Fiction Friendship Drama

I can hear an orchestra of voices speaking the same language that has morphed into one overbearing wall of white noise. It ricochets off the walls of the seemingly endless beige hallway that separates me from their judging eyes. If I propel myself out of the imposing crimson fire escape behind me, I never have to face the crippling annihilation that will come from them finding out the truth. I am a fraud who has no idea what he is talking about.

               ‘Ten minutes, mate.’ Says the rotund and bearded iPad holder. He has been sent to collect me in his burgundy vest and unironed chinos. ‘Just remember there is a screen to the left of the podium that lets you know how much time you have left. Twenty minutes max. You good with that?’

               Twenty minutes. I think to myself. They will see through my transparent credibility long before that. I exhale sharply, and he shuffles away, perhaps accepting my sigh as acknowledgement or not caring what happens to me. Probably the latter.

               I wince at the unexpected pain in my palms from gripping my fists so tight. I should have trimmed my nails before coming out tonight—something else I will have to hide from that auditorium of failure. A cursory glance tells me that I didn’t make myself bleed, and I accept it is time to snap myself out of this. I took this opportunity because everyone said it would be “good for my career”, so I may as well get this over with.

               I slump back on the bargain store chairs set up for speakers like me to rest on before facing their doom. I sense the lack of quality in its build as it almost buckles under my modest weight. I position my head to remove the vision of the dreadfully lit hallway and find myself staring at a neon tube that is almost rhythmic in its failure to remain consistently lit. I become hyper-aware of its sound like a large blowfly is trapped in its casing, desperately trying to escape.

               This hallway has no natural light, and each empty wall provides no distraction from the unknown beast doing somersaults in my belly. It is a creature that finds its way into my brain, performing the same tricks there, making my head feel like I am on a speeding merry-go-round.

               Water, drink some water. I have enough sense about me to know that this is irrational, and perhaps some simple hydration will help. Thank God the backstage of any auditorium always has a water cooler on the verge of needing replacing. This one doesn’t disappoint, so I wrestle the cup dispenser for the last environmentally irresponsible tumbler. Despite the struggle to free just one, I wind up with four. My usual green sensibilities are tossed aside, as are the three cups I do not need. I swallow two measures of the refreshing liquid and feel almost human again. I go for another round only to realise I have consumed all that this fountain has to give.

               The respite is short-lived, and I quickly search for the next thing to centre me. I recall an audiobook on public speaking and the breathing techniques it confidently claimed would make this moment easier. I close my eyes and try to “focus on the breath”, which I manage to do for a moment. My freshly manicured moustache hairs tickle with each breath out. It is distracting enough to slow down every racing impulse in my nervous system.

               ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ The gravelly voice of my dear friend Mary snaps me out of my trance. Why is she back here? This is for important speakers only.

               So, what am I doing here? Says my self-doubting inner monologue.

               Mary’s face brightens up a crack in the previously closed fire door. Her bright emerald eyes stare unblinking at me, exposing how perfectly she always does her makeup. Her fiery ginger hair teased up like something from an eighty’s music video, as always. Of course, she would be here to wish me luck. That is just the kind of friend she is.

               ‘Why have you got your eyes closed, Stewart?’ She asks. ‘You nervous or something?’ If only she knew what an understatement that was. Mary forces her way past me and takes a seat. The rainbow of colours on her floral dress cascades to the floor, hiding the ugly chair. ‘Oh my god, you are nervous. Look at you; you’re white as a ghost.’

               ‘Mary, I can’t do this. I feel like I am going to die. Is this normal?’ I don’t know if the stutter in my voice allowed me to make any sense. Mary’s head tilt indicates that perhaps it did, but I can not be too sure of anything at this moment.

               ‘Oh, so you’re a bit nervous about going out and giving a little speech. This happens to literally every public speaker. You’re not that special, buddy.’ She lets out a cackle that I am afraid can be heard in the auditorium. Her arms extend toward me, causing the chaos of bracelets adorning her arm to clang together. I accept both her hands and feel myself returning to Earth.

               ‘I don’t know why I feel this way. I live and breathe the topic and don’t know any of these people.

               ‘Stewart, my man. I want to ask you something.’ She pauses like she always does before saying something profound. ‘What is the worst thing you think could happen out there?’

               ‘I screw it all up, and they don’t believe a word I say.’ I huff my response at her like a child about to have a tantrum. ‘Or I freeze up and forget my entire speech. Which, of course, means they all laugh at me.’

               ‘Worse than that, Stewy boy.’ Her grip around my hands tightens.

               ‘What could be worse than that?’ The inflection in my tone rises sharply.

               ‘Think, Stewart. You walk out there; you give your speech. What is the worst thing that could happen?’ I am unsure where she is going with this, but I am seriously considering a broad spectrum of disastrous scenarios.

               ‘I don’t know.’ I scan her wide-open eyes for a hint of what she is after and yell, ‘I could shit myself on stage.’

               ‘Well, that would be bloody awful, wouldn’t it?’ She says softly as she moves her hands to form a firm grip on my shoulders. Smiling a smile that could melt the world. ‘Get out there, Stewart, and make sure you do anything other than what you just said.’

               An invisible force that I was unaware of releases its hold on me, and I hug dear Mary before Mister iPad returns to let me know it is my time. As I head towards the stage, I turn back to thank Mary, and she has already vanished, no doubt to find her seat.

               As I wrap up my twenty-minute slot, I return backstage. I felt chuffed that I did not shit myself in front of the entire audience. Thank God for that.

October 11, 2023 09:48

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