Four lessons, part three

‘The third lesson’s about…’ he hesitated. ‘Kindness.’

‘I thought it was about lava.’

‘Oh, yes. We’ll cover lava too, briefly.’

There had been two days of a rubbed out world, but out of the window you could see grass poking its stiff spikes through the soft ice, pulling it apart to make space for itself.

‘Snow can freeze your glove,’ I said, ‘then your fingers get cold, then you cry.’


‘And your glove stays stiff.’

‘Till it gets warm.’

‘What then?’

‘Then it’s dry.’

‘No, wet.’

‘Wet first.’

Before – yesterday, or whenever in the past it was – you could see footprints in the garden: first a single line, then overlapping circles, then a jumble of prints. But overnight they’d grown from feet to dinner plate sized holes, as if a monster had trodden carefully in our footsteps while we slept, making exagerated, slow movements with a grimace on its face. Its head would practically reach the bedroom windowsills.

‘Can monsters see in the upstairs windows?’ I said.

‘No. They tend to lurk around outskirts, around edges, looking in. They don’t get up close to us, because it makes them sad.’

‘Sad why?’

‘Sad for what they don’t have.’

‘They can come in if they want.’

He smiled.

‘Come and look at their footprints.’

‘Oh, they’re there in the garden? I’ll look later, when you’re at school.’

‘I don’t like school. Can I have all my lessons with you?’ Old school had been fine – a jumble of warmth, like splashes of paint on paper. New school was black lines. Other children knew how to play. I didn’t know what to do, how to effortlessly seem carefree and shout out game suggestions like I’d been born knowing how to do it.

‘No, just the first ones of the day. Now, kindness.’

‘I am kind.’

‘Good. Keep it that way. What I wanted to say to you was that kindness is the most important quality in a person. Your mother is kind.’

‘Sometimes she’s cross.’

‘I said she’s kind, not that she’s Jesus.’

‘Who’s Jesus?’

‘A very kind person who might not have existed.’

‘A fairy.’

‘Sort of. Don’t worry too much about being clever, or funny, or cool, or any of those things. It doesn’t really matter. Just be kind. And what I mean by that is, assume the best, don’t lose your temper, be gentle.’

The fourth finger of his right hand was tapping on the wooden bedside table, making the water in his glass judder the way that old lady’s skin had juddered when the bus went over the speed bumps.  The drawer was open the width of a not-meant smile, and he glanced at the smile once then twice.  There was a twist of white paper in there, perhaps concealing sweets, and the edge of a book.

‘What’s cool?’

‘It’s imaginary.’

‘Like Jesus.’

‘Sort of.’ He frowned. ‘Sort of not. I can’t really think what the difference between cool and Jesus is right now, but I know there is one, I think they are probably opposites in a way I can’t explain or think of clearly.’

‘It’s just that he might be there but he’s not really,’ I suggested, ‘so there’s no point in worrying about him.’

‘That has nailed their similarity.’ His smile looked shark-like. You think of smiles moving upwards, pulled by invisible strings, but I felt I could see the strings pulling his lips sideways.

‘Cool?’ I said and shrugged.

‘It’s seeming like you don’t care,’ he said.

‘The opposite of kind.’

‘Precisely. That’s your mother calling you.’

I hadn’t heard her.

‘Goodbye. Keep your mittens dry.’

‘Keep your mittens dry!’ Then, ‘lava!’ I reminded him.

He hit his forehead with the palm of his hand; ‘dah! Tomorrow!’

As I left the room his hand moved towards the drawer, his fingers shaking just slightly.

Four lessons, part two

‘The second lesson is about swimming.’

‘We’re going swimming?’

‘No, we’re going to do it here.’ He smiled, enjoying our moment.

‘Swim! In a room!’ Maybe he’d fill it up to the ceiling with water from a hose pipe and we’d swim under the bed and dart like goldfish around the lightshade. The world would become silent and slow and his cheeks would balloon out, bubbles leaving his lips and making for the ceiling.

‘The bed’s a pool,’ he said.

I knew this sort of game. ‘The floor’s lava.’

‘Not today. The third lesson’s on lava. Here. Gently. Gently!’ There was an urgent wince in his voice.

I crawled down his body so that I fitted perfectly between his feet and his waist. He lifted his knees and I lay there with my middle in the air. I closed my eyes and breathed in, out, waiting to be hurled upwards.

‘You’re a right angle,’ he said.

‘You’re a wrong angle,’ I said.

‘You’re a right monkey.’

‘You’re a wrong monkey.’

He pushed the heels of his feet across the bed cover and I sank towards the bed again. I kept my eyes closed and my arms stretched to each side as he pulled his legs out from under me. My nose was pressed into the covers. They smelled of all the clean clothes in our house, but also something else, something sour and grown up.

‘Kick your legs,’ he said, and took hold of my ankles, one in each hand. ‘Like this. That’s right.’ I thumped my toes onto the soft sheets. ‘Now the arms. Push them forwards. No together. Now pull them back out again. No, like this, like you’re scooping water away. Again.  No, curl your hands. Not straight down. Imagine you’re pushing water off the bed. Better. Now your feet at the same time. Kicking like you were before.  Head up. That’s it! You’re swimming!’

He was standing up, beaming. Against the dark, leafy wallpaper he looked like an explorer in a jungle, beaded with sweat from his long journey to a lost civilisation.

‘I’m in bed!’ I said. ‘I’m not swimming!’

We both laughed. Then the air was split again.

‘Hester! Shoes! Time to go!’

‘Off you go.’ He patted my back. I did a kick or two.

‘The floor’s lava.’

‘No, it’s not. I emptied the pool onto it. Now it’s cold volcanic rock.’

‘I never taught you anything this time..’

‘Next time. Anyway, you teach me stuff all the time.’


‘I don’t know. Kindness. Joy.’

‘I’ll tell you about tigers.’


‘Go. Go.’ He ushered me towards the door.

The floor actually was still lava, but it was perfectly safe if you kept to the edges.

‘They all have a different pattern, so they don’t marry their mum,’ I said as I left the room.

Four lessons, part one

‘The first lesson is on trigonometry,’ he said.
‘What’s that?’
‘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?’
‘You, Dad.’
‘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.