Chapter 15 : Miss Halitosis
My father’s sacking demoralised us as a family, but Jock was determined that life should continue as normal and I had to keep going with my studies. It was 1964 and I was 17 in my first year of Matric having passed a handful of O levels, Maths being one of my few strengths. My Maths teacher was Miss Letcher. She was blonde and Nordic-looking. Not terribly good legs, but a beautiful face. Above all she was a genius Maths teacher.
Not many of the teachers at Prince Edward gave a tuppenny fig whether or not you understood their subject. Not many of the teachers paid me a tuppenny fig’s worth of attention after the sacking of my father. But Miss Letcher was different. Miss Letcher seemed to care. And when she taught Maths and she stood up at the blackboard with her skirt riding up over her bum…(she had a lovely bum and beautiful bosoms. She really was gorgeous looking. I’d still like to melt into her arms)…I knew I could do well in Maths.
She was 32 or 33, I suppose, and I suspect she wore a two-piece girdle as her figure had an appealing yet stern, hour-glass look. She never wore trousers, unless they were long, but she usually wore dresses. And I can’t deny she’d caused the occasional flutter in my adolescent heart.
‘Funny Face’ she used to call me, because I laughed and smiled a lot, and I relished the way she said, ‘Integrate’ and ‘Differentiate’. Yes, I loved Miss Letcher, I simply adored her. Except for one thing… She had terrible breath. If she leant over a boy to help him with his geometry, he’d make wafting signs as she passed him and he’d mouth the word, ‘Phew…’ to the rest of the smirking class.
I used to think, ‘You’re gorgeous, Miss Letcher, you’re beautiful – but Jesus Christ, your breath is horrendous! It’s absolutely bloody foul. It smells like rotting meat.’ And I thought, ‘I’ve got say something to you, Miss Letcher, because your life is going to be awful. Why don’t you know, Miss Letcher? Let somebody tell you. Let me tell you, Miss Letcher. Let me just set you free!’ And I knew that she’d say, ‘Thank you, Miles, thank you,’ in the knowledge that I’d changed her life.
The day came when I thought it was time to tell her. It was time to tell her that she had bad breath, because no one else was going to, and if I didn’t tell her, she would always be the butt of other boys’ vicious jokes. If she was ever to have any hope in life, she needed me to tell her, because I really believed that once she had beautiful breath, she would simply sail through life. She might even get married.
We’d come to the end of the Maths lesson, and as we were all filing out, I tried to hang back.
‘Yes, Funny Face?’ she said, to which I replied, ‘Can I speak to you, please, Miss Letcher?’
‘Yes,’ she said, and I waited till the last boy was out of the classroom. She walked over to the door and shut it.
‘Yes?’ she said. ‘What is it?’
I paused for a moment and took a deep breath.
‘I don’t know how to say this to you,’ I began, ‘I really don’t, because you’re just going to think that it’s just so awful…but I really have to say this.’
‘What is it?’ she urged, and I could see by the look on her face what she was thinking. ‘Is he going to say “I love you”? But he’s only 17. Is he going to tell me he’s fallen in love with me?’ And her face was sort of…expectant, as if she was preparing her response: ‘You poor boy, Anderson! You’re 17. I’m 33. Don’t you see, it’s impossible?’
And then I blurted it out. ‘You have terrible halitosis, and it’s – ’
By that time she’d clapped her hands up to her face, and before I could finish my sentence, she said, ‘Out! Out! Get – ’ She paused. ‘No!’ she said, thinking for a moment. ‘Stay here! You Wait Here!’
She opened the door and out she went, slamming the door behind her.
I sat down on a desk, thinking, ‘Miles, you stupid, stupid idiot!’
I knew what I’d done, I’d blundered. And I just sat there, numb, empty-headed, contemplating the injustice of the situation. ‘This is so unfair,’ I thought. ‘When you come back, Miss Letcher, I’m going to say, “Please! For Christ’s sake! Listen to me! I’m trying to help you. I love you. I think you’re gorgeous. You’re my best Maths teacher, ever. But I’ve got to tell you this because somebody has got to tell you. Your best friend has got to tell you. Please – hear it from me.’
Five minutes later, Miss Letcher walked back in.
‘Headmaster’s office, NOW!’ she said. And nothing more. Her face was grey with anger.
By now, I was angry, too. I stood up, left the classroom, and strode to the Headmaster’s office. I walked in, I looked at Mr Owen: I glared at him, and he glared back at me.
‘How dare you?’ he said. ‘How dare you talk to someone like that?’
‘I talked to someone – ’
‘I don’t want you talking back, Anderson.’
‘I’m sorry!’ I said. ‘I’m trying to tell someone I lov– ’
‘I don’t care what you…!’ Mr Owen spluttered. ‘How dare you talk back to me?’
‘I’m trying to explain – ’
‘Bend over, Anderson! Bend over!’
I looked at the Headmaster and thought, ‘Fuck you…’ I bent over and WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! Four of the best. With a cane.
Then I stood up silently, left the Headmaster’s office without a word, limped down the steps and out of the building. My arse was stinging like crazy. I mean, you’re not talking about kids getting a tap on the bum. You’re talking a guy going WHACK! with a malacca cane. Four times. Hard.
With my arse aching, I limped my way back to the Maths room to collect my books. I opened the door, but she wasn’t there. I don’t know where she’d gone.
But as far as I was concerned, that was it. From then on, in every Maths class, I’d just walk in and sit right at the back of the room. I didn’t want her anywhere near me, which was fine – because she ignored me from then on anyway.
At the end of that year, I got a Distinction for Maths – my only success in my otherwise failed Matrics. Small recompense for a gross injustice. And by then I wasn’t prepared to thank her for anything. But that was six months later, and there were other lessons to be learnt before then – I was growing up mighty fast.