We get up before 9am to watch art. We walk along King Street, stopping at Good Brother for coffee. I wear my sunglasses, even though it’s overcast.
The art is Applespiel’s Morning Breakfast Commercial Radio Show and it’s silly and joyful and fun. We sit on a bench at the back of the colourful little courtyard and the two hours pass improbably quickly. Nick pretends to be John Farnham, calling into the show, and ends up challenging someone pretending to be Macklemore to a rap battle. It’s good art.
We get takeaway from Good Brother and carry it toward the ocean to sit on our picnic table. I spill egg down my front because of course I do and I can feel nerves starting to swell in my chest. My stomach constricts into a knot and suddenly I want to find Alex.
I walk to meet him and I know there’s anxiety in my steps. I know there’s an uncertainty in the way I cross the roads. I find him outside the pharmacy. He fills a prescription and I buy a tin of Rescue Remedy pastilles, cracking it open and urgently slipping one of the rubbery disks onto my tongue.
I sit outside the bakery with the others but my mind feels distant. Eliza walks past, on her way to our event and I decide to walk with her. We go past Vinyl and I drag Casey out of the meeting he’s in and then we’re all walking to the event together. I offer them both a Rescue Remedy and Casey says it makes him feel more stressed because it takes like nothing “but not quite enough like nothing” and I try to explain that’s kind of the point.
Town Hall is grand and claustrophobic – shrouded in scaffolds and building works. It is disconcertingly formal. I bounce up and down on the balls of my feet, reapply my lipstick, bounce up and down some more. I don’t regret agreeing to this event but I kind of regret these hours that inevitably come along with it, when the anxiety balls in my chest and I know there’s not much I can do except ride it out. We sit behind the desk as the audience trickles in. Casey and I dab nervously because dabbing is funny. From the audience, Nick tweets us both to tell us to stop dabbing.
The event goes well, I think. Alex sends me a text from the crowd that says “you did fantastic”. Fin tells me he cried and that makes me want to cry. There’s a video of this event. I haven’t watched it but my dad says it’s good.
The alumni readings, celebrating 20 years of NYWF, are sweet. There’s a slideshow of pictures, including some of me that I’ve never seen before. Bastian Fox Phelan talks about making a zine station at the festival once which inspired what for many years became NYWF’s hub. I gasp because Staple Manor always felt like a story without a beginning. Bridget talks about her time at the festival and I almost cry. Jack talks about ghosts and I do cry and I curse Jack Vening for making me cry about ghosts.
I think about my very first NYWF the one I always leave out of my stories, before I had a blog, before I was good at journaling, before I kept records of every important day. I think about my first ball. About cask wine and red frogs in plastic cups. I think about talking to almost no one because I was only just eighteen and they were all much older and more impressive than me. I think about dancing with my brother. There was a band that year and we danced until my feet hurt. A stranger came and told us that our dancing was good, that we were sweet. I wonder who that person was and if I know them now.
I find Casey at Vinyl, where his event has just finished and another one is about the begin. Annie, who is hosting, says “if you’re going to leave, leave now” and we squeeze through the crowd to the door. “You leave Alex Neill!” she shouts and I laugh and apologise as we slip out. Having a name that’s so open to remixing, I’ve never settled on a definitive version. I like the way there are different versions for different contexts. I like letting people combine the letters into their own order. I like the person I am in the context of NYWF. More than once during the weekend, someone calls me the festival fairy godmother. I like being that. And even though I’m Alex Neill a lot, even though it’s close to a default, it feels different in this context, said all at once with affection.
We find the others watching the Grand Final. The locals in this bizarre, very regional bar seem to have settled into a kind of acceptance, worn down by the absurd commentary that has now been going on for some hours. They are sitting at the edges, frowning slightly, as the NYWF gaggle take up most of the room. The Adelaide contingent are fairly morose, so when the game is over we drag them to the bottle shop to buy wine.
While deciding what assortment of pink wine to buy, we find a bottle of wine that is blue. We tip the bottle upside down to confirm that yes, the liquid in this bottle is in fact a deep azure. Casey stares at the bottle for a very long time and we all know we’re going to buy it.
We split up to do ball prep and the others go sit on the beach and I stand in the bathroom and spend way too long trying to apply false eyelashes. There’s still the remnants of anxiety fizzing at the back of my brain. In her alumni reading Bridget talked about how some years you can’t switch real life off all the way, that sometimes you can’t completely collapse into the festival but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t savour what you can.
We converge at Scotties and buy chips. We take them back to our picnic table near the ocean and it’s blustery and slightly cold but the ocean is close so we don’t mind too much. We open the blue wine and it tastes… like blue wine? Like white wine only you’re aware that also it is blue? It’s alright.
Inside we cluster around the kitchen bench and people come and go as costumes are assembled. The theme is “Class of 98” and our costumes vary from specifically to vaguely 90s. I help beccamarsh put butterfly clips at the ends of dozens of tiny plaits. Meg stands outside and showers herself with glitter. I carefully write the word TITANIC on the inside of my envelope-shaped bag. We help each other apply temporary tattoos and stick crystals to our faces with eyelash glue. We finish the bottle of blue wine.
The wind has picked up and it whips our hair around our faces as we walk through the park. Sophie turns her doughnut costume sideways and holds the two halves out to her sides like wings.
We start the dance floor and when we are confident it is going we peel off toward the bar and to conversations. On the wall dedicated to “memories of 1998” (a slightly strange concept given the collective age of the room) Beth writes a card asking people to vote for whether It Take Two is a better movie than The Parent Trap. Everyone votes NO and someone writes “absolutely not” in bold letters. People say they like my costume and I show them the word TITANIC written on the inside of my bag and they laugh but eventually I realise most of them are laughing to be polite because the leap from the word TITANIC to the fact that I am dressed as the 1998 Academy Award for Best Picture is a largish one. Casey (dressed as Clippy) says “you look like you need some help” then drops a gummy bear in my drink. I lean against the pool table next to Nick. He also has a gummy bear in his drink and he intently takes a photo of it fizzing quietly at the bottom of his glass. Lizzy (dressed as Harry Potter from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) delivers a short lecture on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which she saw for real), gesturing emphatically about the “real magic” of it to anyone who will listen. I sit on the arm of a chair beside Stella (dressed as Pikachu) and tell her that she’s wonderful, because she is. Casey kisses the tips of his fingers and bops the kiss onto my nose and I laugh. People keep asking me when Alex is going to DJ.
It is easy to identify the exact moment that Alex starts to DJ because the dance floor fills. I swing between circles, wanting to dance with everyone. Beccamarsh grabs my hand and drags me through the crowd to their circle. Beth widens her eyes at me and I widen my eyes at her and it’s strange and nice to communicate so much with so few words. Lizzy shouts at the top of her lungs and we point at each other through the crowd. I watch Alex, in his element. I love him so much when he DJs. He has this empathy, this lack of pretension – all he wants is to make this room of people happy, to play them songs that they can dance and shout to. Somehow no one feels left out. He is magic.
The lights come up and there is only one more song. Casey shouts at everyone until we all hold hands in a giant messy circle that takes up the whole dance floor. We raise our arms and contract the circle until we’re all crushed together with our arms above our heads, still holding hands. Then we rush backwards until our arms are outstretched, clinging to each other by fingertips. The circle moves in and out, in and out, expanding and contracting, like a breath.
By the time we arrive at the baths, there is already a group crowded under the solitary light. We go to the dark end, to Death Bridge. The wood is damp so we sit on towels. Lizzy plays music off Alex’s phone, dipping further into the hours-long playlist he made for his DJ set. Alex and Nick go for a walk, wandering off into the darkness. We ask Lizzy where Amyis and she shows us a series of videos Amy has sent her documenting the process of reheating and then eating some fried rice. Amy insists she is on her way. Waves cross against the rocks at the edge of the baths, lapping into the still water. People swim at the far end. A few climb onto the concrete pylon and jump off. We score their jumps, like they are Olympic divers.
Casey and I go to find our boyfriends. We all stand clustered together at the dry end of the bridge, looking out at the cresting surf. A wave crashes over the rim of the baths, it sweeps across the surface of the water and breaks against Death Bridge. Everyone leaps up, which is no mean feet on a metre-wide strip of slippery wood. Lizzy will later claim this moment was “when Death Bridge literally became Death Bridge”.
Casey and I end up at the far end of the baths, walking toward the ocean. I am not sure where we are going. The sky is big. There must be other people nearby, swimming and jumping off the pylon but in that moment it feels like we’re alone, looking out at the thundering waves crashing against the rocks.
He goes to bed and I go back to the steps. Leona and Hannah have, ill-advisedly, booked a 6am flight on Sunday. They have decided to stay up until then. They play One Direction loudly and dance along the steps. Hannah strides back and forth, pumping her arms in the air. I message Jess, who is in LA instead of here because I am proud of her for being in LA but I wish she was here. The brightness of my phone screen swims in the dark. Leona holds her hands in the air and shouts lyrics and her flared sleeves puff huge. The image of her against the blue star-studded sky, saves itself to my memory, still and clear like a photo.
We walk home. I sling my arms around Lizzy and Alex and we shuffle together, pressed close. I try and explain that morning and the breakfast radio show and the rap battle. It feels like a long time ago now. Alex suddenly notices Amy’s outfit – an intricate series of planets and stars on a wide blue skirt. “You’re Miss Frizzle!” he shouts. “I was wondering what space had to do with the 90s!”
At home I decide to write in my journal, to capture something of the length and fullness of the day. But when I look back at it in the morning, the words are nonsense – a series of symbols almost entirely without meaning.