The actor collapsed into his chair with a satisfyingly dramatic sigh of exhaustion. He took a moment to relish the chance to take some weight off his feet, and then leaned forward, studying himself in the light-bulb rimmed mirror.
As far as dressing rooms went, this was fairly comfortable. It was certainly one of the largest he had stayed in over his thirty-year career. But, even with the charitably large size, Mr Horatio Delgado still felt restricted. As was usual after a performance, Delgado’s ego had inflated to a point where it was beginning to seep through the walls and bother the actors in the next room.
Just as he was about to start undressing, the theatre manager breezed in. The woman had the gall not to even knock! He didn’t hold it against her, of course. Plenty of women had tried their best to catch a glimpse of Horatio in his tighty-whities. Besides, his anger was quenched somewhat by the complimentary G&T she held out for him.
“Great show tonight, Mr Delgado!” she purred. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when you delivered that final speech.”
“Thank you,” Delgado murmured, guzzling down the drink and then holding the glass out.
“I trust that everything was to your satisfaction?” the manager asked.
“Actually, now that you mention it,” Horatio said, “there was something.”
Despite being filled with the satisfaction of stunning yet another audience, there was something bothering the actor. It nagged at him, lodging itself in his mind like a bit of meat wedged between his teeth.
The manager’s finely plucked brows raised themselves somewhat.
“What was it?” she asked.
“There was someone tutting,” Horatio answered.
“Tutting?” Now the manager actually looked like she had an interest in what the actor had to say.
And so she should, he thought. He quickly explained to her, though with the necessary injection of dramatic flair, how he had first noticed the tutting during the second act. He had been able to ignore it, at first, but it had continued on to such a point where Horatio feared it might have derailed his regionally renowned interpretation of King Lear.
“Do you know where exactly the tutting was coming from?”
“Of course,” Delgado announced, flourishing one of the wipes. “It was somewhere around the D row.”
A little spark appeared in the manager’s eyes, something Delgado might have assumed was amusement. But that couldn’t be. Surely no one would dream of laughing at him. After all, it had been decades since he’d played a fool. The flash was gone as soon as Horatio had noticed it. Instead, taking its place, was a look of mild concern.
“Well, I do apologise about that, Mr Delgado,” she said, the corners of her mouth twitching slightly. “I’m sure it won’t happen again tomorrow,” she said. But, to Horatio, it sounded like she wasn’t sure.
The next night came, and yet again Delgado could hear the unmistakable sound of a man tutting from somewhere in the stalls.
It was during the second act, the same as the previous night, that the noise began.
“Return to her, and fifty men dismist? No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose to wage against the enmity of o’ the air; to be a comrade of the wolf and owl, – necessity’s sharp pinch!” It was a line that, with a practiced flick of his wrist and wiggle of his head, never failed to provoke an awed gasp from his audience. But tonight, punctuating the awes, was the sound of a single tut. It landed in Horatio’s ears like a drop of poison.
He cut his monologue short, and glowered into the inky ocean where the audience dwell, but no matter how interrogative his stare, he saw nothing.
The tutting, for now, had subsided.
Delgado shot a withering glare off to the wings, silencing Rodney the stage manager as he tried to cue the silent actor, and then picked up where he had left. He continued triumphantly on, relishing every gasp and clap the audience threw at him. But, before long, something else began to gnaw at him. For some reason, Horatio couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching him. An absurd notion, he thought. Everyone was watching him! But, despite this knowledge, he could feel a pair of eyes paying particular attention. And it wasn’t just on stage either, he had the feeling that someone, or something, was glaring at him even as he escaped into the wings. The sensation didn’t fade until the show was done and he had barricaded himself back in his dressing room. And even then, the feeling only slunk away slowly, as if the creature was saving him for another day.
“Evenin’, Mr Delgado.”
Horatio shuddered as he took a seat at the bar. Listening to Benji butcher the English language was just the bitter cherry Horatio needed to end the night.
“What can I get ya?” Benji asked, throwing his sticky grey towel over his shoulder. “The usual?”
The actor nodded wearily. “Only, instead of a tonic, I’d like gin.”
“So . . . a gin and . . . gin?”
“Wha’ever you say, guv.”
That sent another chill of disgust tap-dancing down Horatio’s spine, and he downed the whole double in one gulp just to recover.
“Everythin’ all right?” Benji asked, his pockmarked face creased with concern.
“There was a gentleman disrupting this evening’s performance,” Horatio explained, wiggling his empty glass suggestively. Benji obediently provided a second G&G. “He was also here last night, doing the exact same thing.”
“Oh? Wha’ was he doin’?”
This time Horatio visibly winced. “That’s right,” Horatio growled. “Tutting.”
The question was innocent enough, but Horatio sensed something bubbling under the surface. “It felt like I was being watched,” the actor admitted, knowing how weak it sounded.
“An’ the ushers din’t do nuttin’?”
“Not a single thing!” Horatio slammed his fist down onto the counter, causing his empty glass to topple over. Benji silently replaced it. “The man was only in the D row, they could easily have chucked him out and no one would have noticed.”
“The D row?”
A flash appeared in Benji’s eyes, the same spark that had been in the theatre manager’s eyes last night. Horatio suddenly felt out of the loop, especially so when a smile crept across the barman’s lips.
“Ah, tha’ll be ol’ Rigby,” Benji stated, beginning to wipe down the counter.
“You mean you know this fellow?”
“Everyone here knows Rigby Cunnington!”
“Who is he then?”
“He’s a ghost.”
“A ghost?!” Horatio, being as superstitious as any self-respecting actor, immediately believed what Benji was saying. It would, in fact, explain things. The reason no-one else could hear the tutting, the reason Delgado had such an uneasy sense of being watched, it was all down the ghost of this so-called Rigby Cunnington. “Hang on,” Horatio said, finishing his third gin. “That name rings a bell.”
“Yeah, he wos a cri’ic,” Benji said.
Now he remembered. Rigby Cunnington, the most feared regional theatre critic during the eighties and nineties. Horatio knew a great many fellow thespians who had fallen to the pen of that man. “You mean to say that Cunnington is haunting this place?” the actor exclaimed, horrified that this dump would be anybody’s final resting place.
“Yeah, he died here,” the barman explained. “About sixteen years ago, when they were showing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Bu’, even in his final moments, he still managed to write a review.”
“What did it say?”
“’I’d much rather spend two hours listening to an actual cat on a hot tin roof, than spend another minute enduring this travesty.’”
“And then what?”
“He died. Now he spends all his time haunting the auditorium, critiquing every show he sees.”
Horatio had dealt with his fair share of critics. He’d become quite skilled at spotting them out, and his plan was usually flawless. A well-placed twenty-pound note in the barman’s pocket ensured that the reviewer was suitably plastered upon entry, enough to guarantee them an enjoyable night, no matter Horatio’s performance.
But you couldn’t get a ghost drunk. But, by the same logic, you couldn’t fear what they had to say. After all, no paper was going to publish a review written by a man sixteen years dead.
“I shouldn’ worry, Mr D,” the barman said cheerily. “Ol’ Rigby only pops up for the one night; two if you’re really bad.”
“Well that’s good to know,” Delgado said sourly. With that, the actor ordered a final gin, and tried to forget all about his phantom critic.
The third night lacked any noticeable supernatural presence, which pleased Horatio to no end. He was able to deliver another rousing performance, without even the sound of a muffled sneeze to break his concentration.
He rode this cloud of euphoria back to his dressing room, the delighted smile faltering slightly as he noticed a new addition to his make-up table. A discarded ticket stub had been left, propped up against his mirror. Innocently thinking it was a simple note of congratulations from an adoring fan, he plucked it up. The sharp, tight handwriting immediately robbed Horatio of his first assumptions. There, printed on the back of the ticket with a dreadful sense of finality, were the words: ‘Two Stars.’
“He’s . . . reviewing me?!” Horatio crumpled the ticket in his veiny fist and stared back at himself. His face was shining with sweat, and his beard and hair were speckled with grey dye. For a moment he thought he caught the sight of someone looming over his shoulder, but in a blink of an eye the apparition was gone. It was evident that death had addled Cunnington’s brain. It was impossible to consider giving his performance anything less than four and a half stars.
He poked his head out of the room and caught hold of Rodney hurrying down the corridor. “Rodney! Can I have a word?”
The stage manager sighed. He had hoped to get out before Delgado inevitably surfaced for his post-show booze-up, but tonight he wasn’t so lucky. He turned a tired smile towards the actor.
“What can I do for you, Horatio?” A bushy eyebrow rose questioningly. “I mean, Mr. Delgado?” Rodney corrected himself bashfully.
“Has anyone been in here?”
“Your dressing room? No, ‘course not. Everyone knows your rule.”
“Well someone has been in here!”
“What makes you say that?”
Horatio wordlessly held out the ticket. Rodney took it and quickly scanned the words. “It’s just a ticket,” the man said.
“The other side, you fool!”
“’Two stars’? What does that mean?”
“Do you know about Rigby Cunnington?”
The actor rolled his eyes. “The theatre critic! He died sixteen years ago.”
“What about him?”
“He’s haunting this theatre, and this is his review!”
“Oh,” Rodney said lamely. “Not very nice, is it?”
“Of course it’s not bloody nice!”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it?” the stage manager asked, throwing his hands up in exasperation.
“I want you to fix it!” Delgado roared.
A couple of heads peered out from their respective rooms. Desperate for their dose of backstage drama.
Rodney stared at the actor and then at the review in his hand. “Well . . .” he said slowly. “He’s a critic, right? So, if this is his review, then surely that should be the end of it? Right?”
“A review?!” Horatio’s eyes nearly bounced off the opposite wall in rage. “This isn’t a review! This is slander! Now fix it!”
With that, and a suitably dramatic wave of the hand, Horatio slammed the door in Rodney’s wearied face.
One of the younger actors crept up closer to the stage manager.
“What was that about?” she asked.
Rodney handed her the ticket. “The reviews are in,” he murmured.
“Yep,” she said, reading the short critique. “Sounds about right.”
Donna hurried down the auditorium stairs, quickly followed by Rodney. If it wasn’t for the fact she was just shy of five-foot-three, the theatre manager might have cut quite an intimidating figure as she stepped up to overbearing form of Horatio.
“What is going on here?!” she asked, her tongue dripping acid and her eyes throwing daggers.
The priest paused momentarily, quickly glancing meaningfully at the actor.
“This is Father Mochrie,” Horatio explained, trying to manoeuvre the theatre manager away from the D row. “He’s kindly agreed to help clear up your little problem.”
“What problem?” Donna snapped. She glanced over towards the priest, and then understood perfectly. The elderly vicar was waving incense over the entire row and mumbling muddled Latin under his breath. “Are you trying to exorcise Rigby?”
“He’s an abomination!” Horatio declared.
“He cannae rest here, lass,” Father Mochrie said, spraying holy water from a Volvic bottle. “He must be cast oot so he can be at peace!”
“You can’t be doing this!” Donna exclaimed, trying to snatch the bottle out of the old man’s hand.
“It’s not right!” Delgado argued, stepping in her way.
“We’ve never had any complaints before,” the manager explained.
“Well, now you have.”
“Apparently he’s haunting Horatio -”
“– Mr Delgado.”
“Haunting? What do you mean? All Mr Cunnington does is sit and tut now and again!”
“And leave notes!”
Donna snatched a slip of paper Horatio had angrily passed her. “He’s never done that before,” she mumbled.
“This is his second,” Delgado snapped.
“It ain’t good,” Rodney admitted.
Glaring at the fuming actor, and then at the priest, Donna turned her attention towards the paper in her hands.
‘If it weren’t for the fortunate fact that I am already dead, then I am sure this disastrous production of King Lear would have driven me to my grave. Not only was the direction clumsy and cliched, but the actors have about as much passion for the piece, as a fat man has for a treadmill. However, whilst this lackadaisical attitude towards the bard’s great tragedy can be excused in actor’s still wet behind the ears, what cannot be forgiven is the actions of the lead. Horatio Delgado, (also known as Horace Winkle) seems to be under the impression that good acting is centred in the arms, and as such he spends most of the play waving his arms like a demented windmill. His performance often reminded one of a piece of ripe stilton left out in the sun . . .’
Yep, it was a Cunnington review alright. Donna had been an avid fan of the critic back in the late nineties, but not for a minute did she think she’d see another review. Certainly not after he died.
The review continued on, but before the manager could treasure every sharp word, Delgado snatched it back.
“See?” he snapped. “The man’s a demon! He has to go!”
“Oh, come now!” Donna said, planting her hands on her hips in the hopes of looking more authoritative. “What harm is he doing? It’s not as if anyone’s going to read the review. The man’s dead!”
“Erm . . .”
Three pairs of eyes rounded onto the priest, he was staring down at a scrap of paper in his hand. “One of ye didnae put this in ma pocket, did ye?” he asked, his voice cracking slightly.
Horatio snatched the scrap from the old man’s hands and glared down at it. The man literally hooted with fury and, muttering any number of obscenities under his breath, passed the paper over.
“Oh dear,” Donna murmured. On the paper, in the same spidery scrawl as the last night’s review, were the words: ‘Better luck next time, Winkle.’
“Let slip the dogs of war,” Delgado announced, his voice bouncing off the rafters. “I’m going to teach this damned spirit just what real acting is!”
Rodney and the rest of the actors stood in the wings, watching with rapt awe. None of them had worked with Delgado for very long; he was infamous along the regional theatre circuit as being one of the most difficult actors to work with. There were two reasons for this; one, he continuously made outrageous demands that could reduce even the most patient of people to blubbering wrecks, and, secondly, his acting was atrocious.
However, staring out onto the stage, none of the actors could believe that this was the same man. He was actually helping them understand Shakespeare.
“Maybe we should get a dead critic to review him every night?” one of the younger actors suggested.
“I just hope it can last,” Rodney murmured, sensing a storm on the horizon. Which, quite aptly, was followed by a roll of thunder.
The sweat was dripping down Horatio’s face, his body was on fire and his eyes were blind to everything but the stormy countryside in his mind.
“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!”
Goodness, Delgado thought, has Shakespeare always been this good, or is it just me? It didn’t matter. All that did, however, was that he was proving that ghost wrong, dead wrong. There was nothing – nothing at all – that that critic could pick at. This would be Horatio’s defining performance, a bar to which no other actor could hope to reach. Delgado was cementing his name in theatrical history.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk.”
A dreadful chill slithered down the old man’s back. The sweat turned cold and the real world returned. All around him was silence, save for the echoes of that tutting. The words turned to dust in Horatio’s mouth, and his eyes swivelled towards darkness before him. Rising from its depths, with his own private spotlight, was a single figure, sitting primly in the centre of the D row.
The apparition shook its horse-shaped head and scribbled a note on a pad. He watched the actor with a pair of eyes that could strip you to the bone. Slowly, Delgado approached, taking small steps until he was at the edge of the stage. He ignored the confused murmurs from the audience members.
“What’s he doing?!” Rodney asked.
“Is this a critic which I see before me?” Horatio asked, his eyes glazing as the ghost continued to write. “With pencil poised against me?”
“This isn’t in the show, is it?” one of the other actors asked.
“I think we ought to get Horatio off-stage,” Regan’s actress suggested.
Rodney nodded. He’d seen a look in the old actor’s eyes that he hadn’t liked. but, before he could make a move, the overweight actor threw himself off the edge of the stage like an Olympic diver.
If only the auditorium had been less than half full, if only there had been someone there to break his fall, that’s what they said afterwards, when they scraped him off the seats later that night. But, at least he got what he wanted. That night’s performance of King Lear never was forgotten.
He’s still there, Horatio Delgado. Occasionally people will claim to have seen him, standing on stage, waving his arms dramatically. His wordless mouth running through the motions of his final performance. And others have said that, on the very cusp of hearing, they could make out the haunting sounds of disappointed tutting.