Sunday, June 10, 2012

Never Land

At the age of seven I saw my antithesis. It was Wendy from Peter Pan.
This was one of my first ever trips to the cinema, or “the pictures”, as we say in Belfast. I was giddy with anticipation as the lights dimmed in the Curzon cinema and hush descended upon the audience that night. A few excited giggles persisted but these quickly faded into the expectant blackness. As the credits rolled, I wolfed down my Milky Way, wiped my hands on the velour seat cover, and sat upright, in readiness. My story books had enthralled me with the tale of Wendy and Peter, and their adventures in Never Land, and now I was about to enter into that magical world in technicolour. 
Soft music, schmaltzy vocals and a galaxy of twinkling stars filled the screen, ushering me into the home of the delightful Darling family, where everyone, even the Newfoundland dog Nana, radiated contentment. Peter Pan was more handsome that I had imagined and Wendy, more beautiful. Soon I was flying high with them. I was Wendy. I was snug and secure in the love of George and Mary, the devoted parents. 
As the film progressed and the whirl of happiness moved inexorably toward its end, I found myself focusing ever more sharply on Mr. and Mrs. Darling, especially the gentle Mrs. Darling. Each time she lavished affection on her offspring I became increasingly uneasy, sinking into dark brooding, impatient for the film to take me back to Never Land. A knot, hard and tight, ached in the centre of my chest as I watched the Darling children bloom like sunflowers in the light of their parents’ love. It was the slow realisation that the dreamy pastel-coloured lives those happy children lead had nothing in common with my own existence. The contrast between them and me was undeniable and it was staring right at me. From the immensity of that screen Peter Pan reflected back to me all the misery of my childhood as I sat in the darkness.
How else can I explain the grief that seized me that evening as I walked down the steps of the Curzon and out into the reality of my own life? I was grieving for what never had been and what never would be. I wanted to rush back inside, to find the kind and loving Mrs Darling, to hide in the bosom of that family and never emerge, but it was futile. There was nothing to go back to.  The cinema was empty. It was fantasy. Fairy tale worlds were only for the Darlings and could never provide me with the lasting refuge I needed.
At that moment, reinforcing the bleakness of my insight, K’s* iron grip tightened around my hand, jerking me forward with her, as she strode into the night.  
Thereafter my recollections of cinema are sparse. I went to see other Disney films while I was still a child. Certainly, these films were enjoyable, but none made the lasting impression that Peter Pan did. From that night onward sadness has overshadowed the childish excitement of going to the cinema, and it is the very same shadow that accompanied me down the steps of the Curzon and back into a desolate childhood so many years ago.
The Curzon is no longer open. It is a hollow ravaged building that may soon be demolished or converted into apartments or a shopping precinct.** For the moment though, those steps are still intact. Each time I pass there is a yearning to go back, to find the seven year old who descended them unwillingly and despondently. My heart aches for her, for the years of relentless brutality she endured.
What has survived those years and flourished is a lifelong fascination with cinema, indulging it is my way of tending to the sorrow.  Saturday nights at the local art house cinema, the QFT, are invariably prefaced by a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of pecan pie in a nearby café. It’s a ritual. I eat at leisure and study the reviews. When I walk into the foyer and join the ticket queue, the adrenaline surges, just as it always has done. Excitement bubbles up as I shuffle forward. There’s a hint of anxiety too if the pace is slow, it’s the fear that I might miss the vital first few minutes of the film, and, if I’m honest, the fear of even missing the trailers.
Once inside, I choose a seat in the front row, where there is nobody between me and the screen. I sometimes have to turn my head from left to right, and right to left, to follow the action. Up this close, there is no duality, just me lost in a dazzling whirl of images and emotions. In here I don’t notice the darkness any longer. It’s my refuge, the one I stopped believing in when I was seven. I’ve found it again. This is where I can forget the pain of never having been Wendy or never having had a gentle Mary Darling for a mother, not even for five minutes. And when I walk down the steps into the night at the end of a film I’m grateful for the magic of cinema. I’m grateful to be alive.
 ML 1030

*K – my stepmother.
** The Curzon has since been demolished and there is no trace of it at all on the Ormeau Road in south Belfast.

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