This story was longlisted in the London Independent Short Story Prize in December, 2019. My interview with LISP talks about the story’s theme and writing in general.
By the time I was standing on stage at the Congress Centre in Bloomsbury, plastic clicker in hand and a mic tucked behind my left ear, my sense of being othered was keen enough. He stood up in the middle of the full crowd. His hands rested on the back of the chair in front of him, inhabited by a woman whom I found myself watching as he spoke. She leant forward as if the embarrassment of touching a stranger in a crowd was on her, not him.
He was gesturing, almost shouting. You’re fundamentally wrong, he bellowed. I’ve been in this industry for twenty-three years and it’s never been done like that. You can’t waltz in and say, I’m the expert!
He stood back. I noticed a flex from the woman as she checked: is it okay to move? She eased back cautiously. He was still standing, waiting for his answer.
I think, I said, that we’ll have to agree to disagree.
Chuffed but indignant: could you be both at once? He puffled.
Whatever, Melissa, he said.
It sounded like a cop-out but I had spent thirty-five minutes delivering a presentation with the opposite opinion to his, an opinion based on my ten (not twenty-three, woe is me) years’ experience. Pray: pray to the ceiling-mounted stage lights, pray to the softly brushed floorboards, pray to the MC, pray that nobody else asks a question. The man sat down and folded his arms. A quick turn of the head to nod at his neighbours. Showed her.
His review of my talk, emailed to me by the organiser two weeks later, called me shrill. Another reviewer noted that I was hot.
How can you tell me you’re lonely? I’ll show you something to make you change your mind.
We need more female speakers, they’d kept saying. Females, they’d said. They’d copped some shit on Twitter last time because there weren’t any, they’d said. They hadn’t put it like that. How few could they get away with? As a first go-around they’d settled on one.
Afterwards, we were shepherded to a pub, far too small for the five-hundred attendees. The soles of my Mary Jane heels made sick cracking sounds, sticking to the lager-soaked floor.
What’s a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this? the next bloke asked, jovially overbearing, and for a moment I became the woman in the seat, leaning in embarrassment away from an awkwardness that I didn’t create and that would sound fake when I retold it later. He grabbed my chair. He used the ‘pretty girl in a place like this’ line. Five-hundred people, and here were two of them, making their mark.
I did the talk about attribution modelling.
At least he blanched. I’m sorry, of course. Of course! Here are my thoughts. Have you ever considered that fact that you know nothing?
I took my beer with me on the bus home. A bitter, a free token, like it knew and it understood.