“I’m sorry, what was that now?”
We were walking across the field of the festival, looking at the various stalls and rides on offer. I’d been feigning interest in whatever Mara had been talking about for the past 10 minutes, and had started to completely zone out all together. It was only when there was a slightly too-long pause, that I had realised she’d been waiting for some sort of response from me.
“We’re going to see Five Finger Death Punch,” Mara repeated again, unable to keep the exasperation and mild annoyance out of her voice.
“Uh huh,” was all I could say in reply, continuing my leisurely stroll across the field.
At barely 5ft tall, Mara was practically jogging to keep up with me, but I didn’t slow down for her; I was hoping it might help to shake her off. I really didn’t want to have to go up to the main stage with her and the others, but I knew she wouldn’t want to leave me on my own. It wasn’t so much that I was completely against a band with the worlds ‘death’ and punch’ in their name, but I was already picturing the type of crowd that sort of music would gather, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of it.
“Well?” Mara huffed, stopping dead in her tracks and placing her hands on her hips. “Are you coming or not?”
Sighing, I turned around to face her, because ignoring her would’ve been a big mistake. She might be small, but she is the sort of person who commands attention, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t comply. She raised an eyebrow at me, a small self-congratulatory smirk on her face, and nodded in satisfaction that I had obeyed her unspoken authority. I rolled my eyes at her, a small smile tugging at my own lips, as I took in the sight of her.
The single stripe of colour in her brunette hair matched her bright pink wellies, which were swallowed up to the ankle by the particularly muddy puddle in which she stood: a fact she seemed completely oblivious to. In contrast to her near-neon footwear, her outfit was all black: jean shorts and a vest top with ‘I’m Short Like Your D*ck’ – her own personal touch- scrawled across it in glitter. Her only makeup was the eyeliner she expertly drawn into delicate flicks, and the single pink gem she had placed in the inner corner of each eye. She should have looked ridiculous, but Mara never looked anything other than spectacular; she simply wouldn’t allow it.
She started to tap her foot impatiently – never a good sign – sending sprays of mud flying all around her. I couldn’t help another exasperated sigh: Mara did not like to be told no.
“Look, Mara…” I began, as I slowly took a few steps towards her, holding my hands out in front of me, palms facing outward in the universal sign for ‘I don’t want any trouble’. She pursed her lips, clearly guessing where I was going with this, but she didn’t say anything.
My mind reeled as I desperately tried to come up with a decent excuse, but when no brilliant ideas immediately sprang to mind, I decided to try for honesty first. “You know what I’m like with crowds, Mar.” I said in the most appeasing voice I could muster. “It’s a heavy metal band, and that means large crowds, drunk teenage boys and mosh pits. You know those are all things I hate.”
I gave her a pleading look, and she actually seemed to consider letting me go for a moment, but she started towards me with a determined look on her face. She didn’t stop as she passed me, just grabbed my hand as she passed me, and dragged me along with her as she went.
“I know you get anxious Jess,” she said, voice sickly sweet. “But, as your friend, I’m here to help you through this. Don’t you trust me?” She shot me a triumphant smile with that last part, knowing she had me backed into a corner.
As we approached the main stage, I could see the crowd had already grown way beyond my comfort zone. I looked around frantically for something, anything, that might get me out of going. Just when I had almost given up hope, I thought of an idea.
“Okay look Mar, I wasn’t completely honest before.” I said, watching her face to see if she was listening. “The truth is, I can’t go to see the band, because I have other plans.”
“Oh yeah?” Mara scoffed, her stride unfaltering. “And what are those exactly?”
“Well…” I took a deep breath, and prayed that this was the moment my A-Level acting skills would finally come into use. “I met a guy.”
“You WHAT?” Mara came to such an abrupt halt that I almost tripped over her. Mercifully, I caught myself just in time, which was just as well, because after Mara’s loud-enough-to-wake-the-dead outburst, everyone in a 500-yard radius was staring at us.
I felt my face began to flush with embarrassment, something which I don’t do very often. Thankfully, it worked in my favour: once she saw me blushing, Mara was convinced I was telling the truth. She not only let me go, she ordered me back to the tent to change into something more ‘alluring’, and warned me that she better not see me again until tomorrow morning at the earliest. I nodded and made agreeing noises in all the right places, until she had waved goodbye and headed off to find the others before the set started.
As soon as she was out of sight, I turned on my heel and headed for one of the entertainment tents: Bands were playing on the main stage, and on several of the supporting stages, so I figured the alternative stage would be the quietest.
The cool air inside the tent was a welcome respite from the harsh sun outside, but the biggest relief was that the tent was only at half capacity. There was some sort of comedian on, and he hadn’t attracted that large a crowd. I found a patch of grass near the left of the tent that was perfect – close enough to the stage that I could see and hear well, but not too close just in case I needed a hasty exit- and set up camp there.
I tried to pay attention to the act, but my mind started to wander. I couldn’t help but think about all of my friends having fun together without me. Knowing them, they would have pushed, bribed, and flirted their way to the front of the crowd, and they’d be loving every minute. Just the thought of being that confined, in such close quarters with a bunch of strangers, made my chest tighten and my breath quicken. I couldn’t help but wish I was as confident and outgoing as my friends were, but at the same time I-
“You look deep in thought,” a voice remarked from above me, bringing me back into reality. “Thinking about anything interesting?”
The owner of a voice was a guy, probably in his early twenties. His face seemed fairly recognisable, although I couldn’t work out why. One of the first things that I noticed about him was his stature: broad was the only word that came to mind. He had the sort of physique common to a lot of rugby players: heavily muscled around the arms and legs, but soft around the middle. The expansive set of his shoulders and muscular arms were accentuated by the dark fitted polo shirt he wore, which also emphasized the slight chubbiness of his stomach. He seemed completely comfortable within himself as he smiled down at me, his light blue eyes beaming and friendly. But then, I suppose you have to have a fair amount of confidence to go up to a complete stranger and ask them what they’re thinking about.
As it turns out, not only was I not thinking anything interesting, but I couldn’t have been thinking anything at all, because I just stared up at him, mouth slightly parted in surprise that someone I didn’t know had just initiated conversation with me.
Unfazed by my apparent inability to form a sentence, the brick-built stranger continued. “Oh I’m sorry, did I interrupt an important thought?”
“Oh, erm,” I chocked out rather pathetically. I cleared my throat, and attempted to seem like a coherent human being. “No, that’s fine. I wasn’t thinking about much of anything.”
“Really?” His smile showing that he was as unconvinced as he sounded. “Because I was watching you throughout my whole set and you seemed like you were in a totally different world.”
Oh. “Oh! You’re the comedian who was just performing!” I blurted out, before mentally hitting myself. In one sentence, I’d just confirmed I had paid absolutely no attention to him the whole time I’d been there. “Not that I didn’t know that already…” I added, in a vain attempt to cover up my mistake.
He chuckled, a sound as pleasant and cheerful as his face, and nodded. “Yeah that’s me. Although my friends just call me Chris. Can I ask your name?”
He seemed to take the fact that I hadn’t immediately told him to go away as a good sign, because he chose that moment to sit down next to me. Clearly, he didn’t have any problems with getting up close and personal with strangers, because he sat close enough for his leg to brush against mine as he made himself comfortable. I shifted slightly, making it look as though I was angling myself so that I could face him better, but in reality I was just trying to put more of a respectable distance between the two of us. Prude? Me? Never.
“It’s Jess.” I replied, extending my hand to him in an unnecessarily formal manner, which in context, was not out of place with the eccentricity of the entire conversation so far. He grinned, and took my hand in his. He gave a firm hand shake, which instantly made me like him more; I can’t stand men who give women weak handshakes as if we’d break if they shook too vigorously.
“So Jess, how come you’re here all by yourself?”
I don’t know how, but within moments Chris had me opening up to him without a care in the world. Something about him just put me at ease, and I felt so comfortable talking to him. I told him about my university course, and he told me how he’d gotten into comedy. We discussed everything from our likes and dislikes, to our weirdly similar dysfunctional families. Eventually, we worked our way back up to the present day, and I found myself talking about my social hang ups.
“Honestly, I’m just not great with people.” I explained, unable to keep the bitterness from my voice. “I hate crowds, and I’m really uncomfortable around strangers.”
“Could’ve fooled me.” Christ said, nudging me with his shoulder, a big grin on his face.
I couldn’t help but smile back. “Well, I don’t know.” I shrugged my confusion. “I guess there’s just something different about you.”
He laughed, reaching forward to tuck a stray strand of hair behind my ear. My breath caught at the touch, and I found myself studying his face. He seemed amazed, as if his arm had moved of it’s own accord. His expression sobered as his gaze skipped from my eyes to my lips and back again. He leaned in towards me, and as he did he whispered “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be different.”
I might have replied, but I don’t know what I would’ve said, because then his lips were on mine, and I lost all trace of sensible thought for the second time in one day.