The windows on the opposite wall of the club were large. They looked out over the lower part of the carpark. I had arrived for the Lofty Speaks meet, armed with my speech. I’d decided to speak about vulnerability. As cliched as it might have seemed, I knew that I needed to seek out the person organising and make my presence known.
“Hi, I’m Nina del Reyan,” I introduced myself, extending my hand for the attractive young man to shake. “I’m one of the contestants here today.”
It was the wrong word to use, but the one which happened to pop out of my mouth – even though this guy possibly would have known that already.
“I’m Colt Reagan.”
His name sounded distinctively American, even though he spoke with a broad Aussie accent.
“Good to meet you.”
We shook hands.
“I’m convening the session of Lofty Speaks today.”
He seemed much too young for that role. Another two young women came in, themselves competing in the meet.
“For what it’s worth, I also should let you know, I’m one of the speakers.”
I narrowed my eyebrows, even though I tried to relax my face shortly afterwards. My pulse raced, even though I wasn’t worried about the perceived conflict of interest.
“Are you having anyone come to watch?”
“Oh, my boyfriend will be here soon. He’s a police officer, but he’s organised for the day off work to come and watch me.”
I thought that I saw Colt’s face fall, but I couldn’t be sure – maybe I just thought too highly of myself. A part of me delighted at the idea that another man might have been interested in me. I tried to suppress the thought just as quickly as it arose. Sinking my feet into my shoes, I glanced around the room. There would be five of us, each speaking once. The gathering commenced with an Acknowledgment of Country, followed by the announcement of the five speakers.
“We’ll just make sure that we’re recording,” Colt noted, pressing a button on the camera, then offering me a thumbs-up.
From there, I was able to commence my speech.
“Thank you for joining us today.”
I referred to my palm cards while I orated. During my speech, I could hear a baby warbling. I glanced down ever so briefly, trying not to get distracted. In the morning I had chosen my clothes intentionally. I wanted to seem kind and relatable, not that I would be judged on my appearance. My speech was all that mattered, the words slipping from my lips like a spiritual experience.
“Last year at Lofty Speaks, I spoke about this gold cross necklace which I wear every day.” I held out the pendant, just like I’d done twelve months ago. “I’m starting to learn more about what it means to be a person of faith. I want to be a person of hope, a person of love. This is what I am working towards, even though I know I’m going to be doing it imperfectly.”
The room applauded. The problem with going first was that I had to sit and listen to the others’ speeches, ankles crossed, thinking over what I could have said differently. I’d missed that sense of competition since hockey finished, although public speaking was a different scenario altogether.
“Our next speaker is Leah Donovan.”
She was dressed in bright colours. I’d heard Leah’s name before, although we were yet to cross paths across the couple of years I’d been involved with Lofty Speaks. She started to tell the story of how she met a friend with whom she bonded over Avril Lavigne’s music, then they had sex.
“So, I’m sure that wasn’t awkward whatsoever,” she quipped.
My cheeks felt warmer. The room erupted in laughter. I hadn’t had that kind of response to my speech, but it was of a different style, so I wasn’t too concerned. Leah was using they/them pronouns for her friend, turned sexual partner, although I wasn’t sure whether this was a stylistic choice, to obscure the person’s gender. My gaze panned across the audience. A few children were sitting politely in the front row, even though I didn’t know if this story was kid-friendly. Their parents didn’t seem alarmed. Perhaps they knew Leah, who moved across the stage like a dancer. I admired her poise, which seemed to be her birthright, owing to her long legs and thin frame. Occasionally I made eye contact with Geoff in the audience. Polite clapping followed the speech. Two down, three to go.
“Our next speaker will be Bethany Dillard.”
She was blonde, probably about a decade older than me, but dressed in an adorable vintage style. The audience applauded politely. Bethany rose to her feet and approached the microphone. I resented its presence, because I found them a little stuffy, when I would have much preferred to be strolling around the stage as I spoke. From her body language, Bethany appeared to feel the same way. Maybe the children in the audience were Bethany’s?
“I’m a single woman with no children, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been in a relationship before.”
Alright, they weren’t.
“We’re going to call him Jeremiah.”
I could only occasionally see Bethany’s hands. While I didn’t think that she was wearing rings on her left hand, I spotted one on her right. She wore a single ring with a rose gold band and a pink stone in a solitaire setting, which caught the light as she gestured while she spoke.
“So, I was sitting in the café underneath a beautiful gumtree.” I could picture the setting. “It was perfect. This was the day that I was going to get engaged.”
I glanced into the audience. While Bethany spoke, I wasn’t able to see her face and gauge her expression.
“Except, there was a problem.”
My mind raced as to what it could be.
“I knew what time Jeremiah would be finishing work. Even though it was the hardest thing I had to do, I needed to tell him in person. It would be no good once he was down on one knee, proposing.”
As Bethany shared, I could myself welling up with tears.
“Studying was permitted, we weren’t a legalistic cult, but I knew if we got married, I would have my dream – but with a compromise.”
She would have been entering married life, promising one-sided submission.
“I knew that he would need to tell his family. While it might have suited me to have the last word, I knew I wasn’t going to have that opportunity.”
What would I say if Geoff proposed today? Occasionally the thought crossed my mind. In the past I was in love with the fairytale.
“I loved them like I was part of the family. That couldn’t, however, last forever.”
Bethany was a very convincing speaker. As she sat back down, I offered her an encouraging smile. Alinta was next, her name announced to the applause of her family members in the crowd. I applauded passionately. Colt would be going last, another young man taking over the streaming. Some of the audience members appeared a little confused, but they quickly settled back to listen.
“I still keep up with the professional competitions. It’s a good way to tune out. We always possess the capacity to learn from others.”
During the competition, I was without my phone. I presumed it was an occasion for me to take a deep breath, slow down and be present. I didn’t have to worry about being a bridesmaid. It wasn’t that my roles caused me concern, but I’d quickly learned how supporting a friend could easily become a full-time job. Following our speeches, I expected that there might have been some sort of refreshments offered. However, there weren’t any tiny sandwiches or cans of soft drink to be seen. At least we were at a venue that sold meals, so I could tuck into a chicken schnitzel and chips afterwards if my rumbling stomach got increasingly desperate. Colt and I found ourselves in a side room. The other speakers must have gone to the bathroom, or perhaps they went to go and get a coffee, even though we were supposed to be waiting to hear the results of the competition. I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself down, experiencing a flutter of nerves, coming down from the high of public speaking. Even though Geoff would have been mere metres away, I couldn’t see him.
“You know, you were really brave to share what you did,” Colt told me. “I wouldn’t be able to say stuff like that before an audience.”
Just when I was about to respond, he sighed, then spoke again.
“When I was a child, we had this babysitter, my brother and I, he was a friend of my mum’s,” he divulged. “He used to touch us, it felt no good, but I didn’t know how to tell anyone. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I finally said something.”
My lips slipped ajar.
“Oh, um, I guess that’s part of my story,” Colt revealed. “You know, it’s not like you needed to know that, but you were so honest about your story.”
I swallowed. I’d never meant to pry into Colt’s business.
“Thank you for honouring me with your story.”
I never knew if that was the right thing to say or not. Finally, we were called back into the room to receive the adjudicator’s verdict. I felt a little ill, scanning the room for a glass of water. Once I finally reached for one made available to me, it was uncomfortably warm. Hopefully I would be able to cool down upon leaving the venue.
“Today’s winner is Colt Reagan.”
Truth be told, I could cope with that decision. Colt had been an impressive speaker. Hopefully, if he wanted to, he would have the opportunity to tell more of his story in the future. As I drifted off to sleep in the evening, Geoff was softly patting my hair.
The younger sister of missing Sydney man Mitchell del Reyan, Nina del Reyan lives on Dharug land in western Sydney. She has recently commenced a teaching degree at Macquarie University. Nina loves her family and friends and is deeply committed to finding answers and justice for the families of missing people.
Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.