Wry Society: The overpriced festival

Braided hair, sequin boiler suits, circus skills… Cathy was having the time of her life on the festival circuit. Wasn’t she? Words by Chloe Fox. Illustration by Phil Disley

Image: Phil Disley

It was no use. Despite repeated attempts to charge her mobile phone with a lemon – the failsafe method out in the field, apparently – Cathy was still without battery. She was going to have to admit defeat and pay £5 at the mobile phone charging tent; more than her daily travel cost in the real world.

But this, she thought, as she looked around the festival site – a circus version of Brideshead Revisited with spires, tents, lakes and flags wrapped in the bucolic morning mist – was not the real world. This was a Peter Pan playground for the stylish elite, a commune for the well-connected. And yet, for all her credentials – a highly successful career in branding, a credible designer wardrobe and legs that were just about long and toned enough to pull off the wellies/denim cutoffs combo – Cathy was feeling adrift.

With an hour to wait until her phone was fully charged, she decided to spend some calming time in the book tent. With only one other person in there – a tired-looking man in flip-flops and sunglasses – she relished the quiet opportunity to contemplate her creeping anxiety.

Perhaps it was just her hair that was bothering her? The braiding, in retrospect, had been a very bad idea, more Bo Peep than Bo Derek, but it had been either that or a glittered hairline. Or maybe she was just tired? Her VIP teepee was just a glorified tent at the end of the day, albeit with the bonus of a loo that she didn’t have to share with 3,000 other people. Or could it just be cold, hard financial anxiety? Despite having sold out of her startup for a tidy sum, Cathy hadn’t anticipated spending quite so much money catching up with old friends and immersing herself in the hedonistic freedom (and thoughtfully programmed high-end culture) of the summer’s finest boutique festivals. Two in, and she had racked up the cost of a two-week holiday in Greece (for which she wouldn’t have bought a sequin boiler suit that she would never wear again).

But she mustn’t complain. It was all worth it because she was having such elegant, mind-expanding fun! In the space of a few days, she had done all sorts of things she would never have done at boring old work: learnt to walk the tightrope – amazing! – meditated on a stand-up paddleboard – who knew?! – customised an old T-shirt into a glittery new one with the help of a hip young fashion student, and listened to brilliant writers explaining the arduous process of writing to people who weren’t writers.

And how silly she was – wasn’t she? – to feel, even for a moment, that she wasn’t, well, quite cool or stylish or well-read enough to be here. Because it was brilliant! And in such a beautiful location, miles and miles from the boring old real world where people just wore what they felt comfortable in and dull, utilitarian things like kettles and plug sockets abounded…

“Cathy?”

It took her a good few moments to register that the exhausted-looking man was talking to her and that he was, in fact, her one-time bête noire Matthew Pound, the CEO of her company’s closest rival.

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“I didn’t recognise you with the hair braids,” he smirked.

“I didn’t recognise you with chocolate down your shirt,” she replied.

“Those bloody churros,” he mumbled, looking down despairingly at his paisley Indian-cotton number. “Cost me more than a bottle of chablis and turned my children into lunatics. Are you having fun?”

“Wonderful!” she beamed. “You?”

“Never better. Such a relief to step off the treadmill for a couple of days.”

“Yes,” she said, agonising in the silence as they both looked down at their feet.

“I’m glad I’ve bumped into you, actually,” Matthew said eventually. “There’s a work conversation I’ve been meaning to have with you…”

Four weeks later, Cathy reached into her black bag, wedged between her patent brogues on the grey floor of the Tube, to check the time on her fully charged phone. It was 7.30am. She took a sip from her Thermos of Earl Grey tea and sat back to read the adverts above her fellow commuters’ bowed heads. There was no music in her ears, no mud between her toes and no one had smiled at her – let alone looked her in the eye – for at least 14 hours. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath of cloying, polluted air and felt happiness suffuse her being. Amazing!

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