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The Maths Teacher

From the classroom to the gutter

By Joe YoungPublished 3 months ago 12 min read
Happier times for Sally (Pic by Eduardo • I appreciate your likes 🤍 from Pixabay)

The midnight silence on Bracknell Terrace was broken by the clip-clop, and occasional scrape, of Sally's high heeled shoes as she and Vic made their way along the empty street. They passed identical houses and assorted parked cars, as they walked towards Vic's home following a drinking session at the Turk's Head. Both were in a state of inebriation.

They had only just met earlier that evening, when Vic, in his mid forties, had gone into a yard at the rear of the pub for a cigarette. On seeing Sally smoking, Vic had asked her politely for a light, even though he had a disposable lighter in his pocket. They struck up a conversation about the weather and the cost of beer, and, when Sally crushed her cigarette end against a wall, Vic flicked his away too, even though he had barely half smoked it. They headed back to the warmth of the bar together.

Sally, who was thirty-eight, had been drinking alone, but now she tagged along with Vic, first at the table where he sat with friends, and later in front of the spinning reels of a Cash Coffer slot machine. Vic put all of his change into the flashing beast without winning, and he slapped the side of the cabinet in a fit of pique as his final coin was lost. Feeling obliged to contribute, Sally fished some coins from her purse which she gave to Vic as funds for further speculation.

To Sally, the bandit had the complexity of an Enigma machine, but Vic was an old hand at it, and by pressing the right buttons, Cash Coffer lived up to its name by coffing a lot of coins into the payout tray. After shoving some of those straight back into the slot, Vic drew a line in the sand, and counted out sixty-two pounds. He put two of those into the Cash Coffer, and handed the rest to a barman, who exchanged them for notes. Vic gave thirty pounds to Sally.

That injection of cash allowed a free flow of alcohol, which loosened inhibitions and increased familiarity. As the pair stood at the bar chatting, Vic slid his arm around Sally's waist. She didn't protest.

When the barman rang the bell that announced time, gentlemen, please, Vic and Sally left the Turk's Head together, and headed for a nearby fish and chip shop. That she was going to the home of a stranger had Sally on as high a state of alert as her inebriation would allow, but it was an act she had performed several times over the past year or so.

Vic swayed as he fumbled in his trouser pocket for the front door key. The neck of a brown ale bottle protruded from each of his coat pockets, and Sally, who stood behind him, gripped a third bottle. With a cry of triumph, Vic pulled out the key, which he held aloft, before inserting into the lock.

"There's no bulb in the passage," he said, quietly. "You wait here till I put the kitchen light on, so you can see your way."

He unlocked the door and walked down the dark passage, his shoes clumping on bare floorboards. When a dim glow illuminated the bottom end of the passage, Sally entered, and closed the front door.

The kitchen was a squalid spectacle, lit by a bare light bulb of low wattage. In the centre stood a square table under a much-stained cream tablecloth, on which reposed a salt cellar, ketchup bottle and vinegar shaker; the triumvirate of condiments for any man living in close proximity to a fish and chip shop. Next to those was a tobacco tin that served as an ashtray, which was almost filled with white dog-ends of hand-rolled cigarettes.

Vic put the beer bottles on the table, and Sally stood hers alongside them. She sat down on one of two wooden chairs that were at opposite sides. Vic pulled the parcel of food from inside his coat, and he dropped it onto the table, where it landed with a thump. He switched on one bar of an electric fire, but he and Sally kept their coats on.

Vic placed two china mugs on the table, and opened one of the bottles of beer, while Sally unwrapped the food parcel, separating the contents into battered sausage and chips for Vic, and a small portion of chips for herself. She wasn't a big eater. 

"Cheers," Sally said, raising a froth-filled mug.

They ate without speaking, but the repast wasn't a silent one, because Vic grunted, belched and slurped as he went at the food and drink with gusto. Sally found the farmyard-like noises coming from her new friend quite repulsive, and she didn't relish the prospect of sharing a bed with him.

After eating, Sally lit a cigarette, but Vic excused himself, saying; "I'm just away to drain the potatoes, as you might say." He went once more into the dark passage, and up the stairs to the bathroom.

While he was away, Sally looked around at her squalid surroundings, which, she thought, were just about what she deserved. She reflected on her fall from grace, which had all come about because of the drink. Two years earlier, she had been working as a maths teacher at a high school, and she shared a home with a loving partner, Jim.

At the school, the headmistress had given Sally more than one warning about turning up for work stinking of booze, and clearly in a state of mental detachment that fell short of what was required to give her charges an adequate level of attention. The camel's back was broken when she fell asleep at her desk one day, to be filmed on the phones of just about every pupil in class, and posted on social media.

Sally found keeping a supply of alcohol flowing while on benefits a difficult task, but her prospects of getting back into employment were slim, given the reason for her previous dismissal, and her inability to stay off the drink long enough to attend a job interview.

As alcohol tightened its merciless grip on Sally, Jim had sought solace in the arms of a more sober depiction of womanhood, named Gillian, a checkout operator from the local Co-op. He frequently visited her home, which was a haven of serenity away from the shouting, spewing and, recently, a bed-wetting that Sally brought to the table. Without a job or a partner, Sally had fallen into the gutter, and she knew that climbing back out would be all but impossible.

Yet, despite her enduring hardship, and reliance on alcohol, Sally managed to maintain an outward level of decency. She dressed well, thanks to her knack for picking out quality items in charity shops. In her current attire, fawn camel hair coat, navy blue sweater, navy blue and black checked narrow-leg trousers and high-heeled shoes she had matched anyone in the Turk's Head for style. 

 But now she removed her coat, because Vic called from upstairs. Sally went into the dark passage, where she tentatively climbed the staircase, her objective being another dim light source, this time from above.

The bedroom was cold, and as squalid as the kitchen, but then Sally hadn't been expecting to walk into a den of erotic splendour. The room had a smell that reminded her of the rabbit hutch she had as a child, and on a bedside table, there was another well-stocked ashtray. The bed was covered with a dark red duvet, at the top of which lay a pair of matching pillows, one much stained with dried on drool. Vic told Sally to switch off the light, and by the feeble glow of an outside street lamp which just about penetrated the thin cream curtains at the window, he undressed.

Sally stepped out of her trousers, which she folded and draped over the back of a chair. As she did the same with her sweater. Vic barked out the name of the Prince of Peace, as his bare torso came into contact with the cold bedsheet. Sally climbed in beside him, and they cuddled up, kissed a little, and then Vic began to snore.

The noise was terrible, and to make things worse, Vic had let out a silent, disgustingly pungent fart. Sally turned her back on the log-sawing bag of gas, and pulled the duvet tight under her chin. She closed her eyes, and, reflecting on her uncanny knack for hooking up with the worst of society's detritus, drifted off into her own drunken slumber.

The street lamp was off when Sally woke. The pale morning light was just enough for her to make out the chair on which she had draped her clothes. She slid her legs out of the side of the bed, and stood up, taking great care not to disturb Vic, who still snored, but now softly.

She grabbed her clothes and hurried shivering into the bathroom, where, by the light of a narrow window, she had a pee, rinsed her face in cold water, and cleaned her teeth with a blob of toothpaste applied to the tip of her little finger. Ablutions completed, she put on her trousers and sweater. She descended the stairs stealthily, grimacing at the loud creak that one of them made when she stepped on it.

The clock in the kitchen said 7.20. Sally put on her shoes and coat, and picked up her handbag. She took out a small bottle of scent, and sprayed some onto her neck. Without leaving a note, Sally left the house, taking care not to make a noise when closing the front door. She hurried along the pavement on tiptoe at first, lest the sound of her heels stirred Vic. When she made the top of the street, she walked normally towards the town centre in the cold morning air.

At the bus station, Sally went into a cafe, the clientele of which comprised just three people on their way to work. She bought a large coffee, and sat at a table by a radiator. The combined warmth of the drink and the heating had a great restorative effect, and Sally felt quite comfortable as she pressed two paracetamol capsules from a blister pack she'd taken from her bag.

As Sally sat, warming her hands on the coffee cup, a group of schoolchildren in uniform came into the cafe. There were three boys and two girls, aged, Sally guessed, about twelve or thirteen. They stood at the counter and ordered coffee and milkshakes to take out, chatting excitedly, and acting the goat in ways that are common among children of that age. Sally almost slipped back into teacher mode, stifling an impulse to tell the group to settle down, as she would have done back in the day. One of the boys said, "I've got double maths this morning. I hate maths."

"Oi," Sally said, playfully, "I'm a maths teacher."

"Are you?" a girl said.

"Used to be," Sally said. "Old school. Do they still teach the multiplication tables?" There was a murmur of confirmation.

"They drummed that into us," a boy said. "Fat lot of good it did."

"Right," Sally said, "what are eight sevens!"

"What?" the boy said, applying the delaying tactic of one who can't provide an immediate answer.

"Fifty-six," a girl said.

"Correct. Nine eights?"

"Nines are easy," the same girl said, "seventy-two."

"You're good at this," Sally said. "Eight twelves."

"Easy again; just use the eleven and move on one more. Eleven eights are eighty-eight, twelve eights are ninety-six," the girl said, clearly getting a kick from demonstrating her multiplication table prowess.

Very good," Sally said, smiling and offering a muted round of applause. "You'll go far."

The children got their drinks, reverted to rowdy mode and trooped out of the cafe. The multiplication wizard said goodbye to Sally, who suddenly longed to be back at school, engaging with pupils and doing some good. She finished her coffee, rose, and left the cafe.

On the bus, Sally stared from a window, the right side of her forehead pressed against the glass. Her demeanour was one of sadness, initiated by a recollection of what used to be. The encounter at the cafe had stirred up memories of her younger self in a classroom, passing on knowledge to attentive pupils.

During such moments of clarity, Sally felt an intense hatered of alcohol. Were she able to maintain that level of revulsion, she could walk away from the bottle with ease. But, she knew that in the constant mental arm-wrestle of the alcoholic, the drink would soon regain superiority.

And yet, engaging with those schoolchildren had been a kind of epiphany for Sally; it had given her the motivation to venture down the unexplored path of professional help. While she acknowledged her addiction, it wasn't something she'd ever discussed with a doctor. Doing so, she thought, could be the key that would unlock the door of the self-made cage in which she was imprisoned.

The brakes of the bus gave out a loud, sharp hiss as it pulled in. The doors opened, and Sally alighted into weak November sunshine. The thought of a new approach to an old problem had aroused in her a level of excited anticipation she'd not experienced in many months. She dared to imagine herself sober, and easing back into work as a teaching assistant.

Again, her heels went clip-clop on concrete, but now she strode with purpose. As she approached the bottom of the street where she lived, she thought of the challenges that lay ahead. Her confidence to overcome them was high, although she was aware there would be difficulties and, no doubt, pitfalls along the way. Still, she planned to get the ball rolling with some phone calls that morning.

 "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," she said, by way of encouragement.

At home, she made coffee and toast, and, after consuming those, she showered. Reinvigorated in a towelling bath robe, Sally sat at a table in the kitchen, and she picked up her phone, noting with some relief that her brief dalliance with Vic hadn't progressed to the stage where numbers had been exchanged. She didn't know where to start in her quest for help, but decided that the local health centre should be able to advise.

The battery level of her phone was very low, so she connected it to a lead, and laid it on a window ledge. She opened the fridge door, took out a two-litre bottle of cider, and poured some into a glass.

In the constant mental arm-wrestle of the alcoholic, the drink had regained superiority.

(Originally published in Medium)

Short Story

About the Creator

Joe Young

Blogger and freelance writer from the north-east coast of England

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