Burning Man festival

A couple join some new friends on a holiday in the Nevada desert – but will it become a baptism of fire?

Image: www.phildisley.com

There are no spectators,” said Clive. “Only participants.” There was a slightly mad look in his eye and the waffle iron he was brandishing – from goodness knows where – seemed to mean business. Olivia put her camera away and wondered again whether Clive’s suggestion that instead of their usual August fortnight in Mallorca they travel to the Burning Man festival was, well, a symptom of something…

This was Clive, after all; Clive, who in their 24 years of marriage had shown no previous desire to roar around the Nevada desert in his underpants, slathered from head to toe in fluorescent zinc cream and waving a waffle iron. Clive was, in Olivia’s experience, the sort of chap who fastidiously undid all the buttons when he took off his shirt of an evening. And now look at him!

“Clive darling,” she said. “I’ve got your specs here. Wouldn’t you like to be able to see…” She was interrupted by what sounded like a bomb going off. Just behind her husband, an enormous jet of flame issued from the tail of a 40ft metal scorpion. Olivia anxiously inspected the fine hairs on her forearms. Clive shouted something that sounded like “Flaming Lotus Girls” and abruptly rushed off across the playa, waving his arms.

Dusk was falling, the stars were starting to come out and the air was cooling. Olivia wondered about getting her easel and folding chair from the tent. That scorpion thing was rather beautiful, and it would certainly cause a stir among the fruit bowls and tulips at her watercolour circle next week. She looked across to where Clive was dancing – at least, she supposed that’s what you could call it. He’s going to catch his death, silly goose.

Olivia thought back to when it had all started a few months ago, when Clive had made friends on the internet with Zooey and her boyfriend Mxxx. He was a bit cagey about how they’d initially made contact – apparently Mxxx (pronounced “Mick”) was a fellow collector of old Wisdens. But they did seem an unlikely match – Zooey and Mxxx were in their late 20s, after all, and Zooey’s Twitter handle, @polyandproud, seemed odd. Clive used to be jolly snobbish about redbricks.

Anyway, one thing led to another and suddenly Clive announced that his new friends had invited him to something called Burning Man and that he was determined to go. Well, where Clive went Olivia went, and that was that. So here they were. Olivia had drawn the line at trying the ayahuasca – always hated herbal tea; give her a cup of Earl Grey any day – and her instincts were spot-on. It had given her husband a terribly gippy tummy.

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At first, of course, she’d had her suspicions. She wasn’t born yesterday – and Zooey was very pretty. But after their little chat on the first night, she was satisfied that the younger woman had no designs on her man. “I hope you don’t think it’s weird that we asked you here,” she’d said, while the boys were outside tinkering with the humidifier. “It’s just Mxxx really, really likes Clive. You know?”

Well, Olivia had thought: Wisden is the rock on which many a solid friendship has been built.

She looked back over her shoulder once more as she headed for the tent. There was Zooey, whirling her fire-poi about next to the drummers: very Mad Max. And there was Clive – good Lord, what had got into him? – being hoisted aloft by a whole crowd of young chaps. Mxxx was striding towards them, his huge beard covered in some sort of talcum powder, his torso swathed in straps and belts. Nice to see them all having fun, at least.

She pottered into the tent and started hunting about for her pashmina. Gosh, night had fallen fast. Watercolours were out, then. She dug out a torch and her Dick Francis and was still sitting there two hours later, when a rather haunted-looking Clive stumbled back in.

“Olivia,” he said, meekly. “My hayfever’s playing up. Too much dust. Would you mind awfully if we went home?”

Olivia closed her book and allowed herself the ghost of a smile. No spectators, she thought.

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