Kate Ennals, The Maths Lesson

Rosalind taught me how to wear kohl, the black Indian ink applied to the inside of the eyelid with orange sticks. Orange sticks were like toothpicks, only thicker and flattened at either end. We got the kohl from the tiny Indian stalls in High St Kensington Market. They sold gold bangles, incense, beads. We practised putting it on in the girls’ toilets. It took a few pokes and red watery eyes before I became skilled at putting on kohl, but then I was always a slow developer.

Rosalind was the opposite. She was fourteen, tall, buxom, her eyes dark, pale skin. She had long, chestnut hair which she would toss away from her face with a flick of her head. Rosalind’s best friend was Kelly, an American who was loud and laughed a lot. She was precocious, and curvaceous. The boys were attracted to Kelly because of her mouth and bounce. They liked Rosalind because she was regal, and kind, with big boobs.

Rosalind and Kelly sat at the desk in front of mine. This day, it was Tuesday afternoon and hot. The way the sun was shining, you could see the windows undulate in the heat, like a mirage. We were in class, waiting for Maths to begin.

“Pull down the blinds, Annie, it is so damned hot,” instructed Kelly, in her American drawl.

“If it’s so hot, take your clothes off,” said Loic.

Loic was a Congolese kid from the Peabody Estate. He was always saying things like that. His seat was near the front of the class and he spun his chair round to face Kelly and leaned back balancing on its two hind legs, hands clasped behind his head. I pulled down the blinds. The class turned dark but the room was still stifling. Kelly stared back at Loic. You could see his shiny black face glistening in the darkness.

“You want me to take my clothes off, Loic? And what would you do if I did? You going to take your clothes off, too?”

“Go on, Kell, I dare you. You do, I will.”

The class began to gravitate towards Rosalind and Kelly’s desk. Some of the boys at the back stood on their chairs. Paulie McDermott started to encourage Kelly.

“Go on, girl.”

A few began to chant in a low tone, ‘strip, strip, strip.’

“Mr Walsh will be here in a minute,” I warned, checking the clock over the door which someone had wisely closed. It was four minutes to three. Class began at three. That was me. A worrier.

Kelly unhooked her skirt waistband and began to slowly unwrap the grey kilt from herself, swaying and smiling. She threw it on the desk and stood there in her white school shirt, loosely knotted blue and gold striped tie and black knickers. You could see blonde downy hair on her legs which were shapely. There was a whistle from the back of the class. Kelly raised her knee and balanced her foot on her chair, hand on her waist.

“Your turn, Loic. What are you going to take off?”

You could sharpen a knife with the silence. Loic grinned. His white teeth shone like a Colgate ad. He took off his white school shirt and tie. His skin was smooth, hair free. It looked polished in the shadowy room. His torso tapered at his waist, and his stomach muscles glistened. His belly was flush with his trousers. His shoulders and back were broad. His bones were graceful. I wanted to touch him. I was embarrassed. Beneath all that boy cheek and bluster was a beautiful glory.

“Your turn. Take off your shirt, Kelly,” he said. His voice wavered.

“No, you take off your trousers, Loic, first.” Kelly said, her voice low.

“I’d like to see that,” Mr Walsh’s voice interrupted proceedings. He was standing in the doorway. He walked over to his desk and put down his bag of books.

“Back to your seats, everyone, except Loic and Kelly. You two, pray do continue.”

There was a scrabble and scraping of chairs. The charged atmosphere became tense. There was kerfuffle and a frisson of excitement as we all shifted. The class was stifling.

“Better open a few windows. Let a few hormones out. I hope my arrival hasn’t spoilt the entertainment,” said Mr Walsh. He leaned against the edge of his desk, apparently unflustered in his tweed jacket, despite the heat.

A polite titter went around the class. Mr Walsh looked at Kelly. She was trying to look as if she didn’t care, but she pulled the skirt from her desktop over her thighs, covering herself up.

“Ok, who wants to tell me what is happening?”

Walsh looked around the class. Twenty-nine bottoms silently squirmed. We all looked down at our desks. I fingered the scratch on the corner of my desk and read for the millionth time that Jude loved Johnnie and hated Cathy. Once again, I wondered who they were. A triangle of love? A triangle, like Loic’s torso.

“So, are you two going to continue?” Walsh looked at Kelly. “Please don’t let me hold you up.”

Kelly began to wrap her skirt around her, clipping it into place. She neatly tucked in her shirt, and straightened her tie. She looked at him.

“No, Sir.”

“Aw, Sir,” said Loic. “You had to come in and ruin it all.”

The class giggled.

“I don’t think I ruined it, Loic. I like a show as much as the next man.”

There was silence. Loic fidgeted.

“Ah, Loic, I suggest you put your shirt back on too. I’m not sure you want to hang around outside the head’s office half naked.

“I got nothing to be ashamed of,” said Loic, but I could feel he was embarrassed. He grabbed his shirt and pulled it over his head.

“We were just messing, Sir. Anyway, she started it.”

Fully dressed, Kelly was now sitting sideways on her chair, her back to the window, facing into the warm dark classroom. She was smiling, like the Egyptian sphinx and cleaning her nails with an orange stick as if she was sitting in her own home.

“So this was all a bit of harmless fun, was it?” asked Mr Walsh. “You’ll all go home and tell your folks over tea tonight, will you? Hey, Mam, Kelly Madden stripped in class today. And Loic Tyler.”

There was another nervous giggle while we all pictured such a scene. Where was Walsh going to take this? He liked to think himself as hip. He let the silence continue. It felt like ages. Donna and Mary began to whisper.

“Quiet,” Mr Walsh barked.

“We’re sorry, Sir,” said Rosalind. “It was a stupid thing to do, we got carried away.”

That was typical Rosalind, trying to ameliorate. It was because she knew Mr Walsh liked her. He was always calling her into his office. She hardly ever got into trouble.

“I like the comradely ‘we’, Rosalind. Is that right, Kelly? You were being stupid?”

Kelly stared at Mr Walsh.

“I just wanted to give him a taste of his own medicine, sir. He’s always on about our tits, sorry, our breasts. I thought I’d show him what it’s like. I knew he’d never drop his trousers. He’s all talk and,” she paused and looked meaningfully at Loic’s crotch, “nothing else.”

“You just say the word, Kelly Girl, and I’ll be there for you,” said Loic jauntily, but everyone knew he was just trying to be cool. Of course, he’d never have taken off his trousers. Now, it seemed obvious but at the time…I don’t know. I was waiting. I wanted him to.

“Are you stupid, Loic, as Rosalind suggests?” asked Mr Walsh.

“Nah, I just wanted to see her tits.”

Everyone sniggered again.

“Well, no harm done, just everyone one feeling slightly embarrassed, or, as the wise Rosalind says, stupid.”

He continued in the same vein.

“But, I think we can put this episode to good use in Maths, can’t we, Kelly?” He looked at her.

“What do you mean, Sir,” Kelly, said with innocence. She levelled her gaze at him.

“Kelly, you must have factored my coming in into the equation. Loic, do you know that? I think Kelly was gambling on my entrance, and to be honest, the odds were in her favour, given my standards of timeliness.”

Yes, of course. It was even me who told Kelly the time. Loic’s face crumpled. He had been shafted. He shrugged and turned his seat back to the front.

I looked at Kelly. She looked back at me and shrugged.

“Now, take out your books. Given the lesson so far, it might be useful to look at the chapter on probability. Kelly has provided you all with a perfect example. Loic, I’ll talk to you after.”

Mr Walsh piqued my interest in Maths for a moment that day. But, generally, I prefer the magic of unexpected moments. My glimpse of Loic’s body.

Kate Ennals is a poet and short story writer and has both genres published in a range of literary and online journals (Crannóg, Skylight 47, Honest Ulsterman, Anomaly, Burning Bush 2, Poets meets Politics, The International Lakeview Journal, Boyne Berries, North West Words, etc). Her first collection of poetry, At The Edge, was published in 2015. She has lived in Ireland for 25 years and runs poetry and writing workshops in County Cavan, and organises At The Edge, Cavan, a literary reading evening, funded by the Cavan Arts Office.

Before doing an MA in Writing at NUI Galway in 2012, Kate worked in local government and the community sector for thirty years, supporting local groups to engage in local projects and initiatives. Her blog can be found at kateennals.com

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