The Joy of Algebra

(1250 words)

James sat at the dining room table. It was after school on Monday and a mathematics tome lay open in front of him. Through the window, he could see the garden and, in the distance, the little pond with the red garden gnome perpetually fishing.
The door opened. “James, how are you getting on with your homework?”
“Oh, I’m stuck on these quadratic equations.”
His stepfather’s thin lips compressed. “Don’t you pay attention in class? Every schoolboy knows the square on the hypothenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. Or at least they did when I was your age!”
James looked at his stepfather’s bulging eyes, his round red face and his black hair, which looked like it had been painted on. “I’m just no good at maths, dad. Look, let me go out with my friends, you know they’re going to clown school tonight.”
John-Henry Schwartz almost exploded. “Clown school! That’s the height of your ambition is it, lad? Look, your mother and I want to see you top of the class in science, and that all starts with maths. So, from today, this is the plan. You get home from school, you have a glass of milk and two cookies, then we want a solid two hours’ study from you before dinner, then after dinner, you can do your normal homework.”
James looked up, his heart pounding and his palms sweaty. “That’s not fair!”
“Mondays, algebra, Tuesdays, geometry, Wednesdays, trigonometry, and Thursdays, calculus.”
“Oh, I get Friday off then?” James asked, hopefully. Clown school was Mondays and Fridays.
John-Henry glared at his step-son. “No, you don’t. Do you think I got where I am, the CEO of an international company, by going to goddamn clown school? No, Friday is field theory.”
James gasped. “Field theory? What the … er, what’s that?”
John-Henry’s voice softened slightly. “It’s a bit complicated to explain, son. Look, you’re only twelve, so on Fridays I’ll finish work earlier so I can come and sit and help you with it.”
James shifted uneasily on his chair. “Oh, no, that’s OK, don’t put yourself out, dad.”
“I insist, now, re-read pages 250-257 and get on with those equations. If you can’t solve any of them right now, well, leave them for another day, but I want to see at least twenty solved before dinner.” John-Henry went out of the room and closed the door.
James felt sick. He remembered his father, his real father. He had never bullied him into doing homework, let alone something he despised, like maths. No, his dad had been fun, someone who had loved life, someone who was always laughing and joking, taking him and Lucy, his sister, to the beach to swim and collect shells. John-Henry was a snob, someone who looked down on almost everyone, except those who had swimming pools. He thought of himself as a big, important CEO, but of what? A crummy company that made toilets.
Then one day, his dad had taken Lucy to the dentist. They’d gone out in the morning in his dad’s bright red car and never come back. James’s eyes filled with tears. He could still picture them driving off, his dad giving the horn a brief toot. ‘Enjoy the morning off school, son, see you soon!’ Enough. James had buried all memories of the accident away in a deep part of his mind, never to be examined ever again.
James heard his stepfather’s car driving off. Monday evenings meant golf. His mother was up in the attic, stuffing a badger. He opened the French windows and went out onto the lawn. It was a fine evening. There was the smell of freshly mown grass. Sammy the odd-job man had been there earlier. James went over to the pond and looked in total astonishment. The gnome was sitting on an upturned flowerpot, the fishing rod laid down by the pond.
“Hello,” said the gnome, giving a friendly smile.
“Hello,” said James, taken aback to find himself talking to a garden gnome.
“Look, my name’s Norman. I get fed up of standing at that blooming pond, pretending to fish. It makes my blinkin’ arm ache.” He took out a pipe.
“Do you stand there all night?” James asked.
Norman struck a match and put it to his pipe, puffing out smoke as the tobacco caught alight. “Course not, I only have to stand there when there’s a chance of being seen. When you lot are in bed, then I’m off to have some fun!”
“Fun, I’d like to have some fun,” sighed James. “I’ve got to do two hours wretched mathematics every day after school!”
Norman blew a smoke ring. “Don’t you like maths then?”
“Ha, no, I hate it!”
“Look, it’s James, isn’t it?”
“That’s right.”
“Well, James, this pipe is magic. If you’ll just take a puff of this here ‘tobacco’ you’ll feel a bit happier.” He gave a big grin as he handed the pipe to James.
James looked around. The attic windows faced away from that part of the garden and there was no sign of movement downstairs. He took the pipe and sucked in the smoke, trying to suppress a violent coughing fit.
Norman laughed. “Suck it in, gentle like … ah, that’s better.”
James felt calmer and suddenly everything in the garden seemed brighter. He could see the sun sparkling on the pond like diamonds, hear birds twittering like beautiful music in his ear, smell the new-mown grass like the richest perfume. “Wow, this is great!”
Norman smiled. “Now, James, you go in and you do your work. You’ll find you’ve got a new aptitude for maths. From now on, you’ll find it easy. Just, when there’s no one around and it’s safe, you come out and we’ll have another little smoke together. Just so’s the effect doesn’t wear off. How does that sound?”
“James, James.” His mother’s voice was calling. Quick as a flea, Norman was back at the pond with his fishing rod in position.
James’s mother came out through the French windows. “James, what are you doing? You’re supposed to be indoors doing algebra!”
James felt a new confidence. He could feel the magic smoke had somehow boosted his intelligence. He thought of his friends juggling and tumbling, laughing, and having fun. Never mind, he’d soon be joining them when his parents saw what amazing progress he’d made. “OK, mum, lead me to it!”

Taken from the book, The Window Crack’d and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Horror and the Supranatural

3 thoughts on “The Joy of Algebra

  1. James and I have a lot in common; I, too, have little patience and even less aptitude for mathematics. There’s no grey in math; it’s all black and white and I’m afraid that’s just too boring for me. Too bad I didn’t have a “Norman” with a pipe of magic smoke while I was still in school! This story was charming, a fantasy with a ring of reality to it and quite a bit of humor. I must say for me the best line in whole piece was “His mother was up in the attic, stuffing a badger”. That gave me a hearty laugh not to mention all sorts of weird images in my head! Lovely, entertaining and enchanting story, Simon. Great write.

    1. I think Maths, or ‘Math’ to our transatlantic friends, is like most things. Some will have a natural ability (there have been child geniuses), some will never be any good at it. Most people, with the right tuition, can get good, maybe even very good. Getting the right tuition is the hard part as in a class the exercises can’t be tailored to your individual ability. I know I’ve had a hate/love relationship with mathematics!
      Regarding the story, the line about the badger just popped into my head as I was typing. I admit it’s had me laughing out loud on several readings! I’ve no idea where it came from. Anyway, I’m pleased you enjoyed my little tale of fantasy. Thank you for reading and commenting!

      1. I’m sure you’re right about Math and I’m also sure I told you this story before but I have the dubious distinction of being the only student in my school (that I’m aware of) who was excused from Math while a Freshman in High School and told to double up on English, Music or Religion instead. The whole experience was just too excruciating for me and my Math teachers. At least now we have computers so I can halve a recipe while cooking, etc. What can I say? My talents lie elsewhere! LOL!

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