Have you ever been to a gay bar?
I have. They are the single (or not so single) woman's hideout for a fun, drink-fuelled night out without the worry of being groped by a lout. They are full of hundreds of men who dress better than Madonna, dance better than her backing dancers, and will openly declare their adoration for Madonna herself. If it's not Madonna, it'll be Kylie, Cher, Gaga, or (who my friend David would swear by), Barbra Streisand.
The gays love the glamour, and flamboyance of such stars, and guaranteed, they will never fail to tell you what they think of your chosen outfit, with complete honesty.
One night I remember, about three years ago, I was walking down Canal Street (the famous street in the heart of Manchester's Gay Village). I'd donned the three inch heels, red polka dot pencil-skirted dress, and backcombed my hair to high heaven, drawing thick black flicks of eyeliner over my eyelids. I thought I looked fabulous. It didn't matter that the slit up the back of my dress perhaps crept a little too close to displaying my knickers - because I was linked arms with two gay guys, and together we rocked the cobbles, strutting our way down Canal Street.
Suddenly from out of nowhere, I heard:
"Oh, my GOD."
I looked to where the shriek had come from. A man dressed in ripped jeans, and a tight white T-shirt was pointing at me and expressing wildly to his friends. His friends were all dressed like him - just in different coloured T-shirts, and all with toned abs and (verging on orange) perma-tans.
"Darling, I can't believe it, it's Amy Winehouse! Look at her face!"
I was slightly taken aback, and unsure whether to be pleased or horrified at his comparison (especially as he'd pointed out my face, not my beehive hair), but I didn't have time to respond, as they had already strutted past me, eyeing up the next person walking towards them.
Apparently there is a gay scene in Prague, and I wasn't at all surprised to hear that Graeme had already found it and was working on where we'd be going that evening for his birthday night out, before I'd even made myself a much needed coffee upon arriving at our apartment.
He had a map of Prague spread out on the table, with his iPhone in his hand, mumbling about roaming charges, and simultaneously asking if anyone had a pen.
Our apartment was modern, kitted out from top to toe in Ikea furniture, and located high up on the 6th floor of an old building, giving us beautiful views of the Vltava river. Having arrived a day later than the others, I was naturally last in the pecking order for choosing rooms. My bed was one of the two singles on the open mezzane, so I dragged my bag up the wooden staircase which rose from the corner of the open plan living room and kitchen. I chose one of the beds, and started unpacking my things carefully on the side table whilst subconsciously aware of Graeme shouting bar suggestions and random locations in Prague to no one in particular.
As usual, I was the one who had the biggest suitcase; the only one of the eight who'd checked my bag in at the airport, rather than carry it on as hand luggage.
This is because I tend to pack 'just in case'. I must make sure I bring enough shoes and clothes to suit all possible situations. So for my long weekend in Prague, I'd packed two pairs of boots (brown and black), two pairs of ballet pumps, my converse (so comfy), and finally, one pair of heels - but after witnessing the amount of cobbles I'd passed on the way to the apartment, I was guessing I wouldn't be needing those. And that was just shoes, never mind clothes.
Laying all my possible 'going out' clothes on the bed, I leant over, and casually asked anyone who might hear me in the living room below, "So, what are you all wearing tonight?"
Considering I was hitting Prague with four gay guys and four girls, I figured only fabulous would do, so my eyes lingered over my new wet-look leggings and a silky black top.
"Something warm!" came the unanimous reply from the living room.
I poked my head over the banisters, just to check they weren't kidding.
Of course. No, it is below freezing outside. Silky won't do.
We had split into two taxis, and Graeme had given both the drivers directions to a location on the opposite side of the city. We drove over one of the bridges and I looked out the window, watching the neon lights reflecting and jumping across the water. The traffic was busy, and the taxi often jolted as the driver braked suddenly, which reminded us to stop laughing too loudly and allow the driver to concentrate on the seemingly free-for-all roads in central Prague. It was only a ten minute drive, but the further from our apartment we went, the quieter the streets were, and the less people we saw walking them. It started to snow - not like the flaky barely-there snow I'd seen at the airport - but really pretty, catch-on-your-eyelashes snow.
The taxi driver nodded at us, indicating we'd reached our destination. "Here. You pay 100 koruna."
I got out of the taxi after handing the driver a handful of coins. We'd pulled into what looked like a residential street. I looked to Graeme, as if his looking at maps all afternoon meant he might have some idea whether we were in the middle of the gay scene, or not. If we had reached gay Prague, it certainly didn't look like it.
There was a bar on the corner, only distinguishable by the Pilsner sign lit up on the side of the wall and various beer mats taped to the window. As my black ballet pumps hit the freshly fallen snow lying on the pavement, I wiggled my shoe to the side, making the new snow squeak beneath my feet, creating pretty patterns along the path. The others in the second taxi weren't here yet. Not a good sign. It was still snowing and I congratulated myself on ditching the wet-look leggings, and opting for thick wooly tights and a skirt instead. I bent my knees repetitively, doing a little dance in the deserted street to keep warm.
We heard the others laughing and shrieking, their voices getting louder from two streets away. I couldn't believe there was a gay club on this quiet street. But apparently there was, and we found it within five minutes. No one was queuing outside. There were no transvestites on metre high stilts promoting the club, nor jeering at the queue, as they usually do in Manchester. The sign was lit up - but it wasn’t outrageous - propped above a large, heavy wooden door. They had no bouncers standing outside. It looked as if it could have been someone’s home. All eight of us paused outside, shivering into our coats, before Graeme plucked up the courage to enter, and picked up the heavy hooped door handle, and pushed.
The heat blasted our faces, and music from the Black Eyed Peas filled our ears. Coloured lights danced up the walls, and the bouncers (who had in fact sensibly chosen to stand inside) looked stern with knitted eyebrows and black suits. We handed our coats in at the cloakroom and edged down a spiral staircase into the club which was located in the basement. So that’s why it was so quiet outside. The lights got brighter, and I saw those men again in skin-tight T-shirts, edging past us on the stairs, with abs that could have challenged those of Hercules. I wished I’d worn heels – I am hardy small at 5.5' - but these men were huge and I came face to face with biceps, shoulder blades, beers and cigarettes. Edging around them to reach the busy bar was proving difficult. I gave a little poke to the muscles on their backs, took a deep breath, and whilst trying to speak politely over the music, I said; “Excuse me? Do you mind letting me past?”
They didn’t even turn around. So I made like a little rhino and barged my way up to the bar; and (because I didn’t know the Czech for anything other than beer) I ordered a Pilsner.
We charged the dance floor, all eight of us, as the DJ played (true to form) Kylie Minogue’s Dance. Boy, we showed those Czech’s how to dance. Pints of beer in the air, arms waving, bums wiggling, gays grinding. It was brilliant.
The smoking ban in England has been in place for nearly four years. Four years is long enough to forget how smokey nightclubs can get by about midnight. I’d forgotten all about the cigarette burns you get on the dance floor from those incredibly pissed, over enthusiastic dancers, who express themselves by pointing their cigarettes into your limbs. I’d forgotten how your hair, your clothes, your skin smells of smoke, when you haven’t even had the pleasure of one cigarette. That club was foggy, it was so smoky.
Graeme had been plied with one too many toxic Czech shots and cheap champagne. He was looking starry eyed and was draped over the shoulders of two seriously camp French guys. They were looking him up and down, poking his belly and shrieking “He is GOOD quality!” in time with the music. We were all merry, and Lady Gaga had been played an acceptable amount of times.
It was a better than average night in a typical gar bar. All except for one thing. These gays did not appear to be 100% gay...
The doubts began as I noticed a tall, dark, lurking sort of a man (who sounds attractive, but really wasn't) staring at us girls and generally lurking a little too close to Denise, whilst looking me up and down. I nudged Lucy:
"Um. Is lurker over there, staring at us, or Graeme?"
It was quite feasible that he was staring at Graeme, who was giving people something to look at by spilling his drink over everyone around him as he whirled and twirled across the dance floor.
"Hmm. I'm not sure. Here, lets move over to Pete - see if he follows."
We wiggled our way over to Pete. Lurker followed. At which point Pete piped up:
"Hey, watch that bloke over there; I think he's after your handbags."
Me and Lucy looked at each other sheepishly - of course. Theft seemed more plausible than a come-on in a gay bar.
Then again, maybe not.
A small, shy Czech guy who had been dancing on the outskirts of our group, plucked up the courage to approach Josie. He grabbed her hand and started dancing with her, then me, then Lucy - a little too seductively for my liking. The not-so shy Czech then turned full circle and started to grind Graeme.
It was at the point of Czech boy kissing Graeme and Lurker trying to buy Josie a drink that I realised we weren't in Kansas anymore.
I noticed the big mirrored walls around the dance floor, and the space suddenly looked much smaller than it had seemed before. Attributing to this was the fact the club had got busier, with people getting more drunk, pushing to get through and almost everybody trying to check each other out in the mirrors. The smoke was so foggy now, my contact lenses felt like little pieces of glass in my eyes.
Pete grabbed me, noticing my dancing arms were more flailing now it had hit 3am, and hissed loudly in my ear:
"You ready to go then?"
I was so hot from dancing, and the sheer mass of moving bodies in the room, had made the air stifling. I fought my way through the crowds, feeling suddenly claustrophobic, trying to get to the stairs.
Fumbling for the paper cloakroom ticket I'd stuffed for safekeeping in my bra, I raced up the stairs, and joined a queue of those who looked like they too had finished their night about twenty minutes ago. My top clung to my back with the heat, and my hair was sticky. I felt like ripping my woolly tights off right there and then. With my coat under my arm I passed the bouncer, who nodded sternly, and pushed open the heavy wooden door for me. Rushing outside, I leant forward, resting my hands on my knees and took in a deep breath of the freezing cold air. The bitter wind shot through my vest top, hitting the bare skin on my arms and racing through my hair. As my head cleared a little, I glanced up to see a long line of men waiting quietly outside the club wearing thick sheepskin coats, gloves and hats and looking at me as if I was crazy. The girls were piling out of the club now, followed by Pete who was telling Graeme to hurry up. The not-so-shy Czech was still very much attached to Graeme, and by the look on Pete's face, looked like he wasn't heading off home anytime soon.
I waved my arms at two lit up taxis who were parked a little way up the road and threw my jacket around my bare shoulders to keep off the wind. As they pulled up close to the kerb, and I went to reach for the door handle, Pete ran up to me looking as if he had something to tell me - that I wasn't going to like.
"Right. We've got a problem. Graeme wants to bring the Czech home with him, and I am not sharing a room with them."
"No, of course not." I replied. "Why don't you come up on the mezzane with me? There's a spare single bed up there?"
"No. I'm not moving. He's the one who's moving. He can go up on the mezzane, and you can sleep in Graeme's bed."
As much as I love Graeme, there was no way he was going to have sex with a Czech in my bed. I was so looking forward to my little bed on the mezzane, with it's clean sheets, and fluffy duck down pillows. I wanted to wake up in the morning to the skylight window slightly open and sun beaming down on my face, with a clear view of the river from my pillow.
However, the trouble with being a Libran is that the need for peace, harmony and balance in your life can sometimes get the better of you. I was cursing this fact as I balanced my single mattress on my back at 4:30am, grabbing the banisters of the stairs so I wouldn't topple over, with my suitcase hanging from one arm, my duck down pillows tucked under the other, and my duvet wedged between my knees. As I dragged my bed and belongings down the stairs, I squeezed past the birthday boy kissing his Czech lover on the stairs and glared at them both with my meanest look.
Graeme wasn't fazed. It was his birthday. He'd pulled.
Oh, well. He was turning thirty, I suppose. I'll give the boy a break.