Image by Michael Beddoes

Paul hovered nervously on the Promenade in Blackpool, willing himself to take the plunge. He couldn’t face returning home again awash with failure at his repeated cowardice. His father would regard him with that customary air of disdain he reserved for his only son. The son who was a far cry from the keen football player Alan Bigsby had hoped for. He couldn’t contemplate another day of having his head stomped into the concrete at school by his nemesis, Rick Grogan, or having to accept he’d let himself down again. It had to be today – or else, he threatened himself, feeling sick as he took a step forward, the turbulent Atlantic roaring in his ears.

Paul braced himself as his father slammed on the brakes of his Mercedes to narrowly avoid crashing into the back of the car in front. Alan blasted the horn. “Bloody women drivers! Nearly caused an accident,” he roared before accelerating rapidly as the lights changed. Paul stared out of the passenger window on their way to school the following morning ignoring the fact his father had been so consumed with ranting at the talk radio discussion that he hadn’t been paying attention to the road. “Should run them over, the perverts,” Alan snorted as he slowed down at the pedestrian crossing for a male couple holding hands. Paul studied his sleeve, trying to remain expressionless. His father never failed to make his opinions known about anything, but it seemed to Paul that his favourite topic was the evils of homosexuality. Possessing insensitive parenting skills, coupled with the absence of female influence, Alan’s tactless ranting drove a destructive wedge between father and son. They pulled up at the school and Paul got out glumly, thanking his father for the lift. “I’m working late so sort out your own tea,” Alan grunted, speeding away from the curb as soon as the passenger door closed.

Alan worked as a distributions manager at British Aerospace. He worked late frequently, Paul suspected, to avoid recurrent awkward dinners with him.

“Oi, Princess, your lipstick’s crooked,” the loutish voice of Rick Grogan sniggered from behind him.

Rick had singled him out at some point the previous year and rearranging Paul’s features had remained his favoured after school activity. He roughly shoved Paul, knocking him over as he continued into the school nudging and laughing with his cronies Baz and Daz. Paul’s hands flew to his lips anxiously. No, there couldn’t be, his father would have noticed…

“Get up, lazy,” came the sunny voice of his best friend, Stacey Haidara. Paul stared at the impressive afro framing Stacey’s face as she hoisted him up.

“Is that your new plan for hiding cigarettes?” Paul joked.

“Excuse me, I’m having a weave done next weekend,” she said. “So until then, voila!” She struck a pose.

“It suits you, you should leave it like that.”

“I think one week of pubic head jokes is about all I can stomach,” she replied linking arms and steering Paul towards the school.

“Hey Stace, is my face okay?” Paul asked, paranoia lingering from Rick’s comment.

Stacey peered at him. “You’re a vision, darling,” she replied. Paul relaxed.

“So are we signing up for the Christmas show?” Stacey demanded. Paul groaned. “You know Coughlan will make you anyway, your voice is the pride of the school.” Mrs Coughlan, the headmistress, had discovered Paul’s talents during music class and since then he’d been the pride of the school. Paul enjoyed singing, but the crooning classics bored him immensely.

“I suppose my destiny awaits,” he sighed, thinking longingly of the routine he practiced daily in his room in the pre dawn light while his father slept.

***

It had all started about a month ago. He’d been on his way home from school when Rick had declared him in need of a beating. Paul, in possession of a nimble, seventeen-year-old body, could easily outrun the stocky bully. After weaving through numerous streets, he’d found himself on a quiet residential street where his eye had been drawn to a man hurrying along the road. The man, mid thirties, a slight paunch, dressed in jeans and t-shirt, hadn’t been particularly eye catching. It was the sequin fabric and glitter heels sticking out of his bag that caught Paul’s eye. He’d stealthily pursued the man onto the bus into Blackpool, where he found himself standing outside The Sequins Club, a cabaret drag bar on the promenade. His mind had become consumed with visiting the club. Something that had proved an arduous task as he’d lingered awkwardly outside it for weeks.

Now Paul sat mesmerised as Sophie Le Purr performed her set in the glittering heels he recognised from the man he had followed. That aside, he’d have struggled to tell. Expertly applied make-up, wig and a corset to dispel the paunch left him transformed. This was everything Paul wanted for himself. “Oh shut up, you’re all pissed,” Sophie cackled as she finished her set. Paul applauded enthusiastically. “And if you’re not,” she continued, pointing to a man and his date, “you should be if you’re taking that thing home. At least have the good sense to turn him round – permanently.” Sophie bowed, stepped off stage and plonked herself beside an alarmed Paul.

“You’re the one who’s been loitering across the road for the last month.”

“You saw me?” Paul was horrified.

“If you’re trying to join MI5 you’re failing the test miserably,” Sophie said. Paul shrank under her imposing glare. Being eye-balled by a drag queen was a terrifying experience.

“I, erm, sorry, I-“

“You are an awkward little beanstalk aren’t you,” Sophie said. “Well, either you’re here to attack me for being a perverted queen or you have a little secret hobby of your own.”

“The second one,” Paul confirmed.

“You do shock me,” Sophie rolled her eyes.

Paul took a deep breath. This was his chance. “I, I want to do what you do,’ he stuttered. “I want to be a drag queen.”

Sophie smiled wryly. “The seven words every mother longs to hear from her darling boy.”

“I can’t tell anyone. My dad would kick me out.”

“What about your mother?”

“She died early last year. Cancer. My dad thinks anything like this is perverted. I do a little at home in secret with cheap fancy dress but it’s really naff,” he looked hopefully at Sophie. Her expression had softened under the severely painted eyebrows. “Would you help me?”

Sophie regarded him warily. “How old are you?”

Paul understood. “I’m seventeen,” he admitted. “But I’ll be eighteen in four months.”

“You do realise how risky it is to ask me this?”

“More like three and a half,” he added hopefully.

Sophie burst out laughing. “Come on.”

She grabbed his hand and yanked him out of his seat. Paul’s heart soared as she guided him past the stage with its glittering backdrop and through a shimmering curtain. He was stepping into the glorious world of drag for the first time and it was… grim. He found himself in a musty hallway with worn carpets, dim lighting and stacked crates lining the stained walls.

“Glorious, isn’t it,” Sophie said grimly as she heaved against a stiff door and entered a dank room hosting four other drag queens in various states of undress, fighting over the two dressing room mirrors.

These mirrors were not the bulb framed, gilt laden glamour Paul had envisioned, but two plates of scratched glass propped up on an old desk. Make-up was strewn everywhere, a cheap clothes rack hosted a number of glittery dresses next to a threadbare sofa housing various wigs, shoes and tights. The room reeked of B.O. and feet. Paul, however, was enthralled. Everyone stared at him as Sophie rested her hands on his shoulders from behind.

“Girls, Mama has a daughter.” Fighting the urge to bolt under the scrutiny he smiled nervously and found himself waving.

“Hello,” he continued, reddening as his hand continued to act against its will.

“Got yourself the bloody queen there, Soph,” one of the queens said. They laughed warmly before welcoming Paul into the throng.

***

“Pssst,” Stacey hissed knocking on the door of the disabled toilet. Paul unlocked the door and she squeezed through the gap. She considered him and grinned. “Perfect!”

“I don’t feel this alter ego confidence you promised me,” he said grimly as he scrutinized his reflection.

“Well you’re hardly going to feel like queen of the world stood in the loo. Wait until you get out there.”

“Is Sophie here?” Paul asked anxiously.

Stacey nodded. “Coughlan is on stage introducing the third last act now.”

“She might just refuse to let me go on, you know.”

Stacey waved a dismissive hand. “Your voice is the pride and joy of the school, however you’re dressed.”

Paul didn’t feel hugely comforted by this. His father was out there, as was Rick and hundreds of parents. He started to tremble, reflecting on the whirlwind that had been the last few weeks as Stacey began pushing him out of the toilet. “I can’t believe I let you two talk me into this!”

 

***

“Well, fuck me!”

“Was that okay?” Paul asked nervously.

It was two weeks before the Christmas show and he’d finally performed his routine for Sophie at the club. For six weeks Sophie, or Roger as he was know to the wider world, had worked tirelessly with Paul on his ‘dragucation’ as she called it.

“Was that okay, she says,” Sophie chuckled, addressing the empty stool next to her. “My little girl is all grown up,” she mock sobbed, clutching her chest.

Paul grinned. He’d never felt so elated. He’d told his father he’d started dating Stacey’s cousin, Amara. Confiding in his best friend about his ambitions, Stacey had gladly backed him up.

“So you’re going to perform at the Christmas show like this then?” Stacey said enthusiastically. She’d been present for most of Paul’s ‘training.’

Paul blanched at the very idea. “No way, I get enough stick at school as it is and Dad would throw me out.”

“So you’ll come and stay with me,” Stacey replied. “My parents think the world of you, you know that.”

A sense of doom had settled over him as he looked at the mutinous faces in front of him. “I’ll think about it,” he’d conceded. Taking this as a victory, Sophie and Stacey exchanged a high five.

***

“Son, a word,” Alan grunted from the living room as Paul attempted to sneak past the door with a hot chocolate.

“Hiya, Dad,” Paul said anxiously stepping into the room.

Alan wasn’t much more at ease with the interaction. “I got this in’t post today,” he said holding up a flyer to the school Christmas show. Paul’s blood ran cold. “You never said.”

Paul studied his feet. “I didn’t think you’d be interested,” he muttered. “It’s not a big deal. I’m just singing again. On last too, I didn’t want you to have to sit through two hours of…“

“Of self-indulgent rubbish?” Alan finished for him. This had been Alan’s opinion of the school show every year he’d attended with his mother. This would be the first year without her.

“So you don’t have to come, you’re off the hook.”

Alan’s expression darkened. “Your mother loved seeing you perform more than anything and I resent the idea that I wouldn’t honour her by going.”

Back in his room, Paul lay on the bed, his breath shaking. How could he possibly perform in drag now? Stacey and Sophie would understand. He’d tell them tomorrow.

 

***

“I’m warning you Ms Haidara,” Mrs Coughlan hissed at Stacey who had just arrived in the wings. “Paul should be here.” The penultimate act, a rap song, was in full swing, being performed to a stunned audience by Tom Quinn.

“I’m here, Miss,” Paul said as he stepped round the corner and stood in full view of his headmistress. Mrs Coughlan stared at him for a moment, her face not registering who she was looking at. As it dawned, her expression turned to one of horror.

“Paul Bigsby, what on earth are you playing at?” she hissed.

“I’m not, Miss, I promise. This is… my alter ego. I want to perform as her – please?”

“Alter ego?” she repeated faintly.

Paul held out his hand. “Anastasia Stefani.”

Mrs Coughlan looked like she needed to sit down. She regarded Paul worriedly but with a faint air of hope in her eyes. “Well, I suppose I haven’t much choice,” she snapped before marching onto the stage as Tom continued to strut giving inverted peace signs.

“Quincy T out!” he yelled and dropped the microphone at Mrs Coughlan’s feet before vacating the stage.

She scrambled to pick it up, dusting it off irritably. “These are expensive, Thomas,” she called after him. “Now, ladies and gentleman, our final act of this evening is our much anticipated singing performance from Paul Bigsby.” The audience started to clap. “Ah, however, Paul is here to perform for you tonight in a slightly different capacity. He has decided to pay homage to our cabaret neighbours in Blackpool by using his unique talent to bring a little variety to our school. Variety is, as they say, the spice of life, and, well, to that end, may I introduce Anastasia Stefani.”

The lights dimmed and Paul stepped onto the stage. His breathing was shallow and he was convinced the nervous sweat was cutting through his make up and leaving streaks down his face. He stumbled slightly as his trembling legs tried to carry him to the marker. He didn’t dare look into the audience, not wanting to risk seeing the look of horror on Alan’s face. Right now, it was down to him, or rather, to Anastasia to get him through this. He reached his starting point and wiped his moist fingers on his dress before adjusting the microphone. As the first few beats of ‘Say You’ll Be There,’ played, Paul took some shaky deep breaths. His eyes closed and as the song enveloped him everything around him evaporated as Anastasia took over. The lights rose and the crowd gasped. He heard a loud cheer. Sophie. He smiled.

Once the shock settled, the audience became fully engaged in Anastasia’s performance. “Thank you my lovelies,” Paul said, bowing, the applause making him bold. He turned to a woman in the front row. “Excuse me, Madam, is that your husband or were you just taking it out for a walk?” Everyone laughed warmly as Paul got into the spirit of bantering. His eyes found Roger dressed in jeans and a shirt looking overcome with happiness. Then he landed on his father’s solemn face. “And you there, sir,” he said shakily. “Are you having a good time tonight?” Alan inclined his head a fraction and continued to stare. Paul ploughed on. “I – I’m glad to hear it. Now, I’ve been told by me Nan that I’ve got me father’s lovely long legs. They run in the family you see. What do you think of them, sir?” Alan considered his son carefully. Paul’s heart slammed against his chest.

“Well, they’re okay love, but mine are much better.” Alan called out, looking begrudgingly amused.

Paul felt hot tears of relief spring into his eyes as everyone laughed and his father gave him a wink and a nod. A nod that told him this wasn’t going to be the easiest thing they’d ever dealt with, but they’d been through much worse.

 

Image by Michael Beddoes

Amy Clarke

Amy Clarke

Originally hailing from the northern tranquility of leafy Lytham St Annes, at two years old, Amy and her family relocated to the south coast of Ireland to grow up by the sea. Finding life far too peaceful, spacious and relaxing, she moved to London in her adulthood to contribute to the ongoing overcrowding living experiment.
After ten years as a dog groomer, she went to university to gain her degree in her first love, writing. With a BA in Creative Writing and now working towards an MA in Scriptwriting at Goldsmith’s University, her writing influences are a combination of her British heritage and Irish culture, along with her passion for comedy.
Her first feature film is a mockumentary comedy based on her experiences working in a luxury spa for pets. She is a sitcom obsessive with her comedy influences coming from both British and American sitcoms.
Life would be extremely enjoyable if she could eat doughnuts with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, her comedy heroes, every day.

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