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Roar is the wonderful and empowering new collection of short stories from one of Ireland’s favourite authors, Cecelia Ahern. Already optioned for a TV series directed by none other than Nicole Kidman, we’re delighted to share an exclusive extract from one of the year’s most buzzed about books.
The women in these startlingly original stories are all of us: the women who befriend us, the women who encourage us, the women who make us brave. From The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared to The Woman Who Was Kept on the Shelf and The Woman Who Returned and Exchanged her Husband, discover thirty touching, often hilarious, stories and meet thirty very different women. Each discovers her strength; each realizes she holds the power to make a change. Witty, tender, surprising, these keenly observed tales speak to us all, and capture the moment when we all want to roar.
It was all because of the work presentation. She hated presentations, always had since she was at school and the two idiots at the back of her classroom would hiss ‘sssss’ at her flaming red face. They hurled abuse at everybody but she was an easy target – her face would burn up, blazing red, as soon as she heard the sound of her own voice and felt the layers-peeling power of eyes on her.
With age, the flaming redness had lessened, but her nerves channelled themselves through her body and manifested as a severe knee tremble. She wasn’t sure which was worse. The red face that didn’t affect her speech or the knee quiver that caused her entire body to vibrate, shuddering as if she was out in the cold, despite her sweaty armpits. Her skirts would shake so that she resembled a cartoon character; she could almost hear the bone-clattering sound, like a bag of bones being shaken. She’d have to hide her hands too, or close her fingers to make fists. It was worse if she had to hold paper because the paper never lied. Always best to place the sheet on the table, hands closed to fists, or wrapped around a pen. Sit if possible, trousers preferable to skirts, and best to wear pants with narrowly tailored legs because the less loose fabric there was to tremble, the better; how-ever the waist needed to be loose to aid deep breathing. Better to be as casual as possible, coffee or tea to be drunk in a take-out cup to avoid cup and saucer rattling in trembling hands.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t know her stuff. She damn well did. She strode around her apartment as if giving a TED Talk. In her apartment she was the most competent, inspiring deliverer of quarterly sales figures that the world had ever seen. She was Sheryl Sandberg giving her TED Talk, she was Michelle Obama saying anything, she was a woman warrior spilling facts and figures, so self-assured in her own home, at night, alone.
The presentation was going fine, perhaps not as inspiring and earth-shattering as the rehearsal the previous night, with fewer insightful glimpses into her personal life and absolutely no humour, unlike the comedic ad-libbing she’d busted out to her ghost audience. It was definitely safer and more to the point, as perfect as she could hope for, apart from her annoying repetition of the phrase ‘per se’, which she had never used in her life regarding anything, but there it was now, a part of almost every sentence. She was already looking ahead to drinks later with her friends where they would giggle over her critical yet hilarious self-roasting. They’d toast to ‘Per Se!’ and spend the night using it in every sentence, creating a challenge perhaps, even a drinking game.
‘Excuse me, Mr Bartender,’ she imagined a friend leaning across the bar, with an arched eyebrow. ‘Could I get another Cosmo, per se?’
And they would all dissolve in laughter.
But she had gotten too far ahead of herself in her thoughts, she had gotten too cocky. All had been going well in her presentation until she’d disappeared into a daydream and taken her eye off the ball. She’d left the moment. She was surrounded by her dozen-strong team, those relieved to have finished their part of the presentation, others eager to have their moment in the light, when the door opened and in walked Jasper Godfries. The CEO. The new CEO who’d never sat in a sales meeting before in his life. Her heartbeat hastened. Cue knee tremble, cue shaking fingers. Hot skin, short breath. Her entire body, suddenly in flight mode.
‘Sorry to interrupt,’ Jasper announces to the surprised room. ‘I was stuck on a call with India.’
There are no free chairs because nobody is expecting him. People shift around, making room, and she finds herself standing, facing them all and her new CEO. Knees knocking, heart pounding.
Her colleagues look at the papers in her hand, some with amusement, some in pity, pretending they don’t notice how they violently shake. Jasper Godfries’ eyes remain on hers. She tries to relax her body, control her breathing, calm her mind, but she can’t think clearly. All she can think is the CEO, the CEO, the CEO. She hadn’t planned for this in any one of her one hundred possible scenario run-throughs all week.
Think, think, she tells herself as all eyes are trained on her.
‘Why don’t you take it from the top,’ her boss, Claire, says.
The voice inside her head shrieks with panic but instead she smiles, ‘Thank you, Claire.’
She looks down at her notes, flicks back to page one and everything blurs. She can’t see, she can’t think, she can only feel. Her anxiety is physical. It’s all going on in her body. She feels trembling in her knees, her legs, her fingers. A heart that beats too fast, they must be able to see it vibrating through her blouse. A cramp in her stomach that tightens. Nothing, nothing in her mind.
Claire says something to urge her along. They all turn the pages. They go back to the start. Back to the start. She can’t do it. Not all over again. She hadn’t prepared to do this twice.
Her throat tightens, stomach loosens. Panic. She feels a bubble of air, slowly, quietly release from her bottom. She’s thankful it’s quiet but it doesn’t take long for the hot, thick smell of her panic to circulate the room. She sees it hit Colin first. She sees how he jerks and moves his hand closer to his nose. He knows it was her. It will soon reach Claire. It does. Her eyes widen and her hand goes to her nose and mouth, subtly.
She looks down at the paper, shaking violently, worse than ever before, and for the first time in twenty-five years she feels the hot red blaze return to her cheeks where it burns, burns, burns her skin.
And she hears the words, ‘per se’, leave her lips, followed by a nervous giggle. They all look up from their notes to stare at her. Every single surprised, amused, irritated pair of eyes studies her. Judges her. It’s an awful, quiet, long, loaded silence, and all she wants to do is run out of the room or wish for the ground to open up and swallow her.
And that’s when it happens. A beautiful inviting black hole opens up between her and the boardroom table. Dark and promising, deep, welcoming. She barely thinks about it. She would rather be anywhere but here.
She jumps in.
She falls through darkness and lands in darkness.
‘Ow,’ she rubs her buttocks. Then she remembers what happened and she covers her face with her hands. ‘Oh fuck.’
‘You too, huh?’
She looks up and sees a woman beside her, wearing a wedding dress, with a name badge that reads Anna. She doesn’t want to know what Anna did, she doesn’t want to think of anything but analyse her own stupid mistake over and over again.
‘Where are we?’ the woman asks.
‘Cringeville,’ Anna moans. ‘Oh God, I am such an idiot.’ She looks up, face contorted in pain. ‘I called him Benjamin. I called him Benjamin,’ Anna says, freaking out, looking at the woman as though she can understand the gravitas of her mistake.
‘His name isn’t Benjamin?’ the woman asks.
‘No!’ Anna barks, causing her to jump. ‘It’s Peter. Peter.’
‘Oh, well, that’s not even close to Benjamin,’ the woman agrees.
‘No it’s not. Benjamin was my first husband,’ she wipes her eyes. ‘Right in the middle of my wedding speech, I call my new husband the wrong name. The look on his face.’
‘No! Peter’s face.’
Anna closes her eyes, squeezes them shut as if trying to make it all go away.
‘Poor you,’ the woman cringes for her, feeling slightly better about her own embarrassment. At least her moment hadn’t been her wedding day, it had only been in front of the CEO and the people she sees and works with every day of her life. No, it’s still bad. She sighs, cringes again.
‘What did you do?’ Anna asks.
‘I panicked and farted during a work presentation in front of my colleagues and the new CEO that I was trying to impress.’
Anna’s voice shakes and the woman senses she’s holding back a laugh.
‘It’s not funny,’ she cringes, covering her flaming cheeks again. Suddenly the ceiling above them opens, there’s a blast of bright light, sand trickles down. They guard their eyes. A woman tumbles down with the sand to the floor beside them.
‘Oh God,’ the woman whimpers. Yukiko is written on her name badge.
‘What happened?’ the woman asks Yukiko, eager to forget her own humiliation and the memory of her colleagues’ faces when her fart drifted to the table.
Yukiko looks up, pain on her face. ‘I just walked the full length of the hotel’s beach with my boob hanging out.’ She adjusts her bikini at the memory. ‘I was wondering why everyone was smiling at me. I just thought that everyone was so friendly . . . I wished for the ground to open up and swallow me,’ she says, looking around.
The ceiling opens again and they hear piano music, smell delicious food.
A woman jumps down and lands on her feet. Marie. She immediately starts tugging at her skirt, which is tucked right up into her underwear, revealing the cheeks of her bottom, and she wanders off deeper into the darkness on her own, muttering in French. The three women watching don’t even bother to ask.
‘So how long do we stay down here?’ Yukiko asks.
‘Forever, hopefully,’ the woman replies, settling down in a dark corner. She thinks about her presentation again, about the expressions on her colleagues’ faces, and she shudders.
‘I’ve been here a while. The ceiling opens up to the place you escaped from and you climb back up again. Two women left ahead of me,’ Anna explains. ‘I guess they knew it was their time to go.’
‘Probably when the cringe dies,’ the woman adds, hoping it will happen at least in this lifetime.
‘Never going to happen,’ Yukiko says, sitting down and wrapping her arms round her almost naked body. She relives her moment on the beach. ‘My nipple was out and everything . . .’ she groans before hiding her face.
Another hole opens further down, and a woman stumbles into the pit. ‘Jesus,’ she holds her head in her hands. ‘You’re a bloody eejit, Nora, why don’t you ever think before you speak?’
Anna laughs, not at anyone in particular but at the situation. ‘Maybe Peter will think my mentioning Benjamin was funny. We joked about me making the mistake, but I never thought it would actually happen. Maybe I should pretend it was a joke.’
A small hole opens above her.
‘Or admit the truth,’ the woman suggests.
‘What happened?’ Yukiko asks.
‘She confused her husband’s name with her ex-husband’s name in her wedding speech.’
Yukiko’s eyes widen.
The hole above them closes instantly. Anna is not ready to go yet and they all learn how this works. Nobody leaves the cringe hole until they are ready to leave the cringe hole. They could all be here for some time.
‘You two aren’t helping,’ Anna says, covering her face. ‘Oh God,’ she groans. ‘His parents, his brothers, his horrible sister, they’ll never let me live this down.’
‘But it’s not the worst mistake in the world, is it?’ the woman asks. ‘Peter isn’t going to leave you just because you made a genuine mistake. A wedding is an emotional time, you were nervous. It was probably the one name you didn’t want to say and it popped out. And in the grand scheme of things it’s not as if one of you is ill, or cheated, or argued.’
‘Or walked up the aisle with your boob out,’ Yukiko adds.
‘Or farted in front of the entire congregation,’ the woman adds, and Yukiko looks at her with her nose crinkling now that she knows her cringe story.
Anna laughs. ‘True.’
‘It was just a mistake with a name,’ the woman says gently.
‘I guess so,’ Anna smiles, and relief passes across her face. ‘You’re right. Thanks, ladies.’
The same hole reopens in the ceiling above them. They hear a toilet flush. A man calling, ‘Anna! Anna! Please come out!’
‘You’re hiding in the bathroom?’ the woman asks.
She nods and looks up. ‘Time to face the music.’
‘Good luck,’ the woman wishes her.
‘Thanks. You, too.’
She lifts her wedding dress above her knees so she can climb up to the hole, they watch her fix herself and her dress as she stares at the locked bathroom door. As she takes a deep breath and reaches for the lock, the ground closes up and she’s out of sight.
Just as Anna disappears, another hole opens and they see a toilet.
‘Is that Anna again?’ Yukiko asks.
‘No. Different toilet,’ the woman says, moving closer to peer up.
The smell that drifts down is so awful, they skitter away covering their noses and mouths.
The woman who fell down the hole stands up and looks at the hole that’s closing over and then at them all. Luciana.
‘Oh shit,’ the woman grimaces, holding her nose. ‘That really stinks.’
‘I know,’ Luciana cringes. ‘And there’s a long line of women who just heard me do it and are waiting to get in. It’s disgusting. I’m staying down here till the smell goes.’
‘You might have to start paying rent,’ Yukiko grumbles, holding her nose.
Another hole opens and a woman tumbles down, cursing. She looks at the three women facing her. She paces, chewing on her lip, then finally pauses and looks at them. Her name badge reads Zoe.
‘I just asked a mother at the school gates when her baby is due. There is no baby, she’s just really fat. Like pregnant fat. I see her every day, it was in front of the other mums.’ She moans.
A hole opens up further down and another woman falls to the ground, whimpering, ‘I slipped on my way to the bar, walking past his table.’
A voice calls from the dark at the other end of the hole. ‘I couldn’t stop laughing at the funeral.’
And a further voice from the darkness, hollow, haunted. ‘I went in for a hug and we kissed on the lips.’
‘Oh please, that is all nothing,’ says Marie, the woman who had her dress tucked into her underwear. She has a French accent and she emerges from the darkness smoking a cigarette, like a scene from a predictable spy movie. ‘It’s not like walking through the entire restaurant with the back of your skirt tucked into your lingerie,’ she adds through gritted teeth.
The women listening suck in air.
The ceiling opens and another woman stumbles down, naked, draped in a bed sheet, with a haunted expression. On her bare chest the name badge reads Sofia. No one asks her, they don’t need to know what situation she just escaped, and she ignores the others, too lost in her head.
A fragile voice from deep in the darkness speaks up, and as the woman’s eyes adjust to the gloom, she suddenly sees a body sitting on the floor that she hadn’t noticed before. She realizes the woman must have been there since she arrived. The shadowy figure places something on the floor and slides it. It stops at the woman’s feet. She picks it up, and reads the name badge. Guadalupe.
When Guadalupe speaks her voice is gravelly, deep, as though she’s been here for some time, without water. ‘Slide it back.’
ID confidentially shared, the woman slides it across the floor and Guadalupe catches it and the name badge disappears into the darkness again. She can’t even bring herself to wear it.
‘I sent an email to the wrong person. The message was about them, they should never have seen it,’ she says, looking at them all with big eyes. ‘I keep reliving the moment I pressed send. I wish I could take it back.’ Finished sharing, she drags herself back to the dark corner she’d been hiding in.
‘How long have you been here?’ the woman asks.
‘I’m never leaving,’ is Guadalupe’s croaky reply.
Marie snorts and sucks on her cigarette. The woman decides she will not stay in this hole for such a length of time, she cannot cringe and regret her mistake forever. She has a life to live.
Another hole opens and a glamorous woman tumbles down. She’s wearing a beautiful gown for a black-tie event. She looks at them in shock. ‘I won.’
‘You won?’ the woman asks. ‘Congratulations. What did you win?’
‘An award. The award I’ve worked for all my life.’
‘That’s amazing. You don’t seem so happy.’
‘I fell,’ she whispers, still stunned. ‘I tripped on the steps on the way up the stage. In front of everyone. Everyone.’
‘Oooh,’ they all say in unison.
‘Yowch,’ Luciana winces.
The ceiling opens above them again. The woman sees the wood panelling on the boardroom wall, the table, can make out Colin’s foot, his striped rainbow-coloured sock. She doesn’t want to stay, but she’s not ready yet, she panics.
‘Hey, take deep breaths,’ Zoe offers.
The woman complies and together they do deep breathing.
‘In through the nose,’ Marie says.
‘Out through the mouth,’ Yukiko finishes.
The woman looks up through the hole. They’re just people, people she knows. She knows her stuff, she is over-prepared, she always over-prepares in case of moments like this. She can do this.
At least she didn’t call her husband the wrong name on her wedding day, at least her skirt wasn’t tucked into her underwear, at least her boob wasn’t hanging out. She didn’t ask her overweight colleague if she was pregnant. She didn’t misdirect a sensitive email. She messed up her presentation, she embarrassed herself. But it wasn’t live on television. It’s redeemable.
The remaining women in the hole watch at her, anxious for her next move. Another hole opens and a young woman stumbles down, confused. ‘Canada is in America, right?’ she pleads and in their faces she knows she’s wrong. ‘No! Of course it’s not. Idiot.’ She hits her head and mumbles, ‘Worst job interview ever.’
The woman looks back up at the hole. At least she knows her stuff. It could always be worse. Everybody gets nervous sometimes. But the fart . . . she’ll have to try to pretend it was someone else. She needs to reconcile this moment and move on.
‘You just down or going up?’ Marie asks, sucking on the last of her cigarette.
The woman smiles. ‘I’m going back up.’
‘Well, good luck, I’m never going up there again,’ Yukiko says.
‘You will, trust me. There’s always something worse that could happen,’ the woman says.
In the distance she hears a woman fall to the ground with a shriek, ‘But the woman looked like a man!’
She takes a deep breath and steps up to the hole.
In an instant, she is standing back where she was, in front of the boardroom table, papers in her hands. While time has passed for her, it’s as though she never left the room for her colleagues. All eyes are still on her. The shaking has stopped. The worst has happened. She lived through it. She survived.
‘Apologies, guys,’ she says firmly. ‘Let’s start over, shall we? I’ve outlined South Africa’s sales in the graph and as you can see we’ve witnessed a sharp increase over last quarter’s numbers, which I’m pleased with. Still, there’s enormous room for growth, which is where the proposal on page two comes in.’
As she turns the page, the women down in the black hole smile up at her, give her the thumbs up, and the surface closes over.
From The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared to The Woman Who Was Kept on the Shelf and The Woman Who Returned and Exchanged her Husband, discover thirty touching, often hilarious, stories and meet thirty very different women. Each discovers her strength; each realizes she holds the power to make a change. Witty, tender, surprising, these keenly observed tales speak to us all, and capture the moment when we all want to roar.
'These stories sing and cry and shout and whisper from the page. They're sharp, clever, witty.a joy to read.'
-Donal Ryan, international bestselling author of The Spinning Heart I am woman.