You are sleeping soundly in your four poster bed, dreaming of sugar plums and prancing ponies. A slight breeze makes you shudder in your sleep, and you instinctively draw the covers tighter around you. As you drift back to your slumber, a noise jolts you awake. Your eyes flick open, but you daren’t move. Slowly, you push yourself upright, gathering your nightie up around you. The window is open a crack. That’s not right. You closed it before you went to sleep. You always close the window.
Something moves in the corner of your eye. A shadow shifts, and you freeze.
“Who are you?” you croak. “What do you want from me?”
I step forward and you behold my terrible form; a translucent wraith, my face gaunt and hollow, my eyes sunken. I reach out for you, you back away frantically, until you bump into your wardrobe. Trapped.
“WHO ARE YOU?” you shriek. “What do you WANT?”
“I am the Ghost of Backpackers Past,” I groan, every word landing like shovels of mud on a fresh grave. “Take my arm, my child, and we shall fly into the mists of drunken adventures long past.”
Tentatively, terrified, but too afraid to decline, you reach out and hold my arm. Before you can scream, I have whisked you out of the window. But you don’t fall. You gasp as we fly together, me gazing at the skyline in silent sorrow, you desperately clinging to my arm, your slippers tumbling to the ground thousands of feet below. Our silhouettes flit across the starry sky. Down on the ground, children point up in amazement as two black figures cross the red summer moon. Aled Jones warbles harmoniously .
We blast across the North Atlantic, forsaking the chimney tops of London for the Big Apple starscape. We bank sharply and head southwest, the air getting warmer around us. We start to slow as lights appear on the horizon.
“Where are we?” you ask.
I don’t answer. Instead, I emit a shrill scream and dive toward the city lights. You flail helplessly on my arm, and gradually we pull up over a river, a river glittering with the lights of the hundreds of bars and restaurants that line its waters. Low, flat boats chug along the river, ferrying happy-snapping fat tourists. You recognise the place from photographs you’ve seen. San Antonio, Texas. Downtown San Antonio, to be exact. The famous River Walk.
“Why have you brought me here?” you ask, as we gently touch down on the cobbled pathway running alongside to the river.
Wordlessly, I raise a bony arm and point to a restaurant, where 12 backpackers and a bald, bearded tour guide sit outside, drinking and laughing raucously. They can’t see us. Their eyes gaze straight through, glazed over. In particular, you notice a young blonde man. He is sunburned, and has questionable fashion sense. You watch him spill beer all over his T-shirt, quickly check to see if anyone else noticed, then frantically try to rub the stain out.
“I have brought you here as a warning,” I boom. “Observe…”
I wasn’t eating in that restaurant on the River Walk, because I was too skint. Well, actually that’s a lie. I had money, but I wanted to spend less on food so I could spend more on beer later that night. Everyone else was scoffing delicious smelling pulled pork sandwiches and nachos with guacamole and hot dogs lashed with mustard. I sat cradling two cans of PBR, which is a shit cheap beer that truckers and students drink which I’d swiftly developed a strong affinity with. I had two cans because I always get two cans because I can never be bothered re-queueing every 5 minutes.
After the meal, it was time to hit the bars. Huzzah! Now, before you judge me for being constantly smashed in all my stories, bear in mind that A) I was on holiday, B) my stories involve booze because booze is a catalyst for stories, and C) who are you, the fun police? Get out of here and go iron creases into your beige slacks.
We headed to Coyote Ugly, a bar which is apparently famous due to a film where the waitresses dance on the bar or something. I don’t know. Seems a pretty flimsy premise for a 90 minute film, but I digress. The girls in my group were buzzing with excitement to get in. We entered past huge black-clad bouncers with buzzcuts, and found ourselves in the midst of an early 2000’s music video. The crowd looked like what you would draw if you were asked to do a picture of ‘generic thugs and dangerous people’. There was a lot of leather, a tattoo ratio of 1:1, lots of eye shadow, a sea of beer bellies, a flock of beards, and a jiggling torrent of exposed midriffs. Some characters had all of these traits at once.
Now. I am Bilbo. I am C3PO. I am Rincewind. I have a very good capacity for sensing danger. I have a Spidey-Sense for anticipating trouble, dodging bar brawls, ducking out of the way of a low flying kebab, that sort of thing. Like the aforementioned nerd-favourite characters, however, I am invariably thrust into the throbbing heart of imminent danger, whether I like it or not. And San Antonio’s Coyote Ugly on a Saturday night was a bloody Deep-South-Confederate-flag-yeehaw-Donald-Trump-leather-studded-punch-up-bonanza just waiting for an excuse to go nuclear.
So, we bought drinks. Men wearing wraparound sunglasses talked to me at the bar, the barmaids had huge boobs and tiny tops, grey bearded bikers leered at them and 45 year old couples were busy fingering each other in every dark corner available. I was avoiding eye contact with everyone. The girls in my group were unfazed, instead completely enamoured with Coyote Ugly. In a flash they were up on the bar, dancing happily in sundresses and cowgirl boots, with a pack or slavering probably-murderers wolf whistling at them.
It’s a bit of a blur after that. Prizes were given for sluttiest dancing. Shots happened. Eventually, the dam broke and nobody could hold back any more; the locals were all too excited to start battering each other. A few men started shouting and got dragged outside by gleeful bouncers where they all proceeded to fling each other into bushes and kick each other in the stomach and whatnot.
We left finally and made our way through town. We found a little karaoke bar lit with bright neon lights and piled inside. I’ve never done karaoke before, but was dragged up onto the stage to sing a Johnny Cash duet with our guide, Nando. Nando was cool and confident, crooning Ring of Fire to a bar of baying fans. I mumbled my verses, blushing and glugging down PBR between my lines. Everyone took turns, and as the night wore on I felt brave enough for another round. I headed to the front and, with a wry smile, requested a song. The shaven headed woman in the DJ booth raised an eyebrow at my choice, shrugged, and queued the song.
I walked back to my friends, whereupon Nando announced he was heading home, as he was driving hundreds of miles the next day, although we were welcome to stay. One Welsh girl, Emily, and an older Irish guy, Alex, said they’d stay. I said I would as well, drunk and giddy to finally have a proper go at karaoke. By this point, the bar had emptied so it was just us in there. Sod it, I thought, nothing to lose. Nando and the others filed out and said goodnight.
Our remaining trio sat drinking and talking. Suddenly, the door opened, and in filed a new troupe of drinkers. A wash of skulls, studs, tattoos, and scars swept over us. Oh no. Alarm bells started ringing. Apparently Coyote Ugly shuts early. Its one-eyed, bandanna-toting, furious patrons had made their way into this camp little karaoke bar. I started to down my drink. Then the DJ spoke into the microphone.
“Will Dan.. uh… Heggit come to the mic.”
Oh fucking shit no.
I’d forgotten. Oh god. Oh shit. I heard the opening lyrics to a familiar, breathtakingly camp tune.
‘Well this car could be systematic.’
I looked to the other two for support, imploring them to help me. Nothing. Bastards.
I stood up slowly, and began walking my very own Green Mile to the mic.
The Charge of the Twat Brigade. Han Solo descending into the carbonising chamber.
‘Why, it could be greased lightning!’
The sinking violinists on the Titanic. Walking to my doom. The bassline kicked in.
DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN
I gingerly gripped the mic in my hand, and the words to the song sprang up on the huge screen to my left, a cute little cartoon buzzing bee hopping along each word in time to the music.Fifteen pairs of scowling eyes swivelled in my direction. I sang. Dear god, I actually sang.
Gooo Greased Lightnin’ you’re burnin’ up the quarter mile!
How did this happen? Why did this happen? In one short minute I had gone from cool, world weary backpacker sipping a cold beer to prison gimp bitch monkey boy singing and dancing for the entertainment of bulky men with names like Brock and Colt and Gunner. Why did I request this song? What kind of seventh hell moron am I? I felt myself physically withering under a chorus of death stares as I shamefully mumbled and shuffled my way through the song.
The DJ euthanised me halfway through, to my eternal gratitude. She faded it out after a couple of choruses, and switched the music onto some gangster rap. I walked back over to my mortified companions, and we beat a hasty exit.
We moved to the bar next door, which had an outdoor seating area where a salsa band was playing and couples sat entwined. A safe place. We headed inside and got drinks, and it wasn’t long before we were up and dancing. The band finished and a new band came out, playing more rocky, Lynyrd Skynyrd type tunes. The memory is a bit vague now, but I know that the band killed it, and I congratulated the drummer on his skills. He was surely thrilled to receive slurred praise from a sunburned English kid.
Meanwhile, the Welsh girl, Emily, was being hit on by this yellow shirted brawny American guy. I don’t remember his name. Let’s just call him Beef. Beef was a marine, and he was with two marine buddies. They were dressed like soldiers dress – you could spot them a mile off as enlisted men. Brightly coloured polo shirts as crisp as the day is long, cream chinos ironed to within an inch of their lives, immaculate posture, bulging arms, vague aura of threat emanating from them. They were friendly enough, but I was on my guard because, well, drunk in a strange town in Texas surrounded by drunk marines, I was keen to avoid accidentally offending them and getting pummelled into a fine paste.
It looked as though Emily might be copping off with Beef, but the marines had no intention of going home. They asked if we wanted to go to a strip club. For some reason, we said yes. The six of us left the bar and hailed a cab. We chatted as we sped away to find the nearest strip club. Then we entered the motorway.
Yep, turns out the nearest strip bar was the next city over. About 30 minutes we drove, Emily and Alex chatting away to the soldiers, me quietly wondering what the absolute fuck I was doing tearing through Texas at 3am in a car full of pissed up marines in desperate search of tits.
Finally, we reached the strip club – my first ever strip club, I might add. I’ve never seen the appeal. The cool thing about seeing a girl naked is the thought that she is letting you see her naked. Somebody actually wants to be naked with you. That’s why it’s great. Seeing someone naked who doesn’t really want you to look at them is just grim. Anyway, I couldn’t exactly turn back now.
It cost the earth to get in, about 25 dollars each, and we couldn’t take any booze in – which we’d bought on the way. Sobering up by the second, with the cold light of dawn only a few hours off, we headed inside, following a long dark corridor with walls of quilted purple velvet. Satin curtains hung everywhere. Gold trim on everything. The illusion of grandeur to make you feel less guilty, I suppose.
While writing this I actually discovered it’s on Google Street View. You can view the genuine inside of the club here. Weird, huh.
We got into the massive main room and it was pretty much empty. There was a couple of bars around the edges, three circular stages in different corners of the room, and tables dotted around. Most tables had a lone man slumped at them, with a topless girl fawning over him. It was seedy. We sat down, the marines giddy with anticipation. I wandered off to get a drink. I asked what booze they had, and the barman said none, they served water only. Bloody water. Dew. Mist. Condensation. You know who drinks water? Fish.
I sat back at our table with my glass of rain and looked glumly around. On each stage, different girls where lazily swinging themselves around poles while a couple of guys threw limp dollar bills onto the stage. Yes, I saw boobs. As anticipated, it was the least sexy thing ever. Like National Geographic. The girls were ready for bed, and I was lamenting my glass of water loudly to anyone nearby. Which was marines and strippers.
Beef went to sit by a stage and lob crumpled notes at a topless girl. She put her bum in his face. Then she came over to all of us. Everyone offered to chip in to get someone a lap dance. Inevitably, sigh, I was chosen. I refused frantically, spilling my stupid water everywhere with my wild gesticulating. She sat on my lap, but eventually took heed of my stuttered apologising and Hugh Grant protesting. She gave a dance to Emily instead, which the marines obviously loved. Emily looked cool with it at first then gradually less so, and so did the stripper, until she unceremoniously stopped gyrating and simply sat on Emily’s knee talking to us.
We left before too long, as Beef had somehow got too drunk and rowdy, despite them not serving anything but sodding bastard water. By this point, Emily had gone right off Beef due to all his drooling over other naked ladies. Who’d have thunk?
The bouncers slung us out and we got a taxi. It was light when we arrived back at our campsite, having dropped the soldiers in the town centre. A huge iron fence ran around the entire campsite, and the massive gate was closed. I nominated myself as ‘quite good at climbing’ and scaled the gate. Or, at least, tried to. It turns out I wasn’t quite as sober as I thought I was, because as I scaled the 8 foot structure my foot slipped and I fell face first into the dry dirt on the other side.
The dawn chorus of foreign songbirds was just beginning, and weak fingers of sunlight were creeping across the ground. I lay there for some time, silent, bleeding gently; the world spiralling around me; my limbs a pretzel; dust in my hair; no cash in my pockets; stamps on my hands from karaoke bars and strip clubs; and a Facebook friend request waiting for me from Beef.
Alex and Emily asked if I was okay. I eventually stirred, and struggled to my feet with an audible creak. I told them yes, I was okay, just about. I dusted myself off, and dabbed the blood off my palms and elbows. Then Alex realised the gate was unlocked.
You watch the three backpackers trudge back to their tents for their 3 hours sleep before they have to pile back in their tour van. You turn to me, the ghastly spectre looming behind you.
“You see why I brought you here?” I rasp.
“Yeah. What a twat,” you nod sagely.
“Innit. Proper dick head.”
I take your arm and whisk you back across the landscape, over the glittering ocean, and back to your comfortable bed.