The Golden Section

The Golden Section

lavochkinas03pic1.jpg Lotte and I share the bathroom before going to bed. She is brushing her teeth while I step into the shower.

‘Your backside looks like a baboon’s,’ she says.

Goosebumps cover my buttocks.

‘Some idiots smeared the teacher’s chair with chalk,’ I answer briskly. ‘I didn’t notice it when I sat down


‘With no trousers on, apparently,’ Lotte finishes my sentence and slams the door.

I am teaching the Golden Section tomorrow. I have prepared the topic with ambitious vigour. Tonight I drew sunflowers and pine cones on the blackboard and hung a reproduction of the Mona Lisa onto the classroom’s wall.

The pupils almost knock me off my feet, whizzing out of the classroom as soon as the bell rings. Mona Lisa gloats down at me.

To hell with them. I cant let Maya wait.

I hurry downstairs to the canteen for a cup of espresso for myself, and a tall glass of fluffy latte with a long spoon for Maya. The coffee, for a school canteen, isn’t bad at all.

Balancing two steaming hot drinks in both hands, and manoeuvering among the torpedoes of hormone-ridden pubescent humans, I enter the sunlit school playground.

The air is heavy with the impudent odour of blossoming trees. Mad birds compete in sound volume with children. I head for the part of the playground allotted to lower classes. The new playground equipment, motley ladders, climbing ropes, see-saws and labyrinths to inspire children’s courage and sense of discovery, leave Class One absolutely indifferent: all the little ones are swarming in a dense, fluttering ball like butterflies, as if they were fighting for a place on an invisible flower. I recognise my daughter’s checked dress creased in the battle.

‘Do stop now, children, let me go,’ the flower says out of the butterfly mess, and then bursts into pectoral laughter. I wish I were one of the butterflies, the old spider, me.

The children are finally shaken off. The balloon falls apart and makes visible the object of their desire. She is transparently thin. She is wearing a short lime-green dress with a scarlet shawl over it and a calico poppy in her straight, auburn hair, to match the shawl. She has fine limbs no thicker than grass stems. She looks breathless and happy.

‘Oh, how nice of you to come, Joseph,’ she says. ‘These little carnivores. I’m dying for coffee.’

‘I’ve come to save you.’

‘This is a royal treat, thank you. So, have you fed your upper-graders with the formula of beauty?’ Maya asks, her vermicelli fingers fiddling with the spoon. Two most insistent children still tug at her dress.

‘I did, and they puked. But you seem to be a master chef. Sophie speaks of no one but you at home.’

‘Oh, it is children who are the masters. I’m just their servant.’

Maya scoops the creamy latte froth and licks it off the spoon. She seems to be looking at me and beyond me at the same time. Partly it is because her eyes squint. But how these two magnets repel each other and attract everything and everybody within their reach is still a mystery to me. Even after yesterday.

The children seem to be getting jealous of my having Maya all to myself.

‘Frau Schiller, we want to play Sniff-and-Guess!’

They whir around us menacingly; waving them off doesn’t help.

‘So you see who the masters are,’ Maya sighs. ‘You’ll have to help me.’

She puts her latte glass on the ground and claps her hands. As if hypnotised, all 30 children form a circle around us. She takes off her scarlet shawl and orders me to blindfold her with it. Then she stretches her right hand forward. ‘Joseph, turn me around.’ I take her awkwardly by the shoulders. My thumb feels her small winged shoulder blade, so sharp that I feel cut. I rotate her around the axle a dozen times. ‘Stop,’ she says, swaying a little. Her hand points to a boy, who then steps forward and approaches the blindfolded teacher. Maya leans down to the child and sniffs his head. I am sure she doesn’t see anything, nor does she hear a sound from the child. ‘Lukas,’ she says. It is Lukas indeed. In the same way, in a second and unmistakably, the identities of Fabian, Martha, Florian and Svenja, as well as my daughter, are recognised.

‘How do you do that? Can you see through your scarf?’

‘Do I look like a cheat? I can tell them by the smell of their hair.’

‘How on earth is that possible?’

‘I have my own smell code. Boys’ straight, auburn hair smells of reeds. Blond, curly, cheeky ones have a scent of birch resin. A girl’s dark frizz smells like blackcurrant jam. I know it sounds strange, but I have never made a mistake.’

I wonder if Maya can tell men by their smells. What did I smell like yesterday?

‘Children’s scents are the most delicious perfumes,’ Maya continues. ‘By the way, do you know that your Sophie smells of caramel?’

‘I see and hear. I don’t sniff that much.’

‘You must learn to. It helps to teach.’

Thank God the bell rings again. Envy, admiration and desire have mixed such a volatile cocktail in my blood vessels that I could burst any moment.

lavochkinas03pic2.jpg Maya came to teach Class One in my eighth year at school. She came to uproot the pillars my comfort rested on. She had previously taught German at a posh school in Stuttgart and would still be working there had her scientist husband not been relocated here. They had no children.

When Maya introduced herself at the teachers’ conference at the onset of the academic year, she said, ‘I am addicted. Teaching is my passion, my disease. I live on pupils. I eat them and I drink them.’ She didn’t say she smelled them, though. ‘Let us hope that the addiction will become mutual,’ she concluded.

I raised my eyebrows. So did many others.

By the time Maya came I had acquired a solid reputation as a good professional with plausible examination results, able to stride any obnoxious student with the spurs of irony. At least once a week I came to enjoy that feeling of overwhelming power a teacher has over a silent class during a successful lesson. The colleagues prized my accuracy and dry, English, as they said, sense of humour. They, however, were either too bulky-mannered or too plainly arithmetic-minded to evoke my interest and fit into the formula of my friendship.

I rejoiced in good fit and symmetry. Lotte’s breast fit exactly into my cupped hand. While making love, I imagined my vector cleaving Lotte into two equal, symmetrical halves. But I had always suspected that symmetry is not everything.

For the first couple of months Maya was regarded with mistrust. However, she seemed to squint through people so exactly that she at once found a way of speaking, a topic so pleasing for her conversational partner, that all doubts dissolved. Teachers and parents often sat in on her lessons, and they all left conquered by and convinced of her unique pedadogical talent. Children adored her.

Each of her lessons was like a palace in the middle of Semiramis’s gardens, lined with songs the pupils sang with voices their parents never guessed their children possessed. Maya soared, floated, raced and swung, following her unmistakable intuition. I wondered how much time she had spent on preparation. When asked, she always said, ‘Oh, none at all. It’s all there when I enter the classroom. I just have a vague picture, but I can never predict what’ll come out of it.’ Of course, she lied.

It became my addiction to see Maya teaching, the more so because my daughter was in her class. I wanted to know her secret, that alchemy that turned the simple lesson ingredients into chunks of gold. Mere observation and analysis, however, didn’t show me much.

In my own lessons I tried to customise some of the techniques Maya used, but after catching the students’ sarcastic glances and surreptitious chuckles I had to give it up, reminded of my place in the hierarchy that suddenly extended upward, leaving me to potter in the middle.

I didn’t notice my addiction to Maya the teacher become my addiction to Maya the female. I couldn’t wait to meet her in the morning and see what she was wearing, and whether that day’s outfit would expose a little bit more of her lithe, transparent body.

Teachers are public figures, each of them known to at least a thousand people. What I could afford at work was little, no more than a colleagues’ chat; what I could afford privately was even less. Until yesterday. And tomorrow she will be in my house. It is a rule for all teachers in this school to visit each of their little pupils at home once a year. Seeing the children in their domestic environment is supposed to help us to teach better.

Before falling asleep I ask Lotte if she knows our daughter’s hair to have a definable smell.

‘A wise question,’ she answers. ‘Rainbow Kids’ Shampoo.’

Maya appears at our door at 5 am sharp, with a suave smile.

She is wearing a silk blouse in turquoise girdled with a ribbon under her tiny breasts, in a cloud of very sensuous berry perfume and with a box of milk chocolates for darling Sophie on her palm. A fairy on a private visit. Queen Mab in a waking dream.

We have a picture book coffee time. Maya’s eyes flutter merrily from Sophie to Lotte to me. She is interested in the minute details of Sophie’s infancy, early childhood and daily routine. ‘So, Frau Gurke, you nursed Sophie for thirteen months, well done. Sophie will have wonderful handwriting, I can see it already. Oh, 7:30 pm is a good time to go to bed, but the earlier the better.’

I wish Maya would stop talking shop. I wish Lotte and Sophie would dissolve. I wish this house would dissolve. I want to have Maya all for myself again. I want to scratch her out of her nutshell and eat every bit of her, nibbling at her fine joints.

‘Will you show me your room, Sophie?’ Maya asks, after an hour has passed.

Maya looks around discerningly. She checks the height of Sophie’s desk. Right height. She praises the colour of the curtains. Sunny yellow. She scrutinises Sophie’s books. She takes Slovenly Peter from the shelf and turns over its pages.

‘You are overprotecting Sophie,’ she says suddenly. ‘It has always done German children good to read the unexpurgated version. Times haven’t changed as much as people think.’

Lotte purses her lips.

Maya, in pedagogical abandonment, raises her hands, entwining them passionately to imitate flames. Her right eye blazes through Sophie.

Consumed is all, so sweet and fair,
the total child, both flesh and hair,
a pile of ashes, two small shoes,
are all that’s left, and they’re no use

She really looks like a burning candle. I recognise that face of fire.

Behind Maya’s back, Lotte rolls her eyes.

‘Where are these lines? They have been cut! The pattern they would have carved in children’s souls will be forever missing.’

‘Why is the child burnt?’ Sophie asks.

‘Your dad will tell you sometime, dear,’ Maya smiles, bringing her face off the stage. She continues her inspection.

Behind the door is Sophie’s bed. Above the bed is a watercolor drawing Sophie made of a queen wearing a golden crown. The picture is signed, ‘K

önigin Schiller’. Our old Siamese cat is sitting on the back of the sofa as if guarding the queen.

Maya’s left eye ignites, with a different emotion.

lavochkinas03pic3.jpg ‘What a beauty! May I stroke it?’

‘The cat or the picture?’ Lotte asks.

‘But of course you may, Frau Schiller. Buffy’s very tame. She’s older than I am and

very clever, too; she is trained to use the loo as people do.’

‘How cute!’ Maya reaches out her hand to touch the cat’s head, but Buffy hisses and, in a lightning moment, has her claws deep in Maya’s flesh. Maya’s face turns gray.

‘You beast!’ she hisses back, and shoos the cat away with her bleeding palm.

The cat disappears under the bed.

Following is an embarrassed disinfecting and bandaging tumble, my profuse apologies to Frau Schiller and Lotte’s short, ‘Oh, sorries’ Sophie stands as if frozen. Confused smiles and sideways glances still flutter around, detached from confused faces when we see Maya off. Was there a forgiving smile for me?

‘We hope you’ve gotten to know us better now,’ Lotte says at the door. ‘Sorry about the cat. You are the first person she’s ever scratched.’

Sophie doesn’t move to say goodbye to her K

önigin Schiller. When Maya is gone the cat lurks from under the bed and swishes to the bathroom. Sophie follows her and locks the door.

I must get up earlier to buy roses. Scarlet they will be, like the chalk on my buttocks, like the Red Riding Hood Maya was drawing on Class One’s blackboard that evening when I came in. I hadn’t let her wash her hands. Tomorrow is Maya’s birthday.

There is no one in the teachers’ room. My lessons don’t start until nine. All the others are in classes. I put the roses on her table. It is already deluged with flowers, but I notice that mine are the best. I wonder what presents Maya will get. Even Sophie prepared something for her Queen Schiller in a round tin box, but she wouldn’t tell what. ‘A secret,’ she said.

I can’t deny myself a keyhole peek at Maya teaching her birthday lesson. Class One is on the first floor. A vibrant canon of children’s voices oozes from the closed door as I approach. An old German birthday song. I kneel to peep into the keyhole. Here she is, perfectly visible from breasts to hips, white lace. Her slithering wrists direct the choir. Her slithering wrists. I wait until the end of the song and rise to my feet. Imagine someone seeing me like this. I am a public figure, after all. A pubic figure. Now the queen will be bestowed by her little subjects cards, homemade marmalade and macaroons; it is a school custom.

I must go downstairs. Second step. The door of Class One bursts open. Maya runs out, eyes leaving her distorted face. A huge wet stain mars the breast of her white lace blouse.

I try to follow her, but she reaches the ladies’ room quickly and bolts the door. A bestial smell stings me. It is trailing after Maya.

I can’t stay here like this. The bell will ring in a minute. Maya won’t speak to me anyway. I must go downstairs. Second step. Sophie runs out. As if she were expecting to find me at the door, she squeezes my hand and we run downstairs together. The bell rings. We run out onto the school’s playground and hide beyond a cherry tree.

‘What on earth has happened?’ I gasp.

‘Papa, I was so cross at her. She looked at you and mom so

… like a witch all the time. And then she called Buffy beast. Frau Schiller is wicked. I had to render her harmless.’

Now I finally understood what Sophie had been doing in the bathroom for so long after Maya’s visit, and what birthday present she had prepared. She had come up to her teacher and extinguished her anger – and my ardour – with cat’s piss.

‘Am I going to be expelled from school, Papa?’

‘Frau Schiller will do her best,’ I say. She will do her best to get me fired, too. I have six lessons yet to teach, but they will do without me today. I lead Sophie to our car.

‘Aren’t you going to punish me, Dad?’

‘I am, but we are going out to eat some ice cream first. Which one would you like?’

‘Caramel,’ she says without thinking twice.

© Svetlana Lavochkina