It was a pleasant walk from my hotel, through Surry Hills, towards Oxford Street. The noise gradually grew louder and louder, to a low growl of sound punctuated every now and again by the odd roar. I could tell where I was headed from the growing throngs of people on the streets heading in the same direction. An array of people from every background imaginable, people in costume, feathers sticking out of trousers, on headbands, and attached to waving wrists; families, hampers in hands, children on shoulders; squeals of gayboys singing at the top of their lungs, laughing and leaping for the safety of the pavement as a Dyke on her bike revs past and absolutely everyone carrying milk crates. It was to become glaringly obvious what these were for.
"Why don't we head back down the hill, the crowd's thinner there?"
"Bugger it," I shrugged, "Let's grab a beer in the... Stonewall, how original, you think it might be a Gay bar? We'll see if it thins out at all, we may even be able to get upstairs and see from the balcony."
"No. But let's have a beer anyway."
Pedro and I entered the dimly lit bar and sat down on barstools watching the stream of people passing the windows get deeper and deeper, until eventually it was one large oozing river, slowly advancing up the street. Suddenly the crowd sags and a translucent skinned, raven haired boy in the tightest white jeans and matching waistcoat crowd-surfs over the crowd to twist in their hands and land perfectly in a shower of glitter, on his three-inch heels; Angel wings, halo and sequin encrusted purse clutched in his perfectly manicured hand.
Jaw to the floor, Pedro gasps “Who is that?”
“That,” I whisper, “is Zak.”
"You met him here already?"
"No, Zak and I go way back in London."
Peeling his Wrap-arounds from his face, Zak steps into the bar to walk straight up to me and plant his lips on my forehead. “Ashby, mine’s Vodka, straight, on ice. I’ll be back in five, I need a slash or I’ll burst. These trousers are sprayed on, two drinks and I’m leaking!”
Zak had worked in the fashion store opposite the one I worked at in Covent Garden. He’d been slim, cherubic and uproariously camp since the day I met him. Armed with an impressive show of quips and asides, he was hilarious at his best, deadly at his worst and always able to get whatever he wanted with a flutter of his perfect, sumptuous eyelashes. It was impossible to tell where a night out with Zak would end and whether the morning would see you loving or loathing him, but a night out with Zak was always guaranteed to be remembered.
Swishing back to the bar, Zak swept up his drink and knocked it straight back.
Zak swirled the remaining ice cube around the inside of his mouth ensuring he had every last drop of vodka, “Ashby you goooorgeous thing you, how long have you been here for?” His eyes moved to Pedro’s, “Tell me you’re here for a while longer yet!
I laughed, “Two days, two weeks and Zak this is Pedro”.
All attention had shifted, “Faaabulous! I think I might have a spot for you with me at the front!”
“Err thanks,” Pedro was spellbound.
I laughed, “I hope you’re including me in your invite”
“But daaaarling, of course I am!” He’d already started his swish towards the crowd “You’ll have to climb through the masses kids, but the view will be diviiiine!”
It took ten minutes of slipping between people, hobbling over milk crates and surreptitiously elbowing people in their sides, to make it to the front. Mercifully, this close to the road we were milk crate free so it was more a case of making space where there was any. We people-watched and caught up on old news.
"I haven't seen you since you left Floral Street. That's what, two years ago?"
"God!” Zak gasped, hand flat to his chest. “Four. Really?" I nodded.
"When I think of how many pills I've done since then it's no wonder it's blurred into itself."
I laughed, snorting beer from my nose. "Nice. So if you're not on holiday, what brought you out here?"
"I came out on a Working Holiday Visa. Met a boy, moved in, got my perm res, ditched the boy or rather he ditched me and then realised I didn't want to stay anymore." He raised a perfectly groomed eyebrow and sighed, "It's wonderful Sydney, truly diviiiine, but when you originally see a place through loved up specs, it loses its attraction when you take them off. It's never quite as shiny."
He opened his purse, slipped his hand in and retrieved a silver cigarette case. Removing a thin pale cigarette, he dropped the case back into the purse and swung it over his shoulder behind him and at me as he turned to face Pedro. "Ashby daaaarling, be a dear and hold this for mama," he said over his shoulder and with both hands free to hold and cup the end of the cigarette he pouted and fluttered his eyelashes, "I don't suppose a pretty baby like you has a light, does he?"
Ten minutes later a roar came up from the crowd: The awnings of the pub opposite resembled a platform held up by large metal struts, like those on Saloons in a spaghetti western and strutting up and down on them was the largest, pinkest, loudest looking Drag Queen I’d ever laid eyes on, her stilettos easily seven inches high and like the rest of her, covered in neon pink sequins. The music was pumping loudly from the speakers either side of her as she announced that she would be our host for the evening when suddenly another roar from the other end of the street announced the arrival of the Dykes on bikes.
Big, boyish bull-dykes on hulking Harleys, lipstick lesbians on mopeds, three cowgirls on a bright red three-wheeler, one woman on a stunt bike pulling wheelies and handstands, then zipping back down the line to charge past a second and third time, then a further roar as a second wave approached, some topless, some in leather, a couple - one in top hat and tails and the other a wedding dress, glamorous women all of them, each dressed to kill, slowly cruising past the screaming crowds, rainbow flags waved high in the air, Mothers cheering, straight boys leering, whistle blowing gay teens screaming ‘I love you’ to the wonderful, hedonists, the beautiful, sex-fuelled Dykes on Bikes…
And then just time for a pause for breath, possibly a wee break for Zak and then strap yourself in for the next instalment because we’re off again…
The evening flew by, a rollercoaster-ride of float after float, marching girls, dancing boys, political floats, satirical floats, floats without point, floats without meaning, Bear floats, Dance floats, The Parents of Gay Children, feathers, flags, banners, music, nipples and bums and pouts and flirting and shouting and singing and laughing, and laughing, and laughing…
I was seriously worried I might smile for the rest of my life.
And then just as we thought it was over, Madonna’s ‘Music’ came belting out of a large White Limo driven by a man bearing a distinct resemblance to Ali G. Suddenly he was surrounded by a hundred dancing Madonnas with curly blonde wigs, Stetson hats and cowboy boots, stepping and grinding and writhing in time. Next, her backing dancers boot-scooting, leaping and jumping followed by the largest float of the evening, draped in yet more Madonnas, posing singing, smiling and laughing.
But of course it wasn’t over. The legendary Mardi Gras party was yet to begin.
I queued for a beer and then made my way into the first dance hall. The hall was easily the length of a football pitch and I’d arrived only just in time. The sea of gyrating bodies was lit by dancing lasers cutting through an airborne sea of smoke above their heads. Although they looked tightly packed, it was just the sheer number of them and I slowly wove my way through them towards the front of the auditorium to the stage. I’d got about half way through when suddenly the music cut, the lights went out and it was pitch black. You could hear a pin drop as the crowd collectively held its breath.
“Hey Mr DJ, put a record on” breathed the speakers and the crowd screamed its hallelujah to the roof. We all knew the rest of the line, but you couldn’t hear it for the roar.
Suddenly, the lights exploded; glitter fell from the sky and all eyes were locked on the stage. The Ali G’s, the Dancing Boys and Girls and the Madonnas were all there, legs spinning, arms twirling, boys grinding, girls swishing, all in perfect motion to the insistent beat. The Madonnas dropped down into the splits, the dancers leapt into the air, legs scissoring as they flew, snapping and writhing and grinding and shaking they looked oh so perfect; glittering and shining and dazzling…
The crowd surged to the front of the stage and I was crushed between the back of a six foot wall of muscle and a gang of biker chicks. It wasn’t exactly unpleasant, but there was only so long I could go without breath and I could no longer see the stage. Wriggling out, it took me ten minutes to make it back to the entrance to turn and see the lights go down on the show. My heat was racing, I could feel the blood pounding in my head and I had the largest smile on my face, I didn’t need to see it, I was part of it.
I ran out into the street. Everywhere I looked there were people holding hands, hugging, laughing, dancing, squealing and breathing in the dizzying, intoxicating atmosphere. I felt like I’d been transported to another world where you could be anything you desired without recrimination and for that night at least I guess I had been. For the first time ever I was somewhere where to be Gay was the norm.
I was tapped on the shoulder and span around to be kissed by the White Angel himself.
“Daaaarling isn’t it divine?”
“I can’t take it all in,” I stammered, “Where’s Pedro?”
“Getting the Vodkas. Oh my, look at you; you look like you’ve woken up in heaven! You’re gonna have a blast methinks. Ordinarily I’d offer you a little pick me up, but you don’t look like you’ll be needing any assistance.”
“Hell no, I never do, but definitely won’t tonight, I wanna be sure tomorrow that what I remember was real, that I felt it all because it really was this wonderful. I mean look at it, it’s so fucking gorgeous, I just can’t believe it”, I gasped for air, “Shit Zak where do all these people come from?”
“Baby Boy, take a breath! Let’s go sit over here”.
Zak walked me to a bench where we sat and took in the view. It really was quite amazing, some of the costumes alone were to die for; there was Wonder Woman again looking stunning, tiny waist cinched into the Stars and Stripes, over there was the obligatory Muscle Mary gang, each one a perfectly sculptured body crammed into a tiny pair of hotpants, tanned, tattooed and clearly flying, while over here two grey haired men in their late sixties, perched on slim stools, serenely drinking champagne while holding one another’s hands.
Pedro returned from the bar and handing Zak a large vodka, sat himself at his feet. Zak stroked a hand through Pedro’s dark wet hair and pulled me into his small frame with a hug. “See boys, this is family”.