A Short Story
Inspired by real events.
By William J. Furney
“This is the kind of wholesome thing my mother says I should be doing,” the recovering drug addict with a penchant for crystal meth who dresses as a woman for a living said as he settled into an opulent salad lunch by the sea.
“Enjoy,” said his friend, the chef, seated beside him, as he steeled himself for yet another loud-voiced, flowery monologue about the middle-aged, overweight man’s recent hard-knock life.
Fully rapacious in nature, Pablo had lost it all, nearly including his life (his hedonistic, overly indulgent inclinations had given him HIV, of the positive kind), but, in a twisted irony, the deadly pandemic had been his saviour.
“My actor friends scoff at me because I’m no longer working at the BBC or in the West End,” Pablo confided, and not for the first time (hard drugs had, apparently, short-circuited his memory). “They think it’s tragic that I ended up doing drag abroad,” he said, with a look of disdain directed at the no-doubt ex-pals back home.
Dining al-fresco in the early afternoon on an arid Spanish island off the coast of North Africa, Pablo scrunched up a tormented face torn asunder by deep canyons, pockmark craters and plunging ravines of wrinkles that threatened to suck his face into his skull and that he longed to banish with Botox but could no longer afford the pricey cosmetic treatment. Crumpling into himself, he revealed a messy life of torment: one achingly spent seeking the spotlight — he was, as he described himself, an “attention whore” — but left anguishing in the fetid dark; of blinding insecurities that frequently left him a quivering wreck and sent him hurtling down paths of terrifying destruction; of the overarching desire for someone to care for him: to be loved. But the truth was, he had never liked, let alone loved, his own grotesque, hideous character — as he saw himself — and the derided and ridiculed caricature he had become; so how could he expect anyone else to?
“Do you think the pandemic saved you?” the chef asked.
In a rare moment of quiet, vaudevillian Pablo considered the question, and fumbled, seemingly unsure how to answer. Treacle moments poured languidly by until, finally, lighting another cigarette, he merely said: “I suppose so,” generating an unstable vibration that suggested he didn’t really know.
It was entirely possible, the chef mused, that Pablo was not all that well endowed in the intellectual department, instead relying on his bawdy wits, crass jokes and belted-out songs, in a raspy voice, to play-up audiences and get by. Punters didn’t turn up to wonder at his talents, which, as you might guess, were questionable, but for the wild and bizarre get-ups that proved an amusement. Unlike women in men’s clothing, a man in a frock will usually always get a laugh. Patrons were mostly half-drunk anyway, if not totally plastered, so it could be a case of looking at the him/her spectacle through exceedingly rosy beer glasses indeed.
And, the chef noticed, and not for the first time, that Pablo spoke with such nasally exaggeration that he vocalised an extreme fantasy world that was impossible to realise. He latched on, vicariously, to faded stars like Joan Collins who were now in their dotage, relaying and no doubt vastly embellishing encounters that were oh so “fabulous, darling”. It was almost as if his own world was so unappealing that he was constantly compelled to conjure up an altogether different, more appealing existence.
Sadly, at almost the age of 50, periously in debt and with no money or family, Pablo was all washed up, his life deep down in the dank sewer and struggling to get out. He looked at the chef, a person of some means and almost equal age, as his saviour and that may, in fact, become the case. For today the pair were meeting to discuss a venture on a neighbouring island that would meld the world of tacky showbiz with fine dining and esoteric art.
The chef’s phone pinged. He peered at the device, lying face-down on the table before him, and saw a message from Francois, a tentative friend in France. He was describing the weather there that day, in a central region, and gave the temperature as well as the general conditions. The chef was tempted to ignore it but instead was gripped by a flash of annoyance and tapped out:
“I told you about a pressing and disturbing situation yesterday and you ignored it. So I am not interested in weather reports.”
“Who was that?” asked Pablo.
“Oh, no one of note,” said the chef. “Just someone I used to know, and kind of wish I no longer did.”
“Well, let me tell you a story about that…” said Pablo, as the chef inwardly groaned and sank deeper into his chair as the bountiful African sun beamed and dolphins frolicked by the shore, drawing crowds of excited snappers who were thrilled by the free and natural bonus to their otherwise somnolent sojourn.
The chef woke from siesta in the bungalow-by-the-sea he had rented and, stretching out like a fat cat after a big feed as the sun’s rays struggled through the window blinds, straight away thought: Why do I want to get into this? Is this a realistic proposition? Why do I want to take a gamble on someone who can hardly keep it together and is an addict with possible mental health issues?
But, the chef mused, isn’t business — and life in general — all about taking risks? That’s if you want to achieve something: a kind of manifestation of your future reality? Otherwise, it’s pastel-plain, dull, predictable — mind-numbing and with no colour to it whatsoever. And there’s no point moaning and bellyaching when you don’t get what you want, if you didn’t take a chance, a punt; really, your idea of perfection is almost never what turns out. Have to put the work in, like it or not!
So, yes, it’s true, of course: everyone, and everything, is flawed — especially when there’s a gyrating fissure of creativity involved. But can you get so fundamentally flawed and catastrophic as this? the chef wondered.
That was enough cogitation for now; it was time to get on with the day, which by now was half-over.
“Hellooo, yooo,” said Pablo in faux familiarity, as he came into the chef’s kitchen, from his own, neighbouring bungalow; lonely and desperate, he clung like a deranged limpet to anything, and anyone, that could help get him out of his atrocious predicament. “What are you up to?”
“Oh, nothing all that exciting,” said the chef. “Just cooking up some new recipes.”
“The restaurant is full tonight, and we have one sizeable party tonight — 49 people. They’re looking for something… different.”
“Aren’t we all,” offered Pablo, not seeing the chef hurl his eyes heavenwards. “That raw vegan place in New York was so popular, until it went bust, cos she didn’t pay her staff. Now it’s on Netflix. So what about raw vegan? That’s different. Probably vile, though.”
The chef ignored his inchoate ramblings and said: “I’m thinking something along the lines of a giant lentil curry — extra hot. A giant pan in the centre and they can help themselves.”
“They like it spicy, eh?”
“Apparently so. Plus, it will make them drink more. And there’s a lot of profit in that. Do you?”
“Do I what — like profit?”
“Of course! But I’m not a big fan of food with attitude.”
“You’ve got enough attitude without the food in you having it too,” retorted the chef. “You’d probably self-combust.”
“Wouldn’t that be a sight!” snapped Pablo, picturing the visceral sight and laughing at the thought of it.
“As long as they’re pised, I’ll be happy. I want them falling out the door. But they’re looking for entertainment. What kind, I’m not sure. Stripping? Singing, I think, but we’ve never done it.”
“Which is where you come in.”
“Darling, I’ve been doing dinner shows for years, as you know.”
“Yes, well, that’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it?”
I don’t know, the bawdy singer thought, of the chef, luxuriating on his back on his bed after a dinner of mouth-burning chilli with the chef.
But then I need a life. Any life, apart from this miserable, pathetic, clawing existence, all glammed up like a rag doll to entertain drunks, who just, basically, roar laughing at me all night long. Isn’t what what drag is — the sneering ridiculousness? The over-exaggerations: the big hair, the layered-on makeup, the overt mannerisms: a tragic-comic caricature with lacerating depression at the heart of it. Because this is all that’s left: all that I am able to do. And I am a tragic wreck.
I am so sad.
I am so mad.
How did this happen to me?
I was a star of children’s television, the West End — I know famous people!
What on Earth am I doing here, in this place?
And then: I will accept, if an offer is made. Really and truly, I have zero to lose.
The following, blazing lunchtime, they were back out on their seaside perch, having a lunch of experimentations courtesy of the chef, who liked to try out new combinations and pairings with guests. On the menu today: papas arrugadas — wrinkled potatoes in a coating of sea salt and covered with a tangy orange sauce: a popular local tapa and frustratingly hard to get right — a large avocado and chia salad, green olives, bruschetta and a big, orby plate of purple grapes. Drinks were tinto de verano (“summer red wine”, another local lunchtime favourite, made with vino, with orange and lemon pieces added but not, in this case, an unhealthy soft drink), for the chef, and sparkling water for Pablo, also a recovering alcoholic.
Those who way overdo it end up paying the price, mused the chef as they sat down to lunch.
“You’re eccentric,” said Pablo straight away, without any proof of strange behaviour on the part of the chef. “I know people; I can tell.”
The chef was not, and Pablo didn’t and couldn’t — another symptom of a drug-fried mind.
Just when I start liking him again, he goes off the rails, thought the chef.
It was true that Pablo had a cavernous, rude, vicious mouth, and instinctively leant towards mendacity, as though it were a survival technique. He thought nothing of blaring personal details about someone to those around him he considered friends but were, in reality, tepid acquaintances generally repulsed by his clingy, brutal character.
“Look,” said the exasperated chef as he served them both a heaping of salad, “I’ve made a decision.”
“Oh goodie!” said Pablo, clapping limp hands together in pretend glee and anticipation. “What’s it to be?”
“It’s to be a yes,” said the chef. “We can give it a shot.”
“Terrific! Fabulous! Fabulously terrific! Terrifically fabulous!” roared Pablo, as he leaned over and gave the chef what amounted to an awkward hug and felt a rush of salvation.
Later that afternoon, the chef, slightly woozy from overindulging in the tinto, climbed aboard a small, stuffy aeroplane — one with propellers that resembled the blades of a desk pan and a seating capacity of 72 — and tried to envision the new relationship and what it might mean for his growing business. The sole stewardess, a young woman with thick, black hair slicked back, pulled out a seat at the top of the craft that was stored to the side, and took her place for takeoff, staring matronly down the aisle and likely thinking of a point in the future where she would no longer have to toil in a hot tin tube. Minutes later, the 34 people on board were in the sky.
Pablo followed a week later, on the same flight, which took 45 minutes, give or take, depending on the wind. The route provided fliers with beautiful scenes of an island between the destinations, with its wide, spectacular golden-sand beach and wild craggy-mountain ranges. Because the plane travelled at low altitude, given the short distance, those peering out from its windows benefited from glorious detail of the terrain down below. Many passengers experienced a form of existential joy on these brief, picturesque trips, a kind of transcendental manifestation that never faded, no matter how often you flew this way. It was though you had booked a flight but gotten so much more: a rare glimpse into the blinding beauty of existence.
And before you knew it, you were back on the ground, and slightly deflated.
Pablo was anything but. It was his first time on this island, and he was met by a driver from the chef’s business. As they drove to the nearby resort town in the sunny south, which — separated from the drizzly north by an extinct volcano — enjoyed a subtropical microclimate and therefore had the islands’ lion’s share of the international tourism market: hence the location of the chef’s thriving restaurant, he thought of his first show, that very evening. Would it be a hit? Would the audience love it, and him? Would he be a star all over again?
Pablo could not help but feel happy, for the first time in a long while.
“This is your bungalow, and here’s the key,” said the driver, as they pulled up to a compound of small, ochre dwellings arranged around a central swimming pool.
“It’s lovely,” gushed Pablo. “Is the chef here?”
“The chef is in a meeting and can’t be disturbed. I’ll come back at 6pm and take you to the restaurant. They’re finishing the stage at the moment.”
It was midday, which gave Pablo the entire afternoon to relax and prepare.
As he inspected this bungalow’s innards, he found there was no need to go shopping for food because the fridge and cupboards had been thoughtfully stocked with everything he needed, including the gallons of sugar-free cola he gulped throughout the day — another form of addiction, and not healthy either. No cigarettes, though, but he had enough for now, Pablo said to himself as he lit another.
After a brief lunch that consisted of a cheese sandwich and several glasses of his favourite skimmed, lactose-free milk, and more cigarettes — his nerves were tingling and tightening ahead of his inaugural performance — Pablo had a siesta and slept, lightly, for almost an hour. Awakening, slightly groggy from the duration of afternoon sleep, he started to think through the evening’s numbers and hummed the tunes.
Everything will be alright. It will be great — fabulous even!
He was now more sure that he was about to relaunch his career, and his life.
“Welcome. It’s good to see you again. How are you?” asked the chef as Pablo entered his minimalist office, off to one side of the restaurant in the centre of the thriving town.
“It’s great to be here. How’s business? How’s it looking this evening?”
“Looking good; many bookings. Everyone’s eager to see our first show. Hope you don’t disappoint.”
“As if I would — as if that’s possible,” said Pablo, scanning the room and its expensive-looking furniture.
“Good,” said the chef, “because I’ll have to leave it to you for a while, because I’m off to New York tomorrow, on a business trip.”
“Oh my, what fun. Can I come along?”
“You know what they say — the show must go on, and the show is right here. Make me happy; make me proud; make me certain I made the right decision in bringing you here and expanding our offering with nightly entertainment.”
“Don’t worry! Leave it up to me,” said Pablo as he exited and headed for the dressing room.
A short while later, the buzzing of diners — mostly foreign tourists, from England, Ireland, Germany, Denmark and France, all hoping for a dizzying night out, began to fill the temperate air of the large, rectangular restaurant with a newly finished stage and its sound and lighting equipment front and centre. By now, Pablo was in an ostentatious dress featuring a leopard-print pattern and so snug it clung to his portly body. He looked like a childish mess, the wreck he acutally knew he was. Applying heavy amounts of makeup in a failing attempt to conceal his gender, he eyed his platinum blonde, towering construction of a wig with its torrent of curls on its stand and smiled to himself, daring to think how there’s always another chance, another way to get back into the limelight and live the glory all over again, and he was entirely grateful for his new friendship with the chef that had allowed it.
This was his night, his time, and he was going to enjoy it as much as he could.
I nearly died, and here I am, living life the way I truly want.
Never say never. I am resurrected.
There wasn’t a curtain, as the stage was rudimentary, so there was no need to positon oneself behind, in readiness. So Pablo waited in his room, until someone came knocking on the door, and said: “It’s time.”
Nerves shot, stomach sank and pitter-patter beats overtook his heart.
Emerging from the cramped dressing room, he who had become she sashayed out before a dazzled audience gustily devouring food and drink like their lives depended on it. Pablo had become Priscilla and strode across the stage to pick up the microphone in the centre. Taking it from its stand, and throwing back her head to belt out a greeting and rightfully restore her place in entertainment firmament, an overwhelming sharpness sized her chest and she dropped the mic and grabbed her heart and, exhaling, dropped to her knees and took her last breath and crumpled and slumped, dying right there, on stage, without having sung a word.
The audience, bemused and slightly puzzled, clapped, thinking it an act.
The chef, dining with friends to the left of the stage, sucked in his breath, stood and said out loud and to no one in particular: “I knew it was too good to be true.”