By John Karastamatis
Read by David Mucci / Length: 23:25
At 1408 Yonge, Tessa Woodcock led Herbie down the stairs of her building into the street. She immediately turned left onto the driveway Herbie had avoided when parking earlier. At the end of it were tall iron gates attached to a long fence, also iron. The black paint was peeling and some of the iron was rusted. Tessa pulled out a skeleton key from an inside pocket of her coat. She unlocked the gates, they stepped into the cemetery and Tessa locked the gates behind them.
She led Herbie deeper into the graveyard, which looked ancient. Many of the monuments and tombstones, although elaborate and expensive looking, had shifted and were crooked. There was a general unkempt quality to the place, even under a blanket of snow.
“St. Michael’s,” she said. “Catholic. No more space available. Closed to the public except on November 2nd. – All Souls Day.”
“How do you have the key?” Herbie asked.
“I’m the custodian.”
Tessa pointed to a spot close by and hurried ahead of Herbie. When she got there, she took out her handkerchief, bent over and cleaned the snow off a simple gravestone flush to the ground. It was inscribed with Yvette’s name, dates and the phrase, “Life’s but a walking shadow.”
“She was raised Protestant,” Tessa said. “But she could not bear the hypocrisy of her family. So, I didn’t want her buried where her family could find her – not that they cared about her; they were mortified she would scandalize them. They cared more about what others thought than about their own flesh and blood. Awful people. Here, under her stage name and in a mostly forgotten cemetery hidden behind buildings, she could lie in peace.”
Tessa cleared some more snow off the ground, folded her legs under her and sat on them.
“Yvette would do anything she could to be different than her family,” Tessa said. “She was a free spirit. A true bohemian. London was stifling. London could never support an artist like her. There were barriers everywhere. That’s why we moved to Paris.
“In Paris we could love each other openly. We changed her name to Yvette Lafayette so no one could track her down. She knew French, of course, having grown up in Montreal – so, for her it was easy to get around. I had to learn the language. But that was a small inconvenience for the freedom that wonderful city offered us.
“Soon we made friends. We found our community and created a surrogate family. She began performing in small cabarets. That led to bigger cabarets and eventually theatres. She was excellent in both comedies and tragedies. Of course, Moliere and Racine, but also Dumas, Zola, Feydeau.
“Those were heady days. But Yvette never did anything halfway. She indulged in everything that success brought. The nightclubs we would go to, the parties. She started drinking. Absinthe was very common in bohemian circles back then. Then there were the narcotics: opium, hashish, cocaine. I was losing my Yvette to those.
“Just as the Great War was ending, Paris was full of American soldiers. They would come to the cabarets and I got to know a few. They told me that someone of Yvette’s talent would be a big star on Broadway. They gave me contacts. I wrote to them. Sent them clippings, photos.
“A producer came to Paris to see Yvette perform. I didn’t tell her anything about this. He offered a contract for her to be in The Maid of the Mountains. The lead role of Theresa. My namesake. I thought it was a sign. I managed to convince Yvette to leave Paris and we sailed for New York.
“Our time on the ship was among the happiest of my life. I had her all to myself, no one to share her with. I was sure New York would offer us a clean slate.
“But it didn’t work out that way. I guess it never does, does it? People can’t change. You have to accept them for who they are.
“Yvette hated New York. It was even more conservative than London. And the contract I had hastily signed wasn’t for the lead in the show. She would be the understudy, not the star. There was no way of getting out of the contract. We had to grin and bear it.
“Three grueling years on the road. A new town every week. The clack-clack-clack of the railway cars. The cloying, hypocritical, middle-class morality of middle America. The actress who played the lead role was very unreliable. Yvette had to go on for her very often.
“Yvette started drinking again. Many places were still under prohibition. To find liquor I had to visit every shady, disgusting rathole. But it was the only thing that kept Yvette going. And the narcotics had become more dangerous – heroin.
“We started fighting. She would stay out all night. Some days I could barely get her to the theatre.
“The last week of 1923 was brutal. Yvette was just awful to me. We were here, in Toronto. We had played the Royal Alex twice before, always to great success. On Saturday December 29, Yvette was to do both matinee and evening. The matinee was fine, but between shows she started drinking heavily. She could barely complete the evening performance.
“Afterwards, the company manager sought me out. He hated Yvette and he thought I was corrupting her. He could not tolerate our relationship. He used that night’s debacle of a performance to phone the producers and finally convince them to fire Yvette. We were to take our things and leave.
“I had taken Yvette to the paint room at the top of the Royal Alex’s fly tower after the show to hide her until everyone else had left. She needed to be out of the way because the rest of the cast were furious with her for ruining their show that night. I went up to tell her the news.
“She was flat on the floor, drunk out of her mind, a bottle in her hands. I yelled at her. I accused her of sabotaging our lives. I called her a spoiled rich girl who cared for nothing but her own pleasure. I told her I was tired of looking after her. I wasn’t her servant, cleaning up all her messes. From now on she could look after herself.
“I slammed the door after me and went down to pack up the dressing room and head to the Mossop Hotel.
“Later that night, I received a call. It was just before 2 am. It was the stage door man from the Royal Alex. Yvette had fallen from the open space in the paint room – where they used to hang canvas backdrops to paint them in the early years. It was an 80-foot drop to the stage floor. She was dead. The police had been called just before me.”
Tessa’s tears streamed down her face. This time she didn’t even attempt to wipe them away.
“I threw on my coat over my nightdress and ran the eight blocks to the Royal Alex. Her body lay in a pool of blood. I dropped to my knees and took Yvette’s lifeless body in my arms.”
Tessa mimed this motion, as if she were picking up Yvette’s corpse from the grave.
“The police arrived. They went up to the paint room and found the empty bottle of whiskey. They said it was obviously an accident. In her drunken stupor, she must have tripped and fallen through the paint room opening.
“But I knew it wasn’t an accident. I had killed her. I had abandoned her when I should have bundled her up like a bird with a broken wing and brought her back to the hotel with me. I had only one purpose: to keep Yvette safe and alive. I had failed her.
“The company manager paid the police to keep the death out of the papers. Not for Yvette’s sake, but because The Maid of the Mountains had another full year of touring. It was due to return twice more to the Royal Alex.
“I arranged the funeral. I pleaded with Church officials to allow her to be buried here, ‘the household of the faithful.’ I told them how faithful to the Church she’d been all her life. I lied.
“I found this apartment so I could do what I didn’t succeed in doing while she was alive: look over her every day. I swore I would never leave her again. I’ve remained in Toronto all these years.
“I hope I won’t have much longer to wait until I can join my beloved Yvette. This spot beside her is where I will be laid to rest.”
Herbie could feel his own tears racing down his face. He extended his hands to Tessa. He helped her up off the cold ground. Her legs must be frozen, he thought. She weighed next to nothing, just a slip of a woman. He picked her up as if she were a bird with a broken wing.
“Lean against me,” he told her, putting his arm around her shoulder. “I’ll help you back to your flat.”
When they reached the gates, she handed him the key to unlock them. As he locked the gates behind them, Herbie felt as if he had found closure to Yvette’s tragic story.
Illustration by Gavin Minard
It was a scene Herbie McGill would have never imagined even in a fevered dream.
Midnight, November 2, 1959. The 306th day of the year, a Monday. All Souls Day.
The Royal Alexandra Theatre was ablaze, but there was only the single ghost light lit on stage. The rest of the illumination came not from electric lights but from the glow of hundreds of spirits gathered in the auditorium. They had taken their favourite seats in the house and were ready for a very special performance to begin.
Each spirit was a ghost of the Royal Alex. Each had chosen to live out eternity in this hallowed place that celebrated an art form going back 2,500 years.
In the stage left wings was Herbie. He was the stage manager for tonight’s performance. Jack, having returned to his job many months ago, was on duty at the stage door.
Tonight, for the time ever, the company of ghosts of the Royal Alex would perform a play for their fellow ghosts. It would be the immortal tale of treachery, betrayal, ambition and love: Macbeth.
In the title role, Sir Michael Kabirian. Opposite him, the magnificent Yvette Lafayette as Lady Macbeth, finally performing the part she never got to play in London.
No scenery, no lights, no props were needed. Like the performers, these too would be spectres, to be seen and believed in the imaginations by those of faith in the audience.
Herbie took the ceremonial staff, the brigadier, and hammered thrice with it on the stage floor. He hammered nine more times to rouse the nine muses of ancient Greece, as had been done since ancient times to announce the beginning of a performance.
The three witches descended from the flies and floated above the stage. A more arresting opening had never been performed for Macbeth.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
The spirits in the audience showed their appreciation, but the noise they made was anything but the sound of two flesh and blood hands clapping. They roared, they screamed, they gargled all manner of frightening noises.
But there was one pair of hands that did clap. They were Tessa Woodcock’s. She was sitting in the very back row in the orchestra, aisle seat, extreme house right. She was dressed, as usual, all in black, a kerchief covering her head.
She had been invited by Herbie. It’d taken him nine months to arrange this performance with Sir Michael, Yvette and the rest of the ghosts, and to convince Tessa to attend. Nobody but Herbie knew that she was there. In the excitement of the preparations, the ghosts had lost all interest in anything but this performance.
Lady Macbeth entered the scene.
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’
Over the years, Herbie had seen this play dozens of times but he’d never heard these lines spoken with more conviction. Yvette was transcendent in the role.
And so, the performance continued, until the final scene.
And what needful else
That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace,
We will perform in measure, time and place:
So, thanks to all at once and to each one,
Whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone.
The audience roared their approval. The curtain call was not graceful. It was mayhem, as the ghost performers charged the stage with the glee of kindergarten students at recess. Yvette was the last to join them. They cleared a path for her in her flowing diaphanous robes.
At that same moment, in the aisle seat, extreme house right of the very back row of the orchestra, upon the sight of her Yvette finally having completed her performance and having taken her bow, Tessa Woodcock’s heart beat its final beat.
Immediately, her spirit left her mortal body and flew across the orchestra, above her fellow spirits, to join her lover on stage.
Upon recognizing Tessa’s spirit, Yvette’s joy lifted her up and there, in mid-air, the two lovers, 36 years later, were finally reunited.
Herbie had completed his task. He had brought Yvette her love, as she had requested.
He now knew that the future of the Royal Alex was secure. These spirits gathered here would never allow this theatre to disappear. It would live on, play after play, performance after performance, for hundreds of years to come. Superstition be damned.
Music and Lyrics by Ron Jacobson
Performed by Steffi DiDomenicantonio
Video by Tristan Gough
Length: 4 minutes 37 seconds