I’m very excited to share with you today an extract of Justin David’s The Pharmacist!
At last, together in the same space, Billy drinks red wine with his new friend. It’s as if they have always known each other. In this short space of time, he’s learned that Albert’s favourite authors are Genet and Proust, that he never eats red meat on a Sunday and that he once had dinner with Dusty Springfield.
Billy stands in the open bay window where Albert had stood earlier. He wonders where Jamie could have got to. Maybe he’d had to work after all. This is happening more frequently since he started that blasted job at the Walter’s Gallery. He’s so good at his job, they just want more and more of him. The thought lingers at the back of his throat like a bit of dry bread until he washes it down with a zealous gulp of red wine.
Cradling the glass, he leans out into the sunshine, intermittently eyeing up a neighbour washing his car. The street is ablaze with gold and green—dappled sunlight pushing through the gaps in the foliage of the sycamores lining the street. Albert stands, holding the bottle of red wine. ‘Vada the bona dish on the omi-palone!’ he says, extending every vowel sound, curling his words like ornate calligraphy. He’s come to stand next to Billy, to stare down at the neighbour. The palm of Albert’s hand gently rests on his back, warmth spreading through the fabric of his vest. Billy turns and presses his arse against the windowsill. ‘Eh?’
Albert pours more wine into Billy’s almost empty glass. ‘I said, look at the rear end on that gorgeous queen.’ Albert puts the bottle down and gulps his wine.
It takes Billy a moment to register. ‘Ah, Polari. I haven’t heard that for ages,’ he says, but still feels a little bewildered. ‘Who?’
‘That guy next door.’ Albert nods his head towards the man in the street. ‘Don’t pretend. I saw you. Couldn’t take your eyes off him.’
Billy looks over his shoulder at the man who has dropped his sponge and now has his mobile phone clamped to the side of his face. He’s sneering and flaring his nostrils, looking busy. He takes lots of very quick, small steps, down the tree-lined street, shoulders pivoting forwards and backwards. After having been misled by an image of butch masculinity, this little display makes them both giggle. Billy turns back to see Albert smiling to himself, walking across the room to throw his hat on a coat stand. ‘Dolly capello, old fruit,’ Billy says, complimenting Albert on his hat. They both suddenly crack into laughter, surprised but united now, across the generation gap, by the ancient gentleman’s slang.
For a moment there’s a silence in which they stand looking at each other. ‘So, what do you do?’ Albert finally says.
The question makes Billy squirm. He ponders a second before announcing, ‘I’m an artist.’ He knows if he’s ever going to live the life he wants he must get used to defining himself so. It seems such an airy-fairy thing to say—not really a proper job.
‘I knew you had to be a painter. First time I met you, in the hall, I smelt the turps. Though, I suppose when I saw you loitering in the flower market, from the way you were dressed, I thought you might have owned one of those trendy art galleries on Columbia Road.’
‘You saw me?’ Billy acts surprised, but of course he knows that Albert had seen him that day. He covers a smile with his hand.
‘Oh come off it. You were watching me!’ Albert teases. ‘You even nodded at me.’ His eyes glint and his cheeks flush pink perhaps with the wine. ‘But didn’t you say you were on holiday, the other day?’
Billy explains that he works part-time for an arts trust.
‘Must be difficult,’ Albert says. ‘Working in an office as well as fitting in your creative activities.’
He’s relaxed, even though the old man continues to fire question after question at him. There seems nothing guarded about Albert. From the outside, who would guess they only just met?
Billy looks around the room. It’s a large space with bare floorboards and a thick rag rug in the middle. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves run along the left-hand side of the bay window. In front of the window there’s a tatty cream chaise longue, and in the corner, to the right, a writing bureau, on top of which sits an emerald green glass vase, containing eight bright pink gerberas. Billy counts each stalk and wonders if Albert has always chosen that colour.
‘I’m easing myself into the painting again,’ Billy says. ‘But no doubt just as I build enough momentum to work towards the next show, I’ll run out of money and be back to the grind.’
‘Got to stay positive, Billy. You’ll make it work.’
Billy continues to gaze around the room. In front of the bookshelves, there is a well-worn ox-blood leather Chesterfield and a standard lamp with a dusty cream shade. On a glass-topped coffee table sit a few books and a scattering of magazines. Some of them are pornographic, which strikes Billy as rather unusual. Is Albert too lazy to clear up, or is he making a statement?
‘But you’ll continue to paint?’
Billy nods. ‘Right! That’s enough,’ he says, flopping down onto the Chesterfield, halting further interrogation. ‘You’ve been quizzing me ever since I arrived. What about you?’
‘Me? I’m an open book. Not all that interesting, mind.’ Albert bites his bottom lip as if to feign shyness. ‘I am all your failed expectations in a man,’ he says sadly. Billy lifts the bottle of wine and Albert pushes his glass towards him. He pours two more glasses and Albert swallows almost half of his in one gulp.
‘Well, you must have a pretty pension to keep this place on. What did you do? I mean work-wise—for a living?’
‘Life doesn’t cost a lot now. There’s no mortgage on this place. But there are no savings and no pension either, only what I get from the state and that’s next to nothing. I’ve done some acting. Used to be a singer. All a blur now. I managed a very nice restaurant in Soho, once. But mainly, I just got by.’
‘Just got by?’ Billy questions. ‘I can hear the jangle of old money in your voice.’
‘Darling Boy!’ Albert says, pointing his finger. ‘You must not make assumptions about people based on the way they speak.’
‘I had you down as an aristocrat. Blue blood.’
‘We’re not all high fliers, Billy. I’m just a survivor.’
‘Well at least you have your home. How are you surviving?’
Albert pauses in contemplation. Billy doesn’t know much about him, but he senses Albert is about to open up. ‘Billy, I hardly know you. But I feel we have a connection.’
‘Me too.’ Billy gives him a sexy little smile, confirming a mutual trust.
‘Okay, well if you can keep a secret…’
‘I thought you were an open book?’ Billy sits forward keenly.
‘Everyone has things that they keep to themselves.’ Albert slumps next to Billy on the Chesterfield and starts to talk, slurring his words a little. ‘I think it’s really important, at whatever cost, to be true to oneself. I hate spending my time in drag for other people’s convenience.’ Albert sloshes back more wine. ‘I mean drag in terms of putting on a performance. You know, like wearing a mask, covering up the self.
‘This is the way I see it. Most folks want to get married and have babies. So they have a baby, and they do everything they can to mould it, shape it, and dress it into what they think it should be. And they set this child on a path towards where they think it should be going.
‘You know, one is lucky if you grow up feeling comfortable being that person, being that shape, being on that path. And you can forget to think for yourself. One can get so far down that path with the job and the wife and the car, that before you know it, the whole process starts again, of making more babies to mould and shape, mould and shape… and oh…’ He pauses and swallows, then continues almost without drawing breath. ‘But for some of us, no matter how hard we try, we just don’t fit a particular shape. And we start thinking for ourselves. And we come to a fork in the road. And you just know you’ve got to make this choice, because when you’re different, if you wear those clothes and stay on that path, when you know you really should be somewhere else, then you’re just doing drag. Do you see what I’m talking about Billy?’
Billy is completely absorbed. ‘I think so. Yeah. But I don’t really understand what this has to do with money?’
‘Well, when you make that choice, when you take that fork in the road, you might have to turn around to your folks and say, ‘Yes, thanks for that. But no.’ With that, you’re on your own. Surviving means you might end up doing things you had never expected.’
Billy waits for a moment, expecting a punch line. ‘So come on then. What’s your secret?’
Albert turns to Billy and looks directly at him. ‘I’m in pharmaceuticals.’
Billy narrows his eyes at Albert.
‘You ever go dancing?’
‘God—all the time,’ Billy says.
‘You knowThe Palais? On Kingsland Road?’
‘Yeah. Been there lots of times. There’s a fantastic Trance night on Fridays.’
Albert’s eyes widen. ‘You’ve never seen me there?’
‘Yes, me, strangely enough! Old man in a Panama. Impossible to miss.’
‘I deal drugs in there.’
Billy feels his chin drop. ‘You’re kidding?’
‘Close your mouth, Billy. You look like you’re trying to catch flies.’ Albert swallows more wine.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘It’s not hard, Billy. Every Friday night I go to The Palais and I sell drugs to the clubbers.’
‘What kind of drugs?’
‘What kind of drugs do you think? Coke, speed, pills. A little bit of acid sometimes, but mainly E’s.’
‘Albert… you’re an old man,’ Billy says.
‘Thank you for pointing that out.’
Billy rolls around, uncoiling in his place on the Chesterfield. ‘Well, of course—a very well-preserved old man,’ he giggles.
Albert smiles, his eyes sparkling, full of danger.
Billy sits quietly staring at him, pondering the old man for several minutes. Albert smiles back without complaint, until Billy asks, ‘What are E’s like?’
‘You mean you’ve never done one?’ Albert runs his fingers through silver hair.
‘Never done anything, except a bit of grass.’ Billy looks at the clock on Albert’s bureau. They have been chatting for hours. An empty bottle of wine stands on the coffee table and a second, half empty, is in Albert’s hand refilling Billy’s glass. The sunlight is changing. It’s lower now and passes through the window, causing Billy’s wine glass to sparkle like a giant ruby.
‘I thought you said you’d been to The Palaison a Friday night?’
‘I have, but I’ve never done an E.’
‘You? A man in his twenties, dancing around half-naked in The Palais, never done an E?’
Billy laughs. ‘Well, I suppose, in the past, my attention was mainly on my work. The students who did drugs at art college didn’t get first class degrees. It would have been no good, me doing drugs. I can’t even open a box of chocolates without finishing the lot.’
‘Ha. I see. But most people who hang out on the club scene, especially those of your age, have tried it at least once. Part of the territory.’
Billy shrugs. ‘Never been offered.’
‘Never lived.’ Albert chuckles and strokes Billy’s head.
Billy is alert like a boy on his first day of school. ‘Tell me what it’s like,’ he says, lightening the tone of his voice, playing innocent. He kicks off his trainers, falls back onto the sofa and breathes in sun-warmed leather.
‘Hard to say. Like nothing you’ve ever felt in your life. Like being in a dream state.’ Albert flutters his hands in the air, pretending to scatter fairy dust. When his hand drops, it falls casually onto Billy’s shoulder. Billy allows it to rest there.
‘Can’t you be more specific? Dream state? Call yourself a drug dealer?’
‘I’m an expert on all drugs,’ Albert says. He undoes the top buttons of his shirt and removes his cravat. For a man of his age, Billy notes, his skin is in very good condition—only a slight sagginess where one might expect to see a more developed dewlap. His strong jawline reminds Billy of Marlon Brando. ‘I’ve never ingested any substance without first knowing about all the highs and the side effects. But with E, the experience is slightly different for everyone. Generally, with ecstasy, it’s all about empathy. If people around you are enjoying themselves, chances are, you’ll pick up on that vibe.’
‘They make you feel horny, don’t they?’ Billy asks, still playing dumb.
‘Yes. There’s that too.’ Albert smiles.
A July breeze of warm air moves through the open window. Sounds float in from the street—birdsong, traffic, the wind through the trees.
‘What else? People die, don’t they?’
‘There are risks, I suppose, but really, the few deaths that have occurred have been the result of carelessness. Overheating, or else over-hydration and all that stuff.’
‘You trying to sell to me?’
‘Darling Boy, I’m not a drug pusher. I sell to those who use them. If you want to try one, you are more than welcome.’
Billy is surprised by this suggestion. A man of his age, sitting around popping Es, seemed unconventional to say the least. ‘Don’t you worry about stuff?’
‘Like what?’ Albert says, clearing his throat.
‘Short-term memory loss. Alzheimer’s. You read things, don’t you?’
‘When you reach my state of decrepitude, you stop worrying. Look at me, I’m seventy. Nothing wrong with my memory. And, Darling Boy, for every brain cell that has died, a new door has opened to a magical world.’
There’s a wry twinkle in Albert’s eye. ‘People who do drugs always say stuff like that,’ Billy says, deliberately juvenile.
‘I’ve explored corners of my mind which would’ve been otherwise unreachable. It has helped me to recall events from my childhood with incredible clarity.’
‘What about the hard stuff? Done that?’
‘I’ve done everything,’ Albert says.
Billy rubs the insides of his legs in anticipation. ‘Everything?’
‘We live in a chemical world, Billy Monroe. Everyone needs some kind of medicine.’ Billy forgives him the use of his surname. It makes him feel like a pupil being addressed by a teacher but he knows that Albert is playing his game.
‘What for?’ Billy asks.
‘When I’m tired, I snort a little speed. When I’m restless, I have a bit of pot. And if I’m feeling stuck. I mean, if I feel troubled by something, I’ll smoke a bit of opium to help me get through it. If I can’t sleep, I slip a little something in my tea.’
‘Speed? When you’re tired?’
Albert shrugs. ‘From time to time. Gets the vacuuming done.’
‘Albert Power!’ There, switching roles—he’s equal now. ‘You must have a liver like a piece of leather.’ He sits forward, trembling.
Albert stands, moves to the writing bureau, pulls open the front and lifts out a tiny bag of white tablets, shaking out a handful before disappearing through a beaded curtain into the kitchen. A moment later, he returns with two pint glasses of water and sits down next to Billy. Albert places his hand over the table and lets the tablets fall onto the glass surface. For a moment, Billy looks at them. Then he leans and picks one up, rolls it between his thumb and forefinger and examines its tiny logo.
‘Mitsubishi. Bona doobs!’
‘Eh?’ Billy misses the slang again.
‘Don’t you know your Polari, Darling Boy? Doobs. Drugs. These are good ones. Pure MDMA. Lovely trip.’
Billy’s mobile phone buzzes in his pocket. He pulls it out to read the text message. It’s from Jamie.
Really sorry, Billy. Had to work late.
I’m not going to make it.
Billy frowns and stuffs the phone back in his jeans.
‘Problem?’ Albert asks.
‘Not at all.’ He smiles coyly, puts the pill to his mouth, lets it touch his tongue. ‘It tastes bitter,’ he says, pulling a face.
The glass of water trembles in Billy’s hands. Albert swallows his pill and smiles. ‘See? Not dead yet.’
What do you think of it? Let me know below in the comments!
The Pharmacist is available from Amazon, Gay’s the Word & www.inkandescent.co.uk
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Justin David is a writer and photographer. A child of Wolverhampton, he has lived and worked in East London for most of his adult life. He graduated from the MA Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, has read at Paul Burston’s literary salon, Polari at Royal Festival Hall, and is a founder member of Leather Lane Writers. His writing has appeared in many print and online anthologies and his debut novella was published by Salt as part of their Modern Dreams series.
Justin is one half of Inkandescent–a new publishing venture with his partner, Nathan Evans. Their first offering, Threads, featuring Nathan’s poetry and Justin’s photography, was long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. It was supported using public funding by Arts Council England and is available in paperback and ebook.