By John Karastamatis
Read by David Mucci / Length: 20 minutes
Herbie woke from a deep sleep. The tension in his jaw and shoulders had eased and his mind was free of Yvette’s echoing plaintive voice. ‘A good sleep was all I needed,’ he thought. He looked at the clock on his bedside table, it was 2:08.
His wife Alice entered the room. She carried a clean white shirt on a hanger.
“Thank you, love. I need to get to work right away.”
“You should at least eat something first,” Alice said. “You looked pale and drawn when you arrived home. But you look more rested now. I’ve made you a sandwich. It’s on the kitchen table.”
“Can you wrap it up? I’ll take it with me. By the way, I’ll need to do the midnight shift again tonight, but I’ll be home for dinner first and will head out just after eleven.”
“That Jack. So unreliable.”
He dressed quickly and then phoned Hazel at the theatre to let her know he’d be there in 15 minutes. He grabbed the sandwich and hurried to his car for the ride downtown.
In the quiet of the car, while he was chewing his ham and cheese sandwich, Yvette’s voice crept back into his head. More than before, he was now convinced that the only way to banish it and the fearful thoughts it instilled was to confront them.
He used the front doors to enter the theatre, even though the rule was all staff had to enter and exit the building through the stage door. He knew Rory would still be on duty and he couldn’t face his smugness just yet. In the box office foyer he waved to Hazel through the brass bars of the wicket for her to buzz him into the inner lobby.
He went to his office, hung up his coat and took off his galoshes, then he knocked on the security door of the box office for Hazel to let him in.
“I’m sorry, Hazel, for coming in so late. I thought I would only need a few hours sleep after working overnight, but I guess I needed more. Anything happen today?”
Hazel ran the box office like a drill sergeant and also helped with any administrative work that Herbie couldn’t get to. There was no one more capable of holding down the fort while he was away.
She gave him a quizzical look. “What do you mean – did anything happen? What kind of things? You mean, have there been any more ghost sightings?” She smiled.
“Rory’s filled you in, I see.”
Hazel nodded. “Apologies, Herbie. I didn’t mean to make fun. Rory told me everything as soon as I stepped in the door this morning. There have been calls for you. Some from booking agents in New York.” She handed him some slips of paper with names and numbers scribbled on them. “And one from Mrs. O’Brien.”
“You know, Jack’s wife.”
A chill went through Herbie. Was Jack still missing? What could have happened to him? “What did she want?”
“I don’t know. She asked that you call her. Her number is on the bottom slip. Maybe Jack wants to make sure he still has a job and he thought getting his wife to call would soften you up and remind you he has a family to feed. So what happened to him?”
“I haven’t heard a peep.”
Hazel looked like she had much more to say, but Herbie didn’t want to get into it. He said, “Any sales today?”
“The usual for a Tuesday when we don’t have a show on. Slow.”
He flipped through the slips until he found Mrs. O’Brien’s number. He knew he had to call her immediately.
He went back to his office, closed and locked the door and picked up the phone.
“Mrs. O’Brien, it’s Herbie McGill. Has Jack returned?”
There was a long pause. Herbie feared the worst. If it came to it what could he tell the police? They’d think he was off his rocker if he brought up ghosts and disappearing dressing rooms.
“Jack is sleeping. He wants to talk to you. Can you meet him at six tonight?”
Herbie sighed with relief.
“What does he want to talk about?”
“He says to meet him at the Royal Oak.”
“A few blocks from here. Corner of Ontario and Dundas. Six o’clock. He’ll be waiting for you.”
She hung up before he could respond.
“That woman is very brusque.” He was surprised he had said that out loud. “Now I’m talking to myself. What’s going on with me? I’m acting like a crazy person.”
He returned the calls of the various New York booking agents. All bad news. Their new shows were going to play at the new O’Keefe Centre. The place was due to open in fall of 1960 with the out-of-town tryout of the new musical by the people who wrote My Fair Lady. The new musical was to star Julie Andrews who had created a sensation as Eliza Doolittle. It would be a sure hit. Now, three plays that Herbie thought he had secured for the Royal Alex in the 1961 season had decided to play the O’Keefe, where they could take double the box office because it had 3,300 seats compared to the Royal Alex’s 1,500. Herbie had argued with the agents that these were small plays, not big musicals; they would get lost in the large auditorium of the O’Keefe. But the agents didn’t care about how the shows would play for the audience, they only cared about the money.
After he hung up from his last call, Herbie slumped back in his chair. He eyed the antique Regency cabinet in the corner of his wood-panelled office. The paneling was of the finest walnut, stained an exquisite shade and kept meticulously polished by the cleaning staff each week, even when the theatre was dark. Herbie loved working in this office because it was elegant. Besides the wood paneling, there was a sparkling crystal chandelier, also polished every week. The furnishings were all treasured antiques, including his leather-topped desk.
The antique cabinet held the liquor that was kept for the times when special guests were at a show. On these occasions Herbie would invite them into his office, before the show and at intermission. The cabinet was then unlocked and the various crystal decanters that held brandy, whiskey, gin and other spirits were made available.
I could use a stiff drink about now, Herbie thought, careful not to say his thoughts out loud anymore.
He looked at his watch, it was now just after four. The box office would close at five and Hazel would go home. Rory’s shift would end at four thirty and Billy, the evening doorman, would take over. Should Herbie have a word with him about the photo of Yvette Lafayette? He knew there was no point in speaking with Rory.
There was a knock at his door.
“Sorry to disturb you,” Hazel said. “Rory wants to know if you need him to work the overnight shift.”
“Why did he send you? He couldn’t ask himself?”
Hazel shrugged her shoulders. “Seems all your stage door men are sending women with their messages today.”
“I’ll talk to him myself.” Herbie moved past Hazel, closed his office door and made a beeline for the backstage area. Hazel went back into the box office.
Herbie walked with determination. His anger had redoubled. It was bad enough that Rory made Herbie feel ridiculous earlier today, now he was sending Hazel to suggest Herbie might be too frightened to take the shift.
He entered the darkened auditorium, the only illumination coming from the ghost light on stage. He was halfway down the orchestra level to the pass door that would take him from the auditorium and onto the stage when, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a movement in the house left upper box. He turned his head to get a full look.
Sitting in the box was a lithe young woman in a white gauzy dress. She looked luminous, as if she was lit by a spotlight. Her eyes met his. Her stare was so intense, Herbie blinked. When he opened his eyes, she was gone.
He had to lean on the back of a seat on the house right outside aisle to steady himself. He dared not close his eyes again in case he missed whatever was going to happen next.
He stood there for a few more minutes. But nothing happened.
He was sure it was Yvette he had seen. She looked just like her photo. She had finally shown herself to him — in the flesh, so to speak. He wondered what this meant and how he should proceed.
He wondered if tonight would be even more of a rollercoaster ride than the night before. Could he endure it?
He didn’t allow himself to dwell on the question long. He let go of the seat back and continued on his way to the stage door.
He opened the pass door and stepped onto the stage. He slowed his pace and made sure his steps were as quiet as possible. As he approached the stage door area, he saw that Rory was sitting at the desk facing away. He must not have heard Herbie because Rory did not turn around.
“I’m working the overnight shift myself,” Herbie said in a loud voice, startling Rory and making him almost fall off his chair. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
That’s all Herbie had to say. He turned around and made his way back to his office. He walked with more confidence than he had in quite some time.
In his office, in the built-in bookcase, he found the red leather clipping book from 1920 that he had been perusing the night before and placed it on his desk. When he had been woken by those horrible sounds it was in the pages of this book that he had fallen asleep. He wondered if there was any significance to these pages. Is this where he may discover more about Yvette? Her photo certainly looked like it could be from that era.
1920 was a busy year at the Royal Alex. There seemed to be a show playing every week. The year began with Friendly Enemies, a play from New York. There was nothing at all about an Yvette in the clippings of its reviews and newspaper ads.
The next show, Chu Chin Chow, was one Herbie knew well because it had played the Royal Alex many times through the years. He remembered seeing it in the late 1920s. His aunt had taken him as a birthday gift; he was probably 11 or 12. Chu Chin Chow was a musical version of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. It was a huge production with what looked like 100 actors in it, or so it seemed to Herbie’s young eyes. He knew that when the show first played the Royal Alex it had starred Tyrone Power, who reprised the role he had played on Broadway – although the musical was created in London where it opened during the First World War and was so popular with the returning troops that it had played for over five years. No Yvette was listed anywhere in the clippings.
For the next hour Herbie pored over most of the 1920 clippings but found no mention of anyone named Yvette. He did discover something he hadn’t known before: In November of that year a Broadway show called The Ruined Lady had toured to the Royal Alex. It was a forgettable melodrama, at least according to the reviews. The only impressive thing about it was that the show’s company manager was Humphrey Bogart. That little nugget of information delighted Herbie. He loved discovering little-known facts like this.
It was almost six, time to head to the Royal Oak for his meeting with Jack. He only had a few more pages of clippings to go through, but he couldn’t squeeze them in before leaving. He left the book open on his desk so he could resume his reading later that night during his stage door shift.
Herbie put on his coat and galoshes, locked the door to his office and was headed out the theatre’s front door when he remembered that he hadn’t greeted Billy, the evening stage door man. He should say hello to him because he would be relieving him at eleven thirty. Also, if Herbie went out the front door he would be breaking his own staff rule for a second time today. That meant he’d have to go through the auditorium again. Would Yvette make another appearance?
The auditorium was just as dark as it had been earlier. No surprise there. Herbie made sure to keep his eyes wide open. He was anxious to have a third encounter with Yvette, more curious than frightened. How much trouble could this waif-like woman cause? But Yvette made no appearance. Herbie made his way to the stage door without any incident. He was a little disappointed.
Billy was sitting at the desk in exactly the same position Rory had been in when Herbie startled him. But this time, Herbie made his approach known by stepping heavily. Billy turned around and gave Herbie a salute. Billy had been in the air force during the war and this was how he greeted everyone.
“Good to see you, Billy. You know I will be taking over from you later tonight.”
“Yes, Rory told me. What happened to Jack last night?”
“I don’t really know. But I’m going to find out. I’m meeting him in 15 minutes at the Royal Oak. Do you know the place?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s just an ordinary tavern."
Herbie waited for Billy to say something more, but he just left it at that.
“I know that Jack’s probably told you about his experience last Friday.”
Billy nodded and then shrugged his shoulders.
Herbie continued: “Has something like that ever happened to you?”
Billy shook his head.
“Nothing like that? Nothing strange? Noises, unusual happenings?”
Billy shook his head.
Herbie thought about asking more specific questions, but it was obvious Billy wasn’t going to say anything more, or maybe he really hadn’t had any experiences like that. After all, Herbie hadn’t had any in all the years he’d worked in the theatre. Until last night. And then again that afternoon. It was amazing how in less than 24 hours Herbie’s outlook on the supernatural, if he could call it that, had changed.
“Okay, see you at eleven thirty.”
Billy saluted him.
As Herbie buttoned his coat, he looked at the wall where he had seen Yvette’s photo. He wanted to look at her one more time. But the photo was gone. Herbie looked at the other walls in case he had been mistaken of the location. He was certain he had left the photo where he had first found it, hanging on the wall just inside the stage door. Where was it? There didn’t seem to be an empty space on any of the walls.
“Billy, there was an old photo of a pretty young woman hanging right there. Do you know where it’s gone to?”
Billy shook his head.
“Are you sure?”
He nodded. “Positive.”
“You didn’t move any photos around?”
Another shake of the head. “Haven’t touched anything since I arrived at four twenty. Haven’t left this seat.”
At that moment the ghost light on the stage flickered on and off a few times. Even more bizarre, the light had turned a scarlet red while it flickered, washing the stage wings in a bloody hue.
“Did you see that?” Herbie said with excitement.
But Billy had his back to the backstage area and when he turned around to look the light had changed to its original colourless glow.
“Fun and games,” Herbie said out loud without realizing it.
Billy looked at him, perplexed.
Herbie pushed the stage door’s crash bar and stepped out into the cold. He knew it was going to be another rough night. Maybe Jack would have some important revelations.
The Royal Oak was located across the street from the new Regent Park social housing development. It was in a corner brick building with a simple wooden sign that gave the name of the place, nothing more. There were no windows and nothing else that would let you know what went on inside. If it wasn’t for its two narrow doors, one marked “Men” and the other “Women & Escorts” there really was no way of knowing. But that was the point, wasn’t it? It was a place where men went to escape their everyday lives, dulling their senses with alcohol.
It had taken the province of Ontario several bouts of prohibition in the early part of the century before finally allowing alcohol to be readily available to its citizens. But even in 1959, alcohol was still considered a dangerous substance – so much so that the government controlled every aspect of its production, distribution and consumption, making sure it was always hidden away like a dark secret in mysterious places like the Royal Oak.
Stepping inside, Herbie was reminded of his university days, when he and his buddies would frequent rooms like this for cheap beer. The air was thick with cigarette smoke; the worn wooden floors were wet from the snow and slush brought in from outside and littered with cigarette butts and bottle caps; the speckled plaster walls, which once must have been pure white, were now an uneven mustard yellow; and the basic wooden tables and chairs looked to be barely serviceable. The bar was at the opposite side of the room and had a few bottles of spirits on display, but the beer taps were very prominent. The smell of beer, tobacco, sweat, and damp wool permeated the room.
The place was pretty full – maybe 50 people. The men – Herbie could not spot any women – looked more or less all the same. They wore tweed caps, dark woollen coats, probably retained because the place felt cold, and work boots. Herbie stood out in his wingtips. Some were standing around the bar, but the majority were sitting around tiny, rickety square tables.
Herbie checked his watch because he did not see Jack anywhere. When he looked up Jack was standing right in front of him.
In his left hand was the framed photo of Yvette Lafayette.
... THE STORY CONTINUES AUGUST 18
Music and Lyrics by Ron Jacobson
Performed by Ma-Anne Dionisio
Video by Tristan Gough
Length: 4 minutes