Now that I come to think of it, I’m not sure the best way to make friends with a stranger is to launch up to them, grab their shoulder and inform them that they have to protect you.
Especially if you’re perspiring and in heels. There are things that can go wrong. You could trip and land with your face in their groin. Your sweat could splatter on their new silk tie. Your heels could stab their toe, you might shatter their clavicle. They might think you’re mental and call for security, et cetera, et cetera.
But every now and then, if it’s the only thing you’ve got, you should just go with it and hope for the best.
So I recognised the critically-acclaimed author of eleven works of fiction and nine works of non-fiction, Joseph Connolly – by his impressive beard. What else – it’s not like he was wearing a Rio carnival basket of his books splayed out amongst pineapples on his head. It wasn’t that sort of occasion.
It was the Editors Society Regional Press Awards. Which meant lots of men in grey, blue and black looking very ‘newsy’, and the odd woman. (Though rather too few for the disparity in the count not to register.)
The hotel was nuzzled against a street named Sussex Gardens. I recognised the name. I texted my mum; yes, that was where her and Dad had first had a flat, back in the late 70s. I felt warm. I went in.
I stood awkwardly in the foyer, shifting in my heels and looking, I suspect, like a corporate hooker on her first gig. Then I went down to the bowels of the hotel and the massive room all set out like a swanky news type shindig.
I balked. I nearly turned around and left. I had no place being here. I was not ‘newsy’, I don’t read the news, I don’t watch the news. I get my ‘the news’ from a Fleet Street reporter friend and trust everything she says. If she told me the UN was demolishing the world at 3pm I’d stick a colander on my head, and generally make hay until Ka-Boom o’ clock; maybe go looting just to see what all the fuss is about.
I was also, it’s not irrelevant to mention, in a state of mild to medium discomfiture because I was wearing a ‘columnisty’ dress that I had bought online so I didn’t have to go real shopping, and in my panic and self-loathing had bought two sizes too big just so I knew it would definitely ‘fit’. I had to gather it round the back and cinch it in with a belt to keep from looking too weird. If I’d lifted my arms up at the sides I would have looked like one of those dinosaurs that looks harmless until approached but which then splays its concertina head-wings and kills you with its flaps. The only thing that comforted me was the fact it came from Marks and Spencer and nothing bad can ever happen to you if you’re wearing something from Marks and Spencer. It is British Law.
I stood awkwardly by the door with my champagne, trying to make it last, like a lady. And then I saw Joseph Connolly.
“Joseph! Joseph Connolly! Hullo! I’m in your category, and I don’t know anyone, and…” (cue my speech tailing off into general nonsense…)
Joseph Connolly looked at me with both kindness and gravity, like an author who’d just been commandeered by someone with poor award ceremony etiquette, as he had. He turned from his suited industry man friend to talk to me, the perspiring novice, and very soon I felt as comfortable as I was going to feel without relieving a champagne waiter of his entire tray in an act of developed suction that would make James Dyson feel like a charlatan.
We small talked, he settled my nerves with old-school charm, and led me to the table plan so I could find where I was sitting. (I wouldn’t have thought of that without him – I probably would have bobbed at the back like an amnesiac mallard.)
As the awards were about to begin we said goodbye and I felt lonely. I sat, met my lovely editor Colin, ate some food, drank some drink, and, to my endless staggering shock, got announced Columnist of the Year.
In the introductory spiel boomed out by a nice newsy chap named Nick Ferrari, a column I had written about my Dad and bi-polar was mentioned, and I froze in slow unfolding recognition. Surely I hadn’t won? I couldn’t even dress myself properly.
But I had. And I had to stand up. The room was big and loud and full of people I didn’t know, but for a few seconds it felt like it was only Dad in the room, watching me walk up to the stage. It felt like he was there, clapping for me. I could see his face and I felt like he was saying that he knew how hard the words had been, how hard all the words have been since he went, that he was sorry, but how proud he was that words were the things I have chosen. He would always have chosen words as the thing I did. Maybe I haven’t chosen them myself at all.
Whatever, however; a board of national editors thought those words were good.
I brushed the Dadness away, a thing I’ve had to learn, tried to look normal, and swore lightly into a microphone. “Bloody hell”, I said, which is endlessly better than “fuck”. I made it through the rest of the awards in something of a trembling daze.
Joseph Connolly came up to me afterwards to congratulate me, and asked if I wanted a drink. And of course I bloody wanted a drink.
I bunked the group ‘winners’ photo to scoot upstairs to the plush hotel bar to talk to an author, which is probably the only cool thing I’ve ever done. I wanted to whisper to my fifteen year old self (who was there with me in spirit in the massive anxiety spot on my cheek) that it had happened; I’d been cool. We talked about books and writing and I began to feel like myself. Joseph’s gentle wit calmed me, stopping me (kind of) from rambling. I felt that shining thing that comes across you when you talk about the thing you love most. A sense of belonging. Like coming home to party poppers and a candle-lit cake. Home. Writing is my home. I felt so happy. Here was I with some carved glass that marked some words I had written about bi-polar, about my Dad who’d lost the battle with it, there in a hotel by Sussex Gardens where Mum and Dad had first lived together, and here was I, their daughter, feeling happy because of the words that had come out of the opposite of happy, and now it was all linked up and I couldn’t sort the different strands and it all made a sort of eventual conglomerate sense. It felt like all happinesses should feel in part; a small return to a beginning, dressed up as something new.
The award was the award, but the feeling was the prize.