(or, the further trials and tribulations of being a person who stammers)
People who actually go out to work and contribute to that scary thing known as Society will be familiar with the workplace activity known as the ‘ice breaker’ – unlike those of us who sit about the house all day occasionally tapping out blog posts, or making pathetic attempts at knitting microscopic jumpers for their little Sylvanian family (for which they’ve no pattern and have to make the thing up as they go along, meaning lots of tiny misshapen bits of wool get chucked in the bin) or who sporadically do a bit of hoovering, washing up and dusting.
Thankfully, being a housewife for the last 28 years, I’ve escaped the nightmarish ice breaking activity, whereby strangers sit around a table and engage in activities designed to turn them into lifelong buddies (or into people who might refrain from going all celebrity Big Brother in the workplace) – but last Monday evening changed all that.
Only those of us who stammer (or the constitutionally shy) will understand the fear of God that was driven into this atheist’s heart when, at choir rehearsal a week ago (an activity usually registering about a 3 on my Anxiety Richter Magnitude scale) the lead committee member suddenly stood up, grabbed a microphone and announced that the following week the choir’s AGM would take place, and those in power had decided to make this a communal event, instead of just Committee members, via a Social, whereby choir members would be given a number on arrival and would have to sit at that numbered table, so they could get to know people they normally wouldn’t talk to (my Anxiety Richter scale shot rapidly up to 10.) He emphasised that we MUST sit at our allocated table and would we also sign up to provide cakes and the suchlike on our way out – thank you very much.
The jolly woman next to me turned and said ‘ooh that sounds nice doesn’t it’, and I smiled and nodded, inwardly screaming (like that bloke in the picture by Edvard Munch) ‘Help Me!,’ and thinking ‘Why did I start coming to this choir thing anyway’ and ‘Maybe I can engineer something catastrophic but non-life threatening, by next week, so I don’t have to turn up – something like a domestic gas explosion that obliterates the house but leaves the occupants intact?’ In case you’re thinking ‘good luck with that one matey’ – this EXACT scenario happened a couple of weeks ago and was splashed all over the front pages in my local Co-op. Or I could have gone with a massive sink hole suddenly appearing down our street.
Pulling myself back to reality, I signed up to bring 6 cakes along on my way out (I felt duty bound) and unfortunately that signature sealed my choir related doom, as I’m the sort of person who feels that if she’s signed her life away, in terms of cake bringing, then she has to turn up with said cakes. One of the two women I joined the choir with then rushed over to me and said ‘don’t worry, we’ll make them let you sit with one of us next week’ and then, like Elvis, left the building.
The run-up to the dreaded AGM practically ruined the usually quiet, calm and reassuringly non-exciting nature of an average week in the life of yours truly. ‘ How can you be worrying about something that’s happening next week? asked the bemused husband. ‘Just don’t go!! was another of his helpful suggestions. Again, only those people cursed with anticipatory anxiety and a rubbishy sense of duty, will know the horror of imagining yourself, on a daily basis, seated in a big hall, trying to communicate with a table full of strangers – when you STAMMER.
As the week wore on I began to think: ‘I won’t be allowed to sit with the women I know; that bloke stressed the table number thing ,so I did what I always do in such terrifying circumstances – I started writing to people I don’t actually know (the keyboard doesn’t stammer) telling them how I felt about the AGM. That’s right, I emailed people on the committee (well, a woman who, like me, is from Yorkshire, thinking she might have some fellow Northern feeling) re: my worries about the ice breaker thing and did they think I should turn up when things were unlikely to go smoothly for the people unfortunate enough to get stuck with me on their table?
A reply whizzed back saying not to worry, that she would tell committee members to seat me next to at least one person I did know and was it ok but she’d copied the rest of the committee in on my email! Yikes – but you’re used to embarrassing yourself on a daily basis re: the stammer, I told myself, what does an entire committee reading your stupid email amount to? (That kind of thought works best if you don’t think about it too much.)
The night of the horrific AGM came around too quickly; like when you’ve finished work on a Friday and, before you know it, it’s Monday again. I met one of the two women I kind of know at the entrance and she ushered me over to the registration bloke, rapidly explaining that I’d be sitting with her, so could we have the same numbered table. The registration bloke said he ‘knew all about it’ (with some exasperation, as he had to shuffle his little numbered strips around and made a great point of doing this) and we also had to write our names on sticky labels, affixing them to our tops and then we both sat down at table number 7, which was strewn with various bits of paper.
We sat there discussing scary health issues (which seems to be the default setting for most general conversations) whilst the hall gradually filled, and then the rest of our table started showing up. Meanwhile a young lad, in a wheelchair, arrived at the neighbouring table leading to guilt-ridden thoughts such as ‘blimey he’s in a wheelchair and all I do is stammer.’
Our table comprised a young slip of a girl (19, she told us), a woman in her early 60’s, a 70 year old retired midwife from Finland (heavy accent and a new choir member) and a red-faced bloke (75). My friend immediately announced to the table that I had a stammer and would be unable to easily answer any questions. ‘What’s that?’ the woman in her 60’s replied, cupping her hand around one ear (slightly deaf it turned out.) So my friend shouted the whole embarrassing stammering thing again, whilst I took myself off to a happier place, and the 19 year old said OK, whilst checking out her phone, and the 75 year old bloke said: ‘what was that?’ to the woman who still hadn’t got it. Praying that my well intentioned friend wouldn’t make a third announcement, the meeting suddenly got underway.
We sang warm up things for half an hour and then the register bloke (who turned out to be a big noise on the committee) made a speech about a vision of what the choir should be and where the monthly fees go to (two charities.) Then we had refreshments which turned out to be a choice between cake, cake or more cake (all donated by Mr Kipling) with a few Pringles thrown in. Then the ice breaker got underway, which was a series of quizzes, which wasn’t too bad at all, particularly as two sections were all about novelty songs (think Lonnie Donegan) and the titles of ancient classical music pieces that only I and the 19 year old were totally unable to provide answers to – ‘hurray I’m not as old as I thought,’ was one positive side effect of the evening. The 19 year old shone, however, on the stills from fairly recent West End musicals and the film musical, declaring dramatically that ‘High School Musical was my life!!’ when it appeared on the overhead screen. She equally shone when it came to re-marking our quiz sheets, after the next table had marked them, when she took umbrage at the fact that they’d marked some of our answers as wrong, even if we’d got them mostly right, so she wrote ½ instead of an X, against these answers causing general hilarity at her competitive determination and ability to shout down the next table when they dared to accuse her of rigging the numbers. (To be fair she knew most everyone in the room.)
Everyone was in highly competitive mode and the only contribution I made the entire evening was to come up with ‘Jake the Peg’ (novelty song) – ‘oh dear it’s that horrid paedophile,’ my friend muttered under her breath – and The Floral Dance, cos it was just on the tip of everyone’s tongue but nobody could get it. I was under instructions from my helpful friend to write my answers down then show everyone, so I didn’t hold things up answering-time wise – she was a very committed quizzicist (?)
Then I went home, heaving a sigh of relief that the torturous event was over and wondering at the fact that people actually enjoy this kind of thing.