Romance stripped bare: Heart Searching: Fed up with being alone, Mike Gerrard replied to a lonely hearts advertisement, and found a partner who left him dancing on air

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The Independent Online
What do you do when your girlfriend takes her clothes off in the pub of a Sunday lunchtime? It was a hot day, I admit, and they do say visiting Canvey Island can do funny things to a person.

I was living in London at the time and I was lonely. I had a heart and at least one other organ that was craving company, so I read through the back pages of Time Out, through about 6,000 column inches of lonely souls seeking mates. A few amused me, a few amazed me, and I wrote to one that said: 'Professional dancer, NW3, seeks man with sense of humour to share good things in life'.

When she rang and I asked her what kind of dancer she was, she told me to guess. 'Exotic?' I replied, like most men would, more in hope than expectation. 'Not quite,' she said, and maybe it was her Hampstead address, but I honestly thought she said: 'I'm a ballet dancer.'

When we met in a pub - she had seen my photo, I hadn't seen hers - I was looking for Darcey Bussell, all legs and cheekbones, if not actually pirouetting up to the bar on points for a thimble of iced water. But Bernadette was 5ft 2, half-Malaysian, and whatever else she might have been, she clearly was not principal dancer with the Royal Ballet.

What she had actually said was: 'I'm a belly dancer.' We got on fine, although she worked most evenings. I was surprised at the seeming demand for belly dancers in London, most nights of the week and lunchtimes too, but then life is full of surprises and what did I know about it?

Eventually she agreed that I should come and see her at work, and so we drove to Canvey Island. It was a seaside pub like any other, and we went to the dressing room where Bernie stripped off in front of the comedian.

She put on her stage outfit, which - all shimmering gold and crimson - was right out of the mysterious East, but it was only when she shivered on to the tiny stage to the sound of Donna Summer that the truth, which had been slowly creeping up on me, finally dawned. My new girlfriend was a stripper.

But don't you mind, people asked. Why should I? I liked her for who she was, before I knew what she was, and she was still the same warm, funny, impulsive individual I had begun to care about. It was as if, just like her, I accepted the two- sided nature of what she did. Bernie was her offstage name, her onstage name was more exotic - Sheba - and she was Sheba to the punters, Sheba to the agents, Sheba to everyone until she closed her front door.

Sheba was the extrovert, who would take down a punter's trousers and cover him with shaving foam, while Bernie was, incredibly, sometimes shy. On another Sunday lunchtime we were lost in Kent, looking for a converted cinema in the middle of a field, where the local rugby club had arranged some lunchtime entertainment.

Now if you're ever arriving in a strange place and need to ask the way, take some advice from a stripper and ask at least three people. If two of them agree, you might be in business. If the first person says confidently: 'Drummond Street? Two miles down here then left at the lights,' then drive on a way and ask someone else before you drive two miles and turn left into Dunmore Road.

Back in the Kent countryside, we finally found the rugby club and I popped inside to check where the cinema was. They told me, then someone asked: 'It's not the stripper, is it?' I said it was. 'Bring her in for a drink, go on.' 'Well, she's a bit shy,' I explained. 'A shy stripper? Oh, that's a good one]' But she was shy, despite having taken her clothes off in all the worst places - and some of the best ones too, like the Cafe Royal. That's when I discovered that she really was an exotic dancer, as it said so on the programme.

It was after this show that a nervous teenage lad approached her and asked if he might buy her a drink. She told him it was really nice of him to ask, but she had to get home because of the babysitter. Babies? A stripper? Never was a crest so fallen.

For several months we went out together, during which time I spent one Saturday afternoon sewing sequins on her bra while watching Grandstand, passed lunchtimes in East End pubs with drag artists and saw Kermit the Frog do something he'd never done to Miss Piggy.

I have carried a snake from Shepherd's Bush to Essex (and asked for a pint of hot water at the bar to wake it up at the interval), met a solicitor's wife who didn't hold on to her briefs in the evening, and saw more bums and baby oil than the average paediatrician.

'Are you with the stripper?' punters would ask as I lounged at the bar, keeping notes for Bernie on what the other acts were doing. 'I am,' I said. 'Lucky devil,' they'd usually mutter, and what else could I do but agree?

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