I looked at the invitation, a feeling of dread coming over me. It was not entirely unexpected but like a great many things that had suddenly come into my life, it caused equal measures of fear and excitement.
The gold edging and the perfect script displaying my name in the exact centre of the envelope made it almost unique. Very few people ever received such an invitation.
I held it in my hand for a longer than necessary, then put it down on the desk carefully, as if it would explode if I dropped it.
My first instinct, driven by fear, was not to accept.
But, fear or not, there was no question of me not attending. Circumstances had painted me into a corner; I’d agreed to go a long time ago when I thought there was no chance it would come to pass.
Way back then, I had been compared to the aspiring painter in an attic having to die before I made any sort of impression. In those days people thought it amusing. I thought it was amusing. Kirsty, in particular, had thought it was as impossible as I had.
Now it was not amusing. Not even remotely.
My life was once quiet, peaceful, sedate, even boring. That didn’t mean I lacked imagination, it was just not out on display for everyone to see. Inspired by reading endless books, I had the capacity to transport myself into another world, divorced from reality, where my boring existence became whatever I wanted it to be.
It was also instrumental in bringing Kirsty into my life. In reality, I thought she’d never take a second look at me, let alone a first. So I pretended to be someone else. Original, witty, charming, underneath more scared than I’d ever known.
And yet she knew, she’d always known and didn’t care.
As we spent more time together, she discovered I liked to write, not finish anything, just start, write a hundred pages, then lose interest. Like everything I did. Start, and never finish.
Why not? It would never be published. It would never succeed.
So she bribed me. If I didn’t finish my first book and send it away, I couldn’t marry her. It didn’t matter if it was rejected, all I had to do was finish a book, and send it.
The thought of marrying her had not entered my mind, because I hadn’t thought she would. Incentive enough, I picked out one of the unfinished manuscripts and humoured her. She read bits of it, not saying a word. Sometimes she’d put a note or two on the manuscript, her equivalent to sweet nothings, and with it I gained inner confidence in my own ability, not only to write but in many other aspects of my life.
When it was finished, it was Kirsty who sent it off. She read it, packaged it, addressed it, and sent it before I had a chance to change her mind. Once gone, I heaved a huge sigh of relief. It was done. That was, as far as I was concerned, the end of it.
It was not possible that one letter could change a person’s life so dramatically. I came home to the all-knowing smile, and mischievous whimsicality that had always suggested trouble.
My book was accepted. With a cheque called an advance. For more money than I knew what to do with.
This was followed not long after by publication. And a dramatic change to my life, one I didn’t want. To become a public person, to face an enormous number of people, people I didn’t know.
I went back to being scared.
Kirsty smiled at me and told me how wonderful I looked in my monkey suit. Why couldn’t I go in jeans and a dress shirt? All the best actors in Hollywood did it.
“This is not Hollywood. You’re not an actor.” It was a simple, practical, answer.
The hell I wasn’t. I could act sick, dying, fake a heart attack, anything. “What am I going to say?”
“You could talk about books.” Quiet, efficient, oozing the confidence I didn’t feel.
She didn’t fuss. She took it in her stride. She dressed in her usual simple elegance, in a manner that made me love to be seen with her. I couldn’t tie my tie, so she did it for me. She straightened my jacket because I couldn’t do that either. Nerves. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Or was that a reference to wives, or mistresses, or something else?
The palms of my hands were sweating. Meatball hands, I thought, the sort of palms that betrayed the pretenders. Me, I was the pretender. My neck felt too large for the shirt. Beads of sweat formed on my brow. Where was a sponge when you needed one?
“I can’t do this.”
We hadn’t even left the hotel yet.
“How long before the execution.”
She looked at me with her whimsical smile. “Long enough for me to give you a hard time.”
I lost count of the number of times I had to go to the bathroom, for one thing, or another. Nerves I said. Perhaps a dozen Valium or something similar. Did I have any? Had she hidden them? Why did she keep smiling?
In the car, I looked at my watch at least a dozen times. I couldn’t breathe. It was too hot, too cold. She held my hand, and it served best to stop the trembling that had set in. Why did I agree to this? Why?
We were greeted by the Events Manager, who was polite and genuinely interested. He took us inside where he introduced the interviewer, another woman who oozed confidence and charm, who went over the format and generally tried to set me at ease.
I didn’t let Kirsty’s hand go. Not yet. She was my lifeline, the umbilical cord. When it was severed, I knew I was going to die.
Bathroom? Where was the bathroom? Hell, five minutes to go, and I felt like passing out. No, Kirsty couldn’t come in. Comb my hair. Straighten my tie, no it was straight. Maybe I could hide in here? I looked around. No, maybe not.
The cue man was standing beside me, hand gently on my back. He knew the score. He knew I would turn and run the first chance I got. Kirsty was on the other side, smiling. Did she know too?
Then the announcement, my cue to walk on.
The gentle shove, the bright lights, the deafening applause, the seemingly endless walk to the chair, dear God, would I make it without tripping over?
How many times had I made this trip? I stood, facing the audience, waved, then sat. It was the fifteenth. You’d think I’d learned by now.
There was nothing to it.
© Charles Heath 2016-2022