The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini and other Strange Stories

BOOK: The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini and other Strange Stories
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Strange Stories

Reggie Oliver

Tartarus Press

First published 2003

This new edition published 2012 at

Coverley House, Carlton-in-Coverdale, Leyburn,

North Yorkshire, DL8 4AY, UK

All stories
© Reggie Oliver, 2012

All artwork © Reggie Oliver, 2012

The publishers would like to thank

Jim Rockhill and Richard Dalby


The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini
was first published in 2003. It is the
first of my collections of ‘strange’ stories. After receiving very favourable notices and a nomination for best collection from the International Horror Guild its limited run of 300 copies soon sold out and it has since been very difficult and expensive to obtain. Of the stories only the title story and ‘Beside the Shrill Sea’ have been printed elsewhere. ‘The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini’ was first published in the journal
Weirdly Supernatural
(January 2002); ‘Beside the Shrill Sea’ appeared first in
Supernatural Tales
(April 2003) and subsequently in
Brighton Shock!
(PS Publishing, 2010), for the World Horror Convention of that year. For this edition a few minimal corrections have been made to the
text and I have decided to omit one story. This is ‘A Warning to the Antiquary’ which was written as a
jeu d’esprit
, but the jest, for me at any rate, has rather outlived its charm, and there are those who have found it distasteful. Its omission is no loss to the reader.

I have redrawn many of the vignette illustrations because the earlier ones were either the wrong shape or inadequate or both. It gives me great pleasure to see this collection available again, in an accessible, attractive and reasonably-priced edition. I hope that very soon my second collection,
The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler
, at present as hard
and even more expensive to obtain as
, will also appear in a similar edition.

Reggie Oliver

May 2012


Like a ballerina’s arm, the white sweep of Victorian terraced houses curled gracefully around a sandy bay with high moss-green promontories standing guard over it at either end; a little filigree pier jutted out into the sea; wooded hills and a distant grey castle made up the background. That is how I remember Tudno Bay. The place has a romance about it for me because it was the scene of my professional debut as an actor. I loved Tudno Bay, and even attempted to express my feelings for it in verse, but never really got beyond the first lines which were:

‘Beside the shrill sea!

Where learned mermaids sing to me!’

They were an arresting pair of lines, I thought; unfortunately I could never think of anything as good to follow them, and so they remained, an isolated, fragmentary tribute to the summer of my apprenticeship.

Admittedly the season for which I was engaged at the Grand Theatre, Tudno Bay was not very stimulating artistically. The repertoire consisted of thrillers and comedies, West End cast-offs two decades old; the direction was routine, the company no more than averagely competent. But in those days the sheer joy of acting transcended more pretentious considerations; and the challenge of making something interesting out of uninspired material had its own peculiar excitement. I was never bored because we did a new play every week and never felt overworked because my young memory absorbed words easily.

It was the cloudless Summer of 1976 and Tudno Bay was as sun-struck as any Riviera resort. In the mornings we rehearsed; in the afternoons I found some deserted spot where I could spout my lines to the open air; or I would go on expeditions with a fellow performer, Jane, to find props for the show. (Jane and I were the most junior members of the company and were employed as assistant stage managers as well as actors.) In the evenings after the show most of the company would find a bar where we could drink late into the night. Tudno Bay was a respectable place, and the only establishment prepared to accommodate us was Saxon’s Bar.

Saxon’s was situated in the basement of one of the big Tudno Bay hotels. I was never quite sure whether it was officially a public bar or a drinking club. Whatever it was, nobody seemed to mind its being open at all hours. It consisted of a single, long, low room with a bar at one end. Its decor was nondescript, but the presence of an upright piano and the covering of its walls with framed and signed photographs of minor show-business celebrities gave it a certain atmosphere. It was the meeting place for the more raffish element of Tudno Bay society.

We went there initially because one of our company, a middle-aged character actor called Howard, was living with its proprietor, Ray. Howard was a gentle, frog-faced man, one of those modestly gifted, utterly dependable performers destined to be made redundant by the decline of repertory theatre. He had acted in five successive seasons at Tudno Bay during which he had formed a relationship with Ray, and three years previously he had taken up permanent residence at Tudno Bay in Ray’s flat.

If it had not been for Howard, we might not have gone so often to Saxon’s despite the appeal of its liberal hours. The fact was, none of us liked Ray except Howard, who was besotted by him. Once, perhaps, Ray had been a fine looking man, but he had long since run to seed. He was in his fifties, tall, heavily built, fat, his features regular but coarsely made. His face seemed to glisten unhealthily from the thin slicked boot-black hair on his cranium to the rounded red bumps of his aggressively dimpled chin. His small eyes were curtained by folds of shiny pink flesh. Every evening he was behind the bar at Saxon’s drinking, and though his capacity for alcohol was considerable, he regularly exceeded it. Up to a certain point he exuded bonhomie, artificial perhaps and over-effusive, but acceptable; then one drink would tip the scale: the mask slipped and the creature behind it was revealed.

One sensed rather than consciously recognised the moment when this change took place because it was only towards the very end of a night’s session that he became overtly aggressive. He might begin by retailing some outrageously malicious tale about a local Tudno Bay worthy. Had we heard that the Headmistress of Tudno High was having an affair with two of her sixth formers, or that the Mayor had exposed himself to a young boy in the Pier toilets? He would then invite one’s reaction to this piece of news. If it was muted Ray would accuse you of prudishness; incredulity was seen as tantamount to calling him a liar; a flippant approach was heartless and shallow. There must have been a way of reacting to him which would have defeated his desire to create tension and anguish, but I never discovered it. Ray had a subtlety of technique in such matters which his appearance belied.

But this was not the worst of it: when he turned his attention to Howard he was a demon. There was, it is true, some scope for his mockery. Howard cultivated certain eccentricities of dress which might have seemed odd even on someone less ungainly than him. He wore suits which were too tight for him and quite out of style. He believed in every kind of psychic nonsense and attended a Spiritualist church in the town. His good-natured credulity was such that he would believe almost anything one told him. Ray took full advantage of all these and other weaknesses, so skilfully sometimes that you laughed, only to feel guilty about it afterwards. If you protested, Ray would say he was only having a bit of fun: what business was it of yours? Anyway, old Howie didn’t mind, did he? Howard, who clearly did mind, would put on a ghastly pretence of enjoying it all. Perhaps he knew that if he didn’t pretend Ray would make it hell for him when they were alone.

Many times Jane and I would agonise over whether we should go to Saxon’s after the show. We often decided we should not, but then Howard would beg us to come. Perhaps he derived some relief from having his humiliations witnessed by sympathetic friends. I hope so, but the memory of those times is still painful to me. Once Jane, who was bolder and more direct than I was, asked Howard why he put up with Ray. Howard said: ‘Oh, I know, he can be a bit of a—well, I don’t like to use the word, but a bit of a so-and-so sometimes. But when we’re in the flat he can be quite different.’

‘The flat’, as he invariably called it, featured largely in Howard’s conversation. Every lunchtime, however inconvenient it was, he had to get back from rehearsals to the flat to make Ray’s lunch. He would tell us if he had been cleaning the flat, or if some minor improvement, always suggested by Ray, had been made to its appointments. If one of the company jokingly asked how the flat was that day, Howard would answer the question solemnly, as if ‘the flat’ were an ailing elderly relative. Some of us once expressed a great desire to see the flat, but Howard mumbled something about Ray and turned our request aside. Evidently Ray had put the place out of bounds to anyone not directly sanctioned by him.

Our season was long: it began in May and ended in October. Towards the end of June we noticed that Ray’s behaviour was worsening appreciably. After one night at Saxon’s when Ray had reduced Howard to tears Jane and I decided not to set foot inside the bar again. The following morning at rehearsals Howard took it upon himself to apologise to us for Ray.

‘It’s the drink,’ he said. ‘I try to tell him to keep it moderate, but he won’t. The doctor said he had six months to live if he went on like this. He said the doctors are always saying you’ve got six months. And he won’t listen to me. He says I’m an old woman. I think Trevor encourages him.’

Trevor, or ‘Trev’ as Ray called him, was a new figure on the scene and another reason why we no longer visited Saxon’s. Ray had picked him up somewhere and he had become part of the
at the flat. He was barely out of his teens with lank black hair and a white face that had seen more than it should have at his age. He dressed in black leather and barely spoke a word. At Saxon’s he would stand behind the bar with Ray and occasionally whisper in his ear. Jane, in particular, found his presence troubling; and it was true that since his arrival Ray’s teasing of Howard had become even more poisonous.

The month of July had almost passed before the company experienced a sequence of events which changed our lives. For Jane and me these happenings had a prelude which may or may not have a bearing on the story.

It was Sunday evening, our one night off of the week, and Jane and I were walking along the front. We had vague plans of going to a concert at the Pier Pavilion, the weather was fine and we were full of youthful well-being. Suddenly Jane stopped. Turning to look at her I had the curious experience of seeing the colour quite literally vanish from her face within a matter of seconds. Before my eyes she turned from a robust twenty-four year old to a frightened girl of sixteen. When I asked what was the matter she shuddered and said that a man—or something—in black had just walked through her. Jane often had psychic moments like this about which I was puzzled but not resolutely sceptical because her approach to them was too matter-of-fact to excite scorn. The experience so disturbed her that she said she no longer felt like going to the concert.

We turned back towards our digs. The sun was beginning to lower itself into the sea behind a raft of dusky pink cloud. Few people were about, as this was the time in the evening when the holidaymakers were eating their tea. We could see their pink faces bent over the sauce bottles in the windows of small hotels and boarding houses all along the front. The tide was in and the shore almost deserted. A few hundred yards away from us a solitary male figure was hurling stones violently into the sea. Some trick of the light, or perhaps our troubled imaginations, made the figure, dressed all in black, seem unnaturally tall and thin. As we came closer we could hear that he was singing to himself some kind of unidentifiable rock tune in a high sexless whine. As the song reached a crescendo he threw a stone high into the air. We watched as the stone described its arc then dropped with barely a splash into the dark sea. For a moment the whining stopped; then it began again.

‘My God, that’s Trevor,’ said Jane. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

The following morning I arrived at the theatre for rehearsal to find that Howard was not there. This was unusual because, though I was early, Howard was invariably earlier. There he would be, sitting in the Green Room sipping a coffee and studying his stars in the
Daily Mirror.
As the rest of the company trickled in each of them asked jocularly what had happened to Howard? They missed him. They needed him to read out their stars as he always did. But he did not come, and our director Len was also late.

When Len did arrive he had on his serious face: ‘Boys and girls, I had a telephone call this morning. Yesterday evening our friend Ray had a stroke. Apparently he’d been drinking all day. He was rushed to hospital but he got worse. He died last night. As you can imagine Howard is pretty distressed about it all. I have let him off this morning’s rehearsal, so we’ll just have to work round him, but he’s coming down to do the show in the evening. I think that is for the best. Howard is a professional. The show must go on.’

Len’s philosophy of life was based entirely on such tired theatrical clichés. His religion was ‘professionalism’. ‘I may not be the most brilliant innovative director in the world,’ he used to say, ‘but I am a professional, and I could teach some of these arty-farty types a thing or two about theatre.’ Jane and I liked to imagine those mythical ‘arty-farty types’ sitting at his feet, imbibing his advice on how to make an entrance through a French window.

That morning Len rehearsed all the scenes in which Howard did not appear with the air of someone who had been dealt a grave personal injury but was bearing up manfully under the strain. At about midday, much to everyone’s discomfort, Howard put in an appearance, saying that he wanted to rehearse. Everyone gathered round to console him and, as a result, rehearsals were abandoned.

Howard sat in the Green Room, sipping coffee and recalling Ray’s last hours in minute and repetitive detail: how he had started drinking early that day and would not listen to Howard’s call for moderation; how the stroke had happened and Howard had called the ambulance; how before Ray finally lost consciousness his last word was the faint utterance of Howard’s name. To our embarrassment Howard gave us an impression of Ray’s last words:

‘How . . . ard. . . . How . . . ard. . . . Like that,’ he said.

It turned out that Ray had drifted into death at about the time when Jane had her uncanny experience.

‘Where was Trevor during all this?’ she asked. For the first time Howard, who had been telling his story in a numbed monotone, became animated.

‘Well, when Ray had his stroke, Trevor just sat there in the flat. He didn’t do anything. He looked at Ray, sort of laughing, and he said: “Told you so.” Just that. Then I telephoned the ambulance, and when it came he was gone. I got back to the flat—oh, I don’t know—sometime this morning, and he’d been and
taken things

The last two words, sobbed out, opened the floodgates of grief and Howard wept in Jane’s arms.

BOOK: The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini and other Strange Stories
9.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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