Jimmy Skinner was acting manager when I started as a trainee executive at the Odeon cinema in Clerk Street, Edinburgh, in the 1960s. It is long closed now, and its name has been transferred to what we knew as the Regal on Lothian Road. The Odeon had been known as the New Victoria before it was taken over by the Rank Organisation chain. In its day, the New Vic was an elegant, beautifully appointed theatre, with a marble-floored foyer, and a tea-room on its first floor. My granny would go there from time to time to meet with friends. It was a bit of a treat, and she'd get dressed up for it; wear a hat and a nice brooch in her lapel. It was like going back in time, she told me once; to the art deco days of the 1930s perhaps.
With a flattened nose and a ruddy complexion, Jimmy Skinner looked like a boxer. He'd been in the theatre business for years, but I don't think he was ever central to it. He was an authentic southside Edinburgh worthy, with a solid job with a national organisation. Two or three times a day Jimmy would slip out the back door of the theatre to place a bet on a horse.
Late evening, when things were settled and the film was on, he might nip out for a quick dram at one of the local pubs. When he did that he'd leave me in charge. I was 18. Heady times; big responsibilities.
But Jimmy kept a weather eye on me. He taught me a lot, most of all by the way he treated the people who really ran the place – the ushers and usherettes, the lady who ran the ticket booth (the box office), the people who dealt with the ice cream and confectionery stands, the cleaners – in short, the theatre staff.
As far as I know, Jimmy never had any formal management training, and I don't think he'd had more than a minimal education in his youth. But he had an innate knowledge of right and wrong, an unerring eye for potential trouble, and most of all, a gift in how to manage people. I reckon I learned more from Jimmy Skinner about management than I ever learned at school or university, or from MBA text books. Jimmy was very much in tune with the staff. He treated them without fear or favour, and expected honesty, reliability, and punctuality in return. There was no set hierarchy in Jimmy's managerial rule book. He sought opinions from his staff on a variety of matters, and in turn they worked hard for him, and gave him their respect and affection.
I spent many an evening standing out on the marble-floored foyer with Jimmy Skinner, greeting the cinema-going customers as they arrived. Many of them were regulars. They knew Jimmy and they often stopped for a chat. Jimmy would nod at the girl at the ticket desk and give a little nod of his head to indicate that someone or other could be waved through without paying. After a while I was able to let one or two of my friends in as well. Jimmy told me that was okay for the afternoon shows; less advisable in the evenings when things were busier. But the friends would turn up on a Saturday night anyway, and demand to be let into one of the Odeon's private boxes behind the back stalls.
Company policy required us to wear evening dress; dark dinner-jacket and trousers, white shirt and a bow tie, polished shoes. Wisecracks from friends about Victor Silvester aside (Victor Sylvester was a TV staple back then in his shiny patent leather shoes and tails on his regular TV programme 'Come Dancing'), Jimmy and I probably did look a bit incongruous standing there. I was young enough to be his grandson and a good six inches taller than he was. Jimmy's burly frame would have tested the seams of his jacket and the skill of any tailor, and my shoes may not have always been polished to the required company standards.
After a few weeks of training, when I'd learned enough to be trusted, Jimmy would head up to the office for a quick smoke, leaving the foyer to me. Later on, as the evening crowd began to thin out he would dash upstairs again, and then reappear in a raincoat to tell me that I was in charge and he'd be back later. That was when he'd push off to the pub.
Hester was the head usherette, tall and thin with tumbling black hair to her shoulders, and a wizened, gypsy face. She would read tea leaves and tell fortunes. I think she read palms as well. She didn't like to do it she said, because she could see the future. The little Italian girl who worked on tickets told me that Hester had the gift of healing by touch, and that she could see things other people couldn't see – that she had the second sight. The other staff believed that too. I certainly did.
Not long after I started work at the Odeon, Hester told the fortune of the Greek lady who was in charge of the ice cream stand. I'll call her Alexis. Hester looked into her tea leaves and told Alexis to be careful about crossing the road for a while. 'Look out for heavy lorries', she said. Alexis can't have paid much attention because three days later she was hit by a cement truck right outside the theatre, and taken off to hospital with a broken leg.
Hester studied the leaves in the bottom of my teacup not long after that. After having a good look, she took my face in her old hands and gazed into my eyes for what seemed like a long time. I remember her deep brown eyes, and her touch that made my head tingle with a strange energy.
'You're going away,' she said. 'A long way away – across the sea.'
'Will I come back?' I asked. I never knew whether to take Hester seriously.
'No,' she said, 'not really'.
Hester told me a lot more that day. I've forgotten most of it now, but for years I'd have an uncanny sense of deja vu over certain events, or meetings or decisions. I would often trace it back to her.
Jimmy Skinner was due for retirement when I knew him. Hester could have been 45 or 65; it was impossible to tell how old she was. They will be long gone now, and I don't expect either of them had a particularly easy life. But they were wonderfully kind and decent characters; quietly extraordinary people who gave much and asked little in return. I wish I'd known more about them.