ReadingRoom

Short story: Festival on a blanket, by Harley Hern

"Muscled, tattooed guys peel off their shirts...Voluptuous women curl and flex their fingers...Same sex couples smooch and purr": a short story set at a music festival in summer, by writer Harley Hern.

“Then he wanted carrot cake! Haaaarrgh har har!”

Stella’s laugh could peel bark off a tree. Alice leans back on a cushion, scans the crowd and neighbouring picnic blankets, and waits for someone to plunge an eco-fork into Stella’s face. But no one does. The crowd is sun-soaked and tranquil. The band down the hill is pleasantly loud. The scattered orchard trees are both aromatic and ornamental. Beneath Alice’s tartan blanket the ground is that exquisite mix of sharp and soft. Alice and her friends are happy: Barry, Ross, Wes and Stella. They glow with an eclectic blend of nostalgia and superiority, the kind thirty-something people feel on a summer day at an indie festival, when surrounded by scantily clad kids in their twenties. Alice takes a succulent pull of her beer, sniffs the toasted sweat on her round, brown shoulders, and considers how many years she’s been listening to Stella’s laugh.

Besides, Alice can’t remember who He is, or where the carrot cake comes into it. Her fourth beer demands the simplicity of the present moment. Now she’s staring at a blonde over by the beer tent: her faultless tan, tight bike pants, and way of standing that causes nearby men to spill their drinks.

 “You could crack walnuts on her butt,” says Alice, wistful.

 “Who?” Barry reclines on his elbows, ogling every direction at once, so hard he is wild-eyed. He looks uncomfortably ecstatic. His wife isn’t here. His ogling muscles aren’t accustomed to such intense activity.

“By the beer tent,” says Alice, but Barry can’t see the blonde. A luscious brunette with a kiwi tattooed on her navel, saunters past.

“I’ve never seen so many beautiful people,” says Barry, incredulous, frantic, overwhelmed. “Everyone – women and men. Even the kids are beautiful.”

“The carrot cake was beautiful,” screeches Stella. “Haarrgh har har! I mean his nickname was Carrot.”

“Whose nickname?” asks Alice.

“Guy from school, remember?” murmurs Ross from his crawling beard. Feet soft and bare, divorcee-I-no-longer-give-a-shit-toenails yellow and gnarled, he is sprawled out, watching a newcomer spook at Stella’s laugh.

“Must have been before me.” Alice often reminds them she was late on their school scene and group. This makes her even happier, that they think back to those days, and forget.

Ross prefers economical conversation; Alice knows it’s profound if he precedes things with Ah. “Ah,” says Ross, nodding at the gleaming skin, the floating dresses and the body piercing all around him. “Summer.”

“Summer,” repeats Barry, as though it were a name. “Isn’t she marvellous?” He grins at a freckled red head, who smiles back, sweet and distant. For a moment Alice imagines she really is the sunshine season personified, strolling past in a sequin-spangled skirt and gold strappy sandals.

“If your wife knew,” says Alice.

“I’d be crucified.” Barry beams happy goodness. Peeping from his team supporter singlet are his kids’ birthdates, tattooed across his chest. “Isn’t this just great?”

The band finishes its slot; the next sets up their equipment. Three trees along from Alice’s picnic blanket, the beer tent hosts a chittering mob. Alongside, hamburgers are hot, soggy and selling fast. Under the guide rope to the Hari Krishna stand, a loud, greasy man with rumpled, brown-paper skin, skites to some teenage girls who have on more birthday suit than bikini. They think everything is like, wow, even when he tells them he’s picked up a big job with big money at The Warehouse working out the back, oh yeah. Hare Krishnas smile, sway a bit from lack of food, and dole out spicy chickpeas for $10 a tub. A jiggling, grey-powered woman gyrates past Alice with a long patchwork maxi dress, a fake pounamu on her ample bosom, and an abundance of kitsch paua jewellery.

“Dirty old hippy.” Wes ranges in with a guilty expression. He has a white cowboy hat you can see a mile off; Alice spotted it floating above the mob in the beer tent, on and off since lunch. He looks like a country and western star, the type who never sees mud.

“I like hippies,” says Alice. “They’re so quaint.” A wrinkled stoner with magnificent silvery dreads and muslin clothing dribbling beads, dodders past barefooted. Alice sends him a gentle look of maternal indulgence.

“Thing is,” says Barry, a little blurry, blinking up at Wes. “It’s got to have cream cheese icing.”

“What does?” From under his hat, Wes is a mighty nose and dark eyes glittering in shadow.

“Carrot cake,” says Barry.

“But that’s it,” squawks Stella, like a macaw. “There was no icing. Just a massive carrot, thrust in the middle like a candle, haaaarrrrrgh har HAR!”

“Oh shut up with the carrot cake,” says Alice in mock complaint. To show she isn’t serious, she throws a cracker at Stella.

Music erupts and showers the crowd. People swerve and plunge beneath the stage where the grass is flattened and defeated. From Alice’s picnic blanket they cannot always see the band, because of the dancers and the orchard, but they can see glistening foreheads, kaleidoscopic clothes, body paint and whirling plaits. Muscled, tattooed guys peel off their shirts, the skins of fruits, and stuff them in their waistbands. Voluptuous women with vibrant hair and twinkling nails, curl and flex their fingers. Mixed groups, fresh from the beer tent, bawl and lean in synchronised swaying. Same sex couples smooch and purr. On the edge of the dancers, an electric-haired woman in a purple lei boogies in a cuddle with her baby. The baby wears green fluffy earmuffs.

“No icing. Just a carrot,” cries Stella, sprawled on her bony back. “Haaarr har.”

“Thing about carrot candles,” murmurs Alice into her beer. “They’re a bugger to light.”

Alice, Barry, Ross, Stella and the intermittent Wes, drink and perve. Neighbours dodge Stella’s laughter, while others embrace it. The afternoon mellows and matures. Light turns golden, then grey. Single stars glisten random points of silence through the darkening tree leaves. Bands switch over, change instruments, make way for other bands. Past the food tents and portaloos, jungle screams reveal the giant zoom slide is still up and running.

When soft dew tickles, Wes straps a mobile lamp over his hat, great nose now a spot lit precipice.

“Classy light,” says Alice.

“Ah. Could use that for gynaecological examinations,” announces Ross, with some difficulty.

“Little do they know eh, my love,” says Wes to Stella.

The others groan. They say ew. They ask Alice for more beer. Wes ranges away into the dark. Some big round bird Alice vaguely knows, rolls over for a visit. She rolls across the grass and a bag of chips, and finishes with her cheek pressed up to Barry’s shoe.

“I’ve got a horrible headache,” she says to the shoe. “Had some of those herbal pills. They’re useless.” She opens her mouth and Ross gently puts a leaf in it. “Don’t care what you put in there,” she says, leafily. “As long as it isn’t a cigarette butt.”

“It didn’t stop at the carrot cake.” Stella is on her stomach now, squeezed up against the bird with the soggy leaf. “Harrrgh haaar har, he had a costume party. Pimps and prostitutes. He went around inviting everyone.”

“Tee hee hee.” Barry had begun the afternoon intelligible, until he visited some relaxed people behind a trailer.

“And so?” says Alice, a little sleepy now. She is kind of remembering the gossip, and stories, but it was aeons ago, those other-worldly school days, the things they did, the kids they were.

“So we went around after him, saying the theme had changed.”

“What was it?” Alice thinks she already knows. She watches the round chick roll away again and hopes she won’t choke on the leaf.

“Carrots! Haaarrrrgh HAR!” screams Stella.

“Tee hee HEE!” snorts Barry.

Alice tidies their rubbish, smooths the picnic blanket and hands them more booze. She’d started buying in bulk hours ago, though from years of habit Alice has switched to water.

“Lovely Alice, hee hee, our trusty friend,” Barry accepts another beer.

“With benefits, haarrrgh haar HAR!”

“Ah,” says Ross. It’s all he can manage.

It is dark now. Silhouetted lines to the hamburgers and Hare Krishnas are neck and neck, and there is a line to the table selling little balls that light up when you bounce them. All around in the dark, neon red, blue and green blobs appear and disappear as people bounce.

“Guess what?” Wes’s lamp-lit white hat appears well before the rest of him. “Some guys are holding a pissing contest.”

“How do you win a pissing contest?” asks Alice.

“Whoever shoots the furthest,” Wes annunciates slowly, as if Alice is some kind of moron.

“Ah.” Ross resurrects himself. “Pissing contest. Life.”

“Tee fucking hee,” says Barry.

The music jets high and explodes into bright sound. The crowd thickens and loosens. On the picnic blanket, Barry dances on his buttocks, his shirt tied up into a bikini top. Ross has acquired a Mexican sombrero and is lost in the depths of it. In front of the stage, dancers’ up-flung arms are two-dimensional black against the lights. Alice staggers up and visits the portaloos. She thinks she’ll join the dancers, then blunders from tree to tree and thinks perhaps she’ll not. She loses her picnic blanket in the dark, steps on a few people who emit half-hearted whingeing, then spots Wes’s cowboy hat glowing, lighting up Alice’s blanket into an oasis of tartan.

“You’re not going to believe it,” says Wes. “Some rough chick from Dannevirke won the pissing contest.”

“Tee hee,” says Barry.

Alice slumps down, the blanket chilled and damp.

“Why?” she says, all shivery. “Why was his nickname Carrot?”

“Because the dork walked like he had one up his bum,” cries Stella. “Haaargh har har! We only pretended to be friends with him!”

“We all loathed him,” Wes adds.

“He didn’t know?” Alice says. “He couldn’t tell?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to say all day!” Stella flaps a thin hand. “The dipstick thought we called him Carrot because he was popular. He came to his birthday dressed as a prostitute and everyone else was carrots. I mean everyone – the whole senior year. There were carrot decorations, and a fat cake shaped like a bum with a carrot in the crack. There were carrot jokes, and a ‘stick your carrot up the Dickwit’ game pinned to a wall. Guys kept tripping him, shoving him down and thrusting huge carrots in his skirt and undies. He just weird giggled, all bug-eyed, with his lipstick smeared and his stockings ripped off. Then the guys pushed Carrot against the Dickwit game and did ram one up his bum, just like his birthday cake. He limped around with this massive candle poking out. It’s probably still there haaargh har HAR!”

“That’s horrible,” whispers Alice.

“Ah,” says Ross. “Guess it was pretty bad.”

“Tee hee hee, it was fucking brilliant!” squeals Barry, who has visited the people behind the trailer again.

“How thick would you have to be?” Wes strokes Stella like she is a gilded creature, like he can’t believe he’s still married to her. “He should’ve clicked he was a dick when he saw the cake.”

“Harr harr – he’s still called Carrot,” says Stella to Alice. “Even to this day.”

On the way back to the car, Barry forgets about the zoom slide, slips onto his stomach, and skids off into the dark at top speed. Alice and Stella flip arse over tit on the invisible guide ropes to someone’s tent. The guys pick them up, drop them, and weave off to discover Barry behind the stage drinking beers with the security guard. Near the car park, a crowd gathers to watch a fire eater twirling crackling stars of flame and consuming them with grins of pleasure, until it turns out he isn’t a fire eater, just someone who’s had too many herbal pills.

Cold now, Alice shovels the guys into the back of her car. Stella, pitched sideways in the front, is semi-passed out and crooning.

“Carrot topped himself,” mumbles Stella to the car seat. “Tried to.”

“He what?”

“Tried to off himself. Years later. Dork even stuffed that up. Haaargh har haar.”

“No.”

Alice’s key in the ignition is a coin of ice. The engine chokes, then fires.

“Now he’s full time,” Stella sings through her yawn. “A vegetable.”

On their way out, the car highlights a battered field of tyre tracks, squashed beer cups, dusty rows of vehicles, and behind them a blurred multitude of twenty-something bare limbs and torsos in as many compromising positions.

“Ah,” drools Ross, as they swing out onto the road, his beard mooshed against the window. “Humanity.”

“Tee hee,” murmurs Barry.

Gravel pings bullets of black from the car’s undulating shadow. In a silent capsule pressed tight with her friends’ dank breathing, Alice weeps violent, terrible tears. A low moon bobs above a horizon scribbled with hills. The blazing headlights fail to reach a bank of ravenous glow worms ahead, spinning the journey home into a river of stars, so cruel and so beautiful.

Next week's short story is Sharks of Porangahau by Elizabeth Morton.

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