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“I think we should swap,” I tell Bee, bobbing up into a half-squat so I can talk to her over my computer screen. “I’m bricking it. You should do the start and I’ll do the end and that way by the time it gets to me I’ll be less, you know…” I wave my hands to convey my mental state.
“You’ll be less jazz hands?” Bee says, tilting her head to the side.
“Come on. Please.”
“Leena. My dear friend. My guiding light. My favorite pain in the ass. You are much better than I am at starting presentations and we are not switching the order of things now, ten minutes before our key client stakeholder update, just like we didn’t switch at the last program board, or the one before that, or the one before that, because that would be madness and quite frankly I haven’t a bloody clue what’s on the opening slides.”
I sag back into my chair. “Right. Yes.” I bob up again. “Only this time I am really feeling—”
“Mmm,” Bee says, not looking up from her screen. “Absolutely. Worst ever. Shaking, sweaty palms, the lot. Only as soon as you get in there you’ll be as charming and brilliant as you always are and nobody will notice a thing.”
“But what if I…”
“Bee, I really think—”
“I know you do.”
“But this time—”
“Only eight minutes to go, Leena. Try that breathing thing.”
“What breathing thing?”
Bee pauses. “You know. Breathing?”
“Oh, just normal breathing? I thought you meant some kind of meditative technique.”
She snorts at that. There’s a pause. “You’ve coped with way worse than this hundreds of times over, Leena,” she says.
I wince, cupping my coffee mug between my palms. The fear sits in the hollow at the base of my ribs, so real it feels almost physical—a stone, a knot, something you could cut out with a knife.
“I know,” I say. “I know I have.”
“You just need to get your mojo back,” Bee tells me. “And the only way to do that is to stay in the ring. OK? Come on. You are Leena Cotton, youngest senior consultant in the business, Selmount Consulting’s one-to-watch 2020. And…” she lowers her voice, “soon—one day—co-director of our own business. Yes?”
Yes. Only I don’t feel like that Leena Cotton.
Bee’s watching me now, her penciled brows drawn tight with concern. I close my eyes and try to will the fear away, and for a moment it works: I feel a flicker of the person I was a year and a half ago, the person who would have flown through a presentation like this without letting it touch her.
“You ready, Bee, Leena?” the CEO’s assistant calls as he makes his way across the Upgo office floor.
I stand and my head lurches; a wave of nausea hits. I grab the edge of the desk. Shit. This is new.
“You OK?” Bee whispers.
I swallow and press my hands into the desk until my wrists start to ache. For a moment I don’t think I can do it—I just don’t have it in me, God, I’m so tired—but then, at last, the grit kicks in.
“Absolutely,” I say. “Let’s do this.”
* * *
Half an hour has passed. That’s not an especially long time, really. You can’t watch a whole episode of Buffy in that time, or … or bake a large potato. But you can totally destroy your career.
I’ve been so afraid this was coming. For over a year now I’ve been fumbling my way through work, making absent-minded slip-ups and oversights, the sort of stuff I just don’t do. It’s like since Carla died I’ve switched my writing hand, and suddenly I’m doing everything with my left, not my right. But I’ve been trying so hard and I’ve been pushing through and I really thought I was getting there.
I honestly thought I was going to die in that meeting. I’d had a panic attack once before, when I was at university, but it wasn’t as bad as this one. I have never felt so far out of my own control. It was like the fear got loose: it wasn’t a tight knot anymore, it had tendrils, and they were tightening at my wrists and ankles and clawing at my throat. My heart was beating so fast—faster and faster—until it didn’t feel like part of my body any longer, it felt like a vicious thrashing little bird trapped against my rib cage.
Getting one of the revenue numbers wrong would have been forgivable. But once that happened the nausea came, and I got another wrong, and another, and then my breathing started coming too fast and my brain was filled with … not fog, more like bright, bright light. Too bright to see anything by.
So when Bee stepped in and said allow me to—
Then when someone else said come on this is laughable—
Copyright © 2020 by Beth O’Leary Ltd