Read the opening chapter from Cinema Lumière

 

‘Nellie, that’s disgusting.’ I jerk my head off the pillow as a guff of foul air hits my nostrils. ‘What on earth have you eaten?’ 

Nellie, whose face is about four inches from mine, opens one eye. She glares at me then lets out a cross little fart. The eye closes, there’s another guff and a bubble of drool slithers from the side of her mouth.

I sigh. It’s pointless trying to reason with Nellie so instead I haul myself out of bed and stumble across the room towards the kitchen. My feet and fingers are freezing and my toes have turned that mortuary blue you see on television corpses. In fact they’re so bad this morning that for a sleepy split-second I wonder if maybe I died during the night. Maybe I’m just a ghostly shadow drifting back and forth from bedroom to kitchen, trapped for eternity between a gaseous bedmate and last night’s pile of dirty plates.

The kitchen floor isn’t helping – it’s gravestone cold. I shuffle towards the fridge and feel something sticky underfoot. The bin, which is usually under the sink, is lying on its side with a selection of half-gnawed pizza boxes and shredded crisp packets spilling from its open mouth.

Nellie, I think.

I pick up the rubbish and lay out Nellie’s breakfast in her bowl on the sideboard. Then I flick open the child’s safety catch on the fridge and reach inside for the milk. My eyes blink to adjust to the light that shines from behind the out-of-date sausages, and it’s only now that I remember my dream. Although it wasn’t really a dream, it was more of a mini film, whose images were brighter and more vivid than anything I’ve seen before: 

In it, I was sitting alone in a cinema on a red velvet seat. It was dark but I could make out the thick crimson curtains drawn across the screen in front of me. From the projectionist’s booth behind my chair came the whirring and clicking of film reels being changed.

‘Hannah!’

I jumped at the sound of the voice and twisted round to see a familiar figure standing behind the shaft of light streaming from the booth.

‘Victor!’ I said, both elated and astonished to see him.

Victor smiled from his elevated position and pointed towards the screen. Seconds later I heard the soft muffle of the curtains drawing apart. When I turned back, I saw that the screen was blank, except for one bright red feather in the top right-hand corner. There was something mesmerising about the feather and I watched it float downwards, gently swirling back and forth as though blown by an unseen breeze.

The moment it touched the bottom of the screen I awoke.

I close the fridge door and try to shake from my head the image of Victor high in the projectionist’s booth. Why is he still hanging around the edges of my mind, sliding unbidden into my dreams at night? It’s been over two years now, why can’t he just leave me alone?

Nellie is still asleep when I carry in her breakfast so I waft the bowl past her nose to coax her from her morning coma. She opens both eyes and rearranges her mouth into something resembling a grin.

‘Nellie, have you been in the bin?’ I say.

Nellie looks at me as if I’ve suggested she’s eaten the television.

‘Yes, you,’ I say. ‘No breakfast till you come clean.’

Torn between greed and an admission of guilt, a variety of expressions flit across Nellie’s face before her cheeks puff outwards with what I assume is a begrudging sigh.

Although a lot of people say that British bulldogs look like Winston Churchill, or vice versa, that’s not the case with Nellie. With her soft pendulous cheeks, wide brow and crooked mouth, through which several teeth protrude at odd angles, she looks more like Les Dawson – only with a furry face and in dire need of a trip to the dentist. And like Les, she has quite a repertoire of expressions, which after a little practise, aren’t too difficult to decipher.

‘You’ll make yourself sick again,’ I say.

Nellie pointedly ignores me and eyeballs her bowl of breakfast.

It’s not worth pursuing the argument because Nellie and I have been over the same ground since she arrived, and I always lose. So while I plunder the wash basket for a clean-ish skirt to wear for work, I listen to the sound of her eating, gums slapping together like wet nappies. By the time she’s finished, it’s already eight thirty and we’re late for the morning walk.

Having heaved myself and 60lbs worth of sulking bulldog up the steps from my basement flat (Nellie’s not a big fan of stairs … or walking for that matter), we set off for the local cemetery, the nearest open stretch of grass to the cul-de-sac where I live. On the way we pass the Caribbean takeaway with its rows of freshly baked patties, then the Spanish delicatessen whose windows glisten with piles of chorizo sausages. Next comes the launderette, ruled by Mrs O’Connor and her permanently crooked wig. At the end of this little stretch is the Paradise pub, named after a line from GK Chesterton’s poem ‘To Paradise by way of Kensal Green.’

Once on Harrow Road, Nellie and I cross over to the white pillared gates of the cemetery. ‘London’s Foremost Necropolis’, as it bills itself in the brochure, stretches over seventy acres and packs in more than 60,000 graves. Over the two years that we’ve been coming here, Nellie and I have got to know the more eccentric inhabitants. Our favourites include Thomas Hood, the poet who once mortgaged his brain with his publishers in return for a cash advance, and the Duke of Sussex, renowned for his house full of singing birds and chiming clocks and his diet of turtle soup and orange ices.

The cemetery is modelled on Père Lachaise in Paris and boasts residents from China, Chile, Italy, Egypt, Eritrea, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Hungary, Morocco and Iceland – all lying side by side having come to rest in this little corner of the capital. Each grave, from lichen-frosted mausoleum and crumbling Corinthian column to moss-coated angel and simple wooden cross, is wreathed in ivy. Silence hangs like a fine mist, the sound of 60,000 souls between breaths.

The frozen ground crunches beneath our feet as Nellie and I traipse through the gates and the icy January fog is so thick that I can barely make out the gasworks on the far side of the Grand Union canal. After a lengthy dawdle by Trollope’s grave – anything to delay my arrival at the office – we head for the abandoned taxi which stands, inexplicably, on the edge of the Anglican side of the cemetery. I climb inside while Nellie does her usual two-minute dither before deciding where she fancies a crap.

While I wait, I gaze out of the window at the blanket of grey and try to remember the last time I saw a dazzling blue sky. According to an article I recently read, the average human eye can detect over five hundred different shades of blue. Five hundred?! Me, I can’t even see one.

A triumphant bark drags me from my thoughts and I look up to see Nellie squatting in the middle of the path.

‘Not there,’ I call. ‘Go by the bush.’ I am keen to avoid a rerun of the previous week’s scene when Mrs O’Connor caught Nellie taking a shit on the grass and told me off for letting my dog do ‘its durrrty business in a place of rest.’

This was bad enough in itself without the fact that it triggered an attack of what I’ve come to call ‘the Mentals’.

You know what, Mrs O’Connor, I said, grabbing the collar of her little woolly coat and shaking her so hard that her wig slithered down the side of her head and onto her shoulder. Nellie can crap where she wants. In fact, you’re lucky she didn’t shit all over your shoes.

I’ve suffered from the Mentals since I was a little girl, and it basically involves a very overzealous imagination picturing in great detail the worst possible thing I can do or say in any particular situation. From the outside, no one would know that it’s happening, but inside my head it’s all kicking off. It can get pretty bad – enough to make me change dentists once, because whenever Mr Halford bent over me to poke around in my mouth, I imagined myself shouting ‘Fuck me, fuck me,’ and I was petrified that one day I might actually say it aloud.

So I didn’t really say or do any of those things to Mrs O’Connor. Instead I told her I was sorry, that it wouldn’t happen again, and then I picked up the warm turd in the only thing I had on me at the time – a flattened out Hula Hoops wrapper.

‘Nellie, are you listening to me?’ I call out again, but Nellie pretends that she hasn’t heard by staring in the opposite direction. I start to get out of the taxi so I can scoop up the shit in my handy Boots plastic bag, but something catches my eye. At first I think it’s my imagination, some fragment of the dream returning, but up close there is no mistaking it. Shining out against the black vinyl of the taxi seat, its tiny filaments waving like underwater coral, is a little red feather.

Cinema Lumière is available from Amazon, KindleWaterstones and all other good book shops.