By John Karastamatis
Read by David Mucci / Length: 18 minutes
Mr. McGill. Mr. McGill. I need your help. It’s Yvette. Please help me.”
Herbie stared at the door handle to dressing room 13. The pitiful voice that pleaded for help had so shocked him, all thoughts were wiped from his mind. The adrenaline that had fueled his frantic search of the dressing rooms seemed to have stopped flowing, leaving him drained and exhausted.
His hands found the key and inserted it into the lock. He turned the key and opened the door. He took a deep breath, as if to prepare himself for what might be on the other side. The well-known scent of power and grease paint wafted towards him as he shined his flashlight into the darkness of the room. The beam went first to his left, where there were two empty chairs placed in front of two mirrored dressing tables. An empty clothes rack was at the very back of the room and a basin on a stand stood beside it. Otherwise the room was deserted. There was nothing on the dressing tables, nothing on the floor and there was no one in the room. Yvette, or whoever had asked for help, was not there.
He closed and locked the door. Then as he looked up he noticed the number on the door. It now read 14. He was certain that moments ago it read 13. Had he misread it the first time? He stepped to his right to check the number on the door beside it. It read 12. Herbie knew that there wasn’t a dressing room labeled 13, that’s why he had noticed the number to begin with. But now it had morphed into what it was supposed to have been – 14. Will the madness never end?
The adrenaline was flowing again because Herbie found the energy to continue his search of the remaining dressing rooms. Number 15, 16, 17, and then up the stairs to the third floor, numbers 18 through 26. Again, nothing to be found except what had always been there: the bare necessities for actors to prepare for their roles on stage.
When he had completed his search of all the backstage areas, Herbie returned to the stage door desk and sat down. The red books of clippings were still on the desk. He closed the book that was open and rested his face on it.
His sluggish mind lurched into action trying to convince him that he hadn’t heard anything, just as his search of the backstage area had not uncovered anything out of the ordinary. He was exhausted and his eyes were tired, that’s why the 14 looked like a 13.
It wasn’t as easy to explain away the voice.
“Who the bloody hell is Yvette? I’ve never met an Yvette in my life,” he said out loud.
He waited for what would happen next. It was now just past five in the morning. Rory, the daytime stage door man, would arrive at 8:30. What other tricks would Herbie have to endure until then?
He stared into the distance in a daze. The only sound was the ticking of the wall clock.
Three more hours until Rory arrives. I can handle that. I’ve made it this far, haven’t I?
Then his eyes focused on the dozens and dozens of framed publicity photos that lined the walls of the stage door foyer. Many of the performers who had played the Royal Alex had left behind a photo as a memento. There were so many that they covered every available space on all four walls. The stage crew had even screwed some into the ceiling.
Most of the photos were of well-known actors. Herbie started listing off some of the names out loud to mask the ticking of the clock and help pass the time.
“Mary Pickford, Helen Hayes, Al Jolson, Katharine Cornell, Sir Harry Lauder, Donald Wolfit, Fred and Adele Astaire, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Maurice Evans. Archie Leach – when you went to Hollywood you changed your name to Cary Grant. When you were here you were a bit player in Maurice Evans’ company. Edward G. Robinson, Mae West, Ethel Barrymore.”
Each one of these photos brought back memories of productions that had played the theatre. Some of them Herbie had seen when he was a teenager, others he had only read about in the clipping books.
There were also photos of performers whose names would mean nothing to most people: Minnie Maddern, Frank Stammers, Jane Marbury, George Fawcett, Wedgewood Nowell.
Over the years, photos had been added to the wall in no particular order and for no apparent reason. Many had yellowed and faded.
The walls full of dramatic faces were soothing, a tangible link to the real people who had occupied the dressing rooms he had searched only moments ago.
As Herbie’s eyes scanned the walls, one photo jumped out at him. He stood and walked over to it to have a better look. It was one of the few he didn’t remember having seen before. The image was quite faded, clearly it was from long before his time. It was of a beautiful young woman in a fancy gauzy dress. Her hair and dress were of another era, most likely in the very early days of the Royal Alex. There was something ethereal about her, as if she lived on another plane, not in real life. She looked directly at the camera, almost beyond it. She wasn’t smiling. She had a gamine expression, waif-like and melancholic.
Herbie stared at the photo for a few minutes as if he were mesmerized by it. It was one of the few that didn’t have the actor’s name printed on it. He took the frame off its hook and turned it around. In faint pencil and in perfect cursive was written a name.
“Yvette Lafayette,” Herbie read out loud.
The frame started to shake in his hands and he almost dropped it. Was this the next trick of the night? But, no, he quickly realized that the tremor was caused by his own hands, not some supernatural power. Seeing that name shattered the brittle calm the rest of the photos had brought him. He hung the photo back in its spot on the wall.
He was sure he had never seen it before. He must have examined these walls hundreds of times over the years. In fact, he often liked to bring visitors to this room to show off all the famous actors who had played the Royal Alex. He had memorized the location of each of these luminaries. But he had never noticed Yvette Lafayette.
If he were as superstitious as everyone else he would have believed that the photo had been conjured there tonight just for him to find. But he knew better. It may very well have replaced another photo taken down by one of the backstage crew. After all, this was more their room than anyone else’s, where they smoked between scenes and sometimes played cards. The cigarette smoke was probably the main reason the photos had aged so badly.
Another thing: the perfect rhyme of Yvette Lafayette made Herbie doubt the name’s authenticity. A stage name for sure. Maybe even a hoax perpetuated by the entire crew to get back at Herbie for what would be a lean year of work for them. They all blamed him for the lack of show bookings, as if he could force New York and London producers to bring their shows to Toronto just so the crew could make a good living.
That’s it, he thought. This is all a hoax. They are in it together. And they forced Jack, the newest member of the staff, to pretend he heard ghostly noises. This explains everything.
And yet, try as he might, he couldn’t get Yvette’s pleading voice out of his head.
* * * *
“Herbie? Is everything okay?”
Rory arrived at the Royal Alex to begin his shift at 8:17 am. He knocked on the stage door, as was the custom during a shift change. The stage door man who was being relieved always had the door locked and handed over the key to the incoming man. He was surprised that it was not Jack who let him in but Herbie who stood in the doorway.
Rory stepped inside, stomped his boots to shake off the snow, took off his coat and hung it up on the peg above the radiator.
Herbie had still not said anything. He stood there staring at Rory.
“Where’s Jack?” Rory finally asked.
“He left, around one in the morning.”
“Was he sick? Why didn’t you call me? I would have taken his shift if he was sick.”
“I don’t know why he left. I had come to talk with him at the start of his shift. Afterwards, I did the rounds to see what was going on and when I got back here Jack was nowhere to be found.”
Rory had a knowing expression on his face. Was it a smirk?
Sorry to hear that, Herbie,” he said.
“Not as sorry as Jack will be when I see him next. Do you know his address? Save me from having to go to the office and look it up.”
“Don’t know the street, I know he lives in Cabbagetown. Did you spend all night here?”
Herbie didn’t answer.
“The overnight shift is a killer,” Rory said. “Remember, I did it for five years. You get used to it though … after a while.”
Herbie gathered up his coat, hat and galoshes and headed to his office. But he turned around right away.
“Five years, eh? Did you ever … hear anything?”
“This is about the noises Jack said he heard, right?” There it was again, that knowing look. Yes, it was definitely a smirk.
“No, I just … I wanted to hear it from him directly,” Herbie said.
“I wouldn’t worry about it. Makes no difference to anyone. Man’s alone all night. Sometimes he hears things. The mind plays games, you know.”
“Have you experienced anything like that?”
“Me? Nah. I don’t pay attention to that stuff. Jack’s new, that’s all. He doesn’t know how to handle the silence and the darkness. There’s a skill to working alone overnight.”
“One more thing. Did you ever notice that photo before?” Herbie pointed to Yvette Lafayette.
“This one, right here.”
Rory shrugged his shoulders. “Why would I notice this one from the hundreds here? I don’t pay attention to the photos, but I can tell you the name of each person who comes through the stage door during my shift.”
* * * *
Jack lived in a flat above a butcher shop on Dundas just east of Parliament, across the street from the big social housing development that was being built at Regent Park. Herbie could see the construction crews as he parked his car. It looked as if the project was almost finished.
Regent Park, Dundas and Parliament, 1959
The door to the flat was at street level next to the shop. Through the plate-glass window he could see the butcher working behind the counter. He knocked on the door to the flat and waited. Nobody came. He knocked louder; again, there was no response. He went into the shop.
The door to the flat was at street level next to the shop. Through the plate glass window he could see the butcher working behind the counter. He knocked on the door to the flat and waited. Nobody came. He knocked louder; again, there was no response. He went into the shop.
“Good morning. I’m looking for the Doyle family who lives above.”
“Saw the Missus walk the kiddies to school not too long ago. She’s sure to be back soon. Mister works nights. He’s probably sleeping. Something wrong?”
“Oh, no, nothing.”
“You a police detective?”
“Hope not. Don’t want any trouble with my tenants.” The butcher pointed with his knife to the street beyond his shop. “Here she is now. Could set your watch by her.”
Herbie thanked the man and stepped out of the shop just as Mrs. Doyle reached the building. She was bundled up against the cold in a woolen coat and a heavy scarf that she’d tied around her head.
“Good morning, Mrs. Doyle. I’m Herbie McGill from the Royal Alexandra Theatre.”
“Did something happen to Jack? Is he hurt?” Her voice sounded worried and her complexion, rosy red from the cold, suddenly darkened.
“No, not hurt. Not that I know of. I’ve just come to have a word with him.”
“He didn’t arrive at his usual time. Not unless he came home while I was taking the children to school.”
“I knocked on the door but there was no answer.”
Mrs. Doyle quickly retrieved a key from her coat pocket and unlocked the door. She left it open and ran up the stairs. Herbie waited in the doorway. Two minutes later she ran back down.
“He’s not … here,” she said, trying to catch her breath. “Where is he, Mr. McGill?”
Herbie hesitated before answering. He didn’t want to worry the woman, not if Jack had gone off to drink somewhere, maybe with a friend. The truth was, now that he had taken a minute to think about it, Herbie didn’t really know why he wanted to speak with Jack. He knew he was mad about Jack taking off and he had wanted to act on his emotion as soon as he could.
He hadn’t admitted this to himself before, but Herbie also wanted to share with Jack what had happened to him only hours before. Again, he didn’t know why exactly. But he knew he didn’t dare tell anyone else about the voice in the dressing room – Yvette’s voice asking for help. He needed to share this story with someone. Maybe Jack could help him make sense of it all. If he told anyone else, Herbie knew people would think he was crazy, like they thought about Jack. That smirk on Rory’s face earlier that morning told Herbie that he, too, would be ridiculed. Even worse it would compromise their respect for him as the boss.
“I don’t know, Mrs. Doyle. I just came by to ask him a question. That’s all.”
I told you, he isn’t here.” Anger had creeped into the woman’s voice.
“Yes, yes, I apologize. I didn’t mean to upset you. My mistake.”
“Where is he?” she said in voice that betrayed genuine worry.
“He probably stopped to have coffee with a friend.”
“Jack wouldn’t do that.”
“Well, when you see him, please tell him I came by. No worries, nothing urgent. I was just driving by, that’s all. Good day, Mrs. Doyle.”
Herbie left before the woman could say anything more. The last thing he needed was to create more worry and drama, especially if there was no reason for it. Herbie was positive that there was a logical explanation for Jack’s lateness getting home. He probably had spent the night on a bender and didn’t want to face his wife looking rough. After all, Jack had confessed he’d been drinking every night since his experience with the “strange noises” at the Royal Alex.
He started the engine of his car and headed west on Dundas. It was a work day, he should be at his desk by now. Halfway there he changed his mind and headed north. He was tired; he needed sleep. He had had the good sense to phone his wife after Jack disappeared and let her know he would be spending the night at the Royal Alex – something he had never done before. At least she wouldn’t be worrying like Jack’s wife.
Herbie needed to sleep, that was the only thing that would stop the constant thoughts he was having – an endless loop of what he had experienced. He kept hearing that pitiful voice asking for help over and over again.
“Mr. McGill … It’s Yvette … Please help me …”
And he kept seeing the photo of the gamine young woman with the intense stare.
That’s when he came to the realization he had perhaps feared all along: Herbie actually believed what he had experienced and heard was real. Not some ghost story or the imaginings of a superstitious mind. It was all real. All that hocus-pocus, mumbo-jumbo nonsense which he had derided all his life he now believed was real.
That very thought scared him even more than everything he had experienced the previous fateful night.
Just before he turned onto his street, Herbie had a thought he also knew had been at the back of his mind all along: He needed to spend another overnight shift at the theatre. Even if Jack resurfaced and arrived for his shift tonight, Herbie would send him away and spend the night in his place. He needed to know what was going on in his theatre. He may not own the place, but there was no denying it, the Royal Alexandra Theatre was a second home to him and he was not going to let some supernatural bunkum bring her down.
... THE STORY CONTINUES AUGUST 4
Music and Lyrics by Ron Jacobson
Performed by Jim Walton
Video by Tristan Gough
Length: 3 minutes 12 seconds