A numbers game

Some things, you can never forgive – or forget. Strangely, though, the big things I can do both with. It’s the little things that still rankle.

I was only 10 at the time. He was bigger, taller, and more powerful than me. And most of the time, he was smarter.

Most of the time.

“A number,” he said in his ear-tickling bass, “has an eighth added to it. The result is 72. What was the original number?”

Heads were scratched and hands went up. Mr D’s radar gaze swept the classroom and alighted on a small ginger boy in the corner.

“Well, Joe?”

“63, sir!” he chirped. “63!”

“Well done, Joe,” said Mr D. “Very well done. 63 it is.”

But it wasn’t. It was 64.

I checked my calculations on paper. 72 already had an eighth added on, so it was nine-eighths, not eight-eighths. That meant you had to divide by nine and multiply by eight, not divide by eight and multiply by seven – didn’t it? The numbers floated in my head, but always settled in the same way.

My hand went up.

“Yes, Kevin?”

And I told him. Divide by nine, not by eight. 64, not 63.

His long face clouded over. He pushed his glasses up his nose, a sure sign of a storm on the horizon.

“No, Kevin,” he said with absolute certainty and an unwavering gaze. “It’s 63.”

He stared at me. I stared at him. Neither of us blinked for what seemed like a very long time indeed.

“If you say so, sir,” I said wearily.

“I do, Kevin,” said Mr D. “I do.”

Minority report

“I imagine,” said the black drug dealer to me as our main course arrived, “that being gay is a bit like being black.”

The waiter, plates and bowls artfully arranged in a holding pattern up his left arm, arched an eyebrow a fraction. But no more. The consummate professionalism of one who’s heard it all before.

“Oh no,” I said brightly, “being black is much, much worse.”

The waiter faltered. A plate clinked against a bowl, upsetting the delicate choreography. His face stiffened – but again, he checked himself.

I held the moment, then smiled teasingly. The dealer laughed a deep, throaty laugh and wagged a finger.

Dinner continued.

That is the question

“That one – there,” said the woman with the delicate highlights and a hint of a foreign accent. “There’s something going on. A story behind it.”

“Yes,” said her friend. “There’s definitely something going on.”

I moved closer to find out just what it was that was going on. The foreign woman was quite short, and dressed in black. A bolero cardigan, a too-short skirt and pixie boots. She had a retroussé nose and a nut-brown complexion.

“It reminds me,” she said slowly, “of Goya. Yes, ees definitely Goya-esque. And there ees a story going on.”

Yes, I thought, the damned story. But what is it?

“Hmm,” said her friend, a pallid woman in a denim skirt with – well, with what looked like half a sheepskin crudely stitched on the front. She stared at the print, high up on the wall, from under a puce beret, and waited for her friend to enlighten her.

“A narrative,” said Nut Brown deliberately. “And eets trying to tell us something.”

Yes, yes, I thought impatiently. But what?

“Tell us something,” echoed Puce Beret. “Yes.”

“Yes,” said Nut Brown again. “That’s eet.”

And that really was it. They moved on, and started critting another print, of a big mouse driving a car. Or a normal-sized mouse driving a small car. Either way, I didn’t wait to hear their analysis.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. There’s nothing quite like it.