The conference room was filling up when they arrived; and half a dozen waiters and waitresses were circling the room with silver coffee pots, and salvers loaded high with a variety of bite-sized pastries. Julia accepted a cup of coffee and one pastry, watching in amusement whilst Angela tried to juggle with her impractical designer handbag, coffee cup and four pastries. Putting her cup down beside her, she rescued Angela’s bag, guided her down onto a chair and allowed herself a few moments to indulge in scanning the room to see what kind of people might be attracted to what was advertised as a ‘weekend of alternative experiences’.
Of the twenty-five or so people attending the event Julia had already separated the professionals from the interested amateurs and the anything-to-get-away-for- the-weekend women. She thought she recognised a couple of people from a conference she’d attended in the summer and was pleased to receive some smiles of recognition back.
The organisers sat at the front of the room facing the attendees, and clutching his coffee cup and looking very self-conscious, so was the guest speaker. There was no sign of a pastry in his hand; he wouldn’t have risked it in case it made him cough or choke, or even worse, left him with a smear of syrup on his face. He glanced around the room at that moment and caught Julia looking at him. His smile, genuinely warm and spontaneous, made her feel quite peculiar and she found herself blushing and making a ‘thumbs up’ gesture to him. Most unlike her. It made his smile broaden even further however and he made the gesture back, more covertly than she had but then everyone was looking at him, not at her.
Angela had finished her pastries at last and stood up to brush the crumbs off onto the floor. Julia pulled her back down onto her seat again as one of the organisers got up and walked over to the microphone. The next ten minutes were taken up with the usual effusive welcomes, domestic explanations and a run through of the agenda. The first speaker was a rather dry academic who talked at length about his theories on sociopaths. Julia would usually have found him quite interesting, if only for the fact that most of his hypotheses were taken from research already carried out by far more respected psychologists and psychiatrists than himself. Had she been organising the event, she would probably have put him on first as well, and noted with relief that he wasn’t giving any more talks over the weekend.
People were beginning to shuffle their feet and there was much clinking of coffee cups as the audience looked for distraction. The speaker would have gone on obliviously if it hadn’t been for the timely intervention of one of the organisers, who got to his feet and very gently reminded him that he’d gone over his time. The academic looked a little bewildered but thanked the audience and sat down to a gratefully enthusiastic round of applause.
The waitresses took the opportunity of the hiatus to retrieve the coffee cups and pastry plates; most of the audience dashed out for comfort breaks; some to the lavatory and others to the smoker’s gazebo at the end of the building. Julia stretched her legs and arched her back wondering why conference chairs were always so damn uncomfortable. Perhaps it was to stop you nodding off in the dull bits. The dim receptionist wandered in waving a piece of paper and made a beeline for Angela and Julia.
“Mrs Price?” she gabbled “there’s a message for you. I think the lady said she was your sister or something?”
Angela took the paper and went outside onto the terrace, having motioned for Julia to stay where she was. People were filing back into the room now and Julia could see that her guest speaker was on next. Blast Angela! She’d disappeared from sight now and although Julia felt she should go out and see what was wrong she really didn’t want to leave and miss what was probably the high point of the weekend.
He started with an energy that belied his shyness, and within moments his candid stand up routine had the sluggish audience roaring with laughter. His humour was raw; cruel and personal about himself and his failings and neuroses. Whilst most of her was laughing and she was glad she’d worn waterproof mascara, Julia saw through the humour and empathised with the obsessive compulsive within. Listening to him lay himself open to a bunch of strangers made her wonder if this was his therapy; the only way he could cope with the compulsions that dominated his life. Well-used to the stringent timings of the comedy circuit and possessed of extreme self-discipline, his routine finished on time and brought the agenda back on schedule with a standing ovation from the audience, the organisers and the staff who had sneaked in at the back of the room when they heard the laughter.
He sat down, flushed and breathless but smiling and as Julia wiped the tears of mirth from her eyes with a slightly sticky napkin that Angela had left behind, she saw him give her a small but very definite ‘thumbs-up’. Pleased that he was happy with his performance, Julia couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed that Angela had missed out on seeing it. People were gathering up their belongings prior to going into the adjoining room for a buffet lunch so Julia went in search of her friend and walked into the entrance hall just in time to see a small pink car hurtling up the driveway. The receptionist thrust an envelope into her hand. Inside was a note in Angela’s unmistakeably loopy hand.
“Dear Joolz, Have to go home. Rod’s had another of his little turns – nothing serious but he’s been to hospital and needs some TLC. PLEASE stay and enjoy your lovely man. Gutted that I’m going to miss him but you can buy me his DVD when it comes out and I promise I’ll read his book if you lend it to me. Hell, I may even buy my own copy. I might learn something. Wish your patients were as gorgeous as he is. I’ll text you later. Loads of Love Ange.”