Learn and Live
‘2+2=4’, he wrote.
He looked up, vacantly, licking at the snot on his upper lip.
“Winston, have you finished your calculations yet?”
Winston looked down at his sums – his “calculations” – and shook his head. He wiped his sleeve against his nose and bent his head again to his jotter. Mrs Ogilvy moved on.
Later, when the bell rang for home time, he ran into the sunshine towards his mum. His soft hand clasped hers and they left the playground, swinging their linked arms as they walked along. Winston closed his eyes and turned his face to the sun. Inside, his eyelids glowed red.
“So, how was your day?” she asked.
“Fine,” he said, thinking of nothing but the warmth of the hand he held and the heat of the afternoon sun.
He longed to get home, and get out again: to climb over the fence at the back of the garden and hunker down at the edge of the pond and watch the flies and midges hover and swarm; to count the ducks; to see the reflection of the sky glitter magically with sparkles on the surface.
But first, there was homework. A column of twos, a column of ands, a column of numbers, a column of equals signs and a column of answers.
He knew some of the answers. There were other answers he didn’t know. But the good thing was, that when he had pencilled in the answers he already knew, the other answers didn’t seem so hard. There were simply no other answers that would fit.
By the time he settled himself at the side of the pond, the sky had darkened to a hopeful pink, and above the pond he could see the usual pattern of insects, in their cloud of activity. They left him alone: alone to watch. It was as if they were trapped in an invisible, freeform bubble. Few midges broke ranks. They floated as one, replacing each other in perpetual rotation. Winston supposed they were free; they just chose to stay together.
Beside him, he had gathered some stones. From the pile, he chose four smooth pebbles. He dipped each one in the water and then rubbed each one clean on his t-shirt. The evening sun caught their shine. Each one glowed pink for just a moment. He held two in each hand. Four stones. Two and two make four. That was one that he knew.
He passed one of the stones from his right hand into his left and lobbed the remaining stone into the middle of the pond. The pond gave a satisfying gulp and set about sending out the circles.
Every molecule on the surface of the pond felt the effect of the wave, and in turn became part of it. At the spot where the pebble had pierced the surface, the molecules were thrown into ordered disarray. They bobbed violently, before passing on and passing out the energy. To Winston, the circle on the surface of the pond appeared to be getting bigger, but really, it was a series of different circles, a new one created with every tiny passing moment; a seamless representation of the same shape, but made up of entirely different molecules.
The circle lost its shape as it met with the irregular edges of the pond, and a breeze ruffled the surface, making the sky’s reflection appear as though a thousand tiny black boats had momentarily set sail. Winston shivered.
He stood up, and put the three remaining stones into his pockets and went back into the house.
His tea was just about ready. He went to wash his hands before his mum had the chance to tell him about germs, ponds and the relationship between them. He ran the water until it made his hands tingle. He squirted out some soap and rubbed his hands together. Sure enough, the water became impressively discoloured.
He took the stones out of his pockets and gave them another wash. He had figured that his hands were clean, but the pale brown water swirling down the plughole suggested otherwise. He rubbed at the surface of the stones with his thumb, and saw more clearly now the lines and marks on each stone. Pores, layers and more variety of colour than the simple grey he had thought they were.
He buffed them up on the hand towel, leaving grubby marks.
He sat at the table with his mum and his gran and considered the plate of spaghetti bolognaise. A mess of worms and mud. Or sick, even. And that stink of parmesan. Like grated feet. That bitter tang of tomato, dripping down through the mesh of pasta, tarnishing the pale, golden strands.
He set about rescuing clean strings of spaghetti from the pile. He scooped as much of the sauce away from the pale pasta as he could and began cleaning each one. Why couldn’t they leave the mince on the side? Or in the pan, even? Why did it have to be dumped on top of what had been, at one point, a perfectly decent plate of plain pasta?
He put one end of a piece of pasta in his mouth and sucked hard. It gradually snaked into his mouth, leaving a kiss of sauce on his lips that he wiped off with the back of his hand.
“Gran’s worried about you,” said his mum.
“That’s right, Winston. I think you are spending far too much time near that pond. It’s not safe for a wee boy like you. You should take one of us with you.”
“I’ll be fine,” said Winston, “I just like looking at it. I won’t go in. I promise.”
“See?” said his mum.
Winston’s gran inhaled disapprovingly and deftly spun the prongs of her fork in the hollow of her spoon and made an impressive spool of spaghetti that she ate neatly. He’d like to learn how to do that. But maybe today wasn’t the day to ask Gran that trick. He’d wait until she’d forgotten about the pond.
She had taught him all kinds of useful things: how to completely submerge a bottle in the bath while ensuring every air bubble escaped; how to leave a full, upturned cup of water on a table; how to make bubble mix; how to take a coat hanger, bend it and use it to make the biggest bubbles ever in the whole wide world.
His mum was less interested in helping him. She just wanted to look at him, to hold him and to search his face for contentment. He hoped she found it there. He looked into her face searching for the same.
When he looked into her face, he sometimes saw his own. At other times, he saw his gran’s face behind hers. He thought of the three of them as a paper chain, hand-in-hand-in-hand through the past, cut out of the same bit of paper. Of course, if he were to make a paper-chain of the three of them, he would have to have trousers on and they would have to have skirts, but they could have the same face, he supposed. All three of them.
After dinner, he went up to his room and set out the three stones on his desk. He set his angle-poise lamp to shine on them. They looked like contestants on a game show. Maybe he could decorate them. Get some wool and glue and make hair; get some googly eyes from the drawer. Maybe he should take them back out to the pond and lob them in and watch the circles grow. Maybe he should throw them in at the same time and watch as the circles met and cancelled each other out. Maybe he should leave them here, in a row.
The next day came and Winston opened his jotter on the desk for Mrs Ogilvy to see.
“Well done, Winston,” she said, smiling. “You’ve done very well there. All correct.” She stamped a stamp next to his work saying, Mrs Ogilvy’s Star Pupil. Then she moved on to look at the other jotters.
Each jotter contained the same work. The same columns with the same answers. The handwriting was all different, and some of the fours and sevens were back to front in some of the jotters, but everyone had completed the work well. Mrs Ogilvy beamed warmly at the class.
“Primary 1, I am very pleased with you all. You have worked hard and have learned a lot about addition. Now, for homework tonight, instead of working on your number stories in your jotters, I want you to think of a calculation for me to do. I challenge you to challenge me!”
Winston thought it odd that Mrs Ogilvy looked so pleased with herself. She was going to end up with twenty-four calculations to do, unless anyone forgot to make one up, or hadn’t a clue what she’d meant.
In his room that night, Winston began to think about his calculation for Mrs Ogilvy. He was free to choose any calculation he liked.
Winston thought about his stones: four, take away one.
He thought about the midges: how many midges does it take to make a cloud?
He thought of the pasta: how many strands of spaghetti can a gran spin in one flurry and eat in one go?
Most of all, he thought of his mum’s face. He knew that it lay behind his own face. Behind his mum’s was his gran’s. How many faces lay hidden behind hers?
He didn’t know the answer to that one. But he knew he had three answers in the right places, so it should be possible to work it out.
Somewhere, sometime, a rock had been thrown into a pond and the circles had come. Today there were three of them making the wave. Before them, there were memories. And then, only black and white images. Before then, there must have been others.
Thousands of tiny black boats that momentarily set sail.