Usually if I get anything less than six hours sleep I dissolve into a puddle of anxiety. Less than four and I start having panic attacks about how little sleep I’ve had, but also let’s not think about that because I won’t get less than four hours sleep, I refuse. But sleep lost at NYWF does not count toward sleep lost overall. And I am a little surprised to find I feel pretty cheerful on Sunday morning.
I have a shower and wash the last traces of glitter off my face. And then I carefully apply new glitter because yolo quite frankly. Breakfast is the half eaten almond croissant Past Alex helpfully left in my bag and a cup of tea drunk while walking around the house trying to remember everything that I can’t forget. I put last night’s flower crown onto a borrowed hat, load all the zines into the back of Fin’s car and we drive over to set up.
I’ve done the zine fair a few times before but this is the first time that I’ve had nowhere else to be. Usually there will be at least an hour when I have to bribe a friend to mind my table while I dash off somewhere. There will be no dashing this year. I’ve done so much relaxed meandering that the muscles usually reserved for dashing have withered away.
We set up our table in a pleasantly shady location which becomes extremely sunny almost immediately. We instantly regret not fighting for a table on the formerly sunny but now very shady side of the alley. It is really very sunny. The sun is helpfully moving directly along the centre of the alley and refusing to ever leave. We take turns with the solitary shade umbrella.
The best thing about the zine fair is that lots of nice people come and talk to you while you stay in one place (in the sun). It is pretty ideal (expect for the sun). People wander past and say hi. I talk cheerfully to a lot of people I don’t know, something that often makes me very nervous. I relish the feeling of ease and confidence that this weekend gives me. A group of teenage girls buy matching glitter necklaces. The current batch of Farrago editors buy a copy of my zine for their office. My friend Emma(who I used to play quidditch with) buys one of everything that I have. Rachelbrings us more shade umbrellas and soon our stall is tented in umbrellas. People compliment my broccoli dress and I tell them that my mum made it, because I am very proud that she did. A lot of people buy my lucky dips and we decide that we should have a lucky dip based stall next year because people love lucky dips. Alex and Vee adopt a sales method that mostly involves shouting at customers. They shout “what do you like” at anyone who comes near them. They shout “LO-BO-PO” over and over until someone comes and asks what Lobopo is and then they try and convince that person to buy Tom’s zine (which is called Lobopo). Tom retreats so far under his umbrella during this exchange that he looks like a mushroom. The effectiveness of Alex and Vee’s sales methods remain in question.
Jake arrives with a plastic bag full of Calippos. This is (in that moment) the greatest thing that has ever happened. We rejoice heartily in the Calippos. I step backwards to take a photo of all my cute pals eating Calippos and then get the giggles because they are so cute and so ridiculous, tented in umbrellas and borrowed hats eating their icey poles. They ask why I am laughing and it is because I love them but I don’t say that.
I was planning to go to an event after the fair but by the time we pack up, the desire to throw myself into the ocean is overwhelming. I am giddy with sunshine (or maybe heatstroke) and beginning to wonder how a single weekend in Newcastle can possibly be enough to quench my yearning for the sea.
When we arrive at the baths, we discover most of the festival is already at the baths. We ask them to mind our stuff. Instead of flinging ourselves in, we take it slow today. There is no doubt we are getting wet, so there is no rush. We push through the cold, until the water is right up to our necks (and we’re in full bodsies). We shout and wave wildly at everyone who is not in the water to try and make them get in the water. We cheer at anyone who does get into the water. We generally float around in the clear green ocean and talk to each other in broken, nonsense sentences (which mostly involve saying bodsies a lot). Eventually we get cold and go in search of chips.
The kiosk at the pool is closed and Jake seems to have run off with our chip money. There is some disagreement about what people want to eat but luckily Sticky Rice is opposite Scotties so some people get Scotties and some people get Sticky Rice. I drop past the house and get all the juice and lemonade out of our fridge and buy plastic cups at Foodworks. We commandeer several picnic rugs and congregate in a sprawling mass of bodies, higgledy piggledy on the patchy grass.
There is something to be said for being physically surrounded by people who you love. Sitting on the grass, I could reach out and touch a dozen of my closest friends; I couldn’t walk anywhere without the risk of tripping over them. All of my friendships happen at least partly online and I forget, a lot of the time, how much the physicality of people matters. Because there are other ways to communicate and they are good too, but they’re not the same as sitting in the golden afternoon sun, touching at the knees.
We head to the Royal Exchange, full of chips and noodles, and stake out as many chairs as we are physically able. We decide that, if necessary, we will fight people to retain these chairs for the duration of the evening.
Dave’s dating show is extremely funny. I watch Lauretta and Britt (who both speak French) trying to mentally translate the French in one of the games. Them giving each other intense and confused looks, mouthing guesses, makes me laugh at inappropriate moments. Giselleconvinces a room full of people that she’s really into Shrek, possibly in a sexual way (which she says is NOT TRUE, for the record) but still wins anyway.
Women of History is this incredible mash of people and costumes. It’s silly and joyful and everyone shines. One of the readers, Wendy Chen, is doing her first ever reading. From the moment she steps in front of the microphone, her nerves are palpable. And I feel, all around me, the room lean in. Almost as one, that crowd of people reach out to catch Wendy. To tell her that it is ok. That we are here if she falls. But she doesn’t have to worry about that. Because she’s doing great.
Often during readings at NYWF I find myself watching people’s hands. Almost every single person who gets up to read is shaking. The paper (or the phone or the iPad) in their hands visibly trembles. But always the crowd leans in. And their voice swells as the reading goes on and at the end everyone cheers and they smile and exhale and it is ok. It is always ok. At NYWF you are safe. You can be brave because you are safe.
Being in the glittery interior of the Royal Exchange listening to people read always feels like NYWF at it’s purest. When friends come for the first time, it is always at their first Late Night Reading when I turn to them and say “THIS, this is it”. The combination of closeness and wine and friends and jokes and tears sums up the festival in a way that nothing else really can.
And then it is done. And this year’s team are standing up on stage. And I’m sitting in the audience cheering them on and thinking about how we couldn’t have hoped for a better bunch of nerds to pass the torch to. They are radiant. They did good.
We spill into the darkness and scatter for provisions. We stop past the house to collect cardigans and plastic cups and I do not change into my swimmers. I decide, very suddenly, that if I go swimming that I will just go in my underwear. This decision feels so simple. I know, even as I am making it, that I won’t feel self-conscious. That I will be fine. And that realisation gently shifts something inside my brain, something significant that I won’t be able to unpack until later.
During my first year at uni I said yes to a lot of things and regretted a few of them. I went to some parties because I thought I should go to some parties. They where not objectively bad, I was mostly happy in the moment but I never felt completely in control. Someone else was always handing me drinks. I didn’t completely trust the people around me, not implicitly, not if it came down to it, not in a crisis. I kind of thought that was what parties were meant to be like; that having a reasonably ok time was really all you could ask for. I spent a lot of that year trying to be a different version of myself, one who was ok with the kind of happiness she’d stumbled into. Eventually, at one of the less good parties, I found myself crying all the moisture out of my eyes in a pitch dark laundry and realised that maybe I didn’t want whatever kind of happiness this was.
A month later NYWF happened. And it was a good one. It was the year we played Never Have I Ever at the ball. The year of Writer WantsA Wife. The year when my now boyfriend and I stood under a lamppost and I told him I’d like to see each other sooner than the next NYWF. That weekend I was happy. And I remembered what it was like to feel loved, for the person you already are.
Every year I try and describe the early morning darkness and the perfect ocean. Every year I try to capture the murky stars reflected in the water and the mirror black ocean and the shining moon. But I’m not sure it’s possible to really describe what the baths on a Sunday night at NYWF are like. Let alone what they mean to me. I have a whole handful of these memories now – a little collection of Sunday nights. And every one of them is different and perfect and glistening. They are some of the happiest memories that I have.
Here I am surrounded by friends, all of them keeping on eye on each other. There is no pressure, to do anything. I am safe. So safe. To feel so content and so at ease, to be so comfortable in myself and to have so much trust in the people around me, is such an incredible freedom to have.
I am standing on the dark concrete steps, with these things washing around my brain, when Adolfo waves me over and looks at me very seriously. “I was looking in the mirror this morning,” he says. “And I realised that all our friends are babes.” I laugh because he is so earnest but I agree with him that this is very true. On that sparkly, inky night everyone is a babe. I’m not sure if NYWF attracts babes or if it brings out the babe in everyone but I think it’s probably a bit of both.
Rachel and I sit close and drink fizzy wine. We tell each other stories about falling in love. I tell her about falling for Alex via Twitter and then mixtape, in the strange old and new way that it happened. She tells me about falling for Luke, mostly at night, too slowly and then all at once. We smile at each other and at the boys in our stories, who are both laughing nearby in the darkness, just as ridiculous and as lovely as ever.
I am unsure whose idea it is to swim to the pylon in the middle of the baths. But both Alex and Casey are running around telling people that we are going to the pylon in the middle of the baths. “We’re going to swim to that thing,” Casey says, pointing at the circle in the distance. “Alex says we need six people but I think we just go; we just do it.” I agree to be part of whatever this is and then suddenly I am telling Adolfo about our plan, unselfconsciously standing in the darkness in my bra and undies. He tells me that I’m a babe and I tell him that he’s a babe, because we’re all babes, we already decided.
beccamarsh has a lot of first aid qualifications so if anything goes horribly wrong during the flawlessly planned attempt to climb onto a concrete pylon in the dark, I am confident that we will be able to deal with it. We are very responsible adults, plunging into the black, black water and laughing and dragging each other across the sand and laughing and pulling each other onto the too-small circle of whitewashed concrete and laughing and cheering and pumping our arms in the air.
beccamarsh and Beth and Lauretta supervise the expedition and supervise us climbing back out of the water and supervise us walking back. I don’t think we bought any towels but it’s not that cold and I am not that wet. I am too happy to be cold and wet.
We ring Lizzy because we miss Lizzy. We sing the Muppet theme into Lizzy’s voicemail. Casey tries to teach us the jiggle from some furniture ad but then me and Fin start singing the jingle for the Clog Barn (for a good time, see a piece of Holland down under). We ring Casey’s boyfriend and sing the Clog Barn into his voicemail. We ring Alex, who has gone for a walk on the beach, and Casey sings the Clog Barn at him until Alex hangs up. Casey delivers a short lecture on mung beans. And to be honest if you don’t have the kind of friends who will deliver impromptu lectures on legumes at 4am then I’m not sure you’re really living.
People trickle off to bed. And again, without really meaning to be, we are the last ones here, clinging to the hours before the baths have to be given over to morning swimmers. Reluctantly, I let go of this Sunday (which is technically a Monday and has been for some time). I loosen my grasp on the day and it slips away, twirling ribbon-like in the breeze. And that’s it. That’s the end. I collect the last of the debris from the steps – forgotten zines and bags. There isn’t much (we’re very tidy and respectful really). We traipse up the hill and I try not think too much about goodbyes.