7:30pm and I dashed for the door of the bus and onto the street, heading straight for the taxi rank. A bus journey that was supposed to take me 40 minutes to get to my destination had taken that long just to get me a mile from my house.
As I ran I had a moment to regret my existential angst in the pub earlier with CC – if I hadn’t arranged to meet up with him for a meal then I would have been there by now.
CC used to work with me about two years ago and we’ve kept in touch on an off since. On this particular day he was resplendent in his smart suit as ever despite the heat, his gaunt face supporting the usual small glasses and cigarette. He moves with a fragility that speaks of a murky past and an uncertain present, but the reason that we’ve remained friends is that I’ve always known that underneath the showman exterior is a really nice bloke who just wants to be loved and accepted but for whatever reason believes himself unworthy of such a thing.
I climbed into the taxi nearly an hour after I left him in town, already late. I hate being late. Most mornings I’m in work an hour before I need to be so that I can allow for any problems, so that I can get my shit together. I’d rather be somewhere half an hour early and sit and wait and read a book than be late: it makes me nervous.
The taxi driver nodded as I told him where I wanted to go and I sat back as he accelerated away, thinking about the meal I just shared with my friend.
CC, incorrigible as ever, had flirted with the waitress as she came and went. She barely noticed my existence, adding to the existential angst I mentioned earlier. This had begun at the bar when I tried to order and found myself in a parallel universe where I could neither be seen nor heard by the bar staff. Perhaps this is how people go missing: do people just stop seeing you one day? Do the dead and the missing still walk amongst us unseen?
CC is a man on a mission at the moment. As well as his current dilemma of avoiding his landlord (to the point where he wouldn’t tell me where he was living so I wouldn’t have to lie) he is incensed about the plans for our town, which will leave it as nothing more than an identical carbon-copy of every other town for miles around. He argued that we should have a unique selling point for the area; that we should celebrate and promote our past as well as moving towards the future. I was forced to agree with him and, inbetween nods and mouthfuls of fish and coca cola, I continued to move the conversation back towards persuading him to pose for me.
Because normally on a Wednesday evening I would be going to the Art Group, if only because it gives me time to sit and practice and I had hoped to do a series of paintings of people for 2010. . So far, despite several emails and two postings on facebook, CC has been my only volunteer meaning that my project is almost dead and buried. In the mean time CC has agreed to pose for me, if only he can come out of hiding long enough to do so!
So last night, as I sat and watched the meter on the taxi zoom around at 100 miles per hour, I was Trying Something New.
It all goes back to my course in Celebrancy in May. One of the people on the course mentioned that she was a member of her local Toastmasters association – and if I had been starring in a cartoon at that moment then a little lightbulb would have appeared over my head. As it was: it didn’t
Now I’m as big a fan of grilled bread products as the next person, but joining a Toastmasters group has nothing to do with the perfection of any bap, baguette, sandwich or other toast related product: not even slightly – although such an organisation is clearly in high demand if the complaints about the on-site catering at work are anything to go by: toast not done on one side, toast soggy, toast too black, toast not black enough. When you go into a meeting with the caterers these days they seem to reach a little quicker for the knife drawer than once they did.
Toastmasters is actually a speakers club and gets its name from the old habit of toasting someone or something at the end of an evening or an event: for instance toasting the bride…even though the last time a bride was actually toasted was when the French dealt with Joan of Arc some centuries ago (NB: apologies for that one, it seems to have bypassed my good taste sensors)
And I don’t really know what I expected when I arrived in my highly expensive taxi: a bunch of Chelsea Pensioners, resplendent in their red uniforms and festooned with more medals than Michael Phelps perhaps? Would there be a secret handshake to learn? Would the room be full of real ale drinkers, pipe smokers and members of the handlebar club (IE people with unusually large moustaches and beards)?
Happily the truth was that when I arrived, a mere five minutes late but significantly less well off, the occupants of the small room looked relatively sane and normal: at least as sane and normal as people who enjoy being timed as they talk can look.
I walked in as quietly as I could manage, followed by the loud hiss of the electric doors closing behind me. A man beckoned for me to sit next to him and immediately began a whispered introduction as to what would follow.
First on the agenda was a warm up exercise and immediately I found myself amongst the unwilling volunteers – asked to explain what I most wanted to do on a hot summer’s afternoon. I explained, quite succinctly, that I was Pixie-man, that I was very sorry for being late and that the thing I most liked to do on a sunny afternoon was to go out on my bike and enjoy the countryside and to paint very badly.
After this there were three pre-prepared speeches by members which were timed and evaluated by other members: as they spoke a woman with a stop watch monitored them, flicking three separate lights as time ran out: first green, then amber and red to stop. Then the evaluators came forward and were, in turn, timed. I began to feel that even the person doing the timing must be timed and that at some point someone would come forward and say “There was a two second delay before starting the timer on speech three and the red light stayed on for an eighth of a second too long” – but this never happened (although it would have amused me immensely if it had).
Following this, and prior to the break, was an open topic section – where one person would come up and suggest topics and pick a volunteer to talk about that subject for two minutes (that’s “Volunteer” in the usage that occurs when your boss asks for a volunteer to re-do the filing from alphabetical to date-received order). No preparation for this one, but again the stopwatch came out.
In the break I bought a raffle ticket and the friendly man asked me all about why I was there and what I thought and I did my best to explain about being a celebrant and again realising that I am doomed to spend the rest of my life explaining what the hell one is. Friendly man, however, seemed genuinely interested in my story.
Then, as the meeting came towards a close, I felt the inevitable tidal wave of fun turn in my direction as friendly man revealed himself to be the club president and asked for the visitors to come forward and say what they thought of the proceedings.
This is what I said:
I just hope that I’m not being timed for this! Normally on a Wednesday night I’d go to my local art group, which at £1.50 per night is the cheapest night out you’ll find anywhere – but everyone there is in their 80s and they always have the tables laid out in the same way, always sit in the same places: and woe betide anyone who takes their place or suggests something new.
What’s been really nice here tonight is how receptive everyone has been to the ideas put forward and the speakers who’ve been so great. You’ve all been very friendly to a stranger: thank you for having me I hope to see you again.
And then, with a small round of applause, the meeting closed…and I went home complete with the bottle of wine I’d just won!