Hot summer nights: ‘At a festival for the first time, I felt autonomous, desirable and free’

Hot summer nights: ‘At a festival for the first time, I felt autonomous, desirable and free’

When I was 17, there was a lot I knew little about. I didn’t know about burning in the sun or how to use euros; I had never swum in the ocean.

I was part of a big family and we were poor. As my parents were out of work, they couldn’t afford to take seven children on holiday.

So, in the summer of 2008, when I heard everyone at school talking about a music festival in Spain, I jumped at the chance to go. I had “moved out” earlier that school year – this was the euphemism I often used, rather than saying I had become homeless and estranged from my parents.

My life was full of revolving doors, moving from one dingy homeless hostel to the next. Rather than enjoying being a teenager, I had to be my own parent: I had to pay rent (yes, even in homeless hostels), cook my own meals and attend my own parents’ evenings.

Now I could harness all that independence and turn it into my superpower: a holiday I could go on unsupervised, with no parents to chide me for wearing too-short dresses, lecture me about the value of money or warn of the possibility of getting pregnant simply by being around boys.

I bought my ticket and spent the coming weeks preparing, which, in teenage tradition, meant doing unfathomably unkind things to my body. I lay in compromising positions while a woman tore off my pubic hair; I tweezed my stomach; I skipped meals and ate only fruit, worrying about what I would look like in a bikini next to the flat-stomached girls from school.

At the festival, Caris, Suzy and I spent our days drinking sangria out of cartons, living off supermarket snacks and finding out that I could indeed get burnt. We would wake up each day on little sleep (one of our cheap tents had caved in, so three of us were crammed into a two-person one), miraculously not hungover, and start all over again.

Near the end of our trip, we were walking down the street when a guy a few years older than us put his chair in the middle of the walkway. “Sorry, you can’t pass,” he said, freckles dancing under his green eyes. He flashed a cheeky smile that laid bare a snaggle tooth. Cute, I thought. Obviously, I assumed it wasn’t me he was interested in.

A few hours later, as we went into the arena, he lifted me on to his lanky shoulders. I was so full of butterflies that my skin tingled. When Kings of Leon cancelled due to stormy winds, people started throwing cups of urine in protest. We ran to the showers to wash it off, darting around in our bikinis, trying to catch the water that was being blown by the wind in all the wrong directions.

Eventually, it was time to go back to the campsite, our new friend in tow, but before I could address the anxiety building in my stomach over how to say no to sex, I was confronted by Suzy standing at the entrance of our shared tent. She looked ready to make a deal.

“You’ve got 30 minutes,” she said. It felt like we had barely been inside for 10 minutes when I saw her shadow again, hovering outside the tent, hands on hips. A screaming row followed.

“Why don’t you just piss off and spend the rest of the weekend in a tent with a bunch of guys you don’t even know?” Suzy shot at me.

“Maybe you’d be able to do the same if you weren’t so boring,” I shot back, before storming off in an outfit I had thrown together in the dark.

Suzy and I said horrible things to each other, but I left the tent with my boyfriend for the night, a little high from the thrill of it all. This was the first time I had felt truly autonomous, desirable and free. So, I pushed reality to the back of my mind and let myself revel in being young on a hot summer night in Spain – and having the most fun of my life.

The next morning, I returned with trepidation, but Suzy was there, waiting. We cried, apologised, hugged and laughed at everything that had happened. Although I don’t miss the times when arguments were volatile, raw and explosive, I can look back and appreciate that our friendship withstood these tests.

At the time, the argument was the worst part of the evening. In retrospect, I think it was one of the best – not because I like drama, but because it taught me that relationships should be mostly great, but that they will contain awful moments, too. If you can get over those, you are set for life.

After all the time I had spent that year feeling sorry for myself over the estrangement from my parents, that night reminded me that I had more than enough family.