My summer of love: ‘I realised intimacy and tingling excitement could exist alongside sadness’

There is a peculiar romance to British summer music festivals. Some kind of consequence-free hedonism emerges when you combine bouts of torrential rain with the rancid stench of overflowing chemical toilets, the stomach-fizz of morning beers, and the itch of last night’s glitter pressed into your unwashed skin. It makes for the perfect conditions to distract the head and, for once, indulge the heart.

It was the summer of 2010 when I camped out at Reading festival, the August blow-out that 16-year-olds from the UK’s south-east use as a putrid marker of their transition from secondary school to college; from adolescence to something approaching young adulthood.

The need for summer fun had been building over the course of the previous year. After my mum had noticed abdominal pains while dancing to Prince on her 53rd birthday, a series of inconclusive tests and then a major operation revealed that she had terminal cancer. She was given only six months to live.

Thanks to my teenage hormones, I was also busy unfurling into my own body. While my brain revised for my GCSEs, my mouth was busy kissing girls in the park and sipping drinks that tasted like nail polish remover, my hands were clumsily rolling cigarettes sprinkled with what was surely dried oregano, my ears decided to like jazz, and my heart – well, my heart would say that it was falling in love.

I finally had my first “proper girlfriend”: someone to go on cinema dates with and to hold hands with while walking down the high street; someone who made the most saccharine of love songs make sense. And as our school study leave gave way to a yawning summer of no responsibilities, it was as if I split into two. Part of me knew that my mum was dying faster than the rest of us, that we were now living the chaos of experimental treatments, and that my mum couldn’t mother me any more; instead, she was the one who needed to be looked after. But I wasn’t sure I actually felt it.

I did, however, feel the euphoria of never having to “do maths” again (or science, or PE), and a paradoxically unwieldy optimism at the world making itself available to me. While my home life closed in on itself, elsewhere it felt as though I could do anything I wanted. I was approaching something like independence: I had a fake ID and eight weeks of partying to look forward to, before I got my exam results and real life intervened once again.

That first summer with my first girlfriend provided levity amid the hardship. The tingling excitement of early romance offset the backdrop of dread at home; crucially, it showed me that intimacy is possible amid sadness. It showed me that people will always seek out connections with each other, regardless of how alone we might feel.

The Reading festival was the apex of that tumultuous, hot and cloudless summer. There we built our little tent together, next to friends’ dangerously large campfires; there I laughed at her while she screamed along to Paramore, and she laughed at me while I jumped to Queens of the Stone Age, and we both silently tried to survive the moshpit for Pendulum.

Of course, a year later we would break up, only to get back together at another festival, before breaking up for good the following year. But that was all still to come and, for a few weeks in 2010, we could pretend that everything outside of us simply ceased to exist.