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The fields that surround the festival ground smell like warm bread. The girl wonders what kind of crop they grow here. Perhaps it’s corn, she thinks, or even hops. She lost the others before the music even began. Some went to pitch their tents. Others joined the beer queue. But, even on her own, she’s fizzing with summer.
[private]She tries to call her friends, but there’s still no reception so she spreads a rug on the wiry grass, and waits. People around her wear funny hats, or flowers in their hair. They laugh, talk, smoke. Bet they’ve all been here before, she thinks. She feels obvious and stupid on her rug, all alone at a festival. In her backpack there is wine, chocolate. She doesn’t have a corkscrew, though, so she borrows one from the people in the funny hats. ‘Cool,’ they say, but they don’t start a conversation and maybe that’s just as well because her friends will turn up soon, and that will be enough.
The girl doesn’t move, but stays in the spot where she saw them last. She lets the sun sting her cheeks, gets woozy from Chardonnay, smokes. Then, she lies down a while and examines the sky. It’s an endless Argentina flag, she decides, pale blue and white and sunshine. She tries to listen to the warm-up, but the sound is crap, all clash and blur. She has another swig of wine and starts to make a daisy chain. She listens to the people in the hats instead. They are talking about the Legend and how he was at Glastonbury. ‘Immense,’ they say. The girl doesn’t really like his music. That’s not why she’s here. Why is she here, then, she wonders? She looks at her phone. One missed call from Maya, but no message, and now no service again. She plants the daisy chain crookedly on her head. She bites at her lip, tugs off a little tuft of skin with her teeth, tastes salt metal on the tip of her tongue.
Soon, the warm-up acts are over and the crowd is swelling. She packs away her things and joins it. Lines of flowery girls weave expertly through the gaps, spilling dashes of lager. She hopes she looks the part, with her daisy chain and her tie-dye skirt and the bangles she bought at Brick Lane market. Before she knows it, the crowd around her has become a solid thing. She couldn’t move if she wanted to. She can’t even smoke any more, and so she inhales the crowd instead.
She breathes in weed, armpit and fried onion. She closes her eyes a moment and lets the crowd hold her up because she knows she will not find the others now.
When she opens her eyes again, the sky is smaller. The roadies are on stage, and all around people are straining to see what’s happening. Up above, the Argentina flag has gone, and the sky is definitely shrinking. Before her eyes, it becomes a dark scrap the moths have been at. She looks for her friends, but there are so many people. She thinks of Maya and hopes she got off with Seb. Maybe it’s just as well she lost them. She smiles to think of Seb and Maya together. Besides, it’s not so bad: it’s not like she’s really alone.
The crowd shifts and heaves. As the lights on stage go down and a drumbeat starts, the girl feels her heart rise like fresh-baked cake. She thinks this risen feeling might be love. She wonders does it come from her, or from the crowd or even from the Legend, whose music she can take or leave. Then, a flounce of light and sound. The crowd surges and she is swept up in its arms.
The stage is deep as a house, and the Legend far away. Even on the screens, he’s just a white hat bent over a guitar. He plays with the crowd, sending it high, then spinning it. He sings his freedom songs, the ones the crowd knows best and, in return, someone sends candle kites floating high above the crowd. The girl watches them until her eyes hurt.
Beside her, there’s a man who might once have been a hippy. He wears a ponytail, a turquoise ring. Tears spring from his eyes in cartoon quantities. She knows he cries for something spoilt or lost. He turns and starts to tell her something, but she doesn’t want to know. She looks away to where some people are taking turns to balance on each other’s shoulders. They totter, and fall messily. All around, arms are waving, swaying. When next she sees the hippy, the crowd has carried him away.
The performance is endless as the daytime sky, until it ends quite suddenly with only one encore. For a long time people stand, hands at their sides, as though hypnotised. ‘He’ll be back,’ someone says. But the Legend doesn’t return, and eventually the crowd loses shape and crumbles. Outside, she looks for a shuttle bus, but someone says a yellow ticket is required and her friends have all the tickets.
‘No ticket, no ride,’ he says, and anyway the queues are mad. There are hundreds of staggering couples waiting for taxis. The crowd has completely dissolved now, and without it the girl feels flattened. She could murder a burger. She checks her phone for texts, but it still says No Service so she looks for someone to tag along with as far as the station.
She considers a couple in Birkenstocks, but when they start to snog she wanders off. There’s a group of girls, but one is puking into a bin while someone else holds her. The car park is white with headlights. It’s a wake-up zone and she doesn’t want to wake up yet, so she walks out of the festival grounds, where men in day-glo jackets are directing traffic towards the motorway. The village is not far, just a couple of miles. Up ahead, a group of people laugh and joke and play fight. She doesn’t think they are the ones she saw before, but they sound like her brothers, and so she decides to follow them to the village, where the special trains will be waiting.
Night gathers round her and the buses pass. One, two, four, more. In between the buses is darkness, a kind of inky green that leaks out from the woodland that stretches on either side of the road all the way to the village. As she walks along the hard shoulder, past trees and shadows of trees, something catches on the sole of her shoe and the girl goes over on the ankle she damaged skiing last winter. A twist, that’s all, but painful all the same. Ahead, the voices grow fainter, then fade completely. She stops now and then to flex her foot, to shape it for walking, but it still won’t take her full weight. She begins to lag behind.
For the first time, she realises she is cold, shivery with sunburn. She can’t recall what she did with her jacket, but she’s sure she was wearing it this morning. She remembers the rug, rolled tight in her backpack. She stops, shakes it out and sweeps it around her. Then, when it scratches, she stops again, and starts to pick off the burrs snagged in the weave until she realises there are just too many. When she has been overtaken by most of the crowd and all of the buses, the night grows too quiet. Because the girl is faithful that festivals end well, she plugs in her headphones and puts the Legend on Shuffle.
As she limps towards the village, she forgets her friends and thinks about the Legend instead. She wonders where he is now: if there’s caviar, jelly beans, cocaine. She read somewhere that he always travels by chopper, but she didn’t hear one take off. She imagines him floating off into the night like one of the candle kites. She wishes she could float, too. She thinks there’s a burger van somewhere near the station. She thinks the trains run till two. She can smell the baked bread fields, but she still doesn’t know the name of the crop.
She doesn’t smell the cigarette. She sees trees, and shadows of trees but she doesn’t see something move among them. She doesn’t hear the phone ringing in her pocket or the ping ping ping of all the texts or the Docs crunching along the hard shoulder just behind. She believes the Legend when he sings that there will never be an end. She does not smell the danger, or hear it either. Beyond the Legend, she doesn’t hear anything at all.[/private]
Annemarie Neary was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and is a reformed lawyer. Her short fiction has won Bridport, Fish and MacMahon prizes and has appeared in several recent anthologies. She lives in London, but is currently writing about Venice.