The world – the one around me now – has stopped. This is my photo-still. This is my fragment in history. Placing one deliberate foot in front of the other, I walk calmly on stage.
Arrayed in front of me are the thousands of egg-shell faces, neatly packed into their velvet rows. A glaring veil of light separates me from them, smudging their features and smearing the details of everyone beyond the second row. Although I cannot see them, I can hear them. There’s a thrumming force pulsating outwards as they wait for me to begin; a sound like a distant vacuum presses against me as they breathe as one. From behind me I sense the stage hands who, plugged in to their headsets like excitable droids, have stopped unnaturally in their tracks, waiting.
They tell you to breathe when you panic, as if the simple act of inflating your lungs will quiet your nerves. You see it countless times in television dramas: a brown paper bag is cupped over the mouth of a startlingly red-faced victim, crumpling in on itself before expanding again at a comedic rate. The ruddy face drains of harsh colour as calm is restored, an embarrassed smile apologises to the screen, and the world is reset.
There are no paper bags here.
Nervous air judders past my lips and my chest heaves – but then I spot an old man in the front row with wrinkles around his eyes so deep that they look like two balls of crumpled tissue. He isn’t looking at me: in fact, his eyes are closed and he is resting his head against the back of his seat, as if he is about to fall asleep. The only reason I know he is paying attention is because of the soft smile twitching at the corner of his lips. The rapid panic ebbs away and filters through my veins; now it is a mere tingling in my fingertips. I raise the soft palette, imagine a cavernous hall in the back of my throat, and open my lips to inhale. The air slips down my throat with the cool silky touch of water, trickling into every limb and blossoming in every muscle.
This breath and the breath of the vast crowd before me is like the ocean: an endless, surging, effortless tide that washes over and in and around. There is a magnetic reflux to it, tugging and releasing, rising to crescendos and dipping to pianissimo in silent unison with the moon. It is an unthinkable act, inconceivable in its very existence. We suck in the salt water of the air and crash it onto private pink shores.
Just when I feel full, I inhale a fraction more. The breath burrows deep into my lungs, nudging at the diaphragm, inching it into expanse, and I am ready. I am pregnant with air from my collar bone to my womb.
The familiar grip of the rectus abdominus provides the foundation, setting like a well of cement in the contact with oxygen. I am buried in the slatted stage; I can feel the tactile reaction of it against the balls of my feet, feeding strength up and into my softened knees. From the waist down, I am solid, steely, pushing outwards and downwards. The breath squats like a bunker deep underground, anchoring the store of oxygen in a concrete box that fastens the balloon breath billowing out the rest of my body. Slowly, I begin the release, and feel the air rising in me, a warm cloud waiting for transformation.
Up to the diaphragm, this arched dome under my lungs where the air sits like a rubber ring around my waist. It is grazing against the sacks of my lungs; I can almost hear a grating squeak as they rub together. Sque-eze. It is a drawn-out, exhaustive movement that saps the strength from me and squashes the air into a concentrated flow, steering it with purpose. Drawing on the lift from the bunker store below, it funnels the air higher up towards the larynx, the colour of the muscle pinkening, before releasing duties over to the lungs.
They are still fat with oxygen. The branched bronchioles bulge against the air sacks as if seeking more, greedy for the sweet taste; the main store in the lower lung is a sunken treasure trove, rich with product and pompous in its surety that soon it will be in demand. The ground beneath them shifts: this is their cue. Reluctant to let it all go at once, a slow release ensues, a battle of control as all three litres of air whistle back up the bronchi and into the trachea in a victorious race for freedom.
In a wild rush, the air flirts past the vocal chords, revelling in the journey’s disturbance, twanging on them like guitar strings and pocketing the vibrations on their way. Atomic couriers, they whizz through the vocal flaps on humming mopeds, one note clinging to the exhausts in an anxious state of pre-delivery, before re-entering the cavity under the soft palette.
This place is now huge, rounded. It opens up through the nose and billows out the throat; externally, a new chin has appeared. It is like a rouge ballroom, the tongue as rough flooring, the palette a soft, gathered ceiling. The couriers delight in this place, dancing around the pearl columns, gathering each atom into a mass of sound ready to dance their way across the tongue to freedom.
A slit of light bursts into the space as the lips are parted. The mass is released in a perfect, smooth stream; vibrations fill the mouth, tickle the tongue, swirl around each tooth, and burst with triumph into the world. An A, two octaves above Middle C. It pings in the listeners ears, a crystalline drop in the vast ocean of opera.
The old man in the front row, his comforting tiny eyes gummed shut with old age, grins.