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The Conference

Howard assumed an air of modesty, shuffling papers and checking that the slideshow was ready to go, while the session chairman introduced him. The man made absurdly inflated claims about Howard’s experience and knowledge. Howard himself knew he was about to wing it. A fat man in a double-breasted suit sitting in the front row seemed to know this too. He sniffed loudly as each gold star was added to Howard’s improbably lustrous CV.

The chairman sat down. Howard cleared his throat, glanced down at his notes, and began.

When he looked up every human in the room had been replaced by a dog. Alsatians, terriers of various kinds, collies, retrievers, mutts – all up on the seats and staring at him intently. The expectation varied from dog to dog. Some seemed to desire food from him, others looked eager for a walk. A substantial minority appeared to want to savage him. The fat man was now a growling, drooling bulldog.

Howard started to sweat. He struggled on, trotting out the familiar clichés, illustrating them with the usual images. Bullet points: how he loathed them. How he wished he could load them into a gun and blast the assembled dogs with them, saving the last bullet point for himself.

Every so often he checked the audience again. It was still entirely canine. Even the chairman was a cocker spaniel, scratching behind its ear with a back foot.

This wasn’t the first time. A fortnight ago he’d delivered a workshop to a colony of seabirds. Kittiwakes, he had reckoned. On another occasion he’d spoken for an hour on organisational-change management to buckets of dead fish.

He had to remember that, whatever they looked like, they were only people. Ordinary people winging it, like him. They wouldn’t bite or peck or impregnate him with their foul stench. They would go away and he would go away and it would be over. Until the next time.

It was how it was. They probably thought he was a chimp or a cat or a budgie.

The thing was not to give in. The thing was not to admit it.

The thing was to carry on. What else could you do?

Reader: Tam Dean Burn
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Guitar: Sorren Maclean
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