You know, that look? It’s the look that asks ‘did you really have to do that?” I have a look in return, it’s sort of yes but with just the right amount of shame to show that I’m aware that I am not completely without blame. It’s a look that my mother perfected as I grew up, no doubt one she will be throwing at the computer screen again today. It’s ok Mum, I know what it looks like. I’ve seen that look before, remember.
It’s strange because i think my mum may have taught my girlfriend the same look. I’m not sure when they had time, but I guess she’s a quick learner. She’s pretty quick to throw the look. I know this because she threw it at me last night when I was told her what I thought might be a good blog post today. I hope my girlfriend’s mother doesn’t have the same look. Beware the power of three.
This is a post with a story in it, an entirely fictional story. Given this is a blog about writing I suppose it’s about time I put some actual writing rather than musings on it. This story even comes with an entirely accurate and in no way flippant disclaimer.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. – someone worried about the law.
This story also comes with swear words, not too many, just-a-fucking-nough. Put the look away people.
This entirely fictional story was written as a submission for a slot at the Edinburgh Book Festival. You can see my last appearance there above, a short poem that won a competition to be printed and placed on the wall next to where people might queue. When I went to visit it nobody was queuing but one kind gentleman who saw me reading it proffered his praise and suggested I might be there in a more official capacity in the future. I hope he wasn’t suggesting I’d be a cleaner.
This new competition however was for a more illustrious slot for new writers to read a piece of their work. While it would have been truly fantastic to be accepted, I think you can see why it might not have been chosen for a 4pm slot. I like to think it was the choice of language rather than the perceived lack of any skill in writing it. It may be crass at times, but it was the story that needed to be told! That’s what I tell myself. That’s what you should tell yourself too, people with the look.
The piece is about public speaking. When I was told by my friend Viccy about the opportunity I was delighted and rather intimidated at the same time. I like talking, I’m just wary of how many people might be listening at any one time. So here you go, an entirely fictional story :
Waiting to start.
John was shitting himself, and he hadn’t even started yet. The bright lights were burning away his scant confidence by the second as the expectations of the audience whirled around him like a tempest. He could feel the cold bead of sweat rolling down his back, marking its predictable train south towards the crack of his arse which poked uncomfortably out of his trousers. So much for dressing to impress. It was such a cliché he wanted to laugh, or cry, or just turn around and wipe away that tiny bead of frustration so nobody would know his horrible penchant for clichés.
He wanted to yell at them “it’s not my fault, my body did it,” but he can’t. Because everyone is looking. Looking at him, him and his potentially exposed arse. He’d have to keep his arms down as he talked, his shirt was a little too short. He was sure it was fine yesterday. Maybe the heat and the sweat had shrunk it too, like his confidence.
It had seemed a great idea when Veronica had forwarded him the email, aside that is from the difficulties of her name. It started with a letter affording very few alternatives to hide her identity. All he had to do was a bit of talking, with some other people. Well, at some other people. He’d got pretty good at talking he thought, over the years. Public speaking wasn’t all that new to him either. He’d done rather a lot of it, in an Irish pub, in Scotland, while England were playing, dressed in a crisp white t-shirt with a shining red rose embroidered upon it. It couldn’t be any harder with a less hostile audience he thought. He fucking hoped so. There seemed to be less beer involved though.
He wasn’t sure entirely how hostile the audience might be. He could see a stern looking woman three rows back who had the kind of expression that told him she was determined to hate what he did no matter what. Her eyebrows bent threateningly to meet above her pointed nose, like a crossbow cocked and ready to fire. It’s alright he told himself, Scottish audience, just drop in some swear words and hope for the best. He hoped his mum wasn’t here. She fucking was though, he could see her waving frantically from the back like somehow her enthusiasm was a boon. That’s just one of those things you can never explain to them though, like glory holes. That one was certainly an awkward conversation.
When he’d met Veronica for coffee to explain his reluctance she’d been very supportive. Horribly convincingly supportive.
“I think it would be really good for you,” she’d said.
So was medicine he’d thought, but it still tastes like crap.
“Are you sure?” he asked instead, scrunching his face up to show what he thought of the idea.
“Yeah, you’d be really good at it,” she replied.
He thought about all those threatening terms, like professional development and public exposure, the latter being something he’d tried before but found too chilly. Maybe it would be good. On paper his words suffered the blight of rogue apostrophes that wandered off from their true home to take residence later on the page wherever they might fancy. His ‘theirs’ were often ‘there’ rather than ‘theirs’, the possessive losing its place in the world beneath the tyranny of his typing. And don’t get him started on its. It’s a nightmare. Maybe reading would be good for him. Nobody could see the capitalised words that infested his pages like a plague. Nobody would spot the full stop that had usurped a comma at the end of speech. Nobody would hear his editor scream. Yes, maybe it was for him after all.
And there Veronica sat as those thoughts swirled in his head, looking at him with that big, wide, encouraging smile, like the devil selling time-share. And just like that he was signed up for the literary equivalent of a one week slot in mid august in a small apartment overlooking the Gaza Strip, with no air conditioning.
He thought it was probably the coffee’s fault too. The cup sat beneath him as he made up his mind, the rich aroma rising up from the dark circle below. It had put him at ease at the time, made him feel comfortable saying yes. It was a writer’s natural habitat, in the calm quiet of obscurity with coffee by their side. Now that dark circle seemed like a black spot placed upon his palm. Now he was here. And they sat, waiting.
“You’ll be fine,” she had said, just before he went on stage, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder in reassurance.
He wasn’t. He could feel it in his bones. And his stomach. God he hoped he didn’t have a boner. Don’t look down. Don’t look down. But he could tell the audience knew, and everyone was looking.
So much for professional development, so far all he’d developed were hands so damp with sweat he could barely read the smudged words on the page held in a now trembling right hand. He reached over with his left to steady his wrist. He knew the audience must have noticed though. What else have they noticed? Jesus god, don’t look down.
He stared right ahead, right down the length of that crossbowed brow. Suddenly it struck him that the compere had stopped talking, a hand reached out beckoning him out further beneath those lights. How long had he been waiting? Someone shuffled on their seat out in the audience, he was losing them already!
He lurched forward, paper quivering in his hand.
“H, h-i” he said, his voice cracking. He reached out to take the microphone proffered him then stood straight. Straight in front of the crowd. His eyes ran over the first line of the story.
Don’t look down.