The Conference

I have always thought I could become an expert at something, but what? Somehow bring myself to focus in on the minute detail of some corner of history or science, in truth I can barely focus long enough to vacuum, but somewhere I have always thought I would be able to espouse wisdom on some such topic at dinner parties. In my head the whole table are always enraptured as I drop pearls of factual delight, when in fact I have met such people myself and turned immediately away and began to discuss the weather.

I remember one particular erudite person I sat next to at dinner who saw nothing more than the back of my shoulder for the entire evening and to make it worse I was wearing a particularly ghastly brown paisley thing with a mosquito bite on the edge of my shoulder for good measure. No I lack the application, the attention span for expertise, but I can do generality which makes what happened seem quite odd. I think perhaps there was a moment of confusion, a point at which someone thought I was something else, someone else.

And so I found myself on the stage, in front of the audience, with a lap top open before me. Of course the audience could see the slides, but I could see the slides and the speaking notes. And what could I do, but speak. I did not think I could say, there’s been a mistake, I am not this person. I am not even presenting at this conference, I am just here with my partner.

So I gave the speech, at the conference, the conference I was only attending with my partner. Its not easy you know, to stand up and speak, to follow the words when you have not read them before at all. But I did and there was rapturous applause, and to be honest I am not even sure what the speech was about. I don’t pretend to remember a word of it but it was well received.

I feigned a stomach bug instead of dinner only for it to be reported to me (by my partner who had not attended that session but was watching another session at the time) what a standout performance it had been. The highlight of the day, maybe even the conference. I said nothing, what could I say? He would want to know why and I even now, am not sure why.

I tried not to think about it, stayed in my room. I was embarrassed by it, until my partner mentioned that it was available on a website, me giving her speech. He had watched it, said what a great speaker she was. I thought he was joking, he had realised but it seemed not. I googled it, there I was, me- giving her speech, with her name on the banner underneath. My first thought was to get in touch, apologise. But I just wasn’t brave enough, wasn’t bold enough and the moment passed and we travelled home.

And then it came, a week later, by post, not even by email, a short note, three words, ‘We should meet.’ And so there I stood, waiting outside the coffee shop for the woman I had impersonated, who’s speech I had given. I had no idea what to say, I was so embarrassed. And there she was, a little taller than me, same hair colour sort of, different colouring, not my sense of style.

And so we sat for coffee and she thanked me and showed me her other speeches, all of them given by different women, all of them just whoever was there, like some kind of weird experiment, and that’s what it was, at least how it started – as some weird experiment. She had a mad fear of public speaking and so at conferences she angled it so someone else gave her speech and she discovered that almost no one spoke up, no woman took exception and nor did the men, men who knew who it was, who knew it wasn’t her, said nothing. All of them complicit.

And then she told me more, she wasn’t the only one, lots of women did it, they just subbed in to whoever was close to the stage. There was a club, a group, on line, off line, all of them, quietly lauding their victories. It had long since stopped being a way of avoiding public speaking and become more a way of just subtly undermining the status quo.

She gave me her card with a phone number, in case I ever had to speak at my own conference. She said she would arrange it, make it happen so someone else could speak. She said she couldn’t remember the last time any woman ever gave her own speech at an international conference. It just doesn’t happen.

Of course, I was horrified, I would never do such a thing, until of course. It was just a small speech, a nothing speech, a tiny conference, a nothing topic, a general topic, nothing specific, but well, I mean you would, wouldn’t you? And no one noticed, and no one was harmed and so the chain goes on. And if you are speaking next, well get in touch, we can sort something out.

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