The phone rang, again. It rang three and a half times before the machine got it. There had been fifty or so already this morning and it was only nine thirty. The phone rang again. The machine got it, again. Dr Robert Aldon straightened his tie in the mirror by the bottom of the stairs and inhaled deeply. A tired, sad crease formed on his brow and he turned away to look for the keys he had placed on the sideboard beside the front door just a few minutes earlier. He checked the keys and moved his wallet and mobile phone – switched off – closer to them. He walked back to the mirror and moved the tie a little to the right, took a blazer from the banister, put it on and checked himself in the mirror, again. He touched the breast of his blazer feeling the speech folded neatly within.
The phone had started ringing yesterday evening just after the press conference had been announced for the following day. His wife had urged him to unplug it once they realised the calls weren’t going to stop. He awoke this morning and for a moment had forgotten what was about to happen. The momentary peace was shattered as he drew back the curtains covering the street outside. They were littered with cameras, and men and women sipping steaming drinks from paper cups. He looked up and saw his neighbours in their own windows and felt a surprising pang of shame at inflicting this spectacle on their peaceful community.
His wife, Jennifer, appeared behind him in the mirror, head cocked and with a sympathetic smile on her face; her soft, kind and tired eyes peered over his shoulder before handing a cup of coffee around him, saying, “It’s going to be OK. You’ve done the hard part. You’ll be OK.” He would have loved to believe her, but as he looked down at the mug in his shaking hand, he was sure she was wrong.
A car horn sounded loudly outside, making him jump slightly. He took one more swig of the hot coffee and handed it back to his wife. “See ya love. Hopefully,” he said. She huffed and kissed him on the cheek. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You’ll be fine.” One last look in the mirror and he walked to the front door, picked up his keys, wallet and phone, pausing a moment and gripping the door handle tightly, before pushing it down and striding outside.
The air erupted with the sounds of cameras clicking and flashing, of paper cups being dropped and their steaming contents trickling towards the gutter. Bellowed questions from all directions blurred into a single cloud of sound following each “Dr Aldon…”. He hurried past, partly shaking his head, partly waving his hand, mumbling “no questions, sorry, thanks”. The door of the car was open, waiting for him. He pushed past the final couple of photographers and rushed his tall frame inside, pulling the door quickly closed behind himself and slumping awkwardly across the middle of the back seat.
“Morning Dr Aldon,” said the driver from the front. “Yes, morning, morning,” Aldon replied. “You, uh, know where you’re… going to, I, uh, take it?” he asked, craning his neck to look in the car’s wing mirrors at the photographers snapping their final shots of him pulling away. “Yes sir, no problem at all. You just sit back – would you like the radio, sir?” the driver asked, glancing in his rear view mirror at the harried looking man on his back seat. He looks much older in the flesh, thought the driver, who had seen the man plastered all over the papers for the past week. “Please. Something classical if possible?” said Aldon, adding, “just music please – no news.” He couldn’t take hearing his name on the radio again right now. He touched the breast of his jacket again and felt the speech inside, the same one he’d been practising all of last night. The same speech that had been written for months. That he had known he would eventually write, for years. That he would present, today.
He fidgeted in his seat and realised he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. Wouldn’t that be the thing, he thought as he plugged it in and considered being launched through a windscreen in some horrendous head on collision. On today of all days. The thought brought a small smile to his lips and he relaxed for the first time in longer than he could remember. He closed his eyes briefly and tried to establish what composer and what composition he was listening to, but his mind steadfastly refused to focus on the task at hand and slipped straight back to running through the speech he already knew by heart. He opened his eyes and shifted again in his seat, looking out of the window at unremarkably familiar buildings as they shot past.
After a short while, the driver mentioned that they were quite close, and that it was expected to be busy when they got there. He already knew the drill and that two security men would meet him from the car and escort him inside. A minute later they pulled into a car park notable for the absence of cars and the presence of at least a dozen versions of the scene from outside his house. He gasped and lost his breath for a moment. He adjusted his tie and once more touched the speech in his inside pocket as the car slowed to a crawl, and then a halt. The door opened and firm hand gently guided him to a standing position, directing him through the throng of shouts, flashes, clicks and paper cups falling to the ground, up some shallow stairs, and inside through sliding doors which closed, encapsulating a sudden calm. Aldon breathed out a breath he had taken inside the car. He turned to look back at the photographers outside, but his view was obscured by frosted glass.
“This way please, Dr Aldon,” said a young woman emerging from between his two minders. He followed without saying a word, looking at his watch and touching the tip of his tie. She continued talking but he had missed the first part of whatever it was she was saying: “… in a small room and then they’ll get you. And you’re prepared for some questions? After your speech of course, yes,” she carried on without expecting him to ask anything. He obliged and must have gone to his pocket again, as now he held the speech in his hand. “Just in here,” she said opening a grey door, and he entered a tiny square room, with a door on two of the sides. He sat on the only seat in the small room and looked again at the speech. The woman held up her hand indicating five minutes as she left the room, shutting the door behind herself. Closed in the small box, he looked around and thought about the music in the car. Rachmaninov, he realised and smiled to himself. Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D Major. He felt relieved, and smiled. The other door opened and the scene from his home and the car park was momentarily framed ahead of him.
He stood and walked out into another frenzy of flashing and clicking, this time accompanied by an uneasy quiet. He could feel the anticipation throbbing against him; their desire to yell questions palpable. He walked to the lecturn, and placed his speech on it, looked up and swallowed deeply. Weeks and months, he told himself, looking at the assembly before him. Years, he corrected himself. Years.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the press, esteemed colleagues, friends,” he started, looking down at his notes and seeing only his still trembling hands. “It is my duty,” he stopped, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot and staring at the unfamiliar hands beneath him, gripping his speech. “It is my pleasure,” he corrected himself aloud. “To announce today the single most important discovery in the history of science.”
The flashes and clicks seemed to disappear, and he looked down again to see his hands, now familiar and steady. He looked up at the people waiting on his next word, smiled, and spoke the words that he’d known for years.