I don't want to be a brick in a wall. All bricks look the same and they are cemented into place, kept in rigid order. And walls divide. And life is like banging your head...

Communication let me down

I went on a two-day course at the weekend and I now have a piece of paper saying I have been on a two-day course. It's a piece of paper that means I can teach English as a Foreign Language. It will be useful. The course was OK. I met a few nice people and overall we had a laugh. By far the most exciting thing about the weekend however, is the short story I was inspired to write as a result of it. Here it is:

Miss Love

I can't believe I got drunk last night. The whole point of staying in was to keep a clear head for today. I simply didn't want a hangover when I had a twelve hour course to get through.

Walking to the train helped a little. The fresh air and the exercise began the process of shifting the alcohol and toxins from my head, my stomach, my joints...

The course was being held in a city centre hotel, a short walk from the station. I didn't feel too bad when I arrived, maybe a little drunk still, but I was OK. I knew the worst was yet to come. I asked at reception and was directed to the conference room.

People were already mingling, filling the room with polite chatter. I ignored everyone and headed for the hospitality coffee. One cup, two cups. I walked towards the water cooler with my third cup nearly finished. One cup of water with a hint of coffee. Another water, clearer now. The water that is, not me.

“Shall we make a start?” The voice of a gentle, white-haired lady.

The room becomes more ordered. People file to chairs. Everyone seems to be with someone. They're not really, it's just that I'm the only one who has spent the past fifteen minutes rehydrating. Most people have at least said hello to someone, shared a little small talk and then naturally, sat down next to someone.

I seek out an unoccupied chair. I take a look around the room, paying attention to the faces of the people I will spend the next 12 hours with. I find it hard to focus. It's not quite 9 in the morning. I should be in bed. My hangover arrives, right on cue.

“Let's begin with a few introductions. I'm sure the older students here will be used to this kind of format but for some...”

Why did she look at me? I'm sure I was looked at, looked at with a knowing smile. Has she labelled me as older?

Never mind. It doesn't really matter. I'll never meet any of these people again. I mean, look at them. I take a closer look at the faces sat on conference chairs laid out in a semi-circle.

“Hi, I'm Sara. I'm 21 and I live in London.”

Oh my god! How did I miss her? I really must be drunk still. Sara is lovely. Shabby chic, slim, confident, for a girl of 21. She makes eye contact with everyone in turn as she speaks. She smiles charmingly. I find myself staring at her. I'm still staring at her when she makes eye contact with me.

Fuck. It was obvious I was staring. I look away quickly and my thoughts scramble as my vision blurs, knocked off balance by the sudden swirl. I'm not paying attention. The fog of the night before doesn't let me.

I become aware that the room is quiet. I realise, slightly too late for it to go unnoticed, that it's already my turn. Six people have gone since Sara, and I haven't listened to a word they've said.

“Sorry. Umm. I'm Rob. I'm thirty-seven and I'm a painter...a painter and decorator.”

“Thanks Rob”, says the course leader, whose name I must have missed.

Shit. A painter and decorator. Why did I say that? That's what I do. It doesn't describe who I am. I look across at Sara, just to check my first impressions. She's gorgeous. And she's not looking at me.

The course leader introduces the first task. It's a getting to know you task. Ask 8 people the same question, a question that begins with, “Have you ever...” I try to think of a question that might suggest more about who I am not what I do. I want to avoid questions like, “Have you ever emulsioned a ceiling?”

“Have you ever been skiing?” It's a good question. It suggests financial success, foreign travel and adventure. It shows I'm fit, coordinated. I'll ask seven people quickly and then Sara. She'll answer yes, I'll ask her where and before you know it we'll be laughing and touching each other's forearms.

Courseleader checks that we all have a suitable question. She picks someone at random. It's a good teacher technique.

“Helen, what question are you going to ask?”

“Have you ever been skiing?”



“Okay, time's up. Let's see what you found out. Rob, what did you find out?”

“I found out that 6 people have emulsioned a ceiling and 2 people haven't.” I don't know if Sara ever has, because I never got the chance to ask her. Probably just as well.

“Thanks Rob. Sara, what did you find out?”

“I found out that no-one has learned to juggle.”

I have! I can cascade and reverse cascade three balls. I can do the same with three clubs. I can do four balls. I can catch a ball on my foot, hold it there, and then flick it up and carry on juggling. I have learned to juggle. I've even taught people how to juggle. Why didn't you ask me?


I survive until the coffee break, although coffee is used here euphemistically. There is no coffee. The course fee only includes the reception coffee.

I go to the toilet. My urine is orange and smells. I wash my hands, then my face. My skin absorbs the moisture. I don't need the hand dryer.

I return to the room and the water cooler. The plastic beakers are too small. They make me look greedy. I can't circulate. I can't talk to anyone. I take a step back from the water dispenser to allow someone else to use it, then I step forward, cup empty, for a refill.

Sara stands with a group of people. She is neither the centre of attention nor in the background. She listens with her eyes, and speaks with a smile. She has nice teeth.

“Let's start again shall we?”

I wish I knew her name.


The period up to lunch is difficult; Full-blown hangover with associated thumping head, stiff neck and growing nausea. I hear next to nothing, I volunteer nothing and I contribute less than nothing.

Sara asks a thoughtful question, relates the lesson to a personal experience and makes the room chuckle.

When lunchtime comes I head for the toilet again, piss bright orange liquid and leave the building to seek out food and fresh air.

I crave bacon. The salt and animal fat is what I need. I sit on a street bench with the pig in a bap and a bottle of Lucozade. The nausea grows but I know this is good, what I need. I use every remaining minute to walk the back streets. I try to exercise, to exorcise, the nausea. <

I step back into the conference room as Brown Owl is beginning.


My head slowly begins to clear. I make my first contribution. It's intelligent and subtle. There is a moment's pause and I can sense I have made people think. I've made my first impression. I notice what other's are saying. I figure out that Brown Owl is in fact Dorothy. I continue to stare at Sara, but now when she sees that I'm staring, I can cover my tracks.

At times I play the hungover card and continue to stare as if through her. I out-stare her, looking away only after she has. I make sure that she notices me staring in the same vacant way at others in the room. At other times, I simply smile and look away quickly, as if our eyes met by chance.


By evening I am feeling normal. I still haven't spoken to her and the longer this goes on, the more I know that I never will.

The class is into two groups for our final task of the day. We have to prepare to lead a short session. I deliver my session to my group with enthusiasm. I make my audience laugh. I am engaging, charming even. Sara is in the other group. I knew she would be, even before Dorothy put our names on the wall.

The evening session draws to a close. Dorothy calls us together in our semi-circle one last time. We are to receive our certificates. Dorothy reads out our names and we step forward to shake her hand and collect the piece of paper. Each person gets a round of applause from the group.

One by one, Dorothy calls our names. It's interesting because we only know each other by our first names.

“Rob Cooper.” I step forward and receive my certificate, signed by Dorothy Prince.

I sit back down and wait for one other name.

“Sara Love.”

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