It’s funny how your priorities change as you move through life. In many respects, you learn to become self-reliant and choose your companions with greater care. I never regarded myself as a doggy person, but if not for my new best friend, I’d be lost in a field near Shepton Mallet.
My weekend at the festival started off in high spirits when a group of us from H.R. arrived at the main gates early on Saturday morning. We found our allocated parking space with ease and negotiated our way on foot to the Sticklinch campsite. We’d all read festival horror stories about tents disappearing without a trace and travelled light for that reason. Our cheap tents were easy to erect and no significant loss if they got damaged or stolen.
‘I’m starving, man.’
‘Any suggestions, guys?’
‘There’s a veggie café near Tipi Park.’
‘Are you sure about that?’
‘It’s better than nothing.’
We discussed our vague plan for the day over a vegan fry-up and agreed to go with the flow. As long as we ended up at the Pyramid Stage for the last performance, we didn’t care what happened in between. With our scheme in mind, we set off to explore the delights on offer; stopping to listen to music and get loaded along the way.
I recall the end of Saturday night; the headline act’s encore, the crowd’s thunderous applause and the rumble of distant thunder during the slow exodus from the arena.
‘I guess it’s time to crash, fellas?’
‘Can you remember the way back?’
‘I’m staying for the light show,’ I said.
‘Are you gonna be all right, buddy?’
‘No problem, I’ll catch up later.’
‘Call if you get lost, right?’
I nodded and watched my friends join the human tide, disappearing into the night. The thought of trudging around crowded fields was an unappealing prospect. Besides, a day in the sun and too much of a good thing had left me both drained and parched. I reckoned a recovery period might help me out. It was their loss. The pyramid’s light show had just got started.
World-weary revellers trudged past me as I watched the main stage’s gantry lights flicker and dance in choreographed cycles. Sweeping beams of light described vague pathways into the surrounding pastures and illuminated ghostly spectres, searching for their temporary homes. It could have been a glimpse of a dystopian future; a world on the brink or the bewildered remains of civilisation.
The damage inflicted on the farmland became more apparent after the tsunami of festival-goers dispersed. A month of relentless sunshine and two days of tromping visitors had pulverised the lush meadow grass into dry straw. The deserted arena had become an arid dust bowl, and the strategically-placed but over-subscribed rubbish bins were proving inadequate. Every time there was a slight gust, they discarded detritus like furtive wedding guests shedding their surplus confetti during the best man’s speech. It’s remarkable that we’ve achieved so much carnage in less than forty-eight hours.
The wind picked up and whipped loose debris into spiralling eddies that scurried across the trampled earth and bombarded me with empty crisp packets, aluminium cans and plastic bottles. I held my ground, sitting cross-legged before this spectacular monument to hedonism, and considered the incredible size of the crowd who’d gathered here to celebrate. It was life affirming that so many could exist together and so little trouble had occurred. In other ways, it was condemning of our species that we cared so little for our environment. As custodians of this world, we were doing a poor job.
A party of chattering stragglers in Afghan coats, tie-dyed tops, and patched-up denims meandered in my direction. Arm in arm, they reeled and swayed like a troupe of Neanderthal tiller girls, enjoying a hen-night in Brighton. A young woman with a painted-cat-face knelt down next to me and, tilting her head, eyed me with puzzled interest.
‘I’m fine,’ I said, wiping grit from my eyes.
Her dilated pupils glinted in the dark as she extracted a parcel from her shoulder bag.
‘You look hungry,’ she purred, extending an offering towards me. ‘I have cake.’
‘What kind of cake?’ I asked.
‘It’s homemade,’ she said, handing me a square chunk of chocolate brownie.
‘It’s a great way to finish the day.’
She was right. Twinkling scintillations and shimmering mandalas appeared above the main stage and entertained me until the light show finished an hour later.
The stage’s PA system crackled back to life and a chuckling Bugs Bunny impersonator said, ‘That’s all folks! Time to get lost.’ I heard giggling in the background, followed by raucous laughter that echoed in the surrounding woodland.
The riggers high above the main stage concluded their labours and scuttled down from the pyramid’s triangular scaffolding like a colony of black ants abandoning a mountain of sugar, knowing it’d still be there tomorrow.
The overhead lights clicked off, and I lay back and watched pale blue clouds rolling past the bright mid-summer moon. They looked like the steam billowing forth from an ancient express train. Maybe they were in a race; first one to the moon and back is the winner.
I was alone in the middle of the wide arena. My eyelids flickered from an unbearable weight of tiredness. This wasn’t the best place to fall asleep. I lurched onto my hands and knees. My wretched head hung like a rag doll; it was a dead weight. I could hear my tent calling me, but my legs were too heavy to obey instructions. I staggered up onto feet that were now both cumbersome and clumsy.
Christ! What a mess.
Shuffling was the best I could manage. Crossing the dusty wasteland took forever. I was just thankful there was nobody to witness my uncoordinated progress. At least I’d noted a couple of landmarks; our pitch was between a Union Jack flag and a bicycle lashed to a tree with a skull tied to its handlebars.
I don’t know how long it took me to find my tent. One bedraggled canvas structure looks much like another in a boundless sea of temporary dwellings. When I arrived, I collapsed down on all fours and crawled inside. It took all my concentration to undress in the restricted space, and unzipping my sleeping bag was pure frustration. I slid my naked legs inside the down-filled shell and curled up on one side, covering my head like a butterfly retreating into its protective chrysalis.
I’d no remaining energy.
My eyelids twitched.
All went dark.
The first time I opened my eyes, there was a warm morning glow beyond my feet and movement and voices outside my flimsy enclosure.
The second time I opened my eyes, the evening sun was behind my head, and the only sound I could detect was the gentle flap of my unzipped entryway.
The next thing I experienced was an abrasive sensation rasping my face, a sour odour and staccato bursts of enthusiastic panting.
A short-legged scruffy terrier pawed my chest, leaving dirty marks on my t-shirt.
‘How did you…?’
As if answering my unfinished question, the little fellow retreated outside. Peering through the arched doorway after him, I saw tents bathed in pale orange light. I guessed it was early Monday morning, or maybe Tuesday? My phone was blinking in silent mode beside my head. It displayed sixty-five missed texts and calls and one per cent charge.
There was a gruff bark and my canine guest popped his head through the doorway. I furrowed my brow, and he nudged a bottle of water towards me. He tapped the lid with his paw and cocked his head to one side. I reached out a pale hand from my cocoon and unscrewed it. The little fellow bounded forward and extended his tongue in expectation. I took a couple of glugs for myself before improvising a makeshift bowl for him. He waited, comprehending my intention, before bending down to take grateful slurps.
I padded down my jacket for my wallet to discover it was missing. That’s all I needed. I guessed I must have left it in the arena in front of the pyramid stage. Maybe I dropped it staggering home after the light show finished? Who knows? Perhaps some kind person had handed it to lost property? I had to find it. I was lost without it.
I dragged myself out of my stinking pit and pulled on my boots to the sound of a solitary blackbird. When I poked my head out of the tent, I thought I’d made a mistake about the time. I couldn’t detect any human activity. However, hundreds of other flimsy plastic constructions still surrounded my humble accommodation. There were tents as far as I could see and glimpses of lives laid bare: colourful ground-sheets, tatty awnings, shelters made from clotheslines strung with sheets and towels; bathing suits and underwear were drying in the sunshine.
I ventured out amongst the unkempt township, announcing my presence before peering through the open tent-flaps. My new companion followed at my heel as we circulated abroad, sniffing inside the empty tents for discarded snacks. I hated to admit the obvious, but the evidence was irrefutable. It was as if a plague had arrived and caused an emergency evacuation. Together, we’d searched the entire field and visited every tent, but to no avail. There were other fields to inspect on the vast site, but my chief concern was my wallet. Perhaps I’d get lucky and locate it near the main stage. It was worth a try because I wasn’t going anywhere without it.
It was only when we passed through field after field of abandoned tents that I understood the scale of the festival site. I found it eerie passing so much abandoned camping equipment and contemplated the number of people who’d resided here over the weekend. The enormous collection of lurid plastic had an absurd and decadent beauty that was both awe-inspiring and sickening at the same time.
By the time we arrived at the open ground in front of the mighty pyramid, my tired boots were dusted in a layer of dry topsoil. I recognised my former location from the fluttering rainbow flag close to where we’d all watched the late show. As we approached it, a hundred ferocious seagulls exploded up into the air. They pierced the silence with their screeches and thrashed their feathered limbs in a frenzy, hovering above the remains of yesterday’s party. The little fellow rushed towards the agitated flock, barking and leaping with excitement. The fearsome scavengers swooped and dive-bombed around our heads, warding us away from their precious food scraps. There’s nothing for us here and no sign of my wallet.
We retreated from the arena and walked round the perimeter fence, just in case. After two more hours of tromping about, I admitted defeat and headed west, back to the Sticklinch campsite. I heard the distant bulldozer before I saw it. The organisers had sent in the heavy squad to remove our township and the clean-up team had started their work in earnest.
When we arrived at the entrance to our campsite, I witnessed a mighty excavator dragging my tent from its moorings. My companion yelped and scampered towards the vehicle, barking for Britain. I waved my arms aloft and ran forward. The driver tipped his helmet and turned off his engine. The little terrier dived between the heavy iron caterpillar tracks. I shrugged my shoulders and the man behind the wheel shook his head. There was a kerfuffle under the excavator and the barking ceased.
I sighed as the little fellow raised his head from the rubble.
He clenched his jaws tight as he ran toward me.
I bent down to greet him as he advanced.
He dropped a soggy parcel at my feet.
I recognised my wallet immediately.
‘Wow, what a star,’ I said, retrieving it. ‘What a good boy.’
‘You’re lucky, mate,’ said the driver as he approached.
‘Too right,’ I said, finding the contents were intact.
‘What’s his name?’ he asked with a wry smile.
‘Er, Shep… Shepton,’ I said, stammering. ‘It’s Shepton.’
‘Of course,’ he said, chuckling. ‘I should have guessed.’
‘It seems appropriate, given my lost weekend.’
‘You won’t forget that name in a hurry.’