‘Who here has been stabbed in the back at work? Raise your hands if you have… don’t be shy; it doesn’t make you any less human.’ (technique no. 6 – The Power of Questions)
There was the rustle of clothes as arms were raised. I kept mine down.
‘More than half the room. As I thought. But don’t be disheartened. You too can seek revenge.’
Paul was giving a seven minute talk on the theme of trust. He was a tall man in his sixties, liked one sugar with his tea, and was a member of the public speaking society Toastmasters.
‘I got stabbed in the back more times than Caesar and I’m still standing. The company isn’t though – burned them to the ground I did.’
Toastmasters has cells in most UK cities; London alone has over a dozen. Individuals can hone their speech skills in front of a sympathetic audience and gain professional feedback.
‘I should have known they were out to get me.’
The suit wearing organisers at the back of the room shared a look. This wasn’t the first time Paul had harangued an ex-employer.
‘The signs were there from the start. Kept making my tea too hot – sometimes three sugars, sometimes more.’
He took a long pause, dragging on the audiences’ attention.
‘They got their comeuppance though.’
Oh yes, I didn’t mention. Toastmasters is a cult: all spacemen and three step programs.
Very much a cult.
I arrived in London early evening. Red double deckers roared by, smoke and fumes hung around rooftops like singles at a bar. Late for the public speaking event, I had to run. A blur of facial hair and overwrought fashion choices passed along dirty streets, the agonal breaths of winter nipped.
I burst through the entrance doors of Fitzroy House in a sweat; blackspots swirled in my eyes. As oxygen flowed again, I became aware of my surroundings. Cornice covings of gold, carpet thick as moss, street maps of London’s evolution hung on velvet walls. The lady behind the reception desk was exceptionally tall and wore an ankle length red coat. She looked surprised to see me – the pleasant surprise of a fox finding a gap in the chicken wire.
‘I’m here for the speeches.’ I said.
She smiled, nodded, then pointed to the staircase behind her.
‘It’s up there?’ I asked.
She nodded again, then beckoned me closer. Her clothes smelled of museum display. She touched my shoulder then pointed up the stairs. Walking up, I heard a whisper behind me. The lady was speaking into a phone. She stopped talking when she noticed me, smiled, then pointed upstairs again.
I entered the grand room: rows of heavy chairs faced the front, ornate chandeliers hung over the room like cherubs from clouds. About thirty folk were sat down.
A hand was in mine as soon as I entered.
‘Good evening new member, my name is Dan and I have been assigned to you for this session of Toastmasters London.’
Dan was mid-forties, short, and wore a three-piece tweed suit. His eyes felt jaggy. He put his other hand on my back and pulled me close.
‘By what wind have you been blown?’
‘Eh, the twelve-thirty from Glasgow Central.’
He nodded, then waited for me to continue. I felt an urge to fill the silence (technique no. 3 – The Power of Silence).
‘Yeah, heard about the club, curiosity got the better of me.’
Dan’s eyes opened. He pulled me closer still. His breath was tangy.
‘Curiosity has three paths,’ he spoke quickly. ‘To educate, to discover, to destroy. Only be curious of that which needs exposed. That which is sacred must remain protected.’
(Technique no. 8 – the Power of Three).
The evening began with a series of talks by first-time speakers. Crumpled note cards were looked upon like the lifeboat on a sinking ship, body movements were mechanical, sentences were stuttered out in bursts of monotone. Much of the time what the speaker said made little sense, nerves disrupting their thoughts.
It was as the final amateur finished her talk (vaguely themed around whales, but veering into a childhood memory of eating peas) that I noticed the framed portrait of Ron Hubbard hung on the wall.
It transpired that Mr Hubbard wrote several books on Scientology at Fitzroy House. It was also the central Org for the religion in the UK. Ron quite liked it there.
Sat in the bosom of British Scientology, the extent of my knowledge was this: 1 – Hubbard created the religion. 2 – Tom Cruise was right into it. 3 – They believed their bodies were vessels for space lizards. But Muslims believe in Genies and Christians believe in Santa.
To be religious is to embrace fantasy, and I understand the compulsion. Every time I read a book or watch a film I am looking for respite from reality.
Religion tries to answer the unanswerable, like how we are here and why.
These things are too complex to ever be understood. Try it right now; try and come up with a plausible reason of how and why we exist. It’s exhausting. The brain squirms until it throws up a kaleidoscope of imagery at which you can only snatch.
The most any of us can hope to understand is minute elements of the universe. If you spend your life trying to explain why oranges are orange or the mating rituals of the Smooth newt then you might get results. If you spend your life trying to explain everything, you either become a messiah or declared unfit for work.
The pro speakers had now taken to the stage.
Sebastian – slick as a penguin’s back after oil and gas had joined the neighbourhood – talked of triumph over adversity. Erwin – Polished as old brass – described the epiphany that doubled his salary. Paul – mental but coherent – delivered his diatribe on trust. Beatrice – as confident as only the fervent can be – gave an overview of how to save your own life. Their voices dipped and rose like crashing waves. I closed my eyes and let their words rush through me; hand gestures that could conduct Beethoven’s Fifth, pauses so pregnant that the birther would never walk again.
It was as the headline act Quentin Mobe stepped on stage to triumphant applause that I felt it beginning: the fairy liquid of persuasion had been squirted in my ears, the hive-mind hot-water had filled the basin.
My brain was being washed.
At every witty turn of phrase I had to fight to stay on the path of the individual. My personality was being torn apart by metaphor and simile and assonance and consonance and great ideas. Yes, their ideas were great, something I could get behind. Maybe I’d meet Tom Cruise? Of course I’d meet Tom Cruise. I was roused to the point of explosion. The chair fell behind me as I rose to my feet, my arms spread in an expression of love. Joy tickled my bowels.
The crowd turned as one. Quentin glared. Interruption was against the rules. Their eyes were cold.
‘Sorry, just nipping to the toilet,’ I said, then exeunted swiftly to the bog.
Dan put a hand on my shoulder as I walked by.
‘The turning of the tide can take time. But it will always turn.’ (technique no. 2 – The Power of Metaphor)
A cold clean bathroom provokes the same feelings within me as entering an empty cathedral – an initial quieting of mind and mouth followed by the urge to strip naked and exorcise.
Pretty portraits of eighteenth century London hung over the sink, nervous system threads of age and quality ran through the ceramics. It smelt of embalming fluid and mouthwash. I took a deep breath and looked in the mirror.
My nose, my eyes, my mouth, the whole face. Me.
It was happening too quickly; of course being welcomed by a group feels good, that doesn’t mean it’s right. My individuality was the most important part of me. Without that I’d be but a cog of society. No, I intended to retain the superfluity of the unique.
It was tea break time when I re-entered the room. Paul cornered me at the French Fancies.
‘You’re going to go up of course?’ he asked. ‘The evening ends with everyone giving an impromptu speech.’
Although Paul had evolved from bacteria billions of years ago, he’d managed to retain their urge to be very close to one another. As I stepped back, he stepped in, and thus we waltzed around the hot water dispenser.
He encouraged me to become a full-time member:
‘It changed my life, made me the man I am today…’
Jammy dodger spume clung to the edges of his mouth, his breath was wet on my forehead.
‘Join the society and we will give you all the literature you need to be complete…’
To end his campaign of personal space invasion, I tried the offensive. I stopped edging away and instead took a quarter step towards him. At the same time he came to me.
The zippers on our jeans met in an on-guard flick.
‘You become part of something bigger than yourself…’
A black hole opened within my chest.
Paul’s shoulders loosened, a sigh parted his lips.
‘Would you like a members form?’
The relationship between Toastmasters and Scientology is like that of old ropes left in the back of a truck. There are claims Toastmasters was acquired by Scientologists in the eighties. There are counterclaims this is poppycock.
Anyone can start their own branch of Toastmasters. The Church of Scientology seems to have exploited this, creating cells of zealous orators around the world. If you look up the location of any Scientologist Org, you will likely find a Toastmasters meets there every second Thursday.
The Scientologists love an organised group. They even own a few Boy Scout troops.
Is it wrong? The Scientologists get a bad press, but their extremists are quite mild. How many massacres have occurred at the hands of the Space Lizards?
Most members of the Toastmasters congregation had moved from another country and were now searching for a sense of community and belonging.
The house of cult can be welcoming.
It was now my turn. One of the suited organisers pulled three pieces of paper from a velvet bag; written upon them was the theme for my talk. He whispered the words into my ear then pointed to the stage. The audience leered as I walked between the chairs – I felt like a puppy in a busy pub.
Time warped, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I have no recollection of what I said. The pros had strode from side to side with purpose (technique no. 7 – The Power of Movement) – I decided to do the same. I took big steps like a child matching his dad in the snow. When I reached stage left, I spun then strode to stage right. Not wanting to over do the walking, I did a spot of shadow boxing. And that was it. My two minutes were over.
I looked to the audience; their eyes glistened like river pebbles, some were nodding, Paul saluted from the front row, Dan punched the air.
And then the applause began. Erupted. Shivered up every vertebrae in my spine.
“A man is as dead as he can’t communicate, he is as alive as he can communicate.” – L. Ron Hubbard.
I felt alive.
After the event I decided to research the religion properly. It turns out that Scientologists don’t believe they are space lizards. This was in fact a sensational story told to me that I was happy to believe at the time. Because there is a part of me that latches onto such propaganda.
So this is me admitting I am flawed, that I am not always right, and I apologise for spreading the myth that Scientologists believe they are space lizards. This is completely untrue and damaging.
They actually think they are space ghosts. Very different.
‘And now we announce the winner of this Toastmasters’ impromptu speech.’
I hadn’t realised it was a competition. I sat up in my seat.
‘It was this person’s first time with us.’
If my spine had straightened any further it would have burst through my skull.
‘All the way from Scotland…’
My life finally had meaning. An earthquake of ecstasy shook through every cell in my body as the seismic plates of joy and happiness collided. I felt Ron Hubbard’s presence; he put a hand on my shoulder and whispered ‘son’ in my ear. He had chosen me as the new prophet.
‘I have the pleasure of inviting Ciaran up to receive his award.’
I shot to my feet and ran up to the stage. These were my people.
No. These were my lizards.
I fell to my knees in front of the compare:
‘Let me join you.’ I roared.
As one, the audience ceased clapping (technique no. 3 – The Power of Silence). Maybe the lizard tongue was a bit much.
The compare stammered then went to retract my award.
I jumped up, grabbed the certificate, then for the second time exeunted.
Forever to remain a cult of one.