The sound of traffic and a river, wide. A cityscape at night. Above the stage is a bridge,
pedestrian-only. MICHAEL enters from stage right, a brown leather jacket on, and walks towards the
bridge’s midpoint. He is mid-30s, tow-headed and with blue eyes in a Scandinavian face. He slows
and comes to a stop, turning to lean on the bridge’s fence. He breathes the air in deep, looking
down below to where the sound of the river comes from.
MICHAEL exits, stage left. The city noises quieten. Any lights fade until darkness and then: a
spotlight. A microphone stands alone.
MICHAEL re-enters from stage left but now without his jacket. On his top he wears the red AIDS
ribbon, upside-down. He holds four multi-coloured helium balloons at arm’s length. He could be
scared. The balloons are tugged along above him as he comes to stand at the microphone.
MICHAEL: Good evening. My name is Michael and I am Michelle Pfeiffer’s younger brother.
MICHAEL pauses and looks around at his audience, keeping the balloons out of his line-of-sight.
MICHAEL: Well. From up here you look like… So many more. We look like it. But I’ve committed
myself to this. I need to speak. No. This needs to be speaken – . [stops himself] Spoken about.
MICHAEL takes a deep breath then makes a gesture to the balloons without looking at them.
MICHAEL: These represent how afraid I am, and have been, to give this talk. I have been looking
forward to it but I’m also bricking myself as I’ve never done anything like this before. And I’ve
done a lot. A lot.
A friend told me to find something more frightening than being on stage, to distract myself. Hence:
these. [tugs on the balloons, which elicits a reaction] I am a globophobic and have been since my
fourth birthday party, according to my Mother. Globophobia is the fear of balloons. Yes, it’s a very real thing. I’m not embarrassed to admit such a condition. You’ll see that I’m not embarrassed about admitting much. Listen, I’m fully aware how ridiculous globophobia sounds and looks. I’m a killer clown’s walking fantasy. It’s not the things that go bump in the night that scare me. It’s the daytime pops.
[takes a few shaky, deep breaths] Please. Please, somebody take these off me.
MICHAEL reaches out with the balloons in the hope that an audience member will take.
If nobody in the auditorium is forthcoming, MICHAEL will release them.
MICHAEL: Phew. Thank you. That – unlike this – is something I have done many times. Releasing the
Now. I nominated myself to go first because it’s the plaster- off-quick syndrome. I couldn’t bear
the thought of waiting while other people show me up for being a charlatan. Wow them first.
It’s like what my Dad always told me: get the first round in of an evening. You’ll be remembered
for being generous and you won’t have to buy a drink for the rest of the evening.
I don’t know how that metaphor applies, but…
I’m releasing more than balloons this evening. But these words are, are… Heavy, I guess. They will
not be floating up to the heavens, but you may take a hold of them. I hope you will.
Before I begin, I would like to dedicate this ramble to a man called Gaëtan Dugas. I say ‘ramble’
but in my head I call it a rantrum. That’s the child of two very vocal parents. A rantrum for
Gaëtan Dugas. His name most likely won’t ring a bell. You may know him as Patient Zero. Dugas was –
and still is – used as a primary case study of AIDS in the 1980s. Of course, it’s bullshit: he
wasn’t ‘patient zero’.
This is a rather famous linguistic mix-up. In a sex-study of the time, he was actually labelled
Patient O, where O stood for ‘out-of-California’. There was no patient zero, not one that we ever
could have known. It’s pointless to try and find out who was.
Yet Dugas was utterly vilified. An editor of the landmark book ‘And The Band Played On…’, a man
by the name of Michael Denneny, made – and I may be paraphrasing – “… a conscious decision to
vilify Dugas in the book and the publicity campaign to spur sales.”
Go figure. The dollar wins out, at what price? Denneny has at least come to regret this. Such
nobility. But I really wish he hadn’t done in it the first place, as those of us who are gay and
HIV+ have had a really bad press since that day.
I hope to change that. I’m going to start with the acronym: H.I.V. I can’t tell you how much I hate an
acronym. Hate’s a strong word, they say. Fuck balloons: I might be acronymaphobic. I can point to
where this feeling comes from. I worked in Japan for a spell, for a famous international English
school who I shall punningly call The Ritz. Those in middle-management – and I’m convinced middle-
management is one of Dante’s infernal rings – would talk, literally talk, in acronyms. This; an
English school. A school that teaches English. It’s a pretty rich lingo, I’m sure you’d agree. But
not for those at The Ritz. A whole sentence could be given to you in acronyms.
A second spotlight comes on to reveal a bespectacled TEACHER.
TEACHER: Michael Pfeiffer –
MICHAEL: Stop. They were too lazy to even use your name. To wit.
TEACHER: MP it’s not an EFL class today, it’s TESL with CALL for EAP. The DOS says STT and TTT are
fine for YL, including TPR, but for AL more of an IELTS, I know WTF, so DFIU and TT for N.
The second spotlight turns off, leaving just MICHAEL.
MICHAEL: Anywho. Back to the H and the I and… You know the score. I want to change it. I want us to
change it. I would like it to stand for Hope Is Viral.
I’m putting off the beginning of my rantrum. I don’t want to start at the beginning but I think
that’s just me being contrary.
As I was writing and preparing this, I became more and more nervous about standing up and saying
what I wanted to say out loud. Bricks, as I’ve said.
But I had a realisation, quite late into the process. We aren’t all that different. We all have
bodies. We all have a heart and an immune system and sexual organs and blood and the pumping of
said blood and the hopes and loves and hates and dreams it carries along. These things are all
great levellers. We are all the same in that respect.
My body is a little different, I think, from most of yours in this room, but not so unique.
Same-same but different. I have something I share with 36.9million people in the world. Without
giving away the ending, and I reckon a few of you have sussed this out already: I have HIV.
It’s unfashionable to talk about HIV and AIDS. It’s not the disease of the moment.
But I’m pretty unfashionable. Look at me. I don’t believe in following trends. I don’t want to be a
homogenous H&M, his and many more. I was called ‘edgy’ once, you know. But she was over eighty and
bi-focal’d up to the eyeballs, so… Make what you will of that. I do, however, believe in two
things. One, this conversation is nowhere near over and two, we should not be afraid of the
language of morality.
For those of you who don’t me, which is all of you apart from that one there [points]; I’ve only
given you the briefest and most tantalising of introductions. You know my name. You know who my
sister is. ‘With that accent?’ you’re thinking. I know; it was quite the shock for me, too, this
discovery. How did I learn that I was a part of Hollywood royalty? There’s as good a place as any
to kickstart my tale into action.
It came about once I’d been put on medication for HIV. This story starts with my body and how it
was diagnosed and how it was ‘cured’. Yet I can’t use the word ‘cure’. Oh, I can use any goddam
word I like of course. That ‘can’t’ is a ‘shouldn’t’.
This is the body of a survivor. There’s always been a slight prejudice against it. In the way
people would say “my god, you’re skinny.” Prejudice is Latin for ‘in advance judgement’. I had it
as a child, but it was always allowed to slip. It still is. You’d never dream of saying “my god,
you’re fat” to someone. I have, just as a test, and the upshot is not as positive as the word
‘upshot’ makes it sound. And yet it seems alright to say the opposite.
You should have seen this body eleven years ago. I weighed 4- and-a-half stone. At the risk of
showing my age, I’m not sure what that is in kilograms. Kate Moss? About twenty-five, I think. The
same atomic weight as a hydrogen molecule and unable to get up a staircase without having to stop
midway. Halfway down the staircase is no place to be, no matter how cute Kermit the Frog’s nephew
made it sound. Maybe a lost cultural reference, that one.
In 2005, I worked in Thailand after the Tsunami, for a locally-based charity company. This was
working in diseased waters alongside the bodies of victims and in basically very unsanitary
conditions. When I returned to the UK, there was quite a sudden change in my health. Sudden as in
the type of sudden a lemming experiences with that last footstep. I totally dis-integrated, really.
I had not returned same-same but different, just different.
There was my weight, or lack of it. My physical energy, or nonexistence of it. There was also my
skin. For all intents, I looked like a leper.
I feel a bit of a cheat quoting a writer, for I am one. Performing is not my raison
d’être. To be fair, I don’t think any of us really ever find out our raison d’être we just a) pin
something to our lapel to give ourselves some meaning and b) love finding an opportunity to use the
term raison d’être. Hm. Anywho. That American great Barbara Kingsolver wrote “… It’s a gift to
survive death, isn’t it? It puts us outside of the fray.” I was stepping dangerously close to that
fray. Years of not being diagnosed with HIV had taken its toll. In 2007, it was still an
embarrassing subject, even to medical professionals. It was taboo, almost.
2007 remember. What were you doing in 2007? What was happening in 2007? Where was the world and
where were we? Apple had released the very first iPhone. Bulgaria and Romania had joined the
European Union. I probably shouldn’t go anywhere near that subject at the moment, hey? England’s
nail in its own coffin? Discuss. 2007, though. JK Rowling had finished the last Harry Potter book.
Smoking had been banned from public places in the UK. Venus Williams was winning her fourth
Nobody was stringing those three letters together for me. No H, no I, no… Finish the acronym
yourself. [shivers] Acronyms.
HIV wasn’t the elephant in the room. It was just the whole, goddam room. We were just one big
elephant, us positives. There wasn’t much in the way of cultural references over here. Forget the
tombstones. There was the Holy Trinity of AIDS: Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Matthew McConaughey in
The Dallas Buyer’s Club and the much less glamorous Mark Fowler in Eastenders. Only one of them
didn’t come away with an Academy Award.
And yes, Freddie, quick like mercury. HIV was a safari and there was big game, our very own big
four. It was a thing for gay men, drug users, sex workers and poor families in sub-Saharan Africa.
I even fit, quite neatly, into one of these categories.
Still, nobody seemed to be attaching the label to me. Not even myself, truth be told.
Thank heavens for Christian Jessen. ‘Why is he suddenly making an appearance?’ you ask. I love it
when people say ‘you ask’, or ‘you think’. I always rebel against that phrase. How the fuck do you
know what I’m thinking? How do you know exactly what I’d ask?
A friend of mine called Blaise was a producer on one of those ‘Embarrassing…’ programmes back then.
I don’t mean a programme that’s embarrassing, I mean one of those medical shows, about bodies that
were embarrassing or illnesses that were embarrassing. My condition was many things. I wish it had
only been embarrassing. It was mortifying, soul-destroying, deadening.
They were researching for an up-and-coming series on tropical diseases and they
were looking for case studies. I’d come back from south-east Asia where I had been working in the
direct proximity of cadavers and the other detritus of a natural disaster, in diseased water to
boot. Without boots, but in flip-flops. Six months later and I’d lost a third of my body weight
and had the visage of a medieval leper, or at least the beginnings of one.
It was a natural conclusion that followed. The work had made me ill. Stepping stones are easy to
take because they are so enticingly raised above the water, but it shouldn’t lead one to suppose
that they’re the only path to an explanation. It’s very easy to add one and one together and get an
almighty case of denial.
“Of course I’ll sign up for my fifteen minutes of fame!” I exclaimed. I just wanted a cure. Tyra
said there’s nothing as unattractive as desperation and believe me: I was desperate. I had started
ordering wacky products online, including silver tablets from the USA, as if HIV was some kind of
werewolf. I must have spent a fortune.
I eventually found myself in the office of budding televisual heart-throb Christian Jessen one
The lights lift to reveal DR JESSEN sitting at a mahogany desk in a plush office, an empty chair
opposite. MICHAEL looks at it.
MICHAEL: Have you ever been to Versailles? That’s where I was headed that afternoon for my initial
interview. Versailles also known as Harley Street. The gold alone in that place could cure you.
Not moving away from the microphone, MICHAEL pretends to knock on a door.
DR JESSEN: Come in.
MICHAEL turns away from the audience and sits in the empty chair. DR JESSEN looks up.
DR JESSEN: Good afternoon, Michael.
MICHAEL: [to audience] It wasn’t, but it would get there. To witness. [to DR JESSEN] Hello.
DR JESSEN: Can I ask, has anybody offered you an HIV test?
MICHAEL: [to audience] I swear, this is not edited. This is what happened, or at least this is what
I remember happened in my mind’s eye or my memory’s eye or my memory’s mind. [to DR JESSEN] No.
DR JESSEN: And how many years have you been ill?
MICHAEL: Er… About three.
DR JESSEN: I’m flabbergasted.
All the lights go off. The microphone spotlight returns. It takes a second for MICHAEL to reappear.
MICHAEL: He was flabbergasted. When do ever hear that word in a conversation? I was charmed. I
actually found myself flirting and attempting to chat him up knowing full well that this was
neither the time nor the place. You can take the gay out of etc etc. Had I had a test? The answer
was a resounding no. One of the few negatives in my life.
When the news came in, that I was positive, and that I needed to be put on a cornucopia of
medication instantly, it did not mean that my body was instantly saved. A friend of mine who was a
doctor – a doctor-in-training, I should say – issued a warning.
A soft pool of light comes on to reveal MEDIC JACK sat in a pub. The usual noise of talk, laughter,
drinking and background music accompanies him. MICHAEL goes and sits down in his presence. After a
second, he stands.
MEDIC JACK: Are you going?
MICHAEL: I’m going home to peel some vegetables for lunch. And I need to exit this scene so you can
issue a warning. To wit, to woo.
MEDIC JACK shrugs. MICHAEL returns to the microphone stand and watches as MEDIC JACK looks around, as if meeting the eyes of others.
MEDIC JACK: We should prepare. He’s not looking good. I think he has a matter of months left. We
really should prepare. [drinks]
The pool of light and attendant pub noises disappear.
MICHAEL: The look in their eyes, did I notice it? I probably did, but there’s a lot to notice when
you’re diagnosed with something. The most noticeable thing is, unsurprisingly, how you take it on
When I was diagnosed, I almost instantly felt like it was akin to being given a flag. I was not
alone in this. I had to do my ‘contacts’. Can you imagine? You’re morally, ethically – in whatever adverbial way you care to choose – obliged to tell your previous sexual partners. Do you know how difficult that is for most gay men? Names are a luxury only rarely exchanged in this age of the app. Let alone numbers. The first person I told was an ex. For the purpose of this show we’ll make him hot and Spanish.
A second spotlight comes on and GONZALO stands there. He is facing MICHAEL, who turns to him.
GONZALO: HIV you say?
MICHAEL: Si. [to audience] I’m fluent in Spanish.
GONZALO: Si. [to audience] His Spanish is only okay. [to MICHAEL] You know the thing that is in my
head first? Now that you tell me this news? There is a famous painting. Very famous, very French. I
believe it is painted by Delacroix. Liberty? It is known by many people as it is a compact-disc by
Coldplay. Such very English music. Such a very English name for a rock group. You know the picture?
A woman with a flag going to war, waving a flag and with her chichis out, her titties. That is you.
MICHAEL: [to audience] Don’t worry. I needed an explanation too.
GONZALO: This is how I see Michael. You are carrying that flag and waving it for so many other
people now. You are a good fighter, Michael.
The second spotlight is turned off and GONZALO disappears with it.
MICHAEL: This is important because of the situation that surrounded HIV, and still does. It
requires a fight, and I’d never had a cause before.
This could be solely a story of my perception of it, but I wanted to expand it to how my
flag-waving and standard-bearing has been influenced by other’s perceptions of it and why I feel
this activism is still valid. Yup, even in 2020.
I’m using words to demonstrate this, obviously, and so that’s something I want to explore. Language
informs culture and vice versa. I am not an expert, but in my head they’re very chicken- and-egg
(although I know full well that the answer to that conundrum is ‘egg’).
Different cultures have different languages and that can tell you everything about them. I read
recently that Australian aboriginal people don’t have their own words for ‘please’, ‘thank you’ or
‘mine’. This might sound like the height of rudeness to Western ears, but a hunter-gatherer
tribesman explained, in an interview, that “…in the old days it was a given that we would share.”
Suddenly sounds much more explicable. I think this connection – language and culture – should be kept in mind when talking about anything, about the way we talk about it.
There’s a chain, based on language: stigmas comes from ignorance, which comes from either a lack of
information or misinformation. Information is transmitted by language.
We can see the mistakes that have been made in the past if we take HIV and the verb choices that
have been pinned to it. So often I have been asked about what it’s like to suffer HIV. I do not
suffer it and I do not suffer from it. People have done – in the past – but we’re moving away from
that. The way we speak about it is intrinsic to this. I live with HIV, but do I look like I’m
suffering from it?
It was always wondered how a person caught AIDS. No human being in the history of the world has
ever caught AIDS. It’s not something you can catch. I wonder how many people are surprised by that
statement. Then I wonder how many people follow that thought up with a why not or a how not even?
The very way we talk about it is important. Just as important is whether we talk about it.
I’d like share two case studies that happened to me in the last month. I mentioned earlier the idea
of why my activism is still valid. I think these will show why.
I was having lunch with a friend of mine who works in an office. She’s mid-20s. The average age
amongst her team is early- 30s. A PR company, so probably well-educated individuals.
Probably. We can hope. One day in the office, the conversation turned to HIV. A colleague of my
friend’s, whom we’ll call K, came out with the following statement.
“So, HIV is a thing that gay men catch and then they die?”
This is 2019, right? I might just leave that statement in the air for a moment.
MICHAEL breathes in deep and composes himself.
MICHAEL: Does anybody have a drink I could sip? Something strong?
MICHAEL waits, in the hope that somebody in the audience does have one to offer.
MICHAEL: The second case study of mine happened in a place I used to work. For a few weeks, I was a
waiter at the Old Vic in Bristol. The new Old Vic, if you will. I’m a gay man, working in a theatre, working with a lot of other gay men. Boys really; most in their young 20s. These are also – I would have hoped – educated, artistic, forward- thinking, liberal men. Homosexuals who work in a theatre, for heaven’s sake. When I mentioned that I’m HIV – and I make a point of mentioning it quite casually – one young
chap’s response was a response I’ve heard many, many times. To Wittgenstein.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Don’t be. I’m not. He was young and gay and in the arts and at that very moment I knew not only was
my work still valid but also that I had my work cut out for me. If I have to convince someone like
him how fine I am, how successfully alive and un- contagious I am, well: imagine other
demographics. It’s quite an insidious prejudice that may seem harmless on the outside.
With regards to me, the sympathy is uncalled for. I should qualify this. I am telling you about me,
my story, and it’s a story that’s similar to thousands of people worldwide, if not more. I am
undetectable, which means I am untransmittable. It’s a very easy equation. U = U.
That’s what I have to fend off, on a daily basis. Apologies and ignorance. And therein lies the
problem. What I ask, is, don’t be sorry. Be aware of the truth. It’s not the young gay actor’s
fault; it’s not Special K’s. It’s how society has addressed it or – more importantly – not. Those
of us who are HIV+ can be partly blamed, I don’t deny that. In some respects, we’ve been our own
worst enemy. Why did we allow the world to stop talking about it? It fell out of fashion and the
world kind of patted itself on the back, as if “oh, it’s fixed, no-one is visibly dying anymore so
it’s all done.” In some places that’s true. Few are dying from it anymore but that doesn’t mean the
stigmas are dying.
Things become dangerous or fearful only when we don’t talk about them, or when we talk about them
in the wrong way. Suffer. I haven’t suffered from HIV in over a decade. I still have it. And don’t
get me wrong. I have suffered.
I was ill, but long after that passed I then suffered heartache, hangovers, prejudice, the
psychiatric side-effects of my medication, those day-to-day stresses of modern living, others’
perceptions of me. There’s an irony I think, that the least suffering that HIV has caused me was
I listened to Emma Britton on the radio recently, interviewing two HIV+ men. She had the same tone
of voice somebody has when talking to a person who’s lost a relative or loved-one. I give her kudos for making this a part of her show, but she didn’t know what to say or what to ask. What people should be asking is: how is that? How are you moving on with it in your life? What’s changed for you?
Again: not her fault.
Unless we tell people, people won’t know. We don’t know anything until we are told it. That applies
to me for a lot of things. And along the way, it can be surprising who doesn’t know what. To
register with a dentist’s in Bristol I had to fill out the usual sign-up form. It asked whether you
have any infectious diseases and as an example it gave, amongst others, HIV. I informed my dentist
– a medical professional – that even though I do, indeed, have HIV there was no way on God’s earth
he could catch it from me. Am I being naïve to hope this isn’t a lesson I should be giving, in
MICHAEL stops and shuts his eyes.
MICHAEL: [eyes still closed] Where was I? How have I gotten here? [opens eyes] I’ve jumped ahead,
haven’t I? I was in Christian Jessen’s office one minute, pretending to be French aristocracy, and
now… Where did we get to? The diagnosis.
So. In came the numbers. I was given a mortality rate: 77. Nice symmetry, I thought, as I was born
in 1977. Can you imagine that conversation? A mortality rate? How long you’ve left? Talk about
putting a clock on it! That’s a lesson screenwriters are given: it ratchets up the tension for the
viewer. Great for Die Hard Eleven, starring Bruce Willis and Sandra Bullock in a high- rise
building going precisely nowhere, but you don’t want it attached to your own non-Hollywood life. I
won’t bore you with all the other medical facts, but I will supply one. Listen up. I could do with
Jennifer Aniston right now as here comes the science bit.
Your immune system fights off infections using white blood cells, CD4 cells. Your CD4 count is
basically how healthy you are, how well you can fight. An average mean for a healthy fighter
amongst us – amongst you out there – is about five hundred to a thousand. 200 is worryingly low.
I had 23. I could have lined them up on a shelf and named them. One of my consultants was a regular
This is when I became a Pfeiffer. Finally! The family reveal. The skeleton within my diseased hide. I had been put immediately onto my meds, as I’ve said. On to my antiretrovirals. My skin only got worse. Not better, not cured as I’d been promised. Worse. “Don’t worry,” I was told. As if it was possible to not worry about your body falling apart, quite literally. To witlessnesses.
The lights come up to reveal DR JESSEN behind his desk again.
DR JESSEN: It will get worse before it gets better. It’s putting up a last-ditch scrap. It’s that
ol’ darkest hour before dawn.
Cut the lights and DR JESSEN.
MICHAEL: Enter Michelle Pfeiffer, stage left. Some of you actually looked there. I think most of
you looked stage right, but hey. I’m presuming some of you have seen Stardust? Fantasy and magic
and Robert De Niro as a drag-pirate and that ginger woman from Bread as an evil witch? There’s a
glorious scene in which my sister Michelle swallows the remnants of a star. She turns to face a
mirror and in a matter of seconds goes from a wretched old hag into the screen goddess we all know.
Well. That I know.
I had that moment.
After a meeting full of despair, where all those clichés were rolled out, all dark hours and dawn;
I went to bed. Really, truly, utterly despondent. Despondent, wizened, hag-like. I awoke, walked
past a mirror, did a cartoon double-take, nearly passed-out. I was completely clear. I mean
Oil-of-Ulay, baby’s bottom, Michelle Pfeiffer clear. I had become Hollywood royalty. I had
My skin was sorted. My body needed a little work. There are times, still, when you’re a walking
paradox where you feel simultaneously like concrete and jelly. Rest and sleep are needed. I’ve had
to pull others up about having the accusation of laziness levelled at me. I’m actually the
healthiest I’ve been for a long time, more than a lot of other people, but… it’s a question of my
batteries. It’s not that they aren’t included; it’s just that my batteries need to be recharged.
The expenditure of energy, for me, is like dealing with war-time rations.
It makes me think of our inner animals. In my world, we have a whole subset of gay classifications
going on. I am not a bear, I am not a cub. I’m not a wolf. I thought I was an otter. I wished I was
an otter. And despite the fact that my boyfriend calls me a vacationing Arctic fox – think about it
– in reality, I’m a cheetah. This is dictated by my body and my immune system. A cheetah or maybe a
leopard that can’t change his spots. But a tiger can widen his stripes, no?
Cheetah, then. A friend’s mother still calls me Halley, as in the comet, because one Christmas I
turned up to a party, blazed for a moment – bright and loud and resplendent – and promptly went to
bed. See… I live my life as cheetah. Paw dangling from the tree, dead gazelle between my jaws?
I have an inner animal and an icon.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I – Michelle Pfeiffer’s younger brother – have an icon in the form
of tennis player Venus Williams. Yes, the one that isn’t Serena. The lithe, gazelle of a lady. I
must have a thing for gazelles…
Now, Venus: there’s a body. We’ve all seen it on the grass courts of Wimbledon. Few people know
what’s going on inside of that body. Venus lives with Sjögren’s Syndrome, which is an autoimmune
disease. Muscle pain, aching joints, fatigue, numbness… I can identify with those. I just haven’t
won Wimbledon. Yet. Forty-love.
Now… isn’t that an impressive feat? It’s the demonstration of the kind of power we can still
show, no matter what the body is infected with. Not infected, no. Lives with. Thrives with. I
believe I have this in me, too. I’m HIV+, but that doesn’t mean all my power has become diseased or
How times have changed.
It’s impossible to catch HIV from me. Let me say that again because this point needs to be hammered
home. It’s impossible to catch HIV from me. Not just by having unprotected sex. You could down of
shot of my blood and not contract it. I have this.
MICHAEL pulls a vial from out of his front jeans’ pocket. The liquid inside is blood coloured.
MICHAEL: You could drink this and all you’d get from me is the taste of rusted iron. I know; an odd
request. Vampirism is about as en vogue as HIV nowadays. People are disbelieving of me, but it
In fact, I might even live longer than most of you. Sounds unfair, doesn’t it? It makes sense
though. I have a regular MOT, so my engines and gears and whirring motors are all under beady- eye.
And the science has come a long way, too.
I’m not recommending you catch HIV, of course not, but I haven’t had a cold in eleven years. That
can’t just be from drinking a lot of Guinness and cum.
Too much? Too late. As for me: too smug. Smugnoxious. Check out a recent consultation I had. My
doctor now, by the way, isn’t cut from such a famous cloth but I do love her dearly. To witches, of
the good variety.
The lights come up where Dr Jessen’s desk was. A desk is still there, but very much a more
functional one, with DR JESSEN still sat behind it, playing a different character.
MICHAEL sits down at the vacant chair opposite. DR JESSEN is reading some notes from a clipboard
she holds. There is silence for a full minute. MICHAEL looks to the audience and then back DR
JESSEN. He waits.
MICHAEL: [to audience] She was sat there, reading silently for about a minute. A minute of silence
in a doctor’s office is hell, I can tell you. In the end, I broke. [to DR JESSEN] Just give me an
DR JESSEN: [motions to the clipboard] What’s going on here?
MICHAEL: You tell me.
DR JESSEN: [smiles] This is good.
MICHAEL: Good for a positive person?
DR JESSEN: No,no. This is good for anybody. This is like Iron Man.
MICHAEL gets up and returns to the microphone, which is relit as DR JESSEN and her desk disappear
in the dark.
MICHAEL: Her words. Iron Man. We’ve ascertained I’m a cheetah by animal, so I always thought I was
much more Catwoman than Iron Man. Ah, Michelle again.
It’s all a bit surprising, isn’t it? HIV-positive and here I am, wanting to say “see you later,
losers!” but of course it’ll be somewhat sad when I‘m left on my own like some flash, flamboyant
MICHAEL looks around. He seems lost for a minute.
MICHAEL: I’m aware of the time. [to offstage] You’re not prepping the crook are you?
There is a moment of nothing.
MICHAEL: Silence speaks volumes and I shall take that as a no.
All this living we can do, irregardless of what’s lurking inside. HIV becomes a part of your body:
intrinsically so. It’s a symbiosis, but my god it’s an unfair one. That does imply it’s had all the
advantages. It has made me, though. It’s toughened me up, ironed me out, informed my work,
increased my empathy. All of this after HIV pulled the viral equivalent of being bitten by a cobra.
It injects more viral information into the host more than almost anything else.
If it sounds like I’m impressed with HIV, maybe I am a little. It’s a clever little bleeder. Pun
possibly intended. All viruses are. Syphilis for example. Who even gets syphilis anymore?
I did. Let me tell you something about syphilis: don’t get it. The inoculation is painful enough. A
needle – [extend hands a certain distance] a needle – into each arse cheek. It’s the side effects
that get you. I was warned – after one cheek and before the second, mind – that syphilis puts up
the biggest fight of all viruses, even more than HIV. The physiological reactions will cover the
whole spectrum. How I shrugged that off…
In the space of an hour, I got the shivers – and I mean body- shaking shivers – to hot sweats of
the menopausal kind where I basically had to take all my clothes off, to tinnitus, to the left side
of my entire body going numb, to being violently sick… And I went blind for three seconds. Do not
There should be no embarrassment about diseases, about talking about them. Why all this shame?
Shame’s a funny one. Ha and maybe one more ha.
Its etymology reveals a lot. The proto-Indo European root of ‘skem’ went through an evolution, like
we all do, through careless blunders with other languages until it reached Old English, where it
became ‘sceomu’. It was a feeling of guilt, a disgrace, dishonour, a loss of esteem. It also meant
‘private parts’. I have parts of me that are private but because I’m not ashamed of them, here they
are. I like words. What I like doing with words is putting them together to make sentences. I like
words, I love sentences. Imagine me with a paragraph; orgasmic.
The idea of something hidden is a potent one. There’s something in my body. It’s the same in
society; but society is still trying to hide it. It all comes out in the end. Mine came out in that
skin condition, so it will – or should do, hopefully – in the broader, societal context. HIV hides
in the body, it’s a retrovirus. We shouldn’t be hiding it in society, too. That only gives it more
I’ve been accused of irresponsibility with regards to how flippantly I talk about HIV, in
particular by parents of young children. But that’s exactly why I do it, to combat the sheer weight
of fear, of that frightening past, of that campaign war that was led against us. The sheer fear…
and I do not mean sheer as in the light gossamer fabric. Just – gay –enough, that’s me. We could
all get it. So, let’s keep talking about it. HIV is indiscriminate about bodies. Shouldn’t we be?
I’ve had physical, bodily reactions about having HIV from other people. Still happens. There’s
another side effect to HIV that the experts fail to mention. It’s kryptonite to the dating scene. I had a date once. My first after the diagnosis and the curing and the improving. Anywho. What a date. When I told the guy, he physically flinched. Flinched, moved, like Stevie Wonder at the piano. The blindness is a good metaphor there. Ah, that date. To witticism.
The spotlight is turned off. Another light comes on, where the pub is. GONZALO is there, dressed
and playing differently. MICHAEL joins him but before he sits he suddenly turns his head to the
audience, back to GONZALO, back to the audience with a jerky sort- of movement.
MICHAEL: [to audience] Have you ever had hot man whiplash before? It’s the worst kind. We’d already
spoken, this one and I. In organising the date, he’d suggested we could have a few quick drinks and
then go back to his nearby office and make out. Except, he typo’d it and wrote ‘male out’. I liked
that even more. From the offset, I called him Stick as I thought he was going to. I was stuck. His
name isn’t important. To witticism.
MICHAEL sits down in front of GONZALO.
GONZALO: From that offset, we were in trouble. Trying to remember precisely what happened that
night is somewhat bewildering. It had all seemed so … ludicrously great, as if someone had
scripted it. Taking a tangent implies a single diversion: we were all over the place. Not one conversation was finished. I was reminded of a German term: das Gleitende.
To quote Edmund de Waal: “… ‘das Gleitende, moving, slipping, sliding … The nature … was
change itself, something to be reflected in the partial and fragmentary…”. We found it
impossible, sticking to one topic. Hardly living up to my name here. I thought it was nonsense, the
notion of an ideal date. Poems and songs and great works of literature all eulogised about the meeting of two minds, where everything else disappears. The walls, the ceiling, the very room you’re in and anybody else that may be in your vicinity. It all turns invisible. It had all turned invisible.
This is not to say that we agreed on everything, or even knew what the other was talking about all
the time. A score was kept, of sorts. If either of us dropped a cultural reference that the other
didn’t know, a point was added to the tally. We didn’t score lines of five marks, or a list of
numbers, or a coin added to a pile. At the first unknown, I tore the smallest piece of paper off,
scrunched it up and threw it onto the dark-carpeted floor. It was a lack of knowledge represented
by a small, white jewel. The idea was mine.
After this perfectly-formed date, there was a sprinkling of papered motes on the
pub’s floor. Was everybody having a perfectly-formed, miniature beginning to their Saturday night?
Something was in the air, maybe.
Something remained on the floor. We’d made a constellation. A constellation of ignorance, I
labelled it. A new star sign to add to our horoscopes. Either it was a quiet venue that evening or
I was steadfastly ignoring any external music. Kate Bush was singing between my ears.
[sings]’Put your eye right up to the glass, here we’ll find the constellation of the heart …
Steer your life by these stars.’
Here I was, a navigator looking for a constellation, or even a single pole star. Here I was,
jumping ahead in that inimitable manner of mine. And we hadn’t even kissed.
MICHAEL: [to audience] I could feel us leaning in just as much as I could feel that voice in the
back of my head. Tell him now, before you get any closer. [to GONZALO] It’s HIV.
MICHAEL: Did you see that? Would you not describe that as a flinch? Prejudice works well. It’s
loyal, to itself at least. That’s why it works. Do you know what he said to me?
The lights all go off.
GONZALO [O/S]: It’s nevergonna happen.
The sound of a sob and then a sigh and a collecting together. The spotlight, the microphone and
MICHAEL: Us elephants never forget. In 1991, a song came out by LaTour, where they sang “… this
AIDS thing’s not working.” Let me tell you something. It was. In a way, it still is. The astute
amongst you will notice my red ribbon is worn upside-down. I want to turn the idea of HIV and AIDS
on its head. This is the body of a survival.
I nearly didn’t survive. I nearly gave up. I nearly gave up on everything. Just from the smallest
of things. It’s always the tiny moments that tip something over the edge, that tip you over the
edge. You can take so much before the stalk of Triticum aestivum breaks the back of a Camelus
dromedaire. I’m a wanker for even paraphrasing ‘the straw that breaks the camel’s back’ in such a
manner. Deal with it.
I saw a man drop some litter this morning. He was walking, he unwrapped something; he discarded it.
It was like watching somebody discard a life. Mine. I felt like doing the same. It was so utterly depressing. But you have to deal with it. I never even dealt with those balloons, but I shall
A second spotlight turns on, revealing a smartly-dressed older lady: MICHAEL’S MOTHER.
MICHAEL: This is my Mum. Why does this all remind me of A Christmas Carol? She’s not even a ghost
from the past. She’s very much a presence in my present. For which I’m very thankful for.
She gave me my first taste of glamour, all her own mother’s brooches piled up like treasure in a
jewellery box. I’d caught the bling from that moment.
MICHAEL’S MOTHER: Once I saw that first brooch pinned on my son – at what age I couldn’t tell you –
I knew we were in trouble. Not that homosexual children are trouble but… They are. The balloons
could be blamed on me. I organised a birthday party for when he turned four. Or five. The clown was
scary enough. Not as scary as those terrible killer clowns that seem to be an unfathomable phase.
But the children were already on edge. And once a balloon popped directly in my poor boy’s face:
pandemonium. And he’d never be the same again. Sorry, Michael. I should have learnt from the
mistakes I made with Michelle.
Second spotlight off, leaving MICHAEL alone. He composes himself.
MICHAEL: I did find the bling. And the glamour, too. I like to go out in drag sometimes. Every man
would, if given the chance. I go for the sweet angle and call myself Honey Overload. Unless I’m in
a bad mood and want to be a bad girl. Then it’s Impromptu Horns prowling the streets. I love me my
heels. There is nothing I can’t do in heels. I’m Catwoman up the side of a building. It’s a
Pfeiffer family trait. I even had to break into my own house with heels on. Listen, women might be
the better gender; they are. But the one thing men can do better, down to our balance and
equilibrium is walk in heels. Isn’t it true that both genders used to wear heels? Oh, the
I shall return to Barbara Kingsolver. “… So I decided to try my hand at making art for the
That’s my kind of HIV. I’ve said it before: Hope is viral. That’s the reason I’m up here on this
stage. [chokes up] I’m not sure I can give hope to 36.7 million people. It is a little daunting.
But I love a challenge and they do say God loves a tryer.
My name is Michael and I am not Michelle Pfeiffer’s younger brother. She wishes. I am a storyteller
who owns a body that’s same same but different from yours. Just don’t hold it against me. Thank you.
MICHAEL ends his speech and waits for the audience’s reaction. Once whatever reaction materialises
has passed, he nods his head in a minimal bow and leaves.
The lights cut. Any sounds disappear. The bridge above reappears and the sounds of the city beyond
catch up. The wind has picked up. MICHAEL enters stage left and walks rather slowly across the
bridge. As he does, he changes his costume, pulling items out of the backpack he takes off and
holds. By the time he’s reached the other side of the bridge, he is in (almost) full-drag. It could
be Honey Overload, it could be Impromptu Horns, it could be Rustica Popularis.
MICHAEL stops just before exiting. He turns and looks behind him. He backsteps a few paces and then
turns and walks to the middle of the bridge, where he stops and looks down into the river as if he
can see something.
He climbs onto the railing. He steps down off of it onto the lip of the bridge. He looks directly
to the audience with a combination of confusion and a challenge.