I arrived late, towards the end of the morning plenary, and found a seat near the back of the lecture theatre. On stage, the chair was just introducing the final speaker of the session - a woman currently playing "hunt the USB port" on the laptop beside the podium - so I took a quick look around the room: Attentive audience, the room more than two thirds full, mostly women as you would (sadly) expect in an Occupational Therapy conference. A fair number of familiar faces and an all too familiar room - I had been at University here, after all. I sat back to listen to the talk, technology now sorted.
An hour later, I was pretty much first out the room, ignoring the coffee and biscuits to join the growing huddle of smokers by the door - this really was just like being a student again. Conversation was desultory; I said a brief hello to a few of the people I knew, however vaguely, but kept out of the general discourse: They were mainly slagging off the morning speakers and as I was due to speak myself just after the break I didn't really want to get involved. So I stood back, had a look at my speakers notes - all three lines of them - and sort of drifted into a reverie of old memories, old times and old faces. There was a ChemSoc party in this building which was where I met...
I was interrupted by a soft touch on my arm, and looked round to see a dark haired woman smiling apologetically at me.
"Sorry to hassle you, but you don't have a cigarette I could borrow, do you? I seem to have left mine back in the theatre".
"Not good smoking behaviour, that. You could have points docked for lack of professionalism", I said, as I handed her the packet, "However, you 're welcome to borrow a fag, though only if I can be sure of getting it back in one piece?"
"Of course", she said, "maybe a bit charred, possibly pretty much incinerated, but I'll make sure its all there. Well, aside from the poisonous bits, I'll inhale those for you ... I'm a caring professional. after all".
I grinned, and said "Why, I thank you for your consideration, and your dedication to caring - despite your apparent pyromanic tendencies"
She shrugged, "Pyromania? Oh, that's me, for sure - I just have to walk into a room and it catches fire..."
I was contemplating some sort of riposte to this when her phone rang and she turned away to answer it, giving me a half wave of acknowledgement as she did so. I lit another cigarette, had a quick glance at my notes again and found myself being hauled away by the conference chair, needing to discuss her introduction to my presentation, room arrangements for the workshop I was due to give the next day and such like. And then it was time to go back in, and get back to business
I survived. My fellow speakers were interesting and the general standard of delivery at these events does seem to have gone up recently - no more endless drones reading from copious text heavy slides. The guy who spoke before me even had people up on the podium dancing, and though I didn't really understand why it did at least take my mind off the nerves I always get immediately before speaking. And my own presentation went OK, given that I was talking about quantitative methods in OT research and, face it, people of a mathematical bent do not predominate in these circles. Still, they laughed at the jokes, nodded seriously in all the right places and actually asked interesting questions rather than delivering statophobe rants about "losing the human" and the "uniqueness of the individual". In fact, the only vaguely disconcerting moment came from my cigarette burning friend who asked an almost angry question, taking quite technical issue with my description of paired Student's t-tests, which threw me simply because it was so unexpected in the context. I did eventually answer it to her satisfaction, I think - she sat down with a distinctly sardonic look - and I doubt anyone else in the audience felt the tension. Well, hopefully. And anyway, I'd done my bit for today and if they chose not to come to the workshop tomorrow - well, I'd get back to London all the sooner.
I skipped lunch, having eaten more than enough curly sandwiches in my time, and instead wandered over to the village behind the campus and sat by the pond for a while, indulging in a bit more nostalgia and enjoying the sun. After a while I decided that I was enjoying myself enough to make going back into the afternoon session a lot less attractive than going for a wander on the Downs. Just like my students days, again. In fact, I decided that I'd really get back into the student way of doing things and drop into the village pub first, for a pint and a cheese roll. Though, I thought as I walked away from the pond, hopefully without the interminable conversation about Gramsci that ran on a loop there in "my day"...
I was just turning into the car park when I saw her, my smoking friend from earlier, sitting at one of the tables outside, mobile in hand, smoking and having what looked like a fairly animated conversation. I nodded as I went past but I wasn't really sure if she'd noticed, then went on into the bar, and ordered the usual from the same foul mouthed and misanthropic landlord who'd run the place when I was sort of a regular. I also noticed a group of my fellow conference types at a table in the corner, sipping at soft drinks and producing reams of notes and drawings on piles of paper spread out between them. They looked busy so I was preparing to go back out again, pint in hand, when one of them waved and called me over.
"Excellent talk you gave this morning", she said, "What I understood of it, anyway. Will you join us? - I think we've about finished with this lot."
"Looks complex", I said, going over but not sitting down, "Actually a lot more complex than anything I was talking about..."
"Yeah, well, its team building, goal setting, that sort of stuff - never get the time to do it in the office and, as we're all here, its a good opportunity. Well, except that Cris is off outside having an emotional crisis by phone and Emily seems to be stuck in the loo."
"Didn't have the ham roll, did she? They can be pretty fast acting, I can tell you. Still, the beer's good", I said, taking a swig. "Incidentally, is Cris the dark haired woman in the garden?" A nod, "Yes, and as you might have noticed she's our team statistician. Not formally, of course, but her partner - probably her ex-partner the way things are going - is a mathematician so she gets to do all the stats stuff. She said she really enjoyed your talk this morning, by the way." Oh, really, I thought - wonder what sort of questions she asks when she isn't impressed? Politeness costs nothing, though, so I said I was glad to hear it and excused myself to take pint and roll outside to add some essential tobacco smoke to the mix.
I was half blinded as I emerged into the sudden brightness, but I saw the dark haired woman - no, Cris - sitting on the other side of the garden. She was still talking intently into her mobile, a fag burned right the way down in her hand. Didn't look a happy bunny, at all.
I went and sat in the opposite corner, ate the roll, sipped the pint and idly looked through the paper I'd brought to read on the train down. Nothing unusual going on - wars, famine, corruption in high places. Eventually, I put it down, just as I noticed the dark ... no, Cris, come over to my table.
"I think I owe you a fag," she said, sitting down. I told her not to worry, offered her another of mine. Had she been crying? Her cheeks looked shiny, eyes a bit pink. Ever the discrete one, I asked her if she was enjoying the 'team building and goal setting'.
"I could live without, but - and I quote - this is work, not a jolly. Personally, I'd prefer a pint. Or ten." There was an edge to her voice I recognised. The Professional Being Professional Despite It All. Do Not Cross Line. You Do Not Want To Know. Despite myself, I asked her if she was OK.
"I'll live." She paused, smiled slightly hesitantly. "But I guess I ought to go back to the team, gird the proverbial loins and face up to this afternoon. Why don't you walk back down onto campus with us?" I shrugged, "That's a nice idea but unfortunately nature calls - by which I mean I have evilly decided to skip this afternoon's delights in favour of going for a walk on the downs. Afternoon lectures used to have the same effect when I was a student here, I'm afraid." For a moment, I thought she looked disappointed, but she shrugged, gave me a tight sort of smile and excused herself to rejoin her colleagues. When I went back into the bar to return my empty glass, they had gone.
Later, I went back to my on campus accommodation for a shower and a change and found a note from the conference organisers inviting me to join them for a drink in one of the campus bars, the one we used to call the 'airport lounge' for its vibrant atmosphere and luxurious seating. Or not. However, there are times when one needs to show willing, so I decided to delay my night on the town and go make small talk with the great and the good. But, I promised myself, only for half an hour or so - its this sort of social situation I hate perhaps more than anything, which is another way of saying that I'm really bad at it.
Consequently, I wasn't surprised to find myself a little while later leaning against a brick pillar, half of tepid lager in hand, half listening to a conversation of which I understood about half the content. Professions do so love their jargon. I'd just got to the point when I realised that I had actually completely lost track of the subject and had no possibility of contributing should anyone bother to ask me to do so, when I felt a touch on my arm again. And, yes, it was the... Cris, this time with a slightly younger, vaguely sort of geeky bloke in tow.
"Enjoy your walk?" she asked.
"Yeah, a lot - I always loved the Downs. Interesting afternoon for you?" "Oh, you know, OK as conferences go." Geeky Bloke cut in, "Oh, come on Cris, your presentation was brilliant". Turning to me, he added, "I gather you weren't there, but she basically trashed four or five accepted paradigms of what we do and why we do it. It really made the whole event worthwhile." Ignoring this implicit slight to my own world shattering efforts, I looked back at Cris. "You were speaking? You should have said, I'd like to have been there". She looked dubious, "Doubt it. Second last talk on a hot afternoon: Trust me, people only liked it because it was short. Anyway, 'OT and the Inclusion Agenda' - hardly a title to appeal to an academic and meta-ontologist like you, is it?"
"Well, you never know", I replied, "Actually I would have liked to be there because (i) it appears to have been pretty well received and (ii)..."
I felt myself drying up, took a sip of the vile beer and realised that I was pissed off with having missed it but couldn't work out why. Was it because I knew she'd been having a hard time and would have wanted to be supportive? Was it because I liked her? I really didn't know and I continued to stand there speechless, confused and looking more than a bit of a prat. For a change.
In return, I got another of her humourless smiles. "Well, well. Famous academic reduced to stunned silence by little old me. I must be having a good day. Sadly, I also have to go, though, so maybe you can think about it a bit more and hopefully I'll see you around at some point and..."
And ... she was gone, again, sweeping off with Geek Bloke a pace or two behind her. As I came to my senses, I realised that I had been about to ask her if she'd be interested in going into town with me that evening. And had been thinking nasty thoughts about the Geek - well, he could lose the hair gel at his age - and ... And where had that meta-ontologist crack come from? As far as I was aware that had been used just once, in a review of my last book, and I'd never really worked out whether it was meant as a compliment or an insult. But why would she have read anything like that? I decided it was time to go into town and see the sights.
What with me being an academic and all, you might expect that I went and sat in a gloomy cafe somewhere and pondered the nature of life and the human condition. Actually, I went into town, met up with an old friend and got just as slaughtered as I could afford to and still function the next day. The soul searching and analysis had to wait till the next morning.
When, waking up in the inevitably depressing "visiting faculty accommodation" I was using, it all came back and hit me like the proverbial brick. I don't do casual chat ups, am careful not to objectify women (as colleagues or in any other context) and generally put a lot of effort into being a safe and trustworthy male of the species, again in and out of work situations. I acknowledge that this has not been particularly helpful viz a viz my recently pretty much non existent sex life, but all these things are givens, from my point of view. They are simply The Right Things To Do. And yet, here I was feeling a definite interest in a woman I hardly knew and had exchanged maybe twenty words with. Nonetheless, I had to be honest with myself and admit that my abject failure to construct a sentence the previous evening was probably caused by a sort of adolescent-standard angst in even talking to her. Worse, I was aware that I very much wanted to see her again and might even take the risk of having another go at actual dialogue. This was distinctly out of character. And it would probably end in tears.
So, obviously, I put the issue to one side and went to try and find a decent cup of coffee.
This turned out to be in what we always knew as the Goldfish Bowl, a plate glass cube just outside the main admin block. It had gone seriously up market at some point but was almost deserted given that it was still early and, of course, it wasn't term time. So, I got a coffee and a Guardian, went and sat in a corner and started on the crossword - pleased to see that it was by Paul, one of the better, more challenging setters. I was just beginning to enjoy myself with a complex anagram when I was interrupted by Geek Bloke, Cris's friend (?) from yesterday evening. He didn't wait for an invitation but sat down and took a slurp of what looked horribly like herbal tea: I mean, caffeine free drinks in the morning? I felt I could have problems with this guy. Even without the hair gunk...