“He’s going to hold this against you for a long time you know,” she said from the backseat as she curved her small body into a ball on the backseat. The grey Catalonian clouds were hanging low across the mountains and our rental car.
“I know, I know,” I said as I clenched the steering wheel while my cheeks turned red. I observed her failed attempts at trying to block out the daylight that filtered through the thick clouds. The collective hangover was unmistakeable in the car.
For weeks I had thought about what to say at my friend’s extravagantly planned birthday party outside Barcelona, which had featured a number of confusing spread sheets and transport arrangements in the run-up. This was aligned with my expectations since my sentimental and nostalgic friend was well known for his limited abilities to stay calm and not overdo things. It is somewhat of an ironic trait since he’s easily the most frequent traveller I know.
There was little doubt that – regardless of how confusing the lead up to the party was – I was expected give a speech at some point during the weekend. I had previously delivered presentations at various festivities he had organised, and even at one of his friend’s birthday party in Washington DC, which I unexpectedly ended up at in the spring. So not only did he expect a speech (without ever telling me so), it also needed to be funny, meaningful, sentimental while conveying an interesting aspect of our relationship that could provide valuable insight for a wider audience.
Normally I looked forward to such a task. I enjoyed the process, which tended to come easily to me once I planted the thought in my head and started writing. The pen tended to do the rest, and at some point a thought or line of thinking would emerge that was good enough to build on. So when I first started to think about what to say I wasn’t concerned. This was something I had the necessary skills to do, it’s not as if I was in the running to write for Saturday Night Live or anything like that, but something would pop out of my mind if I just gave it some thought.
I began pondering various angles, trying to consider my friend’s characteristics and our experiences together. There were certainly stories available. Unfortunately I became increasingly busy at work and when I found the time to think about my speech the only reoccurring thought was that I missed having him around. And while that might be worth pointing out to reaffirm and appease my friend’s melodramatic and nostalgic side, I knew it wasn’t sustainable premise for an amusing speech.
I also thought about how impressed I was that he had managed to settle in Washington DC and land the highflying job he now occupied. But professional respect and admiration is the main ingredient for the majority of failed Oscar’s speeches, so also that was discarded as a base for my presentation. Perhaps it wouldn’t be as straightforward as I had hoped… but I still had time.
As the party edged closer I became increasingly anxious. My inability to make a start became an appendix to my work stress, which evoked an acute sense of disappointment in my failure to deliver what I knew I was capable of. I knew I should just sit down and write, but somehow it felt beyond my abilities.
With only a few days to go I started thinking I could do what I always recommended against, and which very few people can pull off; I’d wing it. I would just stand up, and the words would come to me. After all, I had so many words in my head; surely a few of them would come out and play nicely to form sentences of adequate quality that a drunken audience might mistake for actual speech writing skills?
When the first evening of the weekend-long party finally arrived my friend’s sister expectedly introduced the first activity: everyone would hold a short speech and give a toast to my friend throughout the dinner. As expected no one volunteered, so she held the first one, which was as sentimental and sweet as one would expect. I started to feel uneasy and counted the number of people that separated my friend’s sister and me in mild panic: five.
Would I manage to come up with something in five speeches? I finished my beer and asked for another one, even though I knew that more alcohol would be of no help at that point. The speeches continued until a natural break in between courses provided a short break where I could leave the table to check on my girlfriend who had gone to bed early due to a cold.
I told her about the speeches downstairs but she told me not to worry about it. Unfortunately not worrying was not an option: I knew I wouldn’t be able to deliver; my mind drew a complete blank. If I stood up at that moment, not only would I not be funny, I wouldn’t even make sense.
So, rather than manning up, I told my friend that I’d do it tomorrow, which he accepted with a smile and a look that said: I have no problem giving you another day because I know it will be great. This didn’t make me feel better in any way, so I proceeded to drink seven different kinds of alcohol.
When I woke up at 11am the day after, I briefly wondered why someone insisted on stabbing my head with a pointed knife, before I realised that this was a seven different kinds of alcohol hangover. I had a quick breakfast before I ill-advisedly drove down to town to pick up my friend’s birthday cake. The Spanish winter sun burned my hangover eyes. I tried to get myself together by ordering a double espresso in an establishment in the small town, which seemed to struggle to decide if it wanted to be a US style diner or a Catalan tapas place. It didn’t help.
I picked up the birthday cake together with my girlfriend before driving back up to the house. Later in the day I watched Barcelona – Real Madrid, which helped me take my mind off my failed speech. Afterwards it was time for dinner and the people who did not hold speeches during the first night did, which meant that eventually I was the only friend of his who had not said anything. I felt completely drained of energy and kept a low profile before eventually going to bed at twelve, too tired and drunk to be concerned about my lack of presentation.
By the last morning it was all over. There was a point before we all said our goodbyes where I could have grasped the last straw to say something, even if it wasn’t a proper speech. It could at least have been some kind of summary of what had taken place over the weekend. But I didn’t even do that, and in the end all that was left was to say goodbye and start the journey back. Which is where we were when my friend curled up in the back seat and brought up the fact that my lack of a speech was not only something internal to me.
I drove in silence on empty Catalonian roads with my three hung-over and half asleep passengers, listening to Teenage Fanclub’s With You:
Who knows what we will see
Who know what we might find
Step over the fallen tree
And beware the fallen mind
A couple of weeks later, back in London, I read an interview in the FT with Zadie Smith where she quoted Salman Rushdie: “our lives teach us who we are”.
And even though I was still disappointed by my own inability to deliver the speech, I also concluded that it was a failure I needed to accept. That disappointment in oneself is part of life. But as I drove in silence towards the Monastery of Montserrat, the redness of my cheeks was entirely built on self-loathing.