By John Karastamatis
Read by David Mucci / Length: 18 minutes
At the Royal Oak Tavern, on Dundas Street East across from Regent Park, Herbie stared at the photo of Yvette Lafayette that Jack held in his left hand. It was the same photo that had been on the wall in the Royal Alex stage door foyer. That was before it went missing.
Jack held out his right hand. Stunned by the reappearance of the photo, it took Herbie a few moments to comprehend the gesture before he finally shook Jack’s outstretched hand.
“Where did you get that photo?” Herbie asked.
“From the theatre. I saw it on the wall when I came by this morning to talk with you. But you weren’t there.”
“I had gone to your flat to find you.”
“So Moira told me when I got home.”
“What’s this all about, Jack? Why did you leave last night? Why were you looking for me this morning? And why do you have that photo?”
Jack led the way through the crowd to a table at the very back corner of the room, against the wall. He placed the photo on the table and leaned it against the wall. Yvette was now staring at both of them.
“Can I get you a drink?” Jack asked. He himself had an almost full pint of beer on the table.
Herbie gave Jack a quizzical look. It was obvious he wasn’t going to get anything out of him right away. “I’ll get myself a drink. Would you like anything else?” Jack shook his head.
Herbie returned from the bar with a glass of whiskey and sat opposite Jack at the table. He took a big gulp – the taste was harsh but it felt good when it hit the back of his throat. The heat of it going down relaxed his entire body.
“I’m sorry I took off last night,” Jack said. “I didn’t mean to … but … I don’t know. Anyway, I apologize for leaving you … in the lurch … and for not letting you know about it. That’s what I came to tell you this morning.”
Herbie nodded. He realized he was no longer angry at Jack. Even if he were still angry, this would not be the place to express it. Herbie didn’t feel he belonged here. His expensive attire made him class conscious, as if he were lording it over these labourers. But he wasn’t; he didn’t feel superior to them, just different. Jack was obviously much smarter than Herbie realized to have cleverly chosen a spot like this that would disarm his boss.
“I was furious last night, Jack. So many things have happened since. Now I’m … confused.”
Jack fiddled with his glass, wiping away the condensation. “Moira always says you have to speak the truth and shame the Devil. So, the truth is: I was scared, I really was. I couldn’t spend another night in there, not even another minute. I was mad at you, too. Because when you first told me about the job you didn’t mention anything about … all that stuff. If I knew … well, I wouldn’t have taken it. You tricked me.”
“Just a second, Jack. I didn’t trick you. The job is the job. I was upfront about it being the overnight shift. I’ve worked 20 years in that building and before that I had been seeing shows in it almost every week for a good 12 years. I know that building better than anyone else. There’s nothing that anyone has to be warned about or scared of. It’s a good, safe building.”
“Except … for the spirits,” Jack said.
Herbie didn’t say anything. Instead he looked straight into Jack’s eyes.
“So, they’ve come out to you, too, eh?” Jack said in a much quieter almost intimate voice.
Herbie dropped his gaze to the glass in front of him and took another big swig of whiskey.
Then he told Jack all that happened to him last night.
When Herbie finished, Jack didn’t say anything for a few minutes.
“I told you that I had had only that one incident the Friday before,” Jack said. “That’s not true. It started for me about a week after I began the job. At first, I thought it was malarkey. Didn’t tell anyone about it, except Moira. The more I resisted believing what I had experienced was real, the more it happened. I would have left earlier but we had only moved into the flat a few months before and Christmas was coming up. I needed the money. And it wouldn’t happen all the time. When there were shows in the building, all was good. Come January and no shows: all hell broke loose… when the cat’s away the mice will play.”
“Was it always the same … incidents? The sounds? The screams?”
“Sometimes strange horrible sounds. Other times lights going on and off. Things moving around, flying through the air all by themselves. Doors opening and closing, but nobody there. Except in truth there was someone there. There were lots who were there, but they weren’t visible. Phantoms.”
“Lots? You saw many?”
“No, I never saw one. But I could sense there were many spirits.”
Herbie let a moment of silence pass before he said: “This afternoon I saw one.”
“A phantom?” Jack said in a whisper.
Herbie pointed to the photo on the table. “Her. She was sitting in one of the boxes. House left, top. She was in a pool of light, as if the follow spot operator had shone the limelight on her. She stared at me and then, poof, she was gone.”
“You’re a braver man than me, Mr. McGill.”
“If you never saw a ghost… her … how … I mean, why did you take this photo? How did you know this was her, the phantom?”
“One night the photo appeared on the wall. Her eyes were fixed right on me. I didn’t think too much about it. What do I know about all these people in the photos? The photo wasn’t there the next night, so I thought nothing of it. Then this morning when I came back to see you, there it was again. Instead of looking at Rory when I was asking him about you, I couldn’t take my eyes off the photo. Rory asked me to stay at the desk so he could go pee. While he was away, I took the photo off the wall, found a different one to replace it and hid this one in my coat. I had to have this photo. I don’t know why. I was … compelled … yes, that’s the word: compelled … to take it. When I got home and Moira found it in my coat she said: ‘So now you’re also a thief? Not bad enough you left your post without a word. You return this picture to Mr. McGill today.’ And now I find out you know more about it than I do.”
“Her name is Yvette Lafayette. I don’t know what role she plays in all of this but I’m determined to find out. You really never told the others about all the happenings during your shifts? Rory? Billy?”
“Not a word to them. Eventually, when I couldn’t take it anymore I told Hazel about the noises. That’s all. I guess she told everyone else.”
“Is there anything else you want to tell me, Jack?”
“No. Just to apologize and return the photo. I thank you for listening to me. You don’t know what a weight has been lifted. You probably think I’m ready for the nuthouse.”
“You and me both, Jack. Or maybe we are part of some convoluted joke.”
Jack smiled. “Well, Moira believes in the spirit world. She has stories from her mother and grandmother and the spirits they knew. They liked them and would speak to them. They said the spirits were wise because of all the years they had lived as people on earth and all the years they had been spirits. Mind, that was in the old country. I told Moira of course there would be lots of spirits in the old country because it has thousands of years of history. But Canada, it’s the new world. But then Moira says that I forget about the people who were here before us. The people native to these lands. Their souls, their spirits are just as wise as those in the old country and maybe even wiser because they know more about this land than we do.”
“I think your wife is wise.”
“She’s the one who made me talk to you. She even chose the location.” Jack pointed around him.
“And here I was thinking you’d want your job back.”
“Well, I do need a job, Mr. McGill. But I don’t think I can come back right away. Do you think you could manage without me for a week, until I feel better?”
“I haven’t decided anything yet, Jack. Let’s see what happens next.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, who’s going to work my shift?”
Herbie pointed to himself.
“As I said before, you’re a braver man than me.”
“Not brave, Jack. Determined. I love the Royal Alex and I don’t want to see it go the way of all the other beautiful old theatres, end up a derelict building or worse, an empty lot.”
Herbie finished the dregs of his drink and put on his hat. When he stood so did Jack, who picked up the photo and gave it to Herbie.
“I’m very sorry, Mr. McGill. I truly am,” Jack said.
“Look after yourself,” Herbie said and offered his outstretched hand to Jack while he held Yvette’s photo with the other.
When Herbie pulled into his driveway, he left the photo in the car. He didn’t want to have to explain everything to Alice.
As he stepped into the house, the aroma of a home cooked meal comforted and relaxed him. The children had already had their supper and were in their rooms. The dining room table was set for two. Alice and Herbie ate in peace and quiet.
Alice knew not to pry. She knew that something other than having to work overnight was bothering Herbie, something more important. She also knew he would talk about it when he was ready, after he had contemplated it from various angles. It was his legal training, she thought. It’s a shame he never had the chance to practice law; he would have made a fine lawyer. They had met just as he was about to take the bar exam. He passed, but then the job at the Royal Alex was offered to him. He followed his passion.
Herbie helped with the cleanup and the dishes. He always did; it was a soothing activity he and Alice could do together and he enjoyed how at the end of it he could see the results of their labour. Unlike his work, which required a lot of effort and time, but often amounted to nothing. He thought of all the hours he had spent wooing shows from the New York booking agents to the Royal Alex only to discover they had plans for them to go elsewhere, like the O’Keefe Centre.
“I’m going for a lie down, love,” he said. “I don’t have to leave until 10:45. Maybe I’ll be able to get a couple hours of sleep.”
Billy was sitting at the stage door desk reading the evening edition of the Toronto Star.
“Good evening, Billy,” Herbie said. “I’m early so you can leave early. But give me a minute.”
He took off and hung up his coat and slipped off his galoshes. He had brought a large brown paper bag with him, which he placed behind the desk. “I’ve come prepared this time. Provisions,” he said and then went to his office at the front of the theatre.
He returned with two volumes of the red leather-bound clipping books. Billy had already donned his coat and hat.
“Nothing to report, Herbie. All is fine. I did my last round half an hour ago.”
“You have yourself a restful sleep, Billy.”
Billy left and Herbie made sure the stage door was locked behind him. He went onto the stage. The ghost light was on as it always was. Stepping downstage he turned to look at the upper box on house left. Yvette wasn’t waiting for him there.
Maybe he had imagined the entire episode. Maybe this was all a dream, or a nightmare. While he had come to believe that spirits may indeed exist, he still wasn’t totally convinced. It was obvious to him that Jack had been influenced by his wife’s supernatural beliefs. And she had been influenced by her mother and grandmother. There no doubt was a long line of influence going back for generations to a time when there was no such thing as science and people relied on myths, folklore and religion to explain the world’s ways.
But it was the latter part of the 20th century. We now know better, don’t we?
He went back to the stage door desk, took the paper bag from behind it and began to empty it of the provisions he had brought: an apple, two cookies, which Alice had baked that afternoon, and a thermos of coffee. He reached back into the bag and brought out the photo of Yvette. He took down the other photo that Jack had substituted for it earlier in the day. It was of someone named Oscar O’Hare; he must have been a dancer because in the photo he looked to be tap dancing. In its place, he rehung Yvette where she belonged.
He looked around him to see if his actions would have a reaction. Nothing happened. There were no loud sounds of crunching steel and chains. No screams. No flashing lights. No flying objects.
“What, no fun and games tonight?” he said out loud.
There was just silence, except for the occasional clink from the radiator pipes.
Herbie sat down at the desk and opened the 1920 clipping book to the page where he had left off. He was at Sinbad, starring Al Jolson. No Yvette in it.
The rest of the clippings were also for shows without anyone named Yvette. Most of the titles were unknown to him.
One title, though, was familiar. The Maid of the Mountains was a big London musical hit in 1917 and then was produced around the world. It toured across the Canada beginning in 1920.
Herbie was about to give up on this show and move on to the few others remaining in the year. Then he noticed a short note in the Mail and Empire’s showbiz column. It said that the actress who was expected to play Teresa was “indisposed” and another actress would play the role. She was a chanteuse originally from Montreal who had become a theatre star in Paris and had recently returned to Canada. Her name was Yvette Lafayette.
A chill of excitement and fear rose from Herbie’s core to the top of his head.
A moment later, he felt a presence behind him.
Even before he had fully turned around to look, he could feel a blast of heat. As he turned, a blazing light hit his eyes and he brought his hands up to shield them. In seconds its intensity decreased and Yvette came into sharp focus.
At first, he thought she was standing, but he soon realized she was floating vertically above the floor in the stage left wings. Her dress was flowing as if it were in the draft of a strong breeze. Her auburn hair was no longer arranged on top of her head; it was free and loose, and long enough to fall to her waist. The image reminded him of a Pre-Raphaelite painting of a young maid, perhaps a saintly one outlined in a halo.
Herbie’s heart pounded. He’d never felt it so fast nor so loud; its intensity made his eardrums ache.
Yvette floated towards the back wall of the stage. She ducked to clear the archway entrance to the dressing room area. Herbie ran after her and followed her up the stairs, taking the steps two-by-two to the second floor. She disappeared into one of the middle dressing rooms off the floor’s long hallway. Panting from exertion, Herbie reached the room – number 14. The door was open and Yvette was sitting at one of the dressing tables, looking at her reflection in the mirror. But there was no reflection, just empty space.
“Please enter, Mr. McGill,” she said, turning to look at him. She had a bewitching smile.
... THE STORY CONTINUES SEPTEMBER 1
Music and Lyrics by Ron Jacobson
Performed by Kyle Brown
Video by Tristan Gough
Length: 3 minutes 20 seconds