The Voice Coach lives in a tall pink house on Highgate Hill. When she opens her front door to greet me for the first time, she steps back, hands pressed to her heart, and gasps. "Oh, you came." Her expression is that of a mother receiving an unplanned-but-hoped-for visit from a grown-up child. "Nell," she says, still not stepping aside or asking me in, "you are here."
I am here. I am here because I am worried about my voice and have decided I need professional help. My first book is about to come out, and in a few months' time I am due to record the audio version. I have had enough traumatic experiences hearing recordings of myself to know action is required. The weedy, high-pitched noise I seem to make in place of talking like a normal person needs immediate correction. An actor friend recommended Vivian, a woman in her 70s who used to teach voice at one of the big London drama schools and who now takes private clients. I called her and explained my situation, and now, well, I am here.
She leads me into a book-lined room where the cat-to-chair ratio is about two to one, dislodges the occupants of a couple of seats, and gestures to me to take one.
"Let's do a role-play," she says, settling herself beside me. "Let's pretend that you are on a train, and the conductor is coming, and you've lost your ticket. I'm the conductor. I want you to explain to me what has happened."
"Right," I say. I stammer my way through a long-winded explanation about how and where and why I might have mislaid my ticket. "I definitely paid for it. I had it just now. I'm so sorry. I just don't know what I've done with it."
"Right," says Vivian, when I have run out of apologetic steam. "Listen very carefully to me, darling. I need you to understand that there is a bit of I'm-frightfully-sorry-I've-mislaid-my-ticket-please-don't-be-angry-with-me in your voice at all times. You speak like a lost little girl."
"Sorry," I say.
"Exactly," she says.
Later, I am on all fours on Vivian's rug, lowing like a cow in labor. "Huh, huh, huh."
"Darker! Lower! Broader!" she bellows. "More!"
After that, I lie on my back, staring up at the ceiling, imagining that I am looking at the open sky, and saying, "I want to find my voice; I want to find my voice; I want to find my voice," while Vivian prods me somewhere near my ovaries and says, "From here. Your voice is in here. Not up there. Not in your throat. Here."
Later still, she asks me to read a section from my book, which is a memoir, and then stops me after about half a paragraph. "But, darling, do you even know the main character of this book? Do you love her?"
It's awkward. Maybe she thinks it's a novel. "It's a memoir," I say. "It's about me."
"Oh, darling, I know," she says. "But do you?"
I leave the pink house after my first lesson feeling deconstructed. I wander into a café in Highgate Village and momentarily forget how to speak altogether. I stand at the counter, mouth hanging open, for an excruciating moment of silence. Then, an entirely new voice comes out of me and says, deeply, raspingly, "Americano, please."
I am shocked by the sound I just made, and this must show on my face, because the man behind the counter says, "Are you sure about that? You don't look sure."