I trip towards the lectern in my high-heels. I’m not sure which is most oppressive: the excessive heat or my boss Benner’s expectations. Benner sits icy-faced in the front row, ready for his prestigious keynote speech. Typical, leaving me the graveyard session. Friday afternoon, straight after lunch. I’d rather doze.
Passing the glass fire-escape door beside the stage, my gaze lingers on rolling lawns bordered by lavender, shady ornamental oaks, landscaped hotel grounds. I sigh, and stretch my mouth into a smile at the fidgeting delegates fanning themselves with their brochures. Outside, outside, rattles my brain.
I kick off my stupid stilettos. ‘That’s better,’ I say, stretching cramped and sweaty toes. ‘Can you still see me at the back?’
A buzz of laughter boosts me, though Benner frowns a warning. I was so sure that anything, anything would be easier than teaching children, but reading Benner’s dull script to conference delegates on a hot afternoon wasn’t what I expected.
‘Resiliency for Small Companies During Recessionary Times,’ I read aloud. Silence. I’ve just warmed them up, only to bring them down. They’re waiting for a punchline, so I take a deep breath and make my choice. ‘The small company is agile, flexible…’ I read. I scan ahead and sigh. I can’t do this.
‘Who wrote this dire stuff?’ I ask. (Benner.)
Chortles rumble like summer thunder. They sit forward to listen, but I’ll have to face a storm later.
‘Remember those drowsy summer afternoons in school? Dull lessons spent gazing out over the sports field and all you want is to be outside?’ There’s a murmur of recognition. ‘I’m this afternoon’s cover teacher, so: Jackets off, shoes and socks too if you dare, follow me out - there’s a lush lawn waiting. Enjoy the grass between your toes.’
Benner’s thundery face says I’ve gone too far. I open the fire escape door and leave before he can intervene. Blessed relief of shifting air, springy grass beneath my feet. What have I done?
I’ll walk and keep walking until this nightmare is left far behind. I’ll walk back into the classroom if I have to.
Benner’s voice booms over the microphone in the hall: ‘Delegates, please ignore my young colleague’s practical joke. Remain in your seats. I’ll be leading this session now.’
I look back and see them elbow him aside, stream past him like water. Stepping out onto the tickly grass, they gossip and giggle.
Despite the heat, they follow me like sheep. I spy a low wall which I climb onto, tricky in this business dress, and turn to face them.
I pretend I can’t see Benner, arm-waving, signalling to stop.
‘You have five minutes,’ I say, scrabbling for discarded classroom ideas. ‘Sit down, make yourself comfortable. Find something tiny - an ant, a rosebud, blade of grass, a fir-cone, a cloud. Observe it closely.’
They stroll off, sit, gaze into flower-beds, even lie back on the grass. Shirtsleeves are shoved up arms and trouser legs are unevenly rolled. By the time Benner reaches my impromptu stage-wall, I’ve relocated further away to a wooden bench shaded by an oak. There is a human shield of delegates between Benner and me, and I’ll try to keep it that way. Stuffing my index fingers into the
corners of my mouth, I whistle sharply and smile as my flock responds and groups around me. Benner edges closer.
‘Marvellous fun, this session, er… young lady, and er, Mr Benner,’ says the CEO. ‘Keep it up.’ I watch as Benner’s frown upends into a rictus smile. I didn’t know he could smile. Maybe neither did he.
‘Grab the nearest person, so long as it’s someone you’ve never met before,’ I improvise. ‘Sit somewhere pleasant, and share your close observations. Apply this close observation to the product your company makes and sells. How might it change your view of your business model?’
The delegates pair up, chat, share their new-found treasures like children on the beach.
The CEO rolls up his trouser legs, splashes into the hotel’s ornamental fountain and offers his hand to a young blonde, who steps neatly in beside him, narrow skirt hoiked above shapely knees.
The hotel staff wheel out the trolley with tea and biscuits. My outdoor session is officially sanctioned. Even Benner squats on the edge of the pool, veined-white feet dangling into the cold water. I splash in beside him, feeling cool and calm and ready to face the heat of his anger.
‘I suppose you’ve made it a memorable session,’ he mutters, and won’t catch my eye.
‘What next, young lady?’ asks the CEO. Benner looks up.
I sigh. ‘To be honest, I’ve no idea how to carry on.’
‘Scrap Benner’s keynote speech. We need to stay outdoors. Can’t you teach us all to whistle like that?’