Open Mic Night

Illustration of woman performing, standing on top of books.


A curious challenge and a rallying call to reluctant family… but would it be poetry in motion – or a night to forget? 

“Mum, I’ve got something to tell you. But first you’ve got to promise you won’t get mad.”

Words every parent dreads.

I knew something was up the minute Ella walked through the door and dumped her schoolbag on the bottom stair. Normally she heads straight to the fridge before clamping on her headphones and disappearing up to her bedroom to do her homework which, in teenage speak, translates into ‘message her friends’.

Instead, she was perched on the edge of the sofa where I was indulging in my favourite cuppa of the day before going to start supper. She hadn’t even bothered to take off her duffle coat. The coat she hates. The one she says makes her look like Paddington.

She looked as if she was set to make a run for it as soon as she’d relayed her words of doom.

She was joining a cult. No, it couldn’t be that. She’d never survive without her hair-straighteners.

She’d got a C-minus in her maths test. Another no. That was a common occurrence and one her dad and I had come to terms with. Bright as she was, Ella was no Sheldon Cooper. Books and literature were her thing.

Oh no! She’d got a tattoo. In spite of her father forbidding it on account of… well, being her father.

“So, do you promise, Mum?”

She shook my arm, bringing me out of my reverie.

“Of course, darling,” I said. “Although I’ve no idea what your dad will say.”

“Great,” said Ella, finally untoggling her coat. “You know Mr Drake, the English teacher?”

I nodded. Was that it? Did she have a crush on her teacher? It wasn’t unusual at her age. But Mr Drake? He wasn’t much younger than me and only a few haircuts short of succumbing to a combover.

“He’s organising a Poetry Open Mic Night in aid of a children’s literacy charity and he’s looking for…”

“Of course.” Oh, the relief. “How many tickets do you want me to buy? One for myself. And Dad. Although he won’t go. Poetry’s not his thing. Gran might, though, and I’ll ask…”

No, Mum. I’m not talking about tickets. Mr Drake’s short of participants, so I said you’d take part.

Ella smiled.

“Me? Perform poetry? In front of an audience? Why on earth would you tell him that?”

“Because you write poetry, Mum. You’re quite good.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Ella, Mr Drake’s not interested in the silly little ditties I make up for people’s birthdays and anniversaries. He’s talking about real poetry. Wordsworth. Betjeman. Carol Ann Duffy.”

“Exactly. You’re not as good as them – obviously. But there’s the stuff you write in your notebook.”

“How do you know about my notebooks? I’ve never shown them to anyone.”

She had the decency to look contrite. She gets that from her father who has exactly the same expression when I catch him raiding the biscuit tin when we’re supposed to be cutting down.

“It was lying on top of your bed one day when I went into your room to borrow your hairdryer.”

“You were snooping in my room?”

“Of course not.” Ella does indignant very well. “It was open and I just happened to glance at it. Same as you do when you’re putting the laundry away in my room.”


“Anyway, I read one… maybe two… okay, a few of your poems, and they were really good. The stuff you do for family events is great, but these are just like proper poems.”

Talk about a backhanded compliment. I shook my head. “Sorry, Ella, but you’re going to have to tell Mr Drake I can’t do it.”

I told Steve about it later.

“I mean, what would people say? Who does she think she is? She’s a part-time clerk in the Council Office. What does she know about writing poetry?”

Steve nodded and turned on The Repair Shop. It was the reaction I’d expected, and I suppose I was relieved he hadn’t actually laughed at the idea. Steve knew I wrote. He used to tease me about it, and sometimes I’d find him sneaking a peek in my notebook when he thought I wasn’t looking.

Once, I thought I saw him brushing away a tear, and when I opened the book later, I saw the ink had run on one of the pages. It was a poem I’d written about the several miscarriages I’d had before Ella came along. After that he hardly commented on my writing anymore, but he didn’t tease me either.

I was tidying upstairs the next day when I came across my notebook on the chair by the window. Often, I’d pause and read through a couple of poems, maybe thinking about a word I’d change or a new sentence I’d add. Today I grabbed the book and shoved it in the top drawer of the dressing-table.

The phone rang in the afternoon and my heart sank when I heard Mr Drake’s voice.

“I can’t thank you enough for agreeing to participate in our Open Mic Night, Mrs Taylor.”

“Oh… have you spoken to Ella today?”

“Not yet. I don’t have her class until last period.”

“In that case…”

My words were drowned out by a continuous shrieking noise at the other end of the phone.

“There goes the bell. Lunchbreak’s over. I just wanted to let you know I’ve put together some guidelines and a copy of the programme. I’ll give them to      Ella to pass on to you this afternoon.”


“Sorry, I really must go. But thanks once again for your support. If you and Liam, a former pupil, hadn’t stepped in, I was afraid I’d have to cancel altogether.”


Goodbye, Mrs Taylor. See you soon.

I shrieked when Ella gave me the guidelines. “Three poems! I told you to tell him I couldn’t do it.”

“I was going to, Mum, honest. Even though it probably meant I’d be downgraded in English for the rest of the year, but he said he’d spoken to you, and you were looking forward to it.”

“Did he indeed?” I was beginning to think there was more to Mr Drake than I gave him credit for.

I must admit I quite enjoyed preparing for the performance. It gave me an opportunity to look at my poems with a fresh, more critical eye. I chose the ones I felt were my best, tweaking and polishing them until they were as word-perfect as they were ever likely to be. I practised reading them out loud when there was no-one else at home.

And then Ella asked how many tickets she should order. Tickets! People were actually going to hear my words. And they were paying for the privilege. I heard ‘their’ voices again inside my head. “Who does she think she is? She’s a part-time clerk in the Council Office. What does she know about writing poetry?”

“One for Dad,” I said, “but he won’t come. One for Gran, although I haven’t asked her yet, and one for Jenny. She’s already said she’ll come.”

“Four then.”


“One for me, too.”

“You’re coming?”

“Of course, I’m coming, Mum. I think it’s pretty cool. And anyway, I’m the one who got you into this.”

Was that a look of contrition on my daughter’s face?

As expected, Steve said there was footie on that night. Mum happily bought a ticket but said she couldn’t actually come. Someone was giving a demonstration at the WI on twenty things to do with cauliflower which she didn’t want to miss. That only left my best friend, Jenny.

“That’s ridiculous,” Jenny said when I dropped round with her ticket and told her the others couldn’t make it.

“Poetry’s not really their thing,” I explained on their behalf.

“That’s not the point,” said Jenny. “How many times have you stood in the freezing cold and cheered for Steve when he’s been playing football?”


“And remember last year when your mum roped you into going on that bus trip to the wooden spoon factory because her friend cancelled at the last minute?”

“It wasn’t just wooden spoons, and it was quite interesting.”

“That’s not the point,” Jenny repeated. “The point is, this is your moment, Beth, and the least they can do is be there to support you in your hour of…”


“Glory.” She nodded her head emphatically.

I was so nervous when the day finally arrived, I couldn’t eat or concentrate on anything. To make matters worse, I got a text from Jenny just as Ella and I were leaving the house.

Sorry. Been delayed. Something to attend to. Be there ASAP. You’ll be great. Jx

Mr Drake met us with an exuberant handshake and showed me to a seat in the front row along with the other participants. There were five of us, six if you included Mr Drake, who was acting as compere.

To my surprise there were quite a lot of people in the audience. I supposed most of them were school staff, and friends and family dragged along for support. I caught Ella’s eye. She was sitting on her own in the middle of a row near the centre of the hall. She smiled and gave me a thumbs up. Still no sign of Jenny, though.

I noticed the legs of the young man on my left were twitching and he kept running his hand through his hair and sighing. I introduced myself and asked if this was the first time he’d done anything like this.

He nodded. “I’m Liam. I’m studying English Lit at uni. It was Mr Drake who encouraged me with my writing. He’s a great teacher. When he asked me to take part, I didn’t have the heart to say no.”

I nodded sympathetically and told him how I came to be there. At that point the woman on my right introduced herself as Gail. She said she’d just moved into the area and was hoping to start a creative writing group. She wondered if we’d be interested in coming along.

Then Mr Drake took his position in front of the microphone and tapped it gently to test if it was working.

He opened his mouth to speak, and at the very same time the door at the back the hall crashed open and in walked Jenny, followed by Steve and my mum, causing enough disruption for everyone to turn and stare at them. I watched them bumping chairs and uttering not very quiet apologies, as they squeezed into the row where Ella was sitting. She didn’t look at all surprised to see them.

Mr Drake started again, welcoming everyone and explaining about the charity we were raising money for. I couldn’t help feeling a little proud that I was doing my bit to help. Even though I might be rubbish.

First up was Sam, a retired taxi driver with a very witty repertoire about some of the bizarre encounters he’d had in his cab.

Liam was on next. Words flowed from his mouth like honey dripping from a silver spoon. I’d noticed that as soon as he started speaking his legs stopped shaking.

He was followed by Maria, a young woman who worked at a daycentre for refugees. There was complete silence when she finished. It was as if everyone needed time to absorb her words and process the images in their heads. And then the room erupted in a tumultuous ovation of appreciation.

And then it was me. One minute I was rising unsteadily to my feet, semi-conscious of good luck messages coming to me from the left and right, and the next I was sitting down again with the words “Well done, Beth,” ringing in my ears. What happened in between is just a blur.

I only came to when Gail was finishing her third poem, which earned her a hearty show of appreciation from the audience.

Finally, it was Mr Drake’s turn to end the evening with his own offerings and a vote of thanks for everyone who’d taken part.

Suddenly it was all over, and the buffet was open. While everyone else wandered towards it, we poets clustered together, dazed, euphoric, and relieved. We congratulated each other over and over again while Gail checked she had all our mobile numbers so she could contact us about her writing group.

Mr Drake organised us for a group photograph for the local paper. The reporter asked us about ourselves, how we got into writing, and we all had our stories to tell. Finally, it was time to leave our cocoon and venture into the real world where our friends and families were waiting to greet us with hugs and cheers and pats on the back.

“I take it you’re responsible for getting Steve and Mum here,” I said to Jenny when we were standing in line for the sausage rolls. “How much did you pay them?”

“To be honest, neither of them took much persuading,” Jenny replied. “And they both told me they’re glad they came.”

Mum was having a conversation with Mr Drake when I went to tell her it was time to go home.

“She gets her talent from me, you know,” I heard her say. “I came first in English every year and I won an inter-school competition for an essay I wrote when I was twelve.”

“I never knew that, Mum.”

“Why would you, love? It was a long time ago and to tell the truth I’d almost forgotten about it until tonight.”

“Did you keep on writing?” Mr Drake asked.

Mum shook her head. “Things were different then. Girls like me, from the council estate, had to go out and work. We didn’t have time to become famous writers.”

“Well, this is as famous as I’ll ever get,” I said, laughing as I took her arm and led her towards the door.

“It’s a lot further than me,” said Mum. “And our Ella can go further still. She gets her talent from me, you know.” And then she added as an afterthought, “And you too, probably.”

Later that evening, when it was just Steve and me, I snuggled close and gave him a hug.

“Thanks for coming,” I said. “It meant a lot to me.”

“I enjoyed it,” he said. “I’m very proud of you.”

I pulled away from him and raised my eyebrows. “Okay, who are you and what have you done with my husband?”

“I mean it, Beth. I’m so proud of you. To be honest I’ve always felt a little bit guilty.”


“I used to read your poems years ago and I was amazed at how you managed to express your emotions in that way. Envious even. I suppose you could say they touched me. But I was scared of revealing my own feelings and where that would lead, so I pretended I wasn’t interested. I’ve always known how much writing means to you. I should’ve been more supportive.”

I wasn’t expecting that. I knew it took a lot for Steve to utter even those few words. He didn’t do emotions. I told him Gail was organising a creative writing group.

“I hope you said you’ll go,” he said.

“It’ll depend what night it’s on. If it’s Tuesday I have to pick Ella up from music club and if it’s Wednesday, you’ve got…”

Nothing that can’t be worked around.

I thanked him with a smile.

“I think I’ll try and persuade Mum to come, too. Apparently, she’s the source of all this untapped talent in the family.”

“As long as it doesn’t clash with her WI night. I hear they’re moving on to One Hundred Wonderful Ways With Broccoli.”

I laughed. “Actually, that’s not a bad title for my next poem.”

“I think I’d like to read that one,” said Steve.

Read more uplifting short stories:

Read Life Is A Journey, Isla’s Capri, and Talk Talk, plus many more in our archives.

Georgia Grieve