I am going to call you Isaac. I don’t know your name. About three years old you are, maybe two-and-a-half. I am crossing the Penrose paving as I leave the maths building. You are approaching on a bike — the handlebars of a bike, to be more precise. Onto these is fastened a simple seat. In its simplicity it contains you rather impressively: you ride at the very bow of this vessel. I am jealous.
Behind you is your mum. She is actually a mom. I hear it in her long vowels are she calls out to me, but I’ll stick to my habits and call her mum. Rolling slowly, with only a hint of wobble, you both approach me. Your mum pedals once more then puts her feet down. Her eyes are bright, like the bike; yours are distant.
The helmet covers most of them anyway. Your nose pokes out from underneath, sleepily. Your mum is dressed in a smart winter coat.
“Excuse me”, she calls. Twice, again after I remove my earphones.
“Excuse me, are you a mathematician?”
I pause a moment before answering. “Yes.” I feel in parts proud, reticent and undeserving of the term.
“Great. So we have a question for you.” She takes a breath. “If you have two apples, and another one falls from a tree, how many apples do you have?”
I pause again, longer this time, before answering. Is it a trick?
“Three. Three apples.”
“Yes! Three apples. You see?” She says to you. “That’s addition!” And to me, beaming,
“We’ve already done subtraction.”
I grin, widely. Enthusiasm is an undervalued gift.
“Thank you! Thank you.” Your mum says. She begins a three-point bicycle turn. Still smiling, I wish you both a lovely evening as I step backwards towards my own bike, parked against its post. She returns my greeting. You still haven’t spoken, and aren’t going to it seems. You look disengaged but I have a hunch otherwise. After all, it is rarely the loudest person in the room who has best understood the problem.
I turn my back, look towards my padlock, and listen to your mum’s voice fade as you depart. Her ‘three’ sounds like a child on a slide saying ‘weeee’:
“You see. Two apples plus one apple makes three apples. Two apples plus one apple…”
I pedal for the gate heart light and head full. Would she have rejected the answer of a non-mathematician? Albeit odd, I like the way she bestows authority upon the world. I like the practical way she does lessons. And what about me? My answer? Confronted by you and your mum, her face full of earnest, I held back from answering in case it was a trap. Too easy, I thought. Can’t be right.
Well it can be right and it is right. When you have two apples and another one falls to you from a tree, then you have three apples. Nothing is too easy. Or, anything could be too easy, relatively. Maybe next time I’ll manage to answer without mistrust.
Your mum is cool, Isaac. I guess that’s all I want to tell you. Keep riding along with her. Keep listening, too.