I’m running down Swanston Street towards The Wheeler Centre and there are people stopping still and staring into the distance behind me, wondering if they should start running for their lives as well, because there’s a crazy-panic in my eyes and I’m holding a backpack in front of my slightly scalded penis.
I want to scream, ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to be afraid. I’m just a fricken idiot!’ but I simply don’t have the time. I’m at the Melbourne Writers Festival and – for the love of Christ – I’m going to be late for my first ever session as a speaker.
Just yesterday, Saturday 10pm, I left the VIP Party with Antoni Jach; novelist and painter, and Blanche Clarke; Herald-Sun books editor, and was trying to sound like a literary boffin by using words like memoirist and zeitgeist before I shrugged nonchalantly and said, “Last night I printed out the invite to the VIP party, read through the details, worked my arse of with Reservoir Mum to get dinner made and the kids organised and ready for bed, and then caught the train to Flinders Street station and it wasn’t until I was standing at the pedestrian lights, about to cross to Federation Square to attend the party, that I realised, with dead certainty, that I’d turned up a day early.”
Blanche laughed and Antoni laughed and even I laughed a little – because I’d proven myself to be funny and self-depreciating as well as literary – just as I walked into a hip-high metal pole on the sidewalk with enough force to feel like I’d been struck dead centre by a groin seeking missile and, for some reason, instead of keeping as quiet as possible about it my reflex-response was to scream THERE IT IS right at the point of impact so that everyone within twenty meters turned to offer me their sympathy wince.
Blanche screamed ‘Oh no!’ while I stumbled awkwardly to the side, skipping ahead a little before pulling up by lifting my knees high, one after the other, and stamping my feet down like I was pretending to be a horsey.
That very scene was repeating in my mind this morning as I showered and prepared to head back to Fed Square – a little jazzed, a little nervous – to speak at a session called Blog to Book with writer Karen Andrews and convener Kate Larson.
A little voice on the periphery of my attention span was saying ‘Go print out the details for your event, dickhead, you know what you’re like’ but I ignored that voice because earlier in the week Kate had instructed us to meet in the Green Room half an hour before the session, and because I knew where the Fed Square Green Room was, I decided I could bypass the boring details and just follow her lead.
Although I’m alerted to a Tweet from Kate saying, Super excited to interview two of my favourite bloggers this morning and then a Tweet from Karen saying Nearly there. Excited! I decide to hold off on replying because I want to appear cool and unaffected, but by the time I get to the packed Green Room and see all the Festival volunteers and publicists and writers – and knowing I’ll be speaking in front of a crowd in less than thirty minutes – I’m feeling a little un-anchored and really looking forward to Katie and Karen turning up to settle my nerves and take me by the hand.
I’m feeling so self-conscious that I’m walking with the proppy gait of Virgil from Thunderbirds and I’m holding my hands up like a surgeon because I just don’t know what to do with them. I walk to the refreshments table so awkwardly you’d think I was testing out some new prosthetics.
I can see tea and milk and biscuits but no urn and no coffee and so I smile at one of the volunteers – like a horse with oversized, ill-fitting dentures – and say, ‘Where’s the coffee?’
‘There,’ she says, pointing to an empty plunger. ‘Oh, I’ll make it up for you.’
‘That’s okay. I can do it,’ I say, taking the top off the plunger and then standing there with my head down and this strange screamy line from a movie I can’t quite remember echoing in my mind: But I never learned to read!
‘You have to put five teaspoons of coffee in there,’ the volunteer says, in a soft non-confrontational manner that I’m certain she was trained to use when encountering writers just like me.
I really like her tone but there is no escape from this horrendous self-consciousness which causes me to start counting each teaspoon of coffee: ‘One… two… hehe…’ I say, and because she insists on standing there watching me I’m forced to continue counting, even though I know it sounds ridiculous. When I get to the last scoop I smile with one side of my mouth, say ‘…annnnd five’ before winking at her and wishing myself dead.
‘Then pour the hot water in,’ she says, keeping her eye on me. ‘And now put the lid on but don’t press the plunger down yet. Give it a minute or two to sit.’
‘A minute or two. To sit,’ I say. ‘Right.’
She moves away to the other end of the table to arrange some biscuits but turns back to add, ‘Don’t push it down too fast because it can spray coffee out.’
‘Go slow’ I say, rolling my eyes, shrugging my shoulders, rolling my eyes again and then winking at her again before I can stop myself, and it occurs to me that even though I am an not sticking my tongue out or dry-humping an electric guitar, I am appearing as sleezy as Gene Simmons.
It’s as I’m thinking It’s twenty to ten, where’s Karen and Kate that I reach out and press down on the plunger and take the impact of a groin-seeking missile for the second time in twenty-four hours because even though the coffee should, in theory, spray out in a 360 degree radius, it actually only squirts out in one direction like it’s coming out of a hose.
There is a burn on my penis painful enough to make me grab at my pants to separate skin from denim and suddenly the volunteer appears beside me, gasping a little. She puts both hands on the table closes her eyes and laughs, then opens her eyes to look at my groin again, then closes her eyes again and laughs.
‘Shit!’ I say. ‘These are my only pants!’
‘Oh no,’ she laughs.
‘I have to speak in front of people in minutes! Shit!’
She laughs. ‘Oh no.’
‘Do you have any spare pants here?’
When I turn around people are still in their groups and they’re all still talking but I’m certain that every single person is straining through the corner of their eye to see the dark wet patch over my crotch and coming to the conclusion, one by one, that I have wet myself because I have a disability and so I’m left with no choice but to make a song and dance out of the accident.
I run straight to the front desk, right at the entry to the green room, and say to the three volunteers there, loudly enough for others to hear, ‘It looks like I’ve pissed myself’ which I realise only a second later just makes it sound like I’m admitting to the fact, in a kind of eye-rolling fashion, rather then explaining that I didn’t. ‘I mean, the plunger sprayed the coffee on the pants and the…’
Each of the volunteers say, ‘Oh no’ in rapid succession like three toads croaking on a lily-pad and one hands me a box of tissues, saying, ‘Dab at it with this’ but the tissues don’t seem to be absorbing anything as I stand there, hunched over myself, pressing and pulling at my crotch.
‘Maybe you could go try to dry it in the mens toilets?’ a volunteer says.
‘They only have those Dyson dryers that you dip your hands into,’ I say. ‘There’s no way my groin will fit.’
‘When coffee dries it leaves a stain anyway,’ a volunteer says.
I stand up in shock. ‘Oh my god, you’re right,’ I say, as the reality of my situation hits me. ‘So there are two possibilities. I can appear on stage in front of an audience looking like I just pissed myself, or I can appear on stage looking like a pissed myself an hour ago.’
All the volunteers appear to be in a very good mood and there is nothing I can do but accept one more piece of advice as I’m handed a packet of baby wipes. ‘Maybe you should wet the area down and try to draw some of the coffee out?’
And with that I lift my backpack to shield my crotch and stand at one of the chest high tables in the middle of the green room, surprised to be laughing at myself a little, kind of in disbelief, wondering if my penis will need some burn ointment, perhaps some Savlon, and thinking well it can’t get any worse as I’m using one hand to soak the crotch of my pants and the other hand to scroll through my phone for an idea of when Karen and Katie will get here, and it’s as I read this Tweet from Denise Mooney – ‘Looking forward to hearing from @ReservoirDad and @MiscMum at the Wheeler Centre this morning’ – that I am gifted a few moments of forgetting about my plunger terror.
I am not supposed to be standing in the Green Room of Federation Square right now, but in the Green Room of the Wheeler Centre. Its twelve minutes away. I have five minutes to get there.