he hand-knitted, bulky jumpers were hilarious to us – the green so harsh and one in maroon, the colour of old blood on a sanitary towel, had nothing fresh or alive about it.
Did his wife go for reject wool, cheapest in some sale, then spend an age on that cable stitch?
And if reluctant to buy sufficient to make his jerseys long enough, why complicated patterns which used more wool? Or was it that she didn’t have the heart to see through what had been started, so just cast off?
Both thick jumpers made him look squashed inside too tight a jacket and rode up his belly. Not that he was fat, just squaring up with age, turning barrel-shaped.
But “hilarious”? Only because we merged in giggles – our differences gone – inevitably stitched together.
There with her, not to be alone, there for arriving at school, there at break. There and ready to be side by side.
At the start of secondary school we found each other and protective harbour. Any critical peers could not get in and fault finding masters were rendered less potent.
“Giddy” irritated teachers said, but they could be semi-wiped away with laughter.
“Joined at the hip” her mother complained.
Mine was more put out that giggling excluded her – she would tell us to share the joke or stop our nonsense.
But how could we share with anyone? Did we know the point of a bubble formed to make school safer?
We brushed each other’s hair on her bed – one hundred strokes we had been told was best – and there was a softening in this which never went a step towards the explicitly sexual.
He taught maths in those jumpers. He and his wife did puzzles together he told us, (“instead of sex” boys in the back row muttered).
“And do you share a cup of cocoa, Sir?”
His chunky jaw twitched a little but he persevered with numbers.
He wasn’t a write off, unlike the French master, who had no hope of keeping control – besides the distant language seemed irrelevant to us.
A shrieked, “Get out! Get out! Get out of my class”, not even in French, was the best he could do, to general laughter. And since his room was a pre-fab, near the park, there were usually a few grateful rejects smoking under trees.
The maths man wasn’t as hopeless as that, though ungainly. He offered nothing to admire, for he was not even a sporting man.
One teacher with the bandy walk, the bandiest there could be, had such intense eyes girls forgave all else and, anyway, he was good at basketball.
We didn’t have to be talented at anything to disparage teachers for seeming mediocre.
Not that we honed critical faculties by discussing this, giggling was as far as we could go, during three years of puberty, where she was way ahead.
Once we were thoroughly adolescent, she was drawn to lipstick girls.
And after public exams put us in different classes, teachers began to have more draw for me, as they opened up a world away.
If we weren’t one, were we anything to each other?
Once the magnetic pull turned round, there was some repulsion at what we had been together.
More solitude brought me long walks with the dog and notebooks for high blown poetry.
And when no longer sealed in with a best friend, could I recall a single thing we had said to each other?
During a crisis, with weeks off school, it was discussed, not with her, but only with a girl in a younger class.
Though my giggling partner did put fingers round my reduced wrist to laugh at its size.
Her very white skin was inclined to bulge, her big sister was a family worry on an extreme diet. After my drama at sea, followed by tonsils surgery, “there is no ounce of flesh on those bones of yours” she mocked.
Since we had chatted and chatted, why did nothing else remain?
Yet the maths master’s words sank into memory and still have not been rubbed out.
“My wife is the better mathematician.”
He said this in class. Was it when I had done well? Or not a comment intended for me – just a factual statement to all of us?
I took it as mine. Words to keep.
Some years later when she and I re-meet, I say, “We were surprisingly law abiding, though a law unto ourselves. Apart from often helping ourselves to finest garden flowers.
“I guess our exclusiveness – enclosed and not open to question – retarded us as much as it was mean to others.”
Having no idea what I was on about, she bubbled over with some need to display her every small achievement – defensive at having stayed in town.
Did she remember the maths teacher?
Did she know if he continued at the school? Had she ever seen his supposedly frumpy, knitting wife?
No and she had no interest. Why care about him?
“Remember him saying his wife was the better mathematician?”
“That must have been after you started working.”
“Started working” – that was not how it seemed.
When school certificate results arrived her parents made explicit the competitive aspect, which was never exposed at our place.
A pity their daughter hadn’t followed my example and worked harder, then she would not be such a disappointment.
I quickly ran away from that, sure I’d not go back to face it again.
In our home competing must be kept to sport – not spilling over to include struggles for approval, or love, in a house full of children. That was not, yet, acknowledged.
And was “worked” what I had done? The term implied it was my fault if we were not a pair in our exam results –as if beating her was my choice and my responsibility.
Whatever it was, we were separated. There was no one to giggle with and seeing school as a step towards going elsewhere began to make sense.
But the wife, who was a better mathematician, where was she going, apart from to the shop to buy ugly wool?
If she was confined to their home and totally reliant on his assessment of her worth, reliant on his praise, with encouragement over puzzles, if she had to depend on his belief in her, little wonder she, who could certainly measure, made his jerseys so uncomfortably short.