girl who mended that projector died a long time ago. There’s only me.’

     Angel sits very still. Neither of them says anything.

     Angel looks at the old man’s face, the skin that sags like plums below the eyes, the gouged lines. It is an unlovable face, like his.

     Angel pulls the reel of celluloid from his pocket and considers it. Freed from its protective tin, he was planning to take it with him to the unforgiving waters under Waterloo Bridge. But the plan to throw himself from the parapet seems like someone else’s story now. The kind of silent romantic tragedy he used to love. Perhaps it’s time to tell a new story instead. Of real love, in the real world.

     ‘I have something to show you,’ Angel says. He helps the old man over to the little cinema in the back, where he watched the film of Rocio on that first night.

     He fits the film of Covent Garden life onto the projector, switches off the lights and turns the wheel. ‘Tell me what you think of this,’ he says. 

     And as the film flutters onto the screen, your scent of cloves fills the air.


Kapu Lewis is an emerging Welsh writer and poet, working in the TV and Film industry and studying for an MFA in Creative Writing at The University of Kent, in the UK. Kapu’s work has been published in literary journals including MIROnline, The Menteur, Erro Press’s Anthology of Womanhood and Handwritten & Co (a leading Asian literary journal).

Of the story, Kapu says:

‘The story Self Portrait is one of nine vignettes I have been working on which explore the different facets of Desire and how they interconnect. Every time I walk down the thoroughfare where the story is set, an ancient street of curios and temptations, I find myself dreaming of things that might have been. But every dream has a price. Angel in Self Portrait, desires perfect love above all else. But he hasn’t yet learnt what love really means…’

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