Fortnightly Story: At the Festival

guitar and harmonica on the grass at sunset

It was six o’clock in the evening when she finally passed the wind turbines.  There, at last, stood Lake George, where long-woolled sheep grazed the field and to the west the Brindabella mountain range was coloured grey and pink by the setting sun.   On she drove along an ink-black strip of road where, on either side, tall green-grey eucalypts had formed a welcoming archway.  The way flattened out then curved into a narrow empty road.  Not one person did she see, not one building, just a handful of brown-bellied cows and later a group of kangaroos standing formidable and still in the headlights.  The turn for Watson wasn’t clearly sign-posted but she felt confident in turning east along the row of liquid ambers in autumn bloom that took her to the cabins.

Twice on the journey she had pulled into a service station and shut her eyes and briefly rested but now, as she neared Canberra, she felt wide awake and full of energy.  Even the dark length of road which progressed flatly to Reception seemed to hold the promise of a new beginning.  She sensed the towering, protective presence of the mountain range, the forested hills and, further on, just past the turnoff, the clear, pleasant thump of music coming from the festival.

The receptionist gave her a key, and eagerly she drove further on to cabin number five.  Inside, the room was renovated:  the two single beds replaced by a double.  The same compact kitchenette set into one end of the room but a new television secured to the wall by a multidirectional wall bracket.  In between, on the bare linoleum floor, stood a small table laminated with melamine and two matching chairs.  She set her keys and mobile on the table and reached for the electric jug for tea.

After filling the kettle with water from the hand basin in the bathroom, she pressed the remote to turn on the heating, then threw the slippery embroidered cushions from the bed into a corner of the room.  Just between the curtains the row of early winter azaleas was quivering brightly under the security lights.  She showered, lay down and reached for her Kindle and read the first page of a Katherine Mansfield story.  It seemed like an engrossing tale but when she reached the end of the page she felt her eyelids closing, and reluctantly she turned out the light, although she knew that she had all day tomorrow, to work, to read and to walk along the Federal Highway to the festival.

When she woke, she grabbed at the tail of a flimsy dream—a feeling, like a wisp of gossamer—dissipating like the touch of a soap bubble;  her sleep had been short and annoyingly elusive.  She turned the kettle on and hung her clothes on the wooden hangers on the rack.  She had brought little:  a Kindle downloaded with books, a small esky of groceries.  There was the laptop and several creased bits of paper on which notes were written with arrows and numbered inserts in between the typed paragraphs.

The sky was a calm blue lined with clouds.  Up at the festival the Poets’ Breakfast would be underway already.  She felt impatient to get there to collect her wrist band and program, although she also felt she could lie there on the big bed for days, reading and working, seeing no one.  She was thinking about her work, and wondering how she would begin when her mobile alerted her to a text message.  For several minutes the woman sat there not looking at the phone.  She reached out not so much to read the message as to move past this distraction.

There was a vacancy after all for the Poetry Workshop.

When she put the phone down she turned on the heater again and returned to the Mansfield story.  It had no plot or tight dramatic structure.  The story followed a character as she prepared to hold a dinner party, sharing her anticipation and her disillusionment when things didn’t quite go to plan.   At the end of the evening she realises her husband is having an affair.

Something about this story now put the woman in mind of how she had been at another point in her life, when she was contemplating moving in with a man who said he wanted her to live with him, a man she loved, but who had never said he loved her, as though the saying of it would bind him to her, or hide the fact that he didn’t.

Once, when she was getting ready for bed, she had stood at the mirror in her cotton nightgown brushing her hair and had sensed him watching her from behind.  She was fatter then, and in her forties.  He didn’t say anything but she sensed he didn’t like the look of her at that moment.  Perhaps it was the practical night wear he didn’t like; or was it that he’d prefer her to wear something more seductive, briefer, more enticing?

She thought of him now as she looked out the window to the azaleas.

‘If you move in, I would not want you to make a claim on my money,’ he had said.  ‘I want what I have to go to my children.’

His family, she had known, would always come first.

Now she felt a strong urge to write but told herself it was not something she could do, because she needed to get to the workshop on time.  She would just be warming up when she would have to leave and the telling of the story would be interrupted and she would have to put her pen down.  She did not like stopping once she was underway.

She cleaned up the breakfast dishes then hurried up the road by the liquid ambers to the Federal Highway.  The path beside the road was overhung with trees.  She put her hand on top of her head to protect herself from swooping birds.

When she found the workshop venue, she sat on a chair by the wall with the others as the last session packed up their musical instruments and left.  When the Poetry tutor set up at a table they pulled their chairs around.  She was a short middle-aged woman in a spotted dress and woollen cardigan.

‘Welcome everyone,’ she said handing out pieces of paper and blocks of ruled pages for those who needed them.  ‘Move your chairs in closer.  We’re only a small group.’

The tutor spoke to them about syllables, matching metre, the rhythm of poems.  ‘You can get inspiration for your poems anywhere,’ she said.  ‘A news report on the radio.  A conversation with someone.  Some people need a quiet place to write, and others can work in front of the television.’

*

She hadn’t really noticed him at the workshop, he must have been one of the people who had hung back, didn’t move their chairs in.  But when she saw him again, outside the big marquee where the Bush Poets vs All-Other-Kinds-of-Poets debate was about to begin, she recognised his face.  He walked up to her and smiled hello.

‘Do you write much poetry?’  His tone indicated he was respectful of people who devoted themselves to the written word.

‘A little,’ she said.  ‘And you?  Do you write?’

‘No, no,’ he said dismissively.  ‘But I like going to poetry readings.’

At the end of the session in the marquee, when she saw him waiting in the aisle on the other side of the big tent, she rose from her seat and moved slowly across the fake grass floor in his direction.  He stood there as she progressed to the exit until their paths crossed.  His hair was thick and white and across his back, secured by thick straps, hung a slim and contoured cyclists’ backpack.

‘Hello again,’ she said.

‘Feel like a coffee?’ he asked.

‘Sounds good to me,’ she nodded.

‘Which place do you like to go to here?’

‘Whichever one has the shortest queue.’

‘Let’s try next door then.’

He stood in line to order their coffees and suggested she find somewhere for them to sit.  ‘How about a slice of cake to share?’ he said.  ‘They bake some good tucker here.’  He pointed to the end of the counter.  ‘What about that coconut cake?’

‘Looks nice.’

He brought over the drinks and the cake and placed them on the table between them.   He used a plastic spoon to cut the slice in half.

I don’t usually eat sugary things like this, she reminded herself.  But it wasn’t something she’d expected, to be sitting here with a man.

He began telling her about his experiences at the yearly festival and how he liked coming each day to the Poets Breakfast the best to listen to people recite poems and tell long yarns.  He’d been a regular since the death of his wife.

‘Why don’t you meet me here tomorrow?’ he said.

‘The breakfast is a bit early for me,’ she said.  ‘But I’ll try and get myself up here in time.’  She wondered at that moment if she should be interrupting her morning work routine to join him.  She would feel obliged to proceed in that direction rather than in the direction of where the work may take her.

*

Back at the cabin, she made herself a light dinner of tuna and avocado on toast, and ate at the table.  When the dishes were rinsed and put away, she turned on the heater and lay on the bed and saw again the woman in the Katherine Mansfield story and the blissful happiness this character had felt preparing to spend the evening with friends who were soon to arrive for a dinner party.  Is she blissfully happy because she is in denial about her husband’s affair?  Or is she simply happy without that subconscious knowledge of betrayal?  She took up her Kindle and began to closely read every last sentence again.  As it turned out, the woman, on finding out about her husband’s affair, resigns herself to a life of loneliness.

She lay back and looked through the window and thought about the man with the backpack.  Beyond the window was a darkening sky, and a thickly forested hill.

‘I am fifty-five years old,’ she said, her voice sounding stupid and shrill in the austere room.

*

The next morning she got up early, showered and dressed quickly.  She looked at herself in the mirror, brushed her hair until it shone, then picked up her jacket and walked back along the road to the festival gates.  Out over the hills a thick mist wound its way between the peaks, a soft belt of white embracing the contours of the valley.  The shuttle bus that would travel from the Main Ticket Office to the Entertainment Zone was waiting.

‘Slam the door behind you love,’ said the driver when she climbed in.

As the bus circled the main campground she looked out at the people still asleep in their cars and vans, some in the pre-erected Rent-A-Tents, others under canvas beside their cars, their washing strung up on the support ropes:   towels, t-shirts, shorts.

The woman beside her pointed out the window.  ‘Look.  There are the smalls,’ she laughed.

It was cold when she stepped off the bus.  Never had she seen the place so quiet,  so empty of people and music—the grassed areas and the wide gravel avenues all deserted—although the food stalls were opening their shutters.  She wondered what time the place would come to life again and where she could get a hot drink.

The thing was, she really should be back at the cabin working at her desk.  She could quickly walk to one of the gates, hop on a shuttle bus and return to the room.  Instead, she stopped at one of the rectangular Water Stations to fill her paraben-free  bottle.  A volunteer, in distinguishing bright yellow vest, was using a hose to refill the dispenser.

‘Is it plain tap water?’ she asked.

‘Clean Canberra water,’ he said proudly.

‘The same as in the Ladies?’

‘Yes.  Pure water, but a better atmosphere.’

She laughed, then looked around and saw a bearded man in moleskins, singlet top and akubra hat boiling water in huge vats over a roaring fire.  Awkwardly, she stepped over the logs to a table set up with Billy Tea and toasted damper for sale.

She sat there at the fire and kicked at the earth beneath her feet as the golden line of the sunrise made its way above the line of trees.  She found herself relaxing into the moment as warmth spread down and over her face and neck and into her shoulders.  This, she said to herself, is where she should be, at this moment, in her life.

On the branch of a tree a large-beaked bird purposefully surveyed the terrain, his head moving rapidly from left to right before he hopped to another branch.   He was not a pretty bird, ink black feathers, and what looked like a white mask circling his eyes, as if he’d donned a Zorro cape before he’d flown out of the house.  He flew down to the edge of the gravel path where it merged with the grass, oblivious to the pigeons already scratching in the dust.  He pecked at the road, then stopped, loosened his wings, and swooped back up to his eyrie in the tree.

Sitting there, watching the bird do battle with the pigeons for tiny treasures, she’d thought of her work.  The mug of tea was hot and satisfying, the treacle spread thickly on the damper.  While she savoured the smoky bread and the sweet orange-coloured treat, a part of her mind was also pre-occupied with meeting up again with the man with the backpack.  She wondered, for a moment, what colour his eyes were, exactly how tall was he?  Tall, but how tall?

At eight thirty she walked down the path past the Circus tent towards the Poets Breakfast marquee.  She paused at the entry looking for him.  She stood there a moment then made her way to sit down beside him.

*

On the Sunday, after a week of spending each day together at the festival, attending events and sharing stories of their lives over coffees and cake and beers and takeaway meals, she couldn’t see him at their usual meeting place, so waited just outside the tent.  When she glanced around and saw the back of a tall man with a contoured backpack enter the marquee, accompanied by a woman, she wasn’t sure if it was him at first.  She waited in a spot where she couldn’t be seen as they sat down side by side.  She watched as the woman took a health bar out of her handbag, bite into it, then give him the other half.  Her hand rested on his thigh.

So, he wasn’t single after all.  What a stupid mistake she’d made.  She stood there watching the two of them, feeling angry, with him and with herself.  Had she learnt nothing?  A woman of her age.  What had she expected?  What had she wanted from this man?

It was late when she returned to the cabin.  A whole week had passed her by but there she found herself, back at the desk, looking out at the hedge of azaleas.   There was a highway out there, a mountain range and forested hills standing erect and dignified.  She thought of the Katherine Mansfield’s character, Bertha who was deceived by her husband.   She thought of the tall man and how he’d divided the slice of cake to share with her that first day, and began to imagine the life he must have with the woman.  There was a power point located under the table, she plugged her laptop in and turned it on.  Not until she typed in her password and heard the ‘ready’ chime did she realise she was struggling to control the shaking of her fingers over the keyboard.

Canberra  Folk Festival, she typed, and the date.  She thought of the woman’s hand on the man’s thigh, and for no reason her breath caught in her chest.  She wanted to say what it was like when he’d introduced his partner and how he’d invited her to join them for coffee.

‘This is Elaine,’ he’d said.  ‘She had nothing to do today.’  He’d said the words with apology in his tone.  Was it an apology?

She’d stood in line beside him to place their coffee order and had insisted on paying her own way this time.  Elaine waited at the table.  When they’d returned with the drinks she’d noticed Elaine had removed the man’s small cyclists’ bag from the chair between them and relocated him beside herself at the end.

And then Elaine’s questioning:  Why have you come all this way?  Where are your friends?  You did come to the festival with friends didn’t you? 

Several times as she typed she thought of the Bertha character who’d resigned herself to a life of loneliness.  At one point she stopped and looked at the moon’s position in the sky.  When she glanced up again the moon was concealed behind a thick layer of cloud.  By this time, her central character was following part of the Tour de France route on his new lightweight bicycle.  She went over the paragraph where his bike strikes a curb near Chamonix in the French Alps—his body limp and unconscious on the road—and realised her back was aching.  When she got up she felt stiff but satisfied.  She looked out at the moonlight now hitting the hedge of azaleas and anticipated a good night’s sleep.  As she turned the kettle on, she lengthened her spine and was planning his months ahead in the Geneva hospital, and his slow and very painful road to recovery.

Copyright 2016 Libby Sommer

First published in Quadrant, May 2016

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