Yeah, I’ve never done this before. I‘m fucking terrified. I was terrified before, for weeks, and I was terrified earlier, out the back, waiting, trying to relax. And I’m terrified now, standing here on stage behind this mike. Holding on to this lectern as tightly as I can for courage and trying not to look any of you in the eye. In case I see your disgust, your anger. Your boredom. Or possibly worse, your delight and amusement. So I’m going to concentrate as intently on my notes as I can, pick them up, and start to read.
“Yeah, I’ve never done this before,” I read out loud, word for word from the page. “So, um, sorry. If it’s, you know…” I give you an amiable shrug — at least I hope it’s amiable — and then finish my sentence… “if it’s a bit shit.”
A couple of you laugh. Not many, and not for long. The audience equivalent of a polite smile.
“So anyway,” I say, “I hope this is okay.” A slight pause before the next line. “I’ve been dreading this all week.” And I try to say that, I mean to say that, with a laugh, but at best I manage a sort of forced unnatural looking smile.
Do I tell you, I’m wondering, when I’m practicing this at home, how at first, even in an empty room, I can’t speak. That I’m so self-conscious I can’t even overcome the horror of public speaking in private, to no-one. And not just on the first day of practicing this performance, but every day. Every time.
But I decide it’s probably best not to say a word of that to you. It’d sound needy, pleading. So I go back instead to hoped-for charm of admitted first-time incompetence instead.
“This is…” I start, looking down at my script, flicking through the pages nervously before putting it back down. I start again: “Sorry, I should have said thank you all for coming. And I hope the book’s not a disappointment. Well, I hope tonight’s not a disappointment either, as you’ve all made the effort to come down here and everything. But especially the book…”
Is this silence that follows as uncomfortable for you as it is for me? Is my voice as inflectionless, as emotionless, as I always fear? Does it sound as awful to you as it always sounds to me when I hear a snippet of it on tape, in the background of some video I’ve recorded on my phone? Or in my dreams.
I read some advice somewhere about how it’s best to never, ever, think about the sound of your voice, not when you’re speaking, when you’re giving a speech, but I’ve started now and how to stop? It’s like being told at the dentist or wherever not to swallow — you’re told not to swallow and you think okay, I won’t swallow, and then, only then, do you realise how desperate you are to swallow, how you’ll choke if you don’t, and you can feel your tongue absolutely huge in your month and if you don’t swallow you’ll fucking choke you’ll choke on your own tongue you’ll forget how to breathe you’ll fucking die.
I’m trying not to think of the true sound of my own voice and yet I have to speak. I have to just close my mind to it and carry on and read.
So I go back to my notes. I read. I speak.
“This first story — it’s not the first one in the book but it’s the first one tonight — it’s called The Reading, or Performance Anxiety.”
I’ve printed these stories out quite big, so the letters are nice and distinct and the lines are all clearly separated and everything’s nice and easy to read, but now this massive font I’ve used gives all my words the appearance of a children’s story, some sort of Ladybird learn to read book. Or the eyesight test lettering in the opticians.
Actually I think they probably most closely resemble the look of a note in a film, with everything printed in big sparse letters and held in shot long enough so even the slowest readers in the audience can read them. Now I’ve seen this similarity I can’t stop seeing it, and it gives my words a weird and unwanted sense of unreality and artifice, undermining everything I’ve written.
And without belief in what you’ve written your words are nothing.
But finally now I’m on to the story, past all my introductory messages and the title and onto what you’ve come for. Onto what you’ve paid for. I discard the first page, place it neatly to the left, and find my place at the top of the second page. And finally now move onto the first story.
“The Reading, Or Performance Anxiety,” I read out, word for word from the page. “Yeah, I’ve never done this before. I’m fucking terrified.”
It all sounds so hollow, limp and dead on my tongue, disconnected from any real feeling. Not just from feeling but disconnected from each other as well, as if they weren’t even sentences, but instead a collection of unconnected words in a line, and now, as I say them, everything begins to fall apart.
“I was terrified before. For weeks. And I — sorry — I was terrified… I was terrified earlier. Out the back. Waiting. To relax. Wait — I was waiting, I was trying to relax. I…”
I turn the page and during this tiny pause someone shouts ou-
—GET ON WITH IT!
Er, yeah, thanks, like that. Exactly like that.
So I say, “Yes,” back to them. I say, “Sorry.”
But now when I look back at the page I can’t even read the words. My heart’s pounding like I’m afraid I’m about to get hit. I can feel the tears at the edges of my eyes. Not quite tears actually, not yet, but that hot feeling across my face and that… that pricking sensation you get when you can tell that they’re just about to form, when you know that you might still be able to hold them back but once they start they’ll just flow and flow.
That shout, that one single shout.
It feels like being told off at school, never wanting to admit it hurts but it hurts. Being shouted at, being mocked, bullied, abused. And the years of hardening yourself to it, hardening your face so it’s a case of studied blankness even though inside you’re in fucking turmoil.
Please let me still have that control.
“I’m. I’m…” I stammer. “And I’m terrified now, standing here on this stage — ”
— WELL GET THE FUCK OFF IT THEN!
You all laugh. I can hear it and I can see it and you don’t even stop even though I’m looking at you, pleading with you with my eyes, my face, my slumped shoulders, to just
— YOU’RE FUCKING SHIT AT THIS YOU KNOW!
“I’m sorry you think that,” is my, well, my rather lame reply. I’m defeated and I know it, but I try to hold it off, if only for a second. “Sorry, the lights — I can’t see anything — who am I talking to here?”
You laugh and you laugh. The whole room full of you laughing, at him, at his words. And at me, and mine.
“Can you just… Look, can’t you just let me finish. Look, I’m sorry, sorry everyone, maybe it’ll be better if I start again.”
I turn the page back.
“The Reading,” I repeat. “Or, Performance Anxiety.”
I see him getting up, the heckler, out of the corner of my eye. Hopefully he’s leaving and we can all get on with this.
Get through this.
“Yeah, I’ve never done this before. I’m fucking terrified. I was terrified before, for weeks, and I was terrified earlier — ”
— Give that here.
A hand – that hand, there, this hand, his hand – reaches over the lectern and grabs at my papers.
— I bet I can do this better than you anyway. I could hardly be worse, could I?
He laughs. You all laugh.
I look up. There’s a spotlight — that one there — that’s shining directly into my eyes and I can only see this person, this heckler, this intruder, I can only see him as a shadow. The audience, I can’t see the audience anymore, I can’t see them at all. It’s only you now, whoever you are, you. A silhouette, a suggestion — you’re everyone and no-one, you’re looming aggression and dominance and contempt and
I shove him out of the way, two-handed in the chest and he stumbles backwards and, in his surprise, trips. People behind me cheer and I take his place on the stage, turn my back on him and turn round to the room and look at all of you here in the audience. I can see the relief on your faces. The anticipation, the strange vicarious joy.
I begin to flick through the pages of his story, discarding them one by one, passing through the words you’ve already heard and the things you’ve already seen, until on the fourth page I find my place, find the here and now.
I begin to read.
“He sits there at the back of the stage for a moment, too dazed to stand, and listens to me speak. I read his words, shout them out confidently as if they were my own. And I speak them with a clarity, with a conviction, that he could never match. As if the words are mine, now. As if they have always been mine, always will be mine.
“He can’t bear to watch, can’t bear to watch me, my performance, my… usurpation, and he crawls behind the curtains, gets up and stumbles his way down the passages to try and escape. To get away. Away from the stage. Away from all of us. Away from his embarrassment. His failures.
“He opens the fire escape and there’s a sudden rush of silence as the freezing cold air hits his face and he imagines me stopping, triumphant, as I reach the end of his story. He pictures me bowing slightly, taking his applause, the pages of his words littering the stage around my feet. I step around the podium and I hold my arms wide and I bow again and smile and wave and your ovation grows and grows and then finally begins to subside.
“And now his tears flow.”