I wake up in Newcastle. The light’s all soft and Beth’s house is all green. Being here feels like exhaling.
We have brunch. Our Harry Potter Book Club finally finishes Order of the Phoenix. We decide that wizards caused the potato famine by Accio-ing all the potatoes. We spend a lot of time arguing about whether or not wizards know about the existence of tigers. Is pumpkin juice actually melon juice because wizards think melons are a type of pumpkin? Alex sits at one end of the table and quietly writes his honours thesis. Meg listens to us and laughs even though everything we’re saying is deeply impassioned garbage.
We go back to Beth’s and the other’s play games and I try to write. I’ve accidentally agreed to do events at the last minute. I’m trying to write four minutes’ worth of words about the most pressing issue facing Australia and it’s hard. I message Casey (who is close, instead of the usual thousands of kilometres away). “Let’s go swimming when you get here,” I say. “Ok,” he says.
Later, when I’m piecing the festival back together, I’ll realise that I can trace the times we were together by the gaps in our DMs. There’s little clusters of messages – we’re at the baths, we’re still at the baths, what’s your plan, where are you. Between these clusters is white space. White space when we were in the same place.
Later, this will make me sad.
Fact checking timelines to write these blogs, scrolling through texts and Facebook messages and Twitter DMs, I’ll get sad about how few “where are you” texts we normally send. How infrequently I message my friends about proximity, instead of distance. I’ll get sad about how rarely I know what’s in the white space.
But for a while we’re in one place. After a flurry of messages there is white. We go swimming.
We dive into the water, all in, all at once. We fall off the rickety wooden bridge and the water knocks all the air out of our lungs and my fingers hurt from the cold but I say it’s lovely anyway because it is. We decide to go on an adventure. The adventure is swimming to the other end of the baths.
Sitting on the sunny concrete drying off, I try again to write this thing. I put in some jokes but take them out because they’re clunky. I find out that dabbing is banned in Saudi Arabia but don’t put that in either. Casey and I swap iPads and read each other’s pieces because we’re doing this event together. He underlines a section of mine; I highlight part of his. Our words aren’t good yet, but they’re closer.
We have dinner at Sticky Rice. The tiny restaurant is laid out for groups of twos and fours. Our sprawling group takes up most of the space. The staff frown at us, like they do every year because this happens every year and I wonder if we should make a standing reservation for Sticky Rice. I share a bottle of pink wine with Casey and Nick. I share noodles and curry with Fin and beccamarsh and Meg. We talk in waves, up and down the table.
There isn’t any NYWF events until later and so we decide to see a Crack show. Tumbling out of Sticky Rice we try to explain to everyone that we’re going to see some art but we don’t know what the art is, we’re just going, come on. My sandal breaks halfway up Hunter Street. One of the straps frays off the sole and its loose and flappy on my foot. I keep wearing it all weekend because I can’t stand the thought of putting socks on.
The Crack House is clean and bright. There’s vivid plastic starbursts draped across the ceiling. We buy cheap wine and crush together on the floor and listen to Letters to John. It’s nice and funny and being crushed together on the floor is good even though my legs keep going to sleep.
Walking back through town we stop at the fountain. The lights and the jets have been turned off for the night. A few of us take off our shoes and walk across. The others shake their heads as we wander back and forth along the little strip of concrete, slippery and slick with water.
We arrive at the Royal Exchange and there’s a tangle of people outside, spilling onto the road. I hug friends who I haven’t seen since last year. “Everyone from Twitter is here!” Freya shouts, “And they all have cute accents!”
We weave our way inside and claim seats. We have collectively decided that this year we are too old to sit on the floor. Several things have been said about back pain. A friend from uni (Liv) arrives and I fight my way through the crowd and drag her to the back. I should introduce her. I open my mouth to start but realise I’d have to introduce her to about half the people in this room.
Crushed into a booth, I lean forward and talk to beccamarsh. We’re not always good at talking, an overhang from being friends when we were teenagers who were terrible at talking. Mostly we still have important conversations via scribbled notes. We post them now, in proper envelopes, instead of folding them elaborately and passing them across desks. We’re trying to get better at talking.
There are so many conversations that I want to have, too many. Conversations I want to have in person, leaning close, the edges of our bodies touching. There isn’t enough time for all of them but we snatch a few in quiet moments. Sometimes I’ll pull one of my friends from the crowd – not physically, physically we are still enveloped – but in these moments we retreat into each other and talk about gentle, earnest, important things. These moments are snatched and cut short and interrupted but they matter.
I feel so safe, surrounded by people that I love. I could reach out and touch a dozen of them. I lean against Alex, bundle my face into his shoulder and I cry quietly. NYWF is like a portal. Every year it opens up and lets up back in. Together we step through the rift into this gently sparkling place. I worry that one day the portal won’t open for me. One day I’ll have to stop stepping through. But for now at least, we are here.