The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Had To Do (Frankie – 2008)
(This first appeared as a writing exercise answering the above question in Frankie magazine.)
In 2000 I stood before a packed dining room, faces glistening in the candle light. I was MCing the graduation dinner of a youth organisation I volunteered for. As always, I was seen as the lovable comedian, set to dazzle with my wit and silliness. This time things were different. I was down and out. Starring in a sexually explicit play at uni and losing control of my will had crashed me through the barriers into depression and self-doubt. Getting out of the house was a stretch, and suddenly I had to be funny.
Organising and conducting the dinner was the final stage in our leadership training. We agreed on a nautical theme and were each assigned jobs. I was automatically selected to write and perform the entertainment. With my current mood, I felt more qualified to be in charge of gluing stars to the boat shaped placemats. My bones were devoid of humour. I had arrived with my shields up and a sophisticated auto-pilot running, but people still pointed out that I wasn’t my usual self.
The morning of the dinner I woke from a haunting dream and sat alone in my room, scrawling a ramshackle monologue I had no idea how to remember or execute. That afternoon I walked alongside a female leader, trying to tell her how I felt. She gave me a warm polar fleece hug and said I’d be fine. I felt like some corrupt gypsy who’d climbed aboard a luxury liner. I swallowed the urge to cry and ask to be taken home.
With an hour until the show I was up to the eyeballs in panic and adrenalin, robotically telling people where to stand. Mouths opened and words flew around me like arrows. The heads of the organisation beamed, saying how much they were looking forward to my star performance. I smiled guiltily. The wall clock was a countdown to imminent failure. I was a theatrical suicide bomber, about to coat the place in awkward.
Tables filled and my stomach emptied. My mouth ran dry and my heart cannoned against my lungs. My brain was swirling with paradoxes. I wanted to spell out ‘help’ in fireworks and fly a plane into the night. I stared out at the friends and dignitaries, eyes glaring with expectation. My thumb flicked on the microphone and a shaky breath soiled the room. “In the town where I was born. Lived a man who sailed to sea. And he told us of his life. In the land of submarines.” I opened with a spoken word version of Yellow Submarine, cloaking myself in an inappropriately droll English accent.
Nervous laughter flittered like butterflies. Middle aged men coughed and made-up women plastered on confused smiles. I had no idea what I was doing. I was failing, in real time, with no escape plan. I buried myself deeper into the ridiculous character and tried to incorporate the sea theme, reading out the number plate of someone who’d “left their sails up.” Running on the fumes of instinct I spluttered to the end of the first act.
Eating dinner in the break was torture. I’d been strategically placed next to a casting agent, so I could ‘network.’ I nodded and mumbled and moved my jaw around like an alien trying to fit in. In the next bracket, I had to narrate some perilous play involving chants and actions and “pirating video’s rated ‘arrrrr.’” My accent drooped. My hair hung limp. My polyester clotted. Silences replaced spontaneity and polite disappointment marinated the air. I was powerless. The best I could do was the worst that could happen.
At the end of the night everyone said what a great job I’d done. I was too exhausted to work out whether they meant it. My retina’s burned and my lone face collected shadows in the bathroom mirror. My soul was squeezed empty like toothpaste. The whole mess was thrown into the third drawer of my memories, and even now, I look back at myself like a bewildered older sibling and wonder how the hell I got there and back.