Boy on the Towpath
by Andrew Foote
Whether it was the sudden realisation that I could have found myself in a situation in which our relationship had developed into something sexual and therefore illegal or perhaps the late night conversation had taken its toll, either way we were very late up the following morning.
Tom was up first at ten-thirty and it was only that which woke me. I wandered into the shower and revived myself under the tepid water. Yes tepid! I guessed that Tom hadn't been mindful of my comments about water conservation!
By the time I'd dressed he was in the process of cooking breakfast.
"Omelettes! It's the only thing I can do. I tried frying eggs but the yolks split and my Mum whisked them up and put some ham and cheese with it. It was good! Hope that's okay?"
We ate breakfast then watered up the boat as two of us on board had depleted my 180 gallon water tank. A very late lunch and it was time for Tom to go home.
It was difficult for both of us but safe in the knowledge that we would soon be together again, we parted company.
I didn't feel overly emotional, rather I was concerned as to how Tom would feel once he was home, after all he was still a little boy and whilst adults can keep emotions in check he might find it more difficult.
The phone rang. It was Janet Saunders.
"Hello Stuart. I thought I should call you."
"Is everything okay? Is Tom alright?"
"I saw you yesterday and I was angry with you."
"You saw us? When?"
"I had to see how he was so I came to lock twelve and that's when I saw you both. I was instantly pleased to see he was wearing a life jacket but angry to see you working the lock, leaving Tom on your boat. That was nothing compared with what I saw next. I thought the boat had slipped its moorings because I saw Tom alone on the boat in the middle of the canal but then I realised that he was actually driving the damned thing! I was beside myself with anger and worry and was about to shout the place down when a gentleman saw my panic and told me to 'watch and learn' just as he had done. I could not believe what I saw. He seemed so confident. So calm! To my eyes he didn't make one mistake! My anger turned to pride!
The look of concentration on his little face was a picture! Stu I'm not angry now but please tell me what happened?"
I went through the gambit that he was too small to run the locking-through and then told her about his natural abilities as a helmsman. I said that I had no qualms about leaving him in control of my £100,000 boat - such was my faith in his abilities.
"Janet he's a natural! It was as if he was born to do it! He's better than me for heaven's sake. You're proud of him? He's not even my son but I'm so proud of him just as if he were. He's a very special young man!"
"That was obvious to a blind man Stu. I saw the way you looked at him once he entered the locks so expertly. I saw love in your eyes. A pride like a father/son bonding and I wanted to cry! Since his Dad died there's been no male influence up until now and what I find amazing is, just in those few days his attitude has completely changed. You probably know how boys of his age can be but gone are the temper tantrums, he no longer argues with me all the time. If he has an issue it's more like a reasoned discussion. I tell you, he's a pleasure to have around the house!"
"Well I'm not used to the company of kids so I don't treat him like one mainly because I don't know how. I guess I treat him more as an adult but I would tick him off if he did misbehave but I've had no reason to do so as yet and hope I never will. He loves working the boat and he is very good at it as you saw for yourself. He listens to everything I tell him and he remembers and if he doesn't know something he always askes. I never thought I'd say this Janet but I actually miss him when he's not around."
"It was things like the life jacket that looking at it in hind-sight shows me you care for him. That, and the fact that a mutual trust has so quickly developed between you."
Janet laughed "I don't suppose you're any good at Maths are you? His grades are awful!"
"I've a Master's degree in physics if that helps. A lot of maths involved in that?"
"That's okay! It would be asking too much of you, besides you've done enough already."
"No seriously. If you think I can help then I'd be more than happy."
"Well... He does need help and I'm a bit of a dunce when it comes to that sort of thing. I was a nurse until Alan died. I had to take a break from it to concentrate on Tom's upbringing so I'm hardly qualified!"
"If you would like, I could come to your house and the three of us could at least talk about it and if you're both happy with the idea...?"
"I'm lost for words?"
"Yes is a good one? How about I come over once you've had supper tomorrow?"
"How about you come over for supper instead. It's the very least I can do."
With that agreed, I jotted down their address and having found it on the map I judged it was in easy walking distance of the boat. I was slightly apprehensive at the prospect of tutoring him but year seven mathematics should be a breeze for me. I settled down with a glass of wine and figured out how I should go about it.
Pure mathematics can be a stale subject especially for someone who is struggling with basic principles. I opted to go down the 'applied ' route, using mathematics to solve practical problems hoping that might generate a spark of interest but first I would have to discover just how behind he was. Only then would I be able to sort out some suitable exercises for him to have a go at.
Sleep came easily that night.
The following evening I arrived at Janet and Tom's house at the pre-arranged time and was greeted at the door by her.
"Come on in and make yourself comfortable Stu. I hope he reacts true to form when I call him as I've not told him you were coming over. Normally he would say 'yeah in a minute I'm busy' when I'd call him down but now he's so much more reasonable. Listen to this. I'm only hoping I'm right!"
Janet walked to the foot of the stairs and called up "Tom? We have a visitor. Can you come down please?
"Coming Mum. I'm just putting a shirt on."
Janet beamed! "See what I mean? He's being so good of late."
Tom came bounding down the stairs two at a time. The look on his face when he saw me was priceless! He literally through himself at me almost knocking me over. He wrapped his arms around me and gave me a big hug!
"Wow! This is a nice surprise! What are you doing here?"
"Your Mum asked me over for supper and I wasn't about to say no now was I?"
Supper was good and I insisted on helping with the dishes. Once done we went into the living room and Janet opened the wine I'd brought along and I was pleased to see that Tom didn't ask for any but politely asked Janet if he could grab a coke from the fridge.
"Tom there is another reason I'm here. It's just an offer you understand and if you would rather not then no pressure will be put upon you. It's just that your Mum mentioned to me that you were having a difficult time with maths at school. I've a degree in physics and as that involves rather a lot of maths, I wondered if you would allow me to help you? How do you feel about it?"
"I am struggling with it but I don't want you to think that you have to. I mean you've been really good to me already."
"Nonsense! I'd love to help you if you want. We can always give it a try and if you find that you don't enjoy it and would rather not continue then that will be a choice you're free to make at any time. What do you say?"
Tom looked at Janet who just cocked her head to one side and smiled at him.
"Well I could use some help. My grades are rubbish but it's not like I'm stupid, I just don't enjoy it."
"I thought that might be the case 'cos I know you're not stupid! If you say yes, maybe I can find ways for you to not only enjoy it but see how it can be fascinating as well. Your whole life and that of everyone in the world revolves around mathematics from managing your pocket money to working the boat to riding your bike. It really isn't a dull subject. I think it's just the way it's taught that's putting you off. Wanna give it a go?"
We sat ourselves down at the dining table armed with his school books which I had a glance through. I'd assumed correctly that he was being taught the old fashioned way of here's one example, now do these twenty. Not getting the principle the first time around would mean those further twenty would all be wrong putting the poor pupil off for life. I started off with a simple example. Something close to his heart.
"Okay. I told you earlier that maths touches everything we do. On the boat I have to make calculations all the time so let's just assume that you and I were going to take the boat out for two weeks. One thing we'd have to work out is how much fuel we would need for the journey, right?"
Tom nodded his head.
"So, the boat was built before we started thinking metric and she was fitted with a tank that holds 40 imperial gallons but I only know how many litres she uses each hour rather than how many pints. This means I have to convert gallons into litres. Okay so far?"
Again Tom nodded in the affirmative.
"Fine! Now 1 imperial gallon = 4.6 litres. Okay?"
"What's an imperial gallon Stu?"
"Good question. You have an imperial gallon which in new money = 4.6 litres then there's a US gallon which they use in America which = 3.8 litres. Naturally here in England we use the imperial gallon."
"Great. Now let's assume we have a full tank before we leave, so to be able to figure out how far we can go before refilling the tank we must convert the gallons into litres and this is how we do it."
I showed him how to do the sum on paper rather than using the calculator. He could use this to check his answer but I wanted him to understand the mechanics of doing it long hand first.
"There. The answer is that we have 184 litres of diesel in the tank. Now check my answer with the calculator."
"You were right!"
I could hear Janet giggling in the background. Tom looked around at her with a broad grin on his face!
"Now let us suppose that when you looked at the fuel gauge you noticed that we only had half a tank. How many gallons would that be?
"That's right. Now I want you to work out how many litres that works out at."
Pencil in hand, Tom studied my calculation first before doing his own sum.
"Now check it with the calculator just to be sure."
"I got it right!! It is 92!"
"Well done that man! Let me show you another way of getting the same answer. You know that 40 gallons is 184 litres and that 20 is half of 40, right? So if we write down 184 and divide that by 2 like this... There you go! 92!"
This went on all evening and Tom didn't tire of it. In fact quite the reverse because at ten-thirty I had to prize him away from the table. We had covered most simple equations, he knew how to work out how far we could go on various levels of fuel, how to work out times versus distances and the number of locks we would have to work and then to calculate just how long our fuel would last.
It had been a good start. Janet was pleased. I was pleased but more importantly, Tom seemed to be enjoying it.
Every other day I would visit having dreamed up other scenarios of interest him that would involve mathematical calculations. I even got to the stage that after two weeks he could work out with relative ease, how many complete rotations of his bike pedals he would have to make to cover a set distance – working this out for each of the gear ratios he had – all twenty of them! I even told him that as he was growing up fast he would have to get a bigger bike with thirty-two inch wheels and got him to rejig his calculations and managed to get it right first time and all worked out long-hand! Believe me. For a boy of twelve that's serious maths!
My thoughts towards him never faltered. – I wish they had but I still found him very sexually attractive and I would find myself staring at him as he worked away. My feelings for him were of total love and had that been reciprocated in any other relationship then doubtless a sexual bonding would have been inevitable. In this instance it just couldn't happen. Worse, I couldn't just walk away either. 'Devil and the deep blue sea' comes to mind. Painfully I chose the deep blue sea.
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