A work of fiction that invites you to imagine the future of music festivals in the time of COVID-19, where you’ll find “a sea of human firework displays bumping and floating in slow motion”…
by: Oliver Cable
My backpack still has last year’s Rockdown Music Festival’s wristband attached to it. The first item I pack into it for this year’s festival is my plastic orb, deflated and still in its packaging. I’d procrastinated ordering the orb, and it only just arrived last week. That had caused me a minor panic seeing as no orb equalled no festival. Next I pack the shirt I’d bought for this year’s Rockdown, featuring some of my favorite bands with 2021 tour dates down the back of it. Supporting your favorite bands and staying out of the heat of the sun with some official apparel feels like a double-win.
There’s a long queue when we arrive at the festival’s gates, with the minimum six feet of space between groups of beer-swigging couples and excitedly talking families. As we approach the entrance my friends and I take our final breaths of outside air and the last swigs of unorbed beer. The guy next to us takes a deep pull on the last easy cigarette for the rest of the day, then slaps a series of nude-colored nicotine patches up his arms.
“Got any glass in there, mate?”
I shake my head. The security guard puts a hand down inside my backpack, finds nothing that’s banned, and waves me through to a girl scanning tickets through a plastic screen.
“Ankle, please.” She gestures to the waist-high ledge between us.
I put my foot up and she fastens a brightly-colored ribbon around it. Rockdown 2021 it reads in purple embroidered letters. She pulls it tight and heat-seals it closed. A buzzer goes off and she pumps down on the antibacterial dispenser. She winces as she rubs her hands together, then waves me through, the acrid smell of vodka rising in the air.
“Next please! You — keep your distance!”
I step forward, holding my deflated orb, feeling like a child at the pool, bouncing impatiently from foot to foot, waiting for my dad to inflate my rubber ring.
“Pull the opening over your head.” The rough voice jerks me out of my holiday dream. I am not a child. I am an adult attending a festival during a global pandemic yet I am starting to feel more and more like a processed animal. I do as I am told, and the unseen voice affixes a tube to the side of the wrinkled clear plastic. The transparent orb starts crackling and swelling around me.
“Is the eye hole in the right place? I can’t see.”
“Lucky we caught that now,” the worker’s voice chuckles. “Turn around then, I’ll hold the orb still.”
I turn, and can see the rest of the queue stretching out behind me.
“Down to your left,” the voice says, “that’s your fuel tank, so to speak. If you want anything to drink, it goes in there. To your right, that’s your food hatch.”
“Gotcha.” It’s warm inside the orb already. I remember my shirt.
“Can you put my shirt on for me?”
“Sure thing, hand over any mods you want me to put on.” I hand him the shirt and he stretches it over the orb. “Love that band. Saw them live in Amsterdam before…well, you know.”
“Ah, me too!” I say, remembering back to when we could bump shoulders with one another and spill beer on each others’ shoes. When we could link arms with strangers to sing encores.
“You’ll be wanting a pair of these,” he says, sliding a box of headphones through the food hatch. It’s an airlock, so I wait until he’s closed his side in order to take them out. There’s enough free space inside the orb to put them in my ears.
“They’ll pick up whichever stage you’re nearest to. Tap them twice if you want a little break. Any questions?”
I shake my head inside my orb, causing the plastic cocoon to sway from side to side.
“Good. Then I’ll strap you in. Come back here on the way out and someone’ll let you out.”
I waddle off, trying to learn how to walk while being two metres wide. Someone bumps into me from the side and I swivel round to see who it is, my orb bumping into someone else’s in turn. This chain reaction will continue all day.
“Time for a beer,” I say to my buddy struggling to stay upright.
There are reminders of previous festivals throughout Rockdown, ones that make you forget this strange new world. The endless queue at the bar is one of those things. When my friends and I reach the front of the queue, a bartender wearing a Texaco trucker hat points a nozzle in my direction.
“What’ll it be, mate? Diesel? Unleaded?”
“Cider please, mate.”
“Okay then! Say when.”
The bartender flips the cap, unscrews the lid, and sticks the nozzle into my suit. I watch the numbers tick up on the board. One litre, one-and-half, two.
“There you are, full,” he calls out.
The display clicks to £25. Bloody hell, I think. As he pulls the nozzle out, there’s a beep as it swipes past my payment tab.
“Thanks mate,” he says, then sees my face looking aghast at the price. “Ain’t free, all this equipment. Someone’s gotta pay for the freedom to drink ice cold ciders in a field.”
“It better be good,” I say.
On the inside of the orb, there’s a bendy straw connected to the fuel tank. Walking off, I take a few hearty pulls on it, and the ice cold fizzy cider fills my cheeks, then my throat, then works its way down into the depths of my stomach. Ahhhh. It’s my first outdoor cider of the season, and it’s bloody good.
“Cheers,” I shout and my friends and I bump orbs.
We wander and jostle through the crowds, headphones picking up a variety of indie rock, metal, and ska as we pass the differently-lit colored stages. An entire festival has gone the way of the silent disco. Looking over the field, I suppress a laugh — whoever thought we’d see an ocean of swaying human-like orbs, swigging drinks from inside self-contained bubbles, and enjoying being alive and “outside”? Yet here we were, and I could only commend the imagination that had gone into making life feel as normal as possible — if you looked past all that weird stuff. At least we still had festivals.
We filter single-file into a tent, where Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes are about to start playing. As soon as they come on stage behind a giant perspex screen — their guitar-strumming, drum-bashing hands gloved and their faces covered by multi-colored safety masks — a muffled roar goes up. By the first chorus, the whole tent becomes a mosh pit, orbed people leaping into each other like human dodgems. I take a hit from from behind and am propelled into the air. I land on my head and bounce into the air again. I no longer know which way is up until my feet find the grass again, my cider shaken around in the tank and fizzing up through the straw. I take long, thirsty gulps and jump back iN. Frank Carter is now crowd-surfing, bouncing from orb to orb like he’s in a giant bouncy-castle, still singing lyrics at the top of his lungs. Eventually, the song calms down and the madness dies. Those not on their feet are bumped back by other members of the audience.
After the performance, my smiling friends and I head out of the tent into the late day sunshine. We’re sweating, and the inside of our orbs have steamed up. Exhausted from all the bouncing, my eye is caught by the modified seats resembling a semi-circular hole dug in the ground, just large enough to hold half an orb for a person to lie down completely. We lie in the sun, swilling flat cider round our mouths and talk until the fog fades from inside our orbs. We watch the new festival pranks that people play, the most popular being a group of four people bumping a fifth person upside down in such a way that they balance on their head, legs waving in the air. If the individual were too light, there’d be nothing they could do to get themselves the right way up. Because fights can’t break out, and no one can really deal any drugs, it’s pranks like this that keep the security guards, in their brightly lit security orbs, busy. We watch them extend a long, two-pronged grabber, like the ones used to pick up garbage from the grass, to grab the recent “victim” by the leg and flip them back onto their feet. One of the security guards flashes the victim a stern look, as if the individual had decided to flip themselves upside down. My friends and I discuss the rumors that some festivals were handing out costly fines for “upside-downing.”
Around dinnertime, we queue for spare ribs – our festival tradition.
“Extra sauce on those, please,” I ask the server.
He slides the food through the orbs hatch, along with a stack of napkins. Besides being delicious, they’re also messy, and by the time I’m finished the sticky brown sauce is everywhere. It’s in my beard, on my shirt, smeared around the walls of my orb, and on my shoes. I don’t have enough napkins to clean it all up, so I leave it. The smell lingers on as a reminder of the magnificent meal we’ve eaten.
It’s not uncommon to see people floating about at these festivals, which we soon discover is because their orbs are full of helium. This had initially started out illegally, but festivals had soon taken charge of the situation. Too many dealers were cutting the helium with cheaper, more flammable gases, and it had resulted in some very nasty burns for users. All it took was one cigarette for the thing to go up in flames. Now, they sell the helium from stands next to the bars after 8PM: £60 for enough helium for about sixty minutes of floating. It may sound like a lot, but the helium dealers are trained professionals – too little helium and you’ll just get a squeaky voice, too much helium and you’ll float off beyond the boundaries of the festival. Despite regulation, you’d still see those who’d taken too much of the gas floating overhead, early in the day, yelling down at the groundlings to help them. Of course, no one could. They were at the mercy of the winds and the amiability of the security guards on the gate as to whether they’d cast a blind eye to the no readmissions policy.
As the roadies in their protective gear set up for the headliner, we head to the helium stand and load up. The main act comes on to muffled cheers and we drift and bounce around on the summer air as they begin to play. Watching a sunset through an uncovered orb is one of the most beautiful sights in the world, the liquid-filled fuel tank catching the light and refracting it down onto the ground, turning the Earth into a patchwork of rainbows. As night starts to fall, people show off their orb mods, neon lights emanating from many of them, wild starscapes brought closer to Earth, and a sea of human firework displays bumping and floating in slow motion.
As the headliner comes to a close, applause echoes from land to sky. My friends and I have drifted back to the ground now, and we stand cheering, most of the sound muffled and echoing back into our own faces. The queue to be deflated begins and it feels like ages before we get our turn but the line is buzzing with energy. Some people are sunburnt, some have bought orb-hoodies and orb-tattoos from the merch stand, some are too drunk to walk and need to be rolled out by their friends, but the vibe: that beautiful, intangible, fragile thing, that’s still there. Waiting, in a place like this, surrounded by people like this, that’s really no punishment. We’re alive, we’re together, and we’ve just been to a festival again — at long last.
Oliver Cable is a writer and poet based in London. His first novel, Fresh Air and Empty Streets, was published in 2016. He is a regular contributor to Athleta Magazine and writes a fortnightly column for Riffs & Rhymes. His writing has also appeared in Devon Life, Maintenant, Corvus Review, Fat Cat Magazine and The A3 Review. He aims to write on the knife-edge of reality, where dreams, metaphor and reality merge.