I wake up and stumble out of bed and it isn’t until I’ve walked to the shop and am blearily standing in an aisle that I look at my phone and realise my alarm won’t go off for another thirty minutes. I curse my brain for so convincingly dreaming an alarm that it woke me up.
I have invited everyone over for breakfast. I planned this days ago; I considered packing spices in my luggage. I play this down when inviting people. “I’ll just make some eggs or something,” I said in the messages I sent around the night before. For some reason I don’t want to admit how important it feels to cook for these people. Often, when we’re all far away, the urge to cook for them will constrict around my lungs. Cooking for someone is such a tangible act of love. Long distance friendship often denies us the tangible parts – eye contact and laughter and the way they take their tea and sharing food. So I invite everyone to breakfast and I downplay all the things it means.
We carry our plates and mugs into the sunshine. We sit on a picnic table – the middle point between our accommodation and the ocean. I am berated slightly for claiming that the egg, potato and capsicum hash that I’ve made was going to be “just eggs or something”. I admit that I almost packed spices in my luggage and everyone laughs.
We split up to find dry clothes and separate events. I trek to the Royal Exchange and listen to a panel about being from the country. Alex is at home writing his Honours thesis and he broadcasts a live video of himself eating toast. The panel discusses the ways landscape influences their writing and I think about how many stories Alex writes are about unexplained phenomena in the Tasmanian wilderness. I think about the story in his Honours collection about walking and Tasmania and UFOs.
We go to the Critical Animals exhibition. There are a lot of reflective pieces and we take strange distorted selfies of our reflections. Beth insists that taking good selfies in the art is actually what the art is for. We find some video art and play music over it. We decide that all video art is better set to music. We’re quite sure the staff hear us but none of them seem to mind. I think the artists wouldn’t mind us finding giddy joy in their works, drunk as we are on friendship and sunshine.
We go to the baths again because Sophie and Seb haven’t been to the baths yet. Sophie refuses to swim because she’s the worst. Seb puts his toes in and decides he won’t swim either. Beth and beccamarsh and I bob in the water and berate the others for taking too long to wade in. They hold their hands above the surface and we shout because the hands are the worst part, it’s lovely once the icy tingling in your fingers has subsided. Seb walks nonchalantly along the wooden bridge and we are very sure he is messing with us until he falls neatly sideways, toppling into the water.
We have a plan – a run of events, punctuated by dinner. It is a good plan. We go home, get changed, ready for the plan. Then our first event gets rescheduled right into our dinner break. We sit on the lounge for a while and eat blueberries, unsure who should make a new plan. Alex texts me to say he’s at the pub. We go to the pub.
There is some discussion about dinner. Apparently you can buy pies across the road and eat them in the pub, although strictly speaking the pub doesn’t allow this, they just haven’t stopped anyone doing it. I’ve barely seen Alex all day so I buy him a pie and sit beside him. All weekend I flit from one person to another. I snatch moments. It feels odd to snatch moments with Alex but we’re often apart during NYWF, fliting between different people. Sitting close to him, when I can, feels like recharging.
We manage to claim a bench at the back of Vinyl and listen to a collection of writers from New Zealand. Two years ago, Iwent to New Zealand for the first ever New Zealand Young Writers Festival. I remember thinking how obvious it was that there are writers in New Zealand and how obvious it was that we’d all be friends and how obvious it felt for us to build communities together. We bought a few writers over for NYWF that year. Two years on there is a growing cohort of them, threatening to take over. The thing I am proudest of from my time working at NYWF is helping to open that door, dragging those first people across the Tasman so that now they drag others, back and forth in an ever growing chain.
The Fake News Game show feels like Twitter offline. The people on stage shout at each other. Bec says “Casey” sternly when he makes a bad joke. Occasionally someone from the audience will shout out a contribution, @ing themselves briefly into the thread. A paper plate of jelly babies is passed around and I make a “what is this” face at Lizzy and she makes an “idk just have one” face at me so I eat a jelly baby. The tie breaker question is “who is Taylor Swift’s current boyfriend” and none of the panellists know. Casey starts naming English men at random. I text Kaitlyn and she quickly replies “JOE ALWYN JOE ALWYN. It’s Joe Alwyn, British actor!!!” I wish she was here to shout this very loudly from the crowd.
Outside in the huddle of people, I find Sinead who is doing a Late Night Reading tonight. She tells me in a high-pitched voice that if it goes terribly then it will be ALL MY FAULT for making her come to the festival in the first place. I tell Sinead we’re going to get icecream but she’s busy panicking about her reading so I drag Leona and Hannah to get ice cream instead.
We walk along King Street, eating ice cream and talking in clusters. There’s almost nothing as beautiful as Newcastle at night. Walking these streets in the dark with a trail of people is one of my favourite things in the world. We go to the bottle shop in the mall. Everywhere we go this weekend is familiar – this collection of places that we are fleeting, seasonal regulars of.
At the Royal Exchange we claim a whole row of seats and drink pink wine from plastic cups. Lizzy leans against the chair in front of me. I think about how I’ve known Lizzy long enough that somewhere along the way we both became adults. Lizzy bought a house last week. We talk about how surreal it is that she can buy a house at all, that she actually did, that soon she’ll be moving into it with her finance and her dog. And it’s all very traditional and ordinary considering Lizzy and I met online via a series of surreal and unorthodox coincidences.
Surprising no one but herself, Sinead’s is excellent. I cry laughing. Sinead is one of my favourite writers and also she’s my friend. I read the things she writes and I laugh openly in public places. Also we have wine together and talk intensely about Harry Potter. And I kind of pretend I don’t admire her as much as I do, to keep the friendship and the admiration separate because maybe mixing them too much would make it weird. But listening to her read feels like colliding all those things and it isn’t so weird at all.
At the baths, for the third time that day, we take off our shoes and carry our plastic cups across the wooden bridge. Lizzy has started calling it “death bridge” and because it’s never really had a name, this one sticks. We dangle our feet in the water, splashing crystal green droplets into the air. There is construction work behind the propped up façade and the strobing orange of a hazard light flashes faintly. It’s very dark. We see each other’s faces in silhouette, details picked out by the light from the night sky.
Eventually it is just Casey and Caleb and I. We talk about the ABC. I forget sometimes how impressive it is to work at the ABC. I forget because I stumbled into this weird, wonderful corner of it largely by accident and I was so shell-shocked that by the time I actually stopped to appreciate how wonderful it was, it felt normal. I splash my feet in the water. We all lean over a phone screen and our faces pull into focus.
The others send Nick to get us. He is very nice and says we can stay but we know he’s been sent to get us so we follow him carefully back to shore. Sophie tells us she is starving and apparently there is raisin toast at our place so we are going to eat raisin toast.
We make a stack of toast and a pot of tea. Sophie dances around the kitchen with her toast, exclaiming loudly about how good it is. My feet are salty from the baths and my head is full of nice things and I’m laughing at my lovely friend dancing about raisin toast. In that moment I am very happy.