‘The first lesson is on trigonometry,’ he said.
‘It’s about shapes. You know triangles? Now, here’s a strange thing, there’s a rule with them. One corner’s always square – like this.’ He held his hands up so that the tip of his right middle finger just touched the base of his left hand where the lines of his palm joined his wrist.
‘That’s not a square.’
‘No, it’s my hands, but look – here – the angle.’
‘It’s not a square, it’s two sides of a square.’
‘Yes! You’re right, of course. Well done.’
His hands looked frail to me, even though he was the strongest man I knew. He could lift me over his head in a single, effortless motion, like someone beckoning a truck to reverse.
‘Hang on, no.’ His brow creased. ‘They don’t always have a right angle.’
‘What’s a right angle?’
‘The square thing,’ he said, quickly tapping his wrist with his middle finger again. ‘It’s called a right angle. They don’t all have that. What was it then? What was the rule?’ Worry moved the slight flesh of his face around like play doh between warm fingers. The light wasn’t yet strong so the room had a sort of faded greyness to it, as if it wasn’t quite real, just an idea someone had once had. I shifted my weight from one side to the other. There were writhing snakes in my legs.
‘Let’s talk about bears,’ I suggested.
‘I knew it once. What is it?’ The line between his eyes had moved down to the corners of his mouth. He still wasn’t looking at me.
‘Koalas aren’t bears, actually,’ I said. ‘You have to just call them koalas, do you know?’
‘Oh, yes!’ He opened his eyes wide and held out both hands as if he was holding a large, invisible beachball. He was looking at me again, now, the lines on his face stretched and at rest. ‘The angles all add up to a hundred and eighty. Wait there, I’ll get a pen.’
Out of the window you could see thick buns of snow settling on the gate and the garden wall. It was smudging the world away – wiping it out with an indifferent thumb. Look, the grass was practically gone. The sky had been rubbed out too. The trees were fading under the delicate weight of a million icy blinks. I watched the snowflakes’ silent murmuration, eternally separated from my warm body in an airtight room. My foot was going to sleep beneath me, but I let it happen for the delayed pleasure of feeling it prickle hotly back to life.
The door opened and he sat back down next to me, bouncing me a fraction of a millimetre into the air with his weight.
‘Here. So.’ He drew quickly on a roughly torn out sheet of paper, the top edge burred and ragged. The paper was covered in spots in a criss-cross pattern, a join-the-dots that led to nothing but one side of a cage. ‘This is a right angled triangle because the corner is a square.’
‘Half a square, you mean. Bears eat fish, do you know?’
‘Do they? The square corner’s ninety, so the other two must add up to ninety so that altogether it’s a hundred and eighty. But of course,’ he looked downcast, ‘you don’t even know what a hundred and eighty is.’ He laid his pale hands on the hieroglyphed paper and held my gaze, looking lost.
‘I know what a hundred is.’
‘What is it?’
‘The biggest number in the world.’
‘That’s infinity. But that’s not even a number, it’s a concept. There is no biggest number.’
‘No. It’s a hundred. A hundred killion.’
‘Anyway, here, the square angle…’ He was looking back at the paper now.
‘Half square. What’s an angle?’
‘Two lines meeting. The square angle’s always ninety.’
‘Square’s ninety,’ I said.
He looked satisfied. ‘Yes. That’s it. The square’s ninety: half square’s ninety. That will do.’ He picked the piece of paper up and stored it carefully in the drawer next to him.
‘Bears eat fish that they catch in a river.’
‘Yes.’ He flicked at the surface of his knee with a thumb nail. ‘They do.’
‘It’s the circle of life. Don’t worry. They become the bear and then the bear becomes the grass and then the grass becomes a rabbit.’
He rubbed a corner of his bristly chin with one thumb. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Who’s giving the lessons here?’
‘We could give each other lessons.’ He squinted and looked at me closely, which, for him, was something like a smile is for other people. We looked at each other like that for a second, two seconds, three. I noticed that if you didn’t move or speak, time moved a lot more slowly, maybe stopped altogether. The something that was us was suspended there: a ball bearing between two magnets. I felt that we were the same age and always had been, but normally we were stuck pretending to be something we weren’t. I was about to tell him not to be sad about the fish when a voice cracked our reverie and opened time up again.
‘Hester! Time to go! Get your shoes on.’
‘Here,’ he said, ‘Give me a kiss. Have a good day at nursery.’
‘It’s new school. Nursery was old school.’
‘Sorry, school. New school.’
His face was soft and smelled of soap and lemons.
‘Go. You’ll get us in trouble.’
‘Remember about bears.’
‘Remember about right angles.’
‘Righty ninety. Righty ninety.’
‘Bears become… rabbits?’
I span out of the room as Mum hurled a Hes up the stairs.
‘The first lesson is on trigonometry,’ he said.