Disclaimer: I don't own Skins, all characters remain the property of the creators. However I'm grateful for being able to borrow them for a short dalliance.
The music pounded in my ears through the headphones as I pushed at the pedals in rhythm. I had long since learned to ride without needing to rely too much on the handlebars. So one hand rested on each of my thighs unless I needed to steer around a corner or I passed someone.
Sure I have taken a few falls this way, but I was getting used to the tumbles and they hurt less and less every time. I had decided to ride because it was in the spirit of the event where I was headed. This whole day festival was planned around eco-minded precepts like my mantra-toting hippy of a mother was always spouting. She had pestered me until I had agreed to volunteer and I had been unable to come up with sufficient reason not to help out. The truth of it was: I had nothing better to do.
As a result of my total and pathetic lack of any other engagements that day I found myself tying my bike to the racks provided about an hour early for my volunteer shift. Typical, I thought to myself and I flicked the barrel of the lock to a random set of numbers and paced over to the registration desk. I wasn't looking forward to this.
"Hi, I'm here for my volunteer shift" I said to the plump woman in mismatched denim behind the trestle table.
"Name please?" she sung out without even looking up. Despite her automaton efficiency – she seemed to be processing the fastest moving queue, which is what had led me to pick her line – her voice was warm and welcoming.
"I'm Gina Campbell's daughter" I supplied, hoping that would suffice.
"Oh, Gina's daughter! Lovely, she mentioned you were coming." She ticked a line on her ledger which I made out read my mother's name with '+ 1 helper' next to it. "I'm going to need your first name though love. For the badge, you see."
She held up a makeshift plastic badge with the festival logo emblazoned on the top and a space below that for a name sticker. Perfect! This was exactly what I was afraid of. All that was missing to complete this cliché was the four little words in between 'Hi, My name is...'
But the worst part was yet to come. I rubbed my foot against my ankle and looked down, bracing myself. "Naomi" I muttered.
"Right then! Na-o-mi... Campbell!" she chirped as she wrote each word on a free sticker and pasted it onto the front of a badge, handing it to me when she was done. I should have suspected the old bird would not make the connection, but I heard a few stifled giggles amongst the younger volunteers still waiting to register. And now I was going to spend the whole day addressing people with this sodding badge... thanks mum, thanks a lot!
She explained the layout of the grounds to me and pointed me in the direction of my mum's stand and I shuffled off towards it. I was busy fixing my badge to my collar when I collided with something hard.
I looked up to find it was actually a small person. I was about to apologise but before I could get a word in edgewise she started blurting out a flustered torrent of words: "Fuck, I'm so sorry! I should learn to look where I'm going. Did I hurt you? Sorry again. I was just telling my bass player to keep up because we're running late for our soundcheck but the idiot doesn't seem to think he needs one. Are you sure I didn't hurt you?"
I knitted my brow in confusion at her and managed to convey that I was fine but before I could explain I was equally to blame she was off again, her bass player scoffing in her wake as he walked past me.
Right, I've met the white rabbit of this place; now to go find the mad hatter.
I walked the rest of the way to mum's stall with my eyes trained steadily in front of me.
When I got there, mum flung her arms around me and tossed me a green T-shirt with white lettering. I unfolded it to read what she expected me to wear. The front featured a picture of the globe with the words 'Every day is Earth Day' above it and the website mum had painstakingly mounted together with her contacts was listed at the bottom. The back of the T-shirt just had 'EcoFuture Fest 2011' in smaller lettering between the shoulders.
Reading my expression she smiled "You're early hun. You don't have to change into it now. Why are you already wearing your badge anyway?"
My eyes moved to my badge and back to mum's amused face. I hadn't thought... I'd gone into auto-pilot after signing up as I usually do to deal with my mother's projects. I reflected that this one was probably one of her more valid causes though and she deserved the support regardless. But that was no reason to wear this stupid badge a second longer than I had to if I wasn't on for another 45 minutes. I carefully removed the badge from my collar and placed it on top of the green shirt on a chair at the back of mum's set up so they would be there when I returned to perform my daughterly duties. I kissed my mum on the cheek and threw my bag in the corner as well, pushing my wallet into the back pocket of my jeans. That done, I wandered off to explore the grounds.
Among the fear-mongering slogans and a lot of rather loud and scary activists, I also found a few stalls that piqued my interest. One was a marine ecology themed stand with leaflets on the diverse ecosystems of the ocean, the dangers of overfishing, anti-whaling badges and stickers everywhere. The guy who manned this stall was very friendly and knowledgeable and he handed me a card with the details of his website for me to look up in my own time. I had always hated those people who hounded you to join their cause and pushed and pushed until you entered in to a mailing list, or committed to a donation or signed a petition based on nothing but their 3 minute pitch.
Another stall that interested me, for obvious reasons, was run by a group of young journos freelancing abroad and reporting on the political climate of various regions of the world after several months of full immersion. Again I took note of their website after a chat with a young woman who had explained she had just come back from a 2 year stint in South America and loved every minute of it. When I hesitantly told her that I was also a budding journo but had only written for the local paper so far, she let out a genuine squeal and shook my hand vigorously. She kept my hand in hers as she hollered to her peers "Hey guys! A fellow scribbler!" then she returned to me "I'm Michelle anyway." She pointed at her badge with a shrug "What was your name?"
"Naomi" I answered starting to feel more at ease in this place than I'd expected. Thanks mum! I thought again.
"Well Naomi, those of us who are in Bristol for now catch up every second Wednesday at 'The Sleepout' down on Colston Street near the Uni. Do you know it? You could join us if you like. We normally trade writers' block issues and debate our next destinations but mostly it's a bit of fun and obviously it's a bit of a cyclical crowd so you'll fit right in."
"Uhm... sure." I muttered, a little taken aback by such a quick invitation but she seemed to mean it and I was longing to hear more about this program.
"Great! Well the next one is this Wednesday at 6pm. See you there?"
"Right, 6, ok see you there." I said, retreating as I saw yet more youths approaching the busy stall with inquisitive looks and Michelle sidestepped to address the newcomers.
I returned to mum's stall with ten minutes to spare; plenty of time to throw on my t-shirt and affix the badge onto it. I told mum about the stuff I'd seen and I saw her poorly disguise an I-told-you-so smirk behind the pamphlet I had given her to read. I had to admit, this event was better organised and had the potential to be more wide reaching than a lot of the protests she had taken me to as I was growing up. Perhaps she was learning to focus her passion as an indirect result of my constant badgering to be "a bit more normal" in my early teens. After all, she had eventually gotten rid of the communal living concept when our third TV went missing. I mean she still refused to eat meat or own a car, but she let me make my own decision to buy one and she had even come around to the idea of riding in it if we were going the same place. Even this t-shirt was a lot more presentable than that hideous oversized one with the picture of a pig on the front of it she had screen printed for us to wear to a singing protest at an abattoir.
I spent the following 3 hours handing out our own leaflets, advocating diminished energy consumption and explaining carbon footprint offsetting to people with all the knowledge my mother's dinner rants had given me and attempting to match the enthusiasm of the better stall runners I had met earlier. I met a few more interesting people, mostly older women about my mother's age, who were genuinely keen to find out how to make a realistic difference on the ground level. Some of the men were more on the utterly tapped side of 'interesting'. This one in particular got into a lengthy debate with mum about conspiracy theories and kept ranting about "The Man."
The younger crowd were the most diverse and eclectic mix. The majority of them were forward minded young professionals with an interest in conservation. Some were farming kids who had tagged along with their parents to get the latest on new-age agriculture methods. Towards the end of my shift this one guy, about my age, sauntered up with a toothy grin and his eyes glued to my badge. I recognised him as one of the guys who had been registering in the queue next to mine and had guffawed at the mention of my name even then.
"Bloody hell, I heard a rumour there was a celebrity slummin' it with the likes of us."
I squared him in the eye and gave him my best Campbell death stare "Think you could come up with one I haven't heard before?"
"Fwhoa! Easy tiger... I see you're livin' up to your namesake's temper. Are you going to throw a phone at me now?"
"A swing and a miss! Now, are you actually interested in any of this..." I waved a leaflet at him for emphasis "... or are you just here to piss me off?"
His grin widened into a booming laugh and he threw his head backwards letting his whole chest shake unashamedly. When he recovered he smoothed his polo shirt down over his chest with the flat of his hands. "I like you Naomikins! You'll keep. I'm Cook anyway." He bowed "At your service."
And with that he grabbed the leaflet out of my hand and marched away proudly.
I was shaking my head in disbelief when I spotted my flatmate Thomas and his girlfriend coming from the other direction.
"Hello Naomi, very nice to see you. How are you today?" he said softly.
"Not bad Thommo, almost done actually. What have you two been up to?"
"Oh, we have come from Panda's shift at the reflexology and remedial massage tent" He struggled over the last words, his Congolese accent threatening to undo him but he beamed at us anyway. "We stopped at the holistic food stand for a late lunch on the way; they have delicious organic donuts you know?"
"Yeah, they were proper delish!" grinned Pandora. "Have you eaten yet Naoms?"
It was only then that I realised just how hungry I was. This saving the world one leaflet at a time really worked up an appetite.
Thankfully just at that moment Kieran snuck up behind mum, who was deep in another rousing debate with a visitor, and grabbed her around the waist.
"Reporting for duty, Chief."
Mum jumped and tried to wriggle out of his grasp. "Kieran you're tickling me!"
He brushed his beard against her neck again and blew a raspberry there.
"Kieran stop it. You're here to work, remember?" the blush on her cheeks betrayed her amusement in her attempt to sound authoritative. I think none of us were convinced she truly believed Kieran would be the most focussed assistant even when she had asked him to help out.
"Oh come on now!" he quipped "It's time for these youngsters to learn that we're not crusty, asexual old farts. Besides, they're in their early twenties Gina: I'm sure they've gotten up to more mischief than this themselves." He winked at me "Agent Naomi, you're dismissed!"
As I walked away with Thomas and Pandora I vaguely heard my mum castigating him along the lines of "... that's my daughter you're talking bout..." with some swearing thrown in there for good measure. I didn't bother changing my shirt again but I did remove my badge and handed it to Thomas to put in his bag.
The three of us made our way to the food area which is right near the holistic health section where Panda had been giving out massages and handing out vouchers to yogalates classes. I decided to opt for a slightly healthier lunch than donuts. There was a van in the corner of the food area selling raw food platters and smoothies. We line up for a while, my stomach grumbling as we wait. The line shuffled forward a few steps after about ten minutes. At this rate I wasn't going to get fed for another half hour. The person who had just been served at the front of the line started walking back up the queue, food smell wafting across to everyone waiting and turning heads as she went. I looked up and recognised the culprit.
"Effy Stonem you bloody legend!" I beamed at her as she handed me a recycled cardboard plate with half a home-made raw pizza on it and a plastic cup full of brown liquid.
She smirked quietly and we pulled out of the queue to find ourselves a table away from the crowds.
When we had found four chairs and brought them together in a circle for lack of a table, Eff and I tucked into our food. She had explained her food and beverage choices for me and I marvelled that she somehow always knew better than even me what I wanted and always seemed to come through for me in a jam. I took a few sips of my drink, which turned out to be the perfect coffee pick-me-up with cacao, malt, banana and almond milk. Effy sprung into action.
She grabbed my cup out of my hands "I forgot to add the magic ingredient." Pulling a hipflask out of her large boots, she poured a generous quantity into both our cups to replace the liquid we had just drunk. She swirled the straw around and handed mine back to me.
We had worked up a nice light buzz by the time the sun started to set on the park. Panda had eagerly finished the rest of my pizza whilst regaling us with stories about the people she had massaged that afternoon. Thomas smiled brightly as he looked on, letting her take the fore and tell us about the woman, yes woman, with "hairy legs and a bonza beer gut" and a man who had asked her if she did 'happy endings.' She told us she didn't know what that meant so she had simply said they didn't but he should ask for her boss next time because he was a lot more experienced than her and probably knew a few more techniques. The three of us burst out laughing at that and Panda asked sheepishly to be let in on the joke.
"It's OK Panda, I'm glad you didn't agree to do it for him." said her boyfriend before lowering his voice and whispering further into her ear.
Pandora shrieked "Fuckin' heck! You mean making monkey?"
Effy jumped in to assist her charmingly innocent friend "Well technically not quite making monkey, it doesn't involve you taking your clothes off but..."
"Well bloomin' hell if he thinks I'll ever do that to anyone but Thommo!"
We all cheered and Panda slunk back into her chair, leaning into Thommo's outstretched arm.
In all the commotion from our table we had not noticed the recent silence from the stage area until it was broken by a few lonely guitar chords. A voice started drifting over it in the dusk. The wind was blowing the music towards us and rustling through the trees on the way, making it difficult to make out any words but the melody was clear as a bell. I stopped laughing and looked over to Effy who had also gone quiet. The singer's voice was amazingly sultry despite sounding quite young. It had a familiar husky quality to it as she progressed through the opening bars of what sounded like a cover of Etta James' 'At Last.' Effy stood up and grabbed my hand. She started leading me in the direction of the stage, motioning to the other two to follow.
"This is Freddie's band." she threw back at me as if this were some kind of explanation. She continued to drag me all the way into the front section of the audience which had already filled out with a pretty keen crowd. Thomas and Pandora caught up soon after and joined us as the song swelled into the bridge and the crowd was already swaying. I started to put the pieces together. Right, Eff had told me her new boyfriend Freddie was a bass player. I hadn't met him yet but as I looked up I recognised the scruffy pretty boy who had scoffed past me earlier that day. He was exactly Effy's type: tall, dark and handsome with a kind of Euro-charm and a hint of 'I have issues and I like to wallow in them.'
Suddenly I realised, if Freddie was the bass player then the shy, bumbling pocket person I had slammed into would be... I looked across from Freddie and my eyes locked onto the girl in question. She was standing, feet apart and guitar in hand. Her eyes were closed and her head lolled back slightly as she sung into the microphone with the utmost ease. She looked so comfortable up there it was as if closing her eyes was enough to transport her into her living room and make us all disappear. No stage jitters, her voice was unwavering. The guitar seemed so large on her but her fingers had no trouble shifting up and down the frets to the skilfully arranged string part of the original. The most striking thing about her otherwise mousy appearance was the bright red hair. It was the kind of deep colour that most people would only be brave enough to dare as highlights. Her shoulder length hair was pulled up in a low pompadour which suited the band's vibe, although I suspected she would wear it like that for herself whether it fit or not.
She finished the song, gently shaking her head to the final lyrics and she opened her eyes slowly as if emerging from a trance. "For you are mine... at last." The last guitar chords rang out and she was smiling from ear to ear.
Suddenly the stage lights brightened and came down on a third member of the band who had been quiet in the shadows for the first song. The drummer hit his sticks together four times to mark the beat and the three launched into a faster paced original song. This drummer was yet another idiosyncratic individual. He looked on all accounts fairly introverted. Hidden behind his drum kit, his head was covered with a black beanie and he was wearing a muted hoodie. The singer on the other hand had sprung to life and was bouncing around the stage in her retro-looking summer dress and ballet pumps. Freddie just stuck to his corner, driving the song quite successfully despite his intent not to demonstrate any showmanship.
The rest of the set was a good mix of indie pop and folk tunes, most of them original. The singer's voice worked amazingly well on both the fast and the slow songs. The boys worked well to fill out the sound, thick and fast on the pop numbers and understated when the arrangement needed it.
For a few songs the singer even called a saxophone player up on stage, much to the delight of Panda.
When they wrapped up, the singer set down her guitar and grabbed the mic to talk into it. As her voice shifted back into spoken words, her volume faltered slightly. It was barely noticeable but it was there, the slight nervous tremor I had heard when she was ranting about the soundcheck was back and her confident persona was gone.
"Thanks guys! We're The Odd Sorts. Thank you so much to EcoFuture for having us."
She put the microphone back on the stand and picked up her guitar to exit the stage. The crowd roared and Freddie stepped in to take the mic.
"Uhm yeah... so thanks guys!" he faltered before finding his groove "You've been a great audience! Unfortunately we don't have time for an encore because you've got the next band coming up soon. But if you liked what you just heard, come down to 'The Tunnels' next Saturday night at 9."
He unplugged his guitar and left the stage followed by the drummer and sax player.
A mess of stagehands rushed on to change the setup for the next act and our group erupted into a lively commentary of what we had just seen.
"Whizzer! That was fantastic!" exclaimed Pandora
Thomas was more subdued in his usual propriety but also positive "Yes, that singer was very good wasn't she?"
"Yeah..." I agreed. "Freddie is really good Eff!"
True to form, my best friend just nodded and smiled knowingly.
We made our way back to my mother's stall to pick up my bag and the rest of our stuff. Kieran seemed to have gotten the hang of helping out and had quite a little crowd of people amassed listening to him. Watching him, I could imagine him being a teacher in Ireland before he became my boss.
He had once told me he hated teaching, having to deal with a majority of unenthused kids who were more interested getting into each other's pants than into one of his history books. But he had gone on to explain that it was "dealing with the little twats and the mild jangly things between their ears" that had made him the "cynical wanker" he needed to be to become editor of the opinions section in the 'Evening Post.'
I pecked mum on the cheek and wished her a good night before heading to retrieve my bike with Panda and Thomas. Effy told us she would stay behind because she had promised to catch up with Freddie after the band had cleared their instruments into his van. Because it was dark, Thomas offered me a ride back with them in Pandora's station wagon she used to drive her massage table around. We loaded the bike into the back and drove back home, the music from before still swilling around in my head. The alcohol was wearing off and through the haze the words were on a loop:
At last, my love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song
Oh, yeah, at last, the skies above are blue
My heart was wrapped up in clover
The night I looked at you
I found a dream that I could speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to rest my cheek to
A thrill that I have never known
Oh, yeah when you smile, you smile
Oh, and then the spell was cast
And here we are in heaven
For you are mine at last
When we got home and inside, I asked the others if they were hungry. I silently hoped they would decline because I was not hungry for food nor company.
"No thanks Naoms." Said Pandora, dragging an obliging Thomas up the stairs to his own bedroom. "Me and Thommo are off to write a happy ending!"
I followed up the stairs after turning the lights out and collapsed into bed without bothering to remove my green shirt. I had always used the dreadful shirts my mother created for demonstrations to sleep in; despite this shirt being marginally more socially acceptable, tonight would be no different to the tradition. As I drifted off, the last thing I saw was the backlit deep red hue from a streetlight behind my eyelids.