A Nervous Beginning


My name is Dr. Martin Travis, Mart to my friends, and I am Project Director at Xantia Pharmaceuticals, near High Wycombe. I had had a rotten trip to Marbirch. The train connection was late leaving London and this put me behind schedule, but I did have an opportunity to go over my lecture notes for my talk this evening. The taxi from the station took me the short journey from the railway station to the venue, an old looking Victorian style building. In the late evening sunlight just before dusk the white frontage looked as though it had recently been painted and the outside appeared to be well maintained much like the gardens, now with the flowering borders in full bloom. It looked lovely and this served to cheer me up a little. I would be the first to admit that I was nervous. Tonight, I was standing in for one of my Project Managers who had been taken ill quite suddenly only two days ago.

As I entered the complex, there were two young women, girls really, chatting away in the way girls do. Talking excitedly about a party.

"Are you going to Pamela's party on Saturday night, Sharon?" the dark haired girl had asked.

"You bet," responded Sharon. "You should know by now, Angela, I wouldn't miss that for anything. You know how good they are. I don't know how Pammy knows so many blokes, but it's the place to meet new people."

"Good evening, ladies. I am Dr. Martin Travis and I am here to deliver the talk tonight. Can you please show me where I can prepare myself."

They broke off their conversation when I spoke. Even without the benefit of shoes, I am almost 6' 4" tall. I am somewhat thin with a sallow complexion. I must have looked like Dracula because when they turned, they couldn't hide their surprise. Even shock.

One of the girls, Angela she said her name was, took me down to a dimly lit area that housed the dressing rooms. This underground area was quite spooky especially in the gloom. We chatted about the local area and I asked if she was looking forward to the party on Saturday night. She had looked puzzled and a little anxious until I said that I had overheard some of their conversation when I arrived. She smiled pleasantly and said that she was. A very amiable young lady was Angela and for a very brief while I had forgotten about my nervousness.

The dressing room that I had been shown into may have been, and probably still is, a performer's dressing room. It was adorned with the old style lightbulbs surrounding the mirror, which gave it a very dated look. The paintwork on the walls was a little shabby, but it did somehow go well with this old building. It had real character and I liked it. I thanked Angela and she left.

When I had said to "prepare myself" it was really a private joke, although I wasn't laughing. I really had to prepare myself. I was absolutely terrified about this forthcoming presentation. The countdown had started a long while ago, but it was only about an hour to go now.

I recalled seventeen years earlier and my very first oral presentation. I have always felt that this was a near disaster. I had felt that the talk had gone well, but I had ended feeling very bothered about what people had thought of it all. I can clearly remember it as though it were yesterday, me feeling very self-conscious and not really concentrating on what I was saying. It was only because I was well prepared that I carried it off reasonably well. At least that's what I'd hoped. I couldn't help myself thinking about what people may have been thinking. What they thought of me. Standing there. My appearance still does not inspire people. I know that much. The feedback at the time was quite positive, but nobody would mention the delivery of my presentation and I was reluctant to ask in case I heard what may have confirmed my fears.

Peter Maybury knocked at my door and was the host who would introduce me. We went over the details of my backgound to check the accuracy of the information and when we had satisfied ourselves that this was all correct, Peter left me alone with my thoughts.

I checked my watch. Only half an hour to go. An age. Not far enough away to forget and too close to ignore. I must have rechecked my watch every minute over the next twenty minutes. Only ten minutes to go. I used the toilet. I just knew I'd need the toilet half way through my talk! I collected my notes and went towards the stage. Angela had pointed out the way I should go when we had come down to the basement area. Was this really only an hour ago?

Peter Maybury met me at the stage door and my watch showed it was almost time to begin my presentation. I am a stickler for good punctuality. Never arrive early as it could be interpreted as I hadn't much else to do. Or arrive late: poor organisation skills. Just on time. We crossed the stage to the lectern that seemed a mile away and I counted each step of the way. Twelve of my long strides. I must have looked like a nodding donkey with my shoulders and head pushed forwards presenting my usual posture. I don't inspire people with this. I know I don't. I knew I wasn't smiling and I probably looked really miserable. I felt miserable. I knew all this, but I still couldn't raise my mood to the occasion.

My host introduced me and this was met with warm applause. I was certain that this was just formal courtesy. I hoped that all the slides had been loaded and set up properly. They had been brought down that morning by the technical crew and had been handed over by Andrew, the Project Manager, earlier in the week before he had been taken ill. I knew Andrew was efficient and thorough and I had little to worry about here. But worry I did. I worried a lot. My lateness at the venue caused by the delay in London left me no time to run through the slideshow. Just to check. And I didn't like being late even though it could not have been prevented. My panic was on the increase!

The clock above the door to the bar area showed that I should begin. I had centre stage and a packed auditorium for sixty minutes. One hour. My mouth wouldn't work. My worst nightmare was coming true. Almost as a self-fulfilling prophesy, I had frozen as I'd seen myself do in my imagination many times before. I had this nearly overwhelming desire to run, but my legs wouldn't work either. At least I didn't fall over! My mouth refused to open and even if it did I was sure that only hot air would come out. Dracula breathing hot air. What a picture. And this was all I could see right now. I felt a cold sweat break out on my forehead. Standing on stage in front of several hundred people each one of them highly respected in their field. I was hot and my mouth terribly dry. I felt very uncomfortable.

Five seconds ticked by. I was sure I could hear the clock ticking in the deafening silence of the auditorium. I felt sick. I grew hotter and became very aware that I must look ridiculous. I was getting more flustered and embarrassed and I hadn't done anything yet. Project Director of Xantia Pharmaceuticals and rooted to the ground in terror. Nothing!

Ten seconds had gone by. I was getting even hotter under the bright lights and the audience seemed to have dissolved into that brightness. If only I could dissappear like that. Not likely from my position in front of everyone on the stage and under these stage lights. Although I couldn't see the audience anymore I knew they were there. Several hundred people all waiting expectantly. I felt absolutely terrible.

Fifteen seconds now. Only 15 seconds! I had been standing on stage for 15 seconds and it seemed an age. Looking stupid. Doing nothing. Saying nothing. I wasn't looking at anything in particular and I was not aware of seeing anyone. But they were there. All of them. Hundreds of eyes looking at me. Me! Oh no! There goes that nervous twitch near my right eye again. It must be noticed as though I am waving my arms about saying; "Look at me. Twitcher Travis!"

Twenty seconds gone by. I had become aware of the audience beginning to murmur and this made me feel worse. I reached for the glass jug in front of me and poured out some water. Did my hand shake much? I didn't spill any water.

Then, remarkably, I remember it all happened in almost flash. Literally a dawning. I am amazed that I could have reasoned so much in such a short time - just a few seconds. It was as though I knew this argument already and didn't really need to work through it. It just happened. It felt as though I'd opened that locked door that never seemed to budge. A recurring nightmare that wouldn't go away had left me. Gone. People had come tonight to hear me. Our research is good and sound. My knowledge is good. I know my subject and I had developed the original idea. I am directing it, aren't I? I no longer felt self conscious. I don't remember feeling anything. I wasn't conscious of thinking about anything but why I was here. My sense of focus had returned. I was here to give a talk. And it would be a good talk. I was thinking in a way that only a few minutes ago I thought was no longer possible.

Twenty six seconds and I was calm.

Twenty seven seconds and I felt good. I felt really good. The murmurings had increased in crescendo to what seemed almost a shout. I am sure I heard somebody call out: "Get on with it, Travis!"

Twenty eight seconds gone. I remember myself thinking that even though it's early days in the project, some prototype compounds had been synthesised and results were so far encouraging. We had established the proof of concept.

Twenty nine seconds now. The project is looking good. Very good. And I am getting the funding I need. Why am I worrying? These people wouldn't be here, would they? To hear about the new research area of mood control. To hear the arguments in support of my theories. My theories. Mimicking natural products that boost mood.

A sip of water. A quick cough to clear my moistened throat. This seemed almost designed to wake up the audience since the loud murmurings were silenced by it.

Thirty five seconds.

"Mood. Something that affects us all." I had started. "I will describe the outline of our project, where we are now and hope to be in six months."

The hour was almost gone and I felt elated. Not because my time was nearly up, but because I was really enjoying myself. I could scarcely believe it. Actually enjoying myself. I must allow time for questions though the wine mixer afterwards would provide ample time for the more interesting questions. I never used to like socialising after this type of event, but tonight was different. I was going to enjoy it and I looked forward to it.

The presentation went without a hitch. The slideshow was perfect and used some really innovative ideas that worked exceptionally well. I must remember to congratulate Andrew on his slideshow. First class. I walked off-stage in the wake of loud applause and I felt a little embarrassed though now for a very different reason than when I last felt this way. I could feel my head held high and I felt as though I stood seven feet tall with my back held straight and shoulders no longer angled forward. I could feel the beaming smile across my face and a bouncing lift to my gait.

The applause was evidence enough that the audience liked what I had talked about. Liked me? I had made quite a few spontaneous jokes as my talk developed and they had been received with laughter.

While I was talking with a colleague at the wine mixer afterwards, he said:

"I thought you'd lost it, though I am sure nobody noticed as it appeared to be part of the opening gambit. Tell me - was it deliberate because I am not sure myself. Is there a magic first compound already? It's as though you'd taken a sample! Anyway, it really worked well and your timing was magnificent."

That half a minute's silence had seemed like an age and it was! I had aged from being a scared and nervous kid to something more fitting with my position. I am a professional and all I had done was let myself go. To risk it. Chance it. I realised I'd forgotten how. To behave like a kid, but moderated by the maturity and experience of a forty seven year-old adult. Is that the real secret? Not just familiarity with a subject. There's more to it than that, surely. But it seems like there's not all that much more at all. Just let go. Sounded simple.

Yes. I'd lost it. My nervousness and my fears had evaporated. I seem to have lost that irritating twitch near my eye too. So it seemed as though I'd taken a sample of our own research efforts, did it? There isn't a compound in a clinical trial yet, perhaps none is needed. It would be best to keep that to myself!

The roar of applause from within the auditorium signalled the next busy period as the auditorium doors burst open and the audience poured out in a very excited mood. Now that it was time for the wine mixer the cocktail waitresses started to mingle with their trays of drinks.

Later that evening, Sharon was overheard asking Angela "Who's the dishy guy at the centre of that group over there?"

Angela answered: "He's the chap who gave the talk. Remember Dracula? Miserable old stoopy?"

"Never!" She gasped.

© Louis Brothnias (2005)

Creative Acre