HE OPENED THE speech, coughing and unbuttoning his jacket: ‘Life has many ups and downs, and now so does unmanned oceanic survey equipment.’ He coughed again. Jeff was doing a TEDx talk about a new underwater bladder he’d invented when he suddenly remembered an awful conversation he’d had the night before. He paused, looking out on the auditorium of dark, carefully blank faces and knew he’d lost them, or perhaps never had them in the first place.
The bladder was actually a revolution in underwater sciences, and he was excited at the prospect of sharing it with the world, honoured at the invitation to speak. Technically the invitation hadn’t specifically been for him, but he felt like he was better suited, because he came from a business background and was used to making Powerpoint presentations and working lunches. Thinking of the earnest warped faces of his oceanographic science team, Jeff decided maybe these people couldn’t physically face a large crowd. Maybe their teeth hadn’t had enough work done on them for that. Maybe they didn’t even own suits. He just didn’t know.
The bladder, while simple in concept, allowed equipment to ascend and descend under water at previously unknown speeds and easiness, using only air pressure, meaning all sorts of hidden nooks and crannies were now accessible to science.
‘I simply cannot stress the importance of this discovery,’ he stated and then paused. ‘Ahem. I just can’t.’
Jeff spent forty years of his life in the private sector, in stocks and bonds and money. His Sicilian grandmother would take his head in her floury hands and ask him why he used his brain for evil. He always pointed out to his business friends that she had stopped asking that after he bought her a house. Privately, he knew that was because of the Alzheimers. Sometimes he told people he’d retired from business because of his high level of success, but people mostly look confused at the concept.
‘Let’s look at it this way – what does a number mean?’ As a former businessman, he knew what a number meant. He liked to tell new employees how much their toilet break had cost the company. This stuff was quantifiable. What he didn’t understand was why he was talking about numbers – the projector was currently showing a detailed diagram of a nozzle.
‘A million is a large number, but how much larger is a billion? If we went back in time a million hours, there would still be civilisation. If we went back in time a billion hours, there would be nothing. There would be maybe dinosaurs.’ He looked down at his hairy hands, desperately hoping to find a connection between numbers and underwater bladders.
‘Has anyone seen that movie, Jurassic Park? What people don’t realise is in the movie Jeff Goldblum actually travels back in time to the Cretaceous period, not the Jurassic period. Spielberg just thought Jurassic sounded better. Can you imagine going to see a movie called Cretaceous Park? I sure can’t. Ha-ha.’
When he’d arrived in the hotel where all the TEDx speakers were staying, he’d been welcomed by a beautiful woman who made him feel safe and comfortable because she smiled a lot and had his name on a clipboard. She’d asked him how the flight had been, and he answered in a way that suggested he flew around a whole bunch for various reasons.
‘I’ve had worse,’ he laughed, blowing out his cheeks. She laughed too.
She wished him a good night, and hoped he would have a good rest before the big day. He felt flushed and important, and waved a hand dismissively.
‘I’ll probably just drink four bottles of St Henri’s. It’s an expensive wine, but it helps me sleep. It’s an expensive habit. I … should probably stop.’ He was lying, and the woman looked concerned and politely contemptuous. In reality he was going to masturbate and read a magazine. That was it.
That was the conversation, which had so thoroughly derailed his train of thought. He’d never in his life drunk more than one bottle of wine. He couldn’t even imagine anyone being impressed by his lie, as if the welcome woman was just waiting for someone with such an expensive and pointless habit to come along. ‘I am now sexually available to you’ she would say, tossing the clipboard aside. ‘Did you say four? Four bottles of expensive wine? My clitoris is thus engorged.’
Jeff had never been married.
Jeff pointed at the projector, ignoring the first derogatory mutters coming from the audience.
‘What I can tell you is that I definitely helped design that nozzle.’
He remembered how he’d first felt, watching the bladder climb effortlessly through the water, breaking the surface. They’d all high-fived and he’d done a little dance, pretending not to care as his wet thighs slapped together loudly. This moment felt the opposite of that.
‘Guys, this is my dream nozzle. The nozzle … of my dreams.’
Perhaps the ridiculousness of his speech finally overcame the awkwardness, because the crowd at the point laughed. They guffawed, and in doing so gave him the time to gather his thoughts, to compose his next sentence, which was actually about science. He felt imbued with confidence again – he felt like after free falling through cold blue water for miles and miles, he’d suddenly switched his nozzle and now he was rising again, like a bird. Like a bladder.