The year I turned fourteen, Mr Howard took the top set for maths. He was one of four male teachers at Carpenden High School for Girls but the only one anyone ever talked about. He wasn’t traditionally good-looking. His wavy hair was slightly too long, his fleshy nose a little too large for his face, his mouth an incongruous pink rosebud, but many girls found him irredeemably sexy because of his reputation. Legend was he had once drawn male genitalia on the whiteboard and pointed out the parts women should handle with care due to their extreme sensitivity, but we didn’t have phones back then, so no one had proof.
There was an expectant buzz as we filed into class for the first lesson of term but it proceeded in a disappointingly conventional manner. He took the register, distributed textbooks and told us which page to turn to, then began writing algebraic equations on the board. As his arm worked up and down, I fixed my eyes on his shirt sleeve. Before I could stop myself, I had him in swimming trunks, kissing me. Next thing I knew, we were lying on a beach, gazing into one another’s eyes. When I refocussed my attention, I had no idea what he was talking about and had to ask Lauren what we were doing.
After that near miss, I saved my daydreams for the bus journey home or the quiet times before I fell asleep, when I would run my hands over my body, pretending they were his.
In the meantime, maths lessons remained focussed and mundane. We pressed on through factorisation, linear equations and surds without a hint of impropriety. As a class, we felt let down.
It wasn’t until the week before the Christmas holidays that we had our first real ‘Mr Howard’ experience. He had set us a maths test featuring questions on Christmas food and drink to mark the festive season. There was a lot more chatter than usual and as we worked, someone asked, ‘What’s Strega, sir?’
‘Italian liqueur,’ he said. ‘It means witch. Any of you tried it?’
‘We’re too young to drink, sir,’ someone else called out.
‘I don’t believe that for a moment,’ he said. ‘Are you telling me not one of you has had a Bacardi Breezer or a Smirnoff Ice?’
We exchanged guilty glances. Most of us had.
‘Next you’ll be telling me that none of you has ever tried smoking.’ He looked at a girl who had been caught with cigarettes a few weeks before. ‘Or boys.’
A stillness fell over the room.
‘Don’t tell me you don’t think about boys,’ he continued, looking around the class with a complicit smile. ‘At your age, you ought not to be thinking about anything else. Unless you think about girls. Which would be a great waste for us boys.’
Before anyone could react, he had turned back to the board.
‘Right,’ he said, drawing a series of curved lines. ‘Let’s make a start on parabolas.’
Those few minutes derailed my Christmas holidays. I spent long, solitary hours in my room, dreaming up increasingly steamy scenarios starring Mr Howard. We were on a school trip overseas, and when the rest of the group left without us for reasons that were never clear, we had to share a double bed in the only remaining vacant room in the hotel. He invited me to stay late after school and when we were alone in the classroom, he told me he couldn’t resist me and pressed his body into mine. As I became bolder in my fantasies, I added detail, a tongue here, a finger there, using my body to play both parts.
When we went back to school, I avoided all eye contact with him in case he could tell what I’d been up to. One day as we were working on an exercise, I caught a whiff of aftershave. He was crouching beside me.
‘It’s okay to look at me,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I don’t bite.’ Then he stood up and zigzagged his finger over my calculations.
‘Well done, Beth. Absolutely right.’ And he walked to the front of the class.
When the lesson finished, everyone wanted to know what he had said to me in private.
‘He was just checking my work,’ I said. No one believed me.
After that, I made a point of keeping my eyes on him but the effort was so great that I didn’t always listen. Sometimes I would tune in to find he had ‘done a Mr Howard,’ and instead of talking about linear inequalities or quadratic equations, he would be expounding on the pros and cons of condoms or extolling the sensual pleasure of slipping between clean sheets.
One day just before half term, I surfaced to find the whole class sitting in silence, pencils down, as he surveyed us with the lop-sided smile that figured so prominently in my daydreams.
‘Probability,’ he said. ‘How probable is it that any of you will remember anything I’ve taught you?’
A few girls giggled, uncertain whether this was his way of introducing a new topic.
He scanned the room, letting his gaze rest longer on some girls than others.
‘How probable is it that you’ll fall in love? Get married? Have children?’
Our eyes followed him as he walked from one side of the classroom to the other.
‘And how probable is it that any of that will make you truly happy?’
He stopped pacing and sketched an arc in the air.
‘Imagine yourselves, if you will, twenty years from now. You’ll be in your early thirties. None of you, I hope, will be a virgin by then.’
He let his words sink in.
‘The thing about sex,’ he continued, as if he had been talking about it all along, ‘is that you girls aren’t taught enough about it. You learn the mechanics but nothing about the reality. In my view, you should be seizing every available opportunity to find out. Because in truth, it’s a natural and pleasurable act between two consenting adults, male or female. So don’t waste too much time on algebra and trigonometry. Learn something really useful. Learn all about yourselves. Get to know your bodies. Find out what stirs you and what leaves you cold. Experiment. Make mistakes. Above all, never feel guilty about anything you do with another human being, as long as it’s what you both want. If you can follow that advice, you will dramatically increase the probability of your future happiness.’
He paused, arms folded.
I felt as if he were speaking to me personally.
‘If you don’t know how to do it, find out.’
There was a movement to my left. Lauren had her hand up.
‘Please sir,’ she said, ‘could you tell us our half term homework?’
He smiled. ‘I just did.’ Then he went to the board and wrote rapidly in untidy capitals: PLEASE REVISE CHAPTERS 1 AND 2.
The squeak of the marker pen was the only sound in the room.
When he was done, he turned around, marker pen in hand, and said, ‘For those of you looking for a less exciting time, I suggest you do this.’
At lunchtime, we sat in a huddle in our form room.
‘Perhaps we should say something to Mrs Drew,’ said Lauren.
But we all talked her out of it. We didn’t want to be the ones who put a spoke in his wheels.
After half term, Miss Jordan took us for maths. Mr Howard had taken ‘a leave of absence’ for personal reasons. Lauren swore blind she had said nothing.
I next came across him during the Easter holidays. I had spent the afternoon in town and was waiting in the rain for my bus home when a dirty blue car with tinted windows pulled up and the driver wound down his window. Mr Howard was wearing an open-necked shirt and a pullover, and I could hear classical music playing on the radio.
‘Beth,’ he said. ‘Can I offer you a lift?’
I was faintly surprised he still existed.
‘Thanks, but it’s probably out of your way. I’m going to Hillers End.’
‘Not at all. Come on, hop in. It’s filthy weather.’
I was cold, wet and fed up. I scuttled round to the passenger side and climbed in. The car was warm and smelt of pine air freshener. He gave me a quick sideways smile.
‘You looked like a drowned rat.’
He took a route I didn’t recognise but I assumed he was avoiding the busy main roads. He asked how I was and how school was going, then lapsed into silence. I was happy not to talk. After a while, he pulled into a lay-by overlooking open countryside and turned off the engine, killing the music so that the only sound was rain drumming on the roof of the car. He twisted to face me, one hand draped over the steering wheel.
‘You know I’ve been dismissed, don’t you, Beth?’
My heart started to pound. ‘We guessed as much.’
He stared out of the window. The label of his pullover was sticking up.
‘I’m very fond of you, Beth. I’ll miss teaching you.’
The rain was even heavier now. The windscreen was a wall of water.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘Best get you home.’
But he didn’t switch on the engine.
‘How old are you now?’ he asked.
I was sure he must know. ‘Fifteen in November.’ Suddenly, fourteen sounded too young.
‘Have you had sex yet?’ he said, reaching for the ignition. He could have been checking my knowledge of polynomials.
I blushed deeply. In all my daydreams, this was a scenario I had overlooked.
‘Don’t be embarrassed.’ He seemed surprised by the idea. ‘You’re a pretty girl. Pretty and clever. That’s a winning combination.’
He gave a fleeting glance at his groin. So did I. He saw me looking.
‘Mind of its own,’ he said, apologetic.
I had never knowingly been in the presence of an erect penis and in the midst of my confusion, I was disappointed it was not more evident.
‘Want to cop a feel?’
He made it sound harmless, an educational experience offered to a precocious student.
‘Go on. Got to start somewhere. Might as well be me.’
He leant back to make access easier. I rested my hand on something rod-like that was much firmer than I expected, quite unlike a body part. It felt like it could do a lot of damage.
‘Want to try something else?’ he said.
He closed his eyes, and placing his hand on top of mine, began to move it up and down, moving it faster and faster until he let out a sudden gasp. As soon as his grip loosened, I took my hand back and massaged my fingers.
He opened his eyes and said, ‘In the glove compartment. Tissues.’
He undid his trousers, reached inside and mopped himself up, then screwed up the used tissues and dropped them at his feet.
‘Oh, my sweet little Beth,’ he said as he zipped himself up.
‘Did I do it right?’ I asked. I was acutely aware of my inexperience and felt he must be judging me.
He smiled as if I had said something funny. ‘Yes, you did it right.’ He reached out and stroked my cheek. ‘I really should get you home.’
He wiped the steamed-up windows with his elbow and switched on the engine, Classical music filled the car.
We didn’t talk again until we reached Hillers End.
‘I’m the next street over,’ I said. ‘You can drop me here.’
He brought the car to a halt and looked at me with his deep-set grey eyes.
‘If I were you, I’d get straight into a nice hot bath,’ he said.
When I got home, I ran up to the bathroom and locked the door. I looked in the mirror to check if my face showed any visible signs of what had just happened then undid my trousers, placed my hand inside my knickers and rubbed myself.
After the Easter holidays, Lauren told us she knew why Joanne King had not come back to school.
‘She slept with Mr Howard,’ she said. ‘And now she’s pregnant.’
I felt a murderous pang of jealousy. Joanne King was seventeen. It was completely legal.
I didn’t see him again for another twenty years, at a probability and stats conference where I was giving a paper. He approached me during the coffee break, wearing the tentative expression of a fan hoping for a precious moment with a favourite celebrity. His hair, now flecked with grey, was still a shade too long and I could see broken veins on his nose. He wasn’t as tall as I remembered, but I had mostly seen him standing at the front of a classroom. It felt odd to be able to look him in the eye.
‘Dr Bremner,’ he said. ‘I don’t suppose you remember me.’
‘Of course I do. How are you, Mr Howard?’ I kept my voice neutral and polite.
His face lit up. ‘Well.’
‘Are you still teaching?’ I couldn’t imagine that he was.
‘Semi-retired. I do a bit of private tuition here and there. In the end, I had enough of schools. But I’m so pleased you’ve made a career in mathematics. You were an outstanding student.’
‘Oh, yes. You really made an impression.’ He took a sip of coffee. ‘Tell me more about yourself. Are you married? Children? If you don’t mind me asking.’
‘I have two boys. And you?’
He shook his head. ‘Nothing that lasted, I’m afraid. Probably for the best.’
His attention wavered. One of my graduate students, Elisabeta, had come up and was waiting patiently for a moment to intervene. I noticed Mr Howard appraising her rapidly, his eyes sliding over her breasts and legs before looking at her face.
‘Sorry to interrupt,’ she said. ‘Tim Lowther needs a word.’
Something in the quick sideways glance she gave Mr Howard suggested she had felt his scrutiny.
‘This is Mr Howard,’ I said. ‘He was my maths teacher at school.’
Her expression stayed cool.
He smiled, late middle age indulging youthful language.
‘I’m very proud of her. She was one of the best students I’ve ever taught.’
His eyes darted towards me, encouraging me to admire his performance.
‘Tell Tim I’ll be with him in a minute,’ I said.
As Elisabeta walked away, Mr Howard’s eyes followed her, then he turned to me and said, ‘It’s been so good to see you again. Perhaps we’ll bump into each other at another conference. I like to keep my knowledge up to date. Even though teaching has changed beyond recognition.’ He smiled again. ‘O tempera, o mores. We live in different times.’
‘Indeed, we do,’ I said.
‘Is it progress, though?’ he asked. ‘What do you think?’
I was sure he remembered the car journey we had taken all those years before.
‘I don’t really know.’ I felt a faint echo of my fourteen-year-old excitement alongside my adult revulsion.
He leant in and touched me lightly on the arm , saying in a confidential tone, ‘Forgive me, but the coffee’s got to me.’ He put his cup on a nearby table but instead of heading for the gents, he stopped next to Elisabeta and whispered something into her ear. With a sharp laugh, she took a step backwards. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a card. As he walked away, she tore it into little pieces and dropped them into an empty cup. When she saw me watching her, she came over.
‘Bit of an old perv, your teacher,’ she said. ‘Was he always like that?’
‘I don’t remember. It was a long time ago.’
‘We had a teacher,’ she said. ‘We called him Mr Handy.’
For a moment we stood silent, then she said, ‘Don’t forget to see Tim.’
Mr Howard had reached the swing doors leading to the lobby. I was seized with the urge to run after him, yelling: How many girls? How many schools? but my fourteen-year-old self had questions that were just as pressing: Was it different with me? Was I special?
The following year, I heard he’d been charged with indecent assault. He got a suspended sentence.