The spotlight is on me and it blinds my eyes. I try to look at the audience, but behind the glare, they are ghostly figures in the dark. I raise my voice over the pounding of my heart and start. “Good morning ladies and gentlemen.”
My chest is hurting now. I wonder if I’ll fall down and die right here, on stage. “The other day, my son went to a party…” I’m doing exactly as I was advised to. I’ve started with a funny incident. A round of civilized laughter rises from the audience. I have their attention.
The pain is now unbearable, and it’s spreading. For a moment I wonder if I’ll die the most dramatic death in the history of GEMS. How will the people speak about my unconventional and inconvenient demise? We were all watching, you know. She just clutched her heart and fell – and that was it!
“Responsibility to distinguish the right from the wrong…” Not bad, I’m still alive.
Why on earth did I agree to do this!? The last time I did something this reckless was thirty years ago when I blanked out half way through reciting William Blake’s The Tiger in the school assembly.
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
Burnt the fire of thine eyes….thine eyes….eyes… That was it.
Everything had gone blank. Not one word had come to my mind beyond that. I had walked away – too ashamed to look around, too mortified to cry. I’d never attempted to face a crowd after that. The few times I’d compered as a teacher in the school had been with the support of a well-rehearsed script.
“…I believe that education would have achieved its pinnacle the day individuals, societies and nations exercise this responsible freedom of thought. Thank you.”
I’m still alive, barely. Polite applause. I’m immensely grateful. In the silence that ensues, I wonder whether the people out there can hear the drum beat of my heart. Won’t the microphone be picking up the sound?
Somebody asks me a question. My mind and mouth works on autopilot. “With your permission, Sir?” I look at the chairperson and continue. “I don’t want to control anybody’s thoughts, nor do I want anybody to control my thoughts. The restraint should come from within me – my education should have taught me the values for that.” A healthier round of applause. What was the question again?
Another opponent raises her hand. This time nothing registers – not the question, not the answer. I’m only aware that the ordeal is over, and I’m still alive – though barely. I take my precious fragile heart back to the wings of the stage. Thank God it’s over!
My co-debaters give me the thumbs up. A very young participant says, “You were awesome, man!” I grin. I’m so thirsty! I drink a glass of water, but the fire on my chest and tummy refuses to die. Another glass, and not a flicker. I give up and come back and sit down.
If I die now, my death will be a lot less glorious.
A friend. She’s also debating on my side. I genuinely want to know what she thinks.
“You were so relaxed, Mini! So calm – not tense at all!”
I grin again. I’m so hungry my tummy burns!
“Was I, really.” Now it’s my whole body that’s burning.
Others join in, speaking in hushed whispers. Everyone tells me about how relaxed I was up there. I smile widely and nod vigorously, as if that has been the plan all along…
Can somebody tell me how to put out this fire?