To shield her phone, Harriet took her eyes off the ground and her bulbous, tyre-rubber toe caught an edge. Her body lurched. Throwing up an arm to save the Samsung meant a hard landing on one elbow and some ribs.
Winded, she felt mud ooze relentlessly beneath the edges of the plastic poncho she’d bought in the Elysian Fields a few hours earlier, like it couldn’t wait to get to know her better. The rain continued, implacable as gravity.
“Shit shit shit shit shit.”
A light flared and the surface beneath her trembled.
“Whoa! Fuck! Hold up!”
Struggling to right herself, Harriet came nose-to-nose with what looked a coffin on wheels.
“Jesus,” she gasped. One way or another, the afterlife was coming for her.
Silhouettes detached themselves from the coffin
She couldn’t make out a face, what with the searchlight turning the rain to sparkling opacity.
“What the fuck is that?”
Unwillingly, Harriet took the proffered hand, encased in a work glove.
“Shove that light would you, Quiz.”
The dazzle spun away and she blinked, eyes scrambling for a hold in the renewed darkness.
“Sorry,” the hand dropped hers, fished in the pocket of an enveloping black raincoat. “We’re loading in.” The bluish glow of an LED torch lit the space at Harriet’s feet. “You tripped on the road.”
“Road? That would be fucking first here in the Shire.” She sought the face beneath the hood and was unbalanced again by a lightning-flash grin.
“You’re not excited to be at Britain’s biggest music festival?”
There were a number of possible responses to that, few of which would have been admissible in polite conversation. “I need to pee. And missed the memo about bringing scuba gear.”
The grin-flash broke into a peal of mirth. “Sorry to get in your way.”
“And almost crush you” one of the silhouettes chimed in.
Harriet tried to rotate to her original direction of travel but the boots, £50 from the back of Sprinter behind the Good Vibrations tent, and two sizes too big, were stuck as if glued: “Fuck this. Just fuck.”
“Quiz, c’mere. May I?”
The torch-bearer stepped in and hooked an arm around her waist, steadying her while Quiz scraped at the quagmire.
“Move around a bit,” he advised. “When you feel a give, take a big step.”
Wriggling her feet, Harriet began to feel hysterical. It was after 4AM on a Friday in June. She, a 31-year-old woman purported to be in full possession of her faculties – and if not that, at least of a flat in Crouch End, a job in Soho and a rescue cat from Battersea – was being prised from calf-deep mire by a pair of strangers, one of whom was called Quiz, while a coffin loomed beyond her left shoulder.
Tssschuuulp. For some reason, having one free foot made the situation even more absurd. She gulped, she hiccoughed, she conceded. By the time her second foot was free, tears of laughter were pouring down her rain-streaked face. Quiz stepped back; his companion hoisted her onto the slimy plank trail.
“What’s – your – name?” she gasped between spasms.
The paroxysms stopped cold. “He’s Quiz and you’re Aaron? That hardly seems fair.”
“Believe me, he’s as boring as he sounds,” Quiz chirped. “White-picket-fence dude. Please and thank you, takes his momma to church on Sunday.”
She was standing close enough now to see Aaron’s face; the lips were compressed but the dark eyes were amused.
“What are you doing?”
“AKA the dumbasses who push PA through pissing rain in the wee hours”, one of the silhouettes clarified.
“Speaking of,” Aaron half-turned, which made her realise his arm was still on her waist. “Give me five, bros. I’ma walk with the lady.”
Harriet opened her mouth to say, “You don’t need to” – but stopped. There was an energy vibrating in the narrow space between them she didn’t want to dissipate. They followed the torch beam in silence for a minute then both spoke at once, apologised, then blurted over each other again.
“Sorry,” he said a second time, voice bright with amusement. “You go.”
Suddenly shy, Harriet lobbed an embarrassingly banal question. She realised, a minute later, he was spinning out his answer to give her time to collect herself. It was an odd, rare level of emotional acuity; rare enough to be suspect, but somehow, it wasn’t.
By some wordless agreement, they stopped shy of the row of hand-painted eco-toilet huts to continue a conversation about breakfast starches.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve tried grits.”
“First, who wants to eat grit? Second, you can live without eating potato waffles but it will be a pale, hollow existence.”
They both laughed. She didn’t want the sound to stop but there was a growing pressure in her lower abdomen. He caught her glance.
“Sorry. You need to… I’ll shut up.”
“No. I mean I do but….” Harriet blushed in the silence.
“I’ll have a couple hours off tomorrow, before the show. Do you wanna meet up? Are you here with your boyfriend or…”
“No, friends. Do you want my number?”
They stepped together, forming a makeshift human shelter for the small, glowing screen.
“Look, in case signal is bad, or whatever, how about five o’clock at the backstage access gate to the left of the main stage?”
“As you face the stage.”
He didn’t act like it was a dumb question. Most men were merciless about women and directions.
“Access gate, left facing-the-stage, five o’clock.”
“Cool for you? Do you want me to wait and walk you back?”
A strange force-field had coalesced around her heart, reverberating through her body with every beat. “I’m good. See you tomorrow.”
Two steps later she peeked over her shoulder, just in time to see him do the same.