SHORT STORY: Questions (from ‘Could do Better’ by Peter Rolls)

This is the final chapter from ‘Could do Better’ by Peter Rolls.  It is divided into three sections: ‘Boffie O’Toole and the Prospect of Cool’; ‘The Ode that Growed’; and ‘Lunch-time tête à tête’.  The chapter will be the longest post on The Phraser but it does conclude with key questions perfect for the end of a complicated 2012.  Boswell Figgis, ‘a boy on the edge’, meets these questions head on .

IMG_0587Boffie O’Toole and the Prospect of Cool

‘Nothing, sir?’  Figgis felt his voice squeak and tried for a more manly tone.  ‘Nothing?’  But, however he said it, the word had a doom-struck ring.

‘Nothing, Figgis.’  Straker dug deep the judgemental knife.  ‘You got Nothing, Nought, Nil.  As I believe the expression goes – z-z-zilch.’

Figgis pointed at his answer.  ‘How can I have got nothing?  There’s – like – ten pages of it.  Didn’t you notice?  All with my name on – and that copyright thing.’

‘Indeed, Figgis.  There were ten pages.  I studied every one – in wonderment, not to say disbelief.  And – as far as copyright goes – I assure you that no-one else is likely to lay claim to them.  Indeed, if the case goes before the High Court, I shall happily attest to your exclusive authorship.’

‘Well, then …’

Straker took his time; he polished his glasses; he adopted a lop-sided, acidulated smile.  ‘Mathematicians are not judged, Figgis, by the amount of paper they consume.  Nor by the ability to memorise their name.  They are expected to produce complete, concise and correct answers.  You attempted only one part of the question, you rambled on for ten pages and you got it wrong.’

‘Yes, but lots of the working was OK.’  Figgis scuffled at his papers.  ‘Top of page 4 for example,’ he flipped a page. ’14 squared equals 196.  That’s not, like – wrong is it?’

‘Not in itself, Figgis.  You have chanced upon one of the eternal verities:  14 squared does indeed equal 196.  And, in pre-Pythagorean times, its enunciation might have earned a third-class laurel wreath.’

Year 10 settled down to enjoy a Straker special.  He was a supply teacher, a relic from an authoritarian age – and possessed of a dramatic, word-sharp style rarely seen in younger teachers.  His multi-syllabic filleting of the Lesser Woolly-haired Figgis promised welcome diversion from the improbabilities of Probability Theory.

Straker was a small round man, but he had a large, sharp voice and it cut to the bone.  ‘Sadly,’ he said, ‘we must leave aside the glories of the Ancient Greeks and their quest for knowledge for its own sake.  In this workaday world, we have to ask ourselves if things are relevant to the question in hand.  Do you remember the question, Figgis?  It concerned a cupboardful of shoes.’

‘Yes, sir.’  Figgis kept it brief.  He saw no reason to build up his part in this tangled execution.

‘There were six pairs of shoes – all of the same size, but mixed left and right.  You were asked to comment on the proposition that randomly picking any two shoes was more likely than not to give a matched pair.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Your task, showing appropriate working, was to say if the proposition was True or False.’

‘Yes, I tried that – but in the real world, it’s obviously False.’

‘The real world!’  Straker’s arms stretched wide, embracing the room and all within it.  ‘Do you hear that?  Figgis is claiming familiarity with the real world.’

The front rows giggled; the back rows gave manly guffaws.

‘Well, Figgis?  Why do you conclude that you would be less likely to get a matched pair of shoes?’

‘Sod’s Law, sir.’

‘Sod’s Law!’  It was the teacher’s turn to squeak.

‘Yes.  You’d never pick a pair first time, would you?’

‘Sod’s Law, Figgis!’  Straker smote his head.  ‘Yes, that would explain it!  Forget the works of Pascal and Poisson.  The mighty Sod has been at work … How else can we account for your ten pages of gibberish and an answer of p = 7 and eleven-twelfths shoes?  Thus are rain forests consumed.  Thus will the world end.  In a mathematical impossibility.’  Straker’s expression made clear that blame for this troublesome event would lie entirely at Figgis’s door.

At such times, there was only one way to survive the storm.  Figgis entered a mollusc-like state and waited for the world to end.

‘In fact, Figgis, I have to say that this is not mathematics at all – it is a cupboardful of cobblers.’ Straker roared a huge, purple-faced laugh.  ‘Do you see, boy?  Shoes …. Cobblers, cobblers!’

Figgis’s sensibilities were dulled to barnacle-level and he scarcely registered the gale of laughter that swept the room.  But, as he shrank within himself, he became aware of movement on the floor.  A note was being nudged towards him …

Note-nudging was part of the hormonal exchange hereabouts; part of the game of hunkus-bolunkus between the babes at the front and the blokes at the back.  This note-traffic didn’t normally involve spindly un-blokes like Figgis.  Nevertheless, the note bore the letters BF – and there was only one of those:  Boswell Figgis.

Across the aisle sat Sophie O’Toole – also known as Boffie, the class egg-head … Her spectacled gaze was fixed on Straker, but her green-slippered foot was unmistakably engaged in a nudge.

Surely not!  A note from Boffie!  The orange-haired bean-pole.  Miss Demure.  Miss Slightly-weird.  Totally untrendy.  Utterly un-babe.  Surely she wasn’t …

Figgis scooped up the note and spread it on his knee.  It said ‘Nought is not Nothing.’ …  Good grief!  What sort of egg-head joke was this?  He swivelled a desperate, martyred, look across the aisle.

An orange eyebrow twitched.  Two freckles moved into an embryonic boffo-smile.  There was an emanation – un-spoken, extra-sensory.  It said ‘Go on, tell him.  Trust me.’

Figgis looked again at the note … ‘Nought is not Nothing.’  Very philosophical.  Not his normal style of think at all.  But, now that he considered the matter, it made a sort of sense.  The extra-sensory urge surged within him.  He raised his hand and said ‘Sir!’

Straker’s voice had the hiss of super-heated steam.  ‘Yes, boy?’

Figgis cleared his throat.  Twice.  He didn’t want to squeak this one.  ‘Nought is not Nothing,’ he announced.

Straker purpled.

The class marvelled.

Figgis surprised himself.  ‘You said I got Nothing.  But then you said I got Nought.  They’re not the same.  Nothing means no-thing – non-existent.  But Nought isn’t Nothing:  it’s a Something – it’s a mark on a piece of paper.’

For a second, Straker’s purple turned to black.IMG_0608

For a second, the class thought he would self-combust.

For a second, across the aisle, there was combustion of a different kind.  Invisibly, unfathomably, two spirits met and melted.  To Figgis, it was something passionate yet pure:  cerebral, platonic, ethereal.  Something wonderful, beyond mere number, above formulaic probability.  It was … Well, time would tell.

Straker fought to recover the power of speech.  In a moment, he would fulminate about Nothingness and Noughtfulness.  He would proclaim forcefully the irrelevance of such things to the examination syllabus and Government guidelines.

To Figgis, none of this mattered.  He was elsewhere; in a world where Nothings – sweet, sweet Nothings – were Everything.  For him, the fugure was orange.  The waters were deep.  The prospect was cool.


The Ode that Growed

It was 11.45.  Boffie had gone off to another class and Figgis was suffering English with Boris, aka Miss Blinkhorn.  This week’s topic was Poetry and this week’s task was to compose an ode.

Year 10 laboured with its odes.

All except Figgis.  He had given up his ode and was exploring Cloud Nine.  He had been there or thereabouts ever since his eyes met Boffie’s in the Maths lesson.  In that moment, a spark had been struck and he was certain that lunch-time would bring more moments and more sparks – maybe a full-sized flame.

In the meantime, he had to endure Boris and her poetry.  Figgis wasn’t strong on poems, but he had a system.  You thought of line one – tumty-tumty-tumty-thing – or whatever.  Then you thought of all the rhymes for thing and tried them out as the possible end of line two.  And if the lines didn’t make sense, well you just looked mysterious.  The weirder the better.  At least it rhymed.

Odes didn’t have to rhyme, but they had to praise something.  No problem.  A line had sprung easily to Figgis’s mind:

Tottenham for the FA Cup.

Which was OK celebration-wise.  But what rhymed with ‘cup’?

bup?  dup?  fup?  gup?  hup?  jup?  lup?  mup?  nup?  pup?

Pup?  Unlikely … qup?  rup?  sup?

Sup?  Well, possibly … The fruits of victory we will sup.

Pathetic.  Tup?  vup?  wup?  xup?  yup?  zup?

Not good.  All he had was pup and sup.  Or maybe hiccup.   Or buttercup … And there was up, of course … The lads who always cheer you up.

Forget it … There were more important things to think about.  Cloud Nine billowed and beckoned.

Figgis looked at his watch.  In the lunch-break, he would meet Boffie.  They hadn’t arranged anything; but he knew the cosmos was aligning itself to that end.  This enchanted lunch-time, across a crowded room, eyes would meet and … dot, dot, dot

In his fevered mind, Figgis recognised the importance of ‘and dot-dot-dot …’ well-known literary shorthand for ‘The author is leaving the next bit to your imagination’.

Imagination was the very essence of Cloud Nine.  It was strange country for Figgis, but Boffie probably had a road map.  Twin souls would meet and … and all the ands that ever were, and ever would be, would be … Which was Cloud Nine nonsense, and yet … And yet … It was all terribly poetic.  Dot, dot, dot.

In fact, now that he thought of it, this was the very occasion for an Ode.  The elements were afire in his head:  emotion, exaltation, ecstasy.  Such things could scarcely be put into words – and yet … Dot, dot, dot again.

This was where his poe-system would prove its worth.  He just needed a key word – some aspect of Boffie’s delightfulness.  Unfortunately – incredibly – until an hour ago, he had seen Boffie simply as a tall, thin girl with orange hair, big glasses and an IQ in the stratosphere.  None of which were promising items ode-wise.

So what to focus upon?  Her hair was the first thing you noticed – she had lots of orange hair.  But, as a word, orange was strangely dull – and well-known for having no rhyme.  How else could you describe it?  What other colour-words were there?  Ginger?  No, no:  that way lay a rhyme-world of whinger and minger.  What about copper – where would that go?  proper, dropper, shopper … No, no – hopeless.

In the mists of Cloud Nine there formed the colour-thought of flame.  Excellent.  His mind raced through possibilities:  came, claim, dame, game, lame, name, same, shame … Shame!  Flame!  Yes!  The two words chimed in his head.

IMG_0480All the angels put to shame

by tumty-tumty-tumty flame.

This was splendid stuff.  Figgis set to work, searching for his tumties.


Too soon, the lunch-bell rang.  Boris stood and waved the class away.  ‘Finish your odes for homework.’  Year 10 was free to go.

Figgis floated to the dining-room.  There were two hundred heads, but he saw just one.  And the colour of her hair was beyond words.

No ode was needed … As he worked through the crowd, a thousand angels sang, and his heart and mind were full of tumty-tumty-tumty-tum.


Lunch-time tête à tête

‘Hello,’ said Boffie.

‘Hello,’ said Figgis.

‘Shall we get in the queue?’  She smiled and led the way.

Figgis, hitherto on Cloud Nine, ascended into an undreamt garden of delight.  Girls usually queued in groups, IMG_0478backs turned and elbows sharp.  Yet here he was, lining up with a girl, one-to-one, soul-to-soul.  It was a meaningful life-moment.  He stood at full height, his shoulders eased in a relaxed yet manly way.

Boffie’s eye-brows lifted and her lips twitched.

Figgis had lost the thread of his ode-essence, but he knew he must say something.  His mind, half-frozen, half-fevered, sought help in the world of film.  From some long-gone episode of boy-meets-girl, he dredged the immortal phrase ‘Do you come here often?’

‘Every day, Figgis.  Hadn’t  you noticed?’  The smile widened, her teeth were perfect.

Figgis tried a man-of-the-world chuckle.  It was meant to be James Bond in ‘Goldfinger’, but it came out as a quote from ‘Birds’ … ‘aaark’.

Her smile turned quizzical and she moved along the serving counter.

‘After you,’ said Figgis.  He was keen to get things right.

Boffie took the salad.  No mayonnaise.

Figgis couldn’t stand salad.  But he took it.  No mayonnaise.

She took yoghurt.

He took yoghurt.

She took milk.

He took water.  His throat was uncommonly dry.

They carried their trays to a corner table and sat facing each other.

It wasn’t quite tête à tête, but pretty close to it.  In surreal, out-of-body awareness, he saw their circumflexes juxtaposing.

The orange hair glowed; the eyes softened; the freckles danced; a fragrance teased the air.

Figgis’s pimples paled.  He drank water.

She drank milk.

He was enchanted by the way her throat worked.

She polished her cutlery with a paper napkin.  And Figgis did likewise, working hard between the fork-prongs.  He was keen to get things right.

She peeled her cucumber.

For the first time in years, Figgis took a mouthful of lettuce.  He yearned for mayonnaise.

She said ‘OK?’

He gave a green-edged sort of grin.  ‘Yes, thanks.’  He took water and prepared to deal with coleslaw.  ‘And thanks also for the thing with Straker – the Nothing thing.’

‘Oh, that was … nothing.’  She smiled.  ‘It was just to get one back at him.  Horrid little man.’

‘Yes,’ said Figgis.  ‘Teachers mostly are.  Except the horrid big ones.’  Then, with a sense of growing closeness.  ‘Who’s your favourite?’

‘Favourite teacher?  Miss Tisdale – Sociology.’

Figgis didn’t do Sociology, but it seemed a time to show interest.  ‘Is that good?’

‘Excellent,’ said Boffie.  ‘In fact, it’s something I wanted to talk to you about.’

‘Really?  Well, I’m not exactly … but anything I can do, of course.’

‘Let’s finish our lunch first.’  She cut her tomato into four.

‘Absolutely.’  Figgis set about his salad and silence reigned.  But, as his jaw worked and leaves crunched, he thought over further talking points … Try to give football a miss for now … What music did she like?  What TV did she watch?  Was she going on holiday?  … His mind slid into future, ever-cosier conversations … What were her favourite flowers?  … Precious stone? … Ideal holiday spot?


More important, what was she doing this Friday?  Or Saturday, or Sunday?  Or next week?  Next lifetime?


His Nirvana-view flipped into dining-hall reality.  ‘Absolutely.  Just thinking.’  His plate was empty, his yoghurt finished.  He must have eaten it sub-consciously.  Yet he was still ravenous.  Perhaps he was hallucinating.  He focussed on her freckles.  ‘Just thinking.’

‘If you’re free, perhaps we could do something on my project.’

‘Of course.’  He had visions of spending several years on her project.  ‘Is it a long-term thing?’

‘About ten minutes.’

‘Ten minutes?’  His vision faded; his future shrank.

‘Just a few questions.  Then I’ll let you get on.’


‘The project will look at the different world-views of young and old.  It will be qualitative, as well as quantitative.’

‘I see,’ said Figgis.  ‘Qualitative as in …?’

‘I’m drafting a questionnaire and I need to think about what directions it might take.’

‘Absolutely,’ said Figgis.

‘I’m sure there are things I haven’t thought of.’

‘Sure,’ he said.  There were lots of things that he hadn’t dared to think of … yet.

She jotted on her pad.  Her voice was in impersonal survey-mode.  ‘You are Figgis.  First name Boswell?’

‘Yes, but friends call me Boz.’  He was keen to share personal details.

From her folder, she took a sheet of paper.  ‘Please look at this draft and let me have it back tomorrow.’

‘I’ll do it now.’

‘No, you’ll have to think about it.  There are ten basic topics for comment.  If any more occur to you, just put them on the back.’

‘Right,’ said Figgis.

‘Anyhow, I’ve got to get on.  Other people to see.  I need five more.’  Her tone was brisk; her glasses gleamed.  Figgis was reminded, alarmingly, of a lepidopterist in search of new species.

‘Good,’ he said.  ‘I’ll see you later.’

‘No need, Figgis.  Just leave it on my desk in the morning.’  She walked away and he felt his day of ‘cool’ turn to chill, to downright arctic despond.

At the far end of the hall, Boffie approached another lone figure; her folder poised and smile working overtime.

Figgis looked in horror.  It was Maxwell!  Class creep and Man U supporter.  She was giving him the complete come-on: hair aflame, freckels dancing.  And Maxwell, double-drongo, was lapping it up.

The questionnaire lay on the table.

Question 1:  What is the key issue facing the world today?

Figgis didn’t care about the world today.  He had his own issues:  self-image and spots and another ‘s’ word that he didn’t want to put a name to just at present.

Questions 2:  In fifty years time, what do you hope will have been your main achievement?

Figgis wasn’t interested in fifty years time.  He was stuck in the here-and-now and he knew he was just a tick on Boffie’s list.  He crunched his yoghurt carton into a bin and went outside.

This afternoon, he had Double Art – which was a good way to get inner things out.  He usually did landscapes:  high-key washy watercolours.  But now a painterly rage was upon him.  He would do something Abstract and oily:  squiggles and lumps.  Packson Jollock, eat your heart out.

All this he would paint on the back of Boffie’s questionnaire.  And tomorrow, without a word, he would leave it on her desk:  an expression of a future that was grunge; of shallows that were deep; a prospect that was cruel.

IMG_0588She wanted a world-view.  This would be his very own:  a personal vision of Life as a Question.  Sometimes answers, always Questions … dot, dot, dot …

Or not …

That was the real question.


With thanks to Peter Rolls for the company of  Boswell Figgis.

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