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The Mathematician

Whoever it was, in those dark days before digital cameras, who laid down the days of the week to organise our lives, whatever induced him to include Wednesday? Such a dismal day, half way between Sunday rest and the Saturday night knees-up with that awful prospect ‘the rest of the week’ still to go. The very name is harsh upon the ear, denied the soft, alluring comfort of Tuesday and Thursday and with the pronounced ‘when?’ to remind us that it has no definitive place in our happy schedule of existence. And it always rains on Wednesday!

On a particular wet Wednesday evening in the Kirk ‘us Inn the usual small crowd of Torver locals gathered beneath the oak beams to share their midweek misery and maybe drown it at the pumps. Fat chance! The mood was subdued, the conversation muted, the silence broken only by the click-clack of domino tiles and an occasional brave splutter from the dank fire in the grate. On other nights, when the weather was kinder (and it was not Wednesday) the smoky, fetid atmosphere might be invigorated by a lively discussion on some topic of great interest or none. But not this night. Not on a Wednesday.

Then the two strangers came. What business they had invading the Kirk’us Torver Bar on that unholy night, no-one knew nor particularly cared, but their arrival was hard to ignore. For they brought with them a fierce debate which they conducted through raised voices that grated upon the ear. Well, one raised voice actually, for one of them was of that obnoxious breed, the opinionated bore – you’ll know the type. No matter of national or international import is beyond his grasp and he is the world’s first expert in all things. He speaks with the authority of the true bigot, ever certain of his own rightness, confident in his delivery of the ‘well known fact’, and never higher than in his own estimation. He’s a bighead.

“You may say that, but where would we be today if it wasn’t for the EU. Eh! Tell me that?”

Oh God! He’s a Eurobore! The worst kind there is. The companion to whom he directed the question merely shrugged whilst keeping silent. No doubt he’d been there many times before and knew better than to risk inflaming the speaker with answer or comment.

“I’ll tell you where we’d be, Mate. We’d be bleedin’ bankrupt. That’s where we’d be. It’s a well known fact that our economy’s too small to compete globally in the modern world and our only hope is to be part of the larger European trading block. What d’you reckon, Mate? It was inevitable that the big-head would eventually round on some poor unsuspecting local - they always seek a wider audience for their half-baked views. But so soon!

The Accountant looked up from his newspaper, clearly annoyed at being disturbed. “I’m sorry – what?”

“The EU, Mate. I was just saying to Vince here that we need to be in the EU so that we’ve got the muscle to trade in the global economy.”

The Accountant stared into the man’s face for several seconds, a pained look on his own as though he were trying to grasp what the idiot was talking about. “Whatever!” he said dismissively before returning to the column he was reading.

“That’s right though, innit, Mate? You know what I’m sayin’, don’t yer.”

The Accountant showed admirable patience as he raised his eyes once more. He stared for several more seconds before answering. “No, it’s rubbish!” and back to the newspaper.

“It ain’t rubbish, chum, it a bleedin’ fact. You don’t know what your friggin’ talkin’ about.”

“Whatever.” said the Accountant, but he didn’t look up.

The dominoes were down, all eyes were on the brewing battle, and the hint of a smile touched every salivating mouth.

“What’ll you have?” asked the barman, waiting patiently to serve the newcomers.

“You keep out of it!” barked the big-head. Vince did the honours and the Bighead continued. “Now, look ‘ere, Mister. I know what I’m talkin’ about, see. Our economy wouldn’t stand a chance against the United States and the Asian economic block – you know, the ‘tiger’ economies. It’s a well known fact, Mate. You ask anyone. It’s all about macro-economics, and if you don’t understand that you’d better keep your gob shut and stay out of it. OK?”

Staying out of it having been the Accountant’s happy intention all along, he sighed a deep sigh, lowered and shook his head, and folded the newspaper onto the table.

“Macro-economics? Macro-economics? Why don’t you just go to the bar and try a little macro-economics with the barman in exchange for a pint and leave me alone. OK?”

“You takin’ the piss, Mister? You tryin’ to make me look a fool?”

“Oh, I don’t think any effort on my part could improve on the job your already doing, MISTER!

Wednesday had suddenly cheered up no end. The Bighead was almost spluttering as the Accountant calmly smiled his defiance and the attention afforded by rest of the company, including the unfortunate Vince, could only be described as ‘rapt’.

“I think it’s about time you and me stepped outside, don’t you, Mate?” The Bighead had advanced to the edge of the Accountant’s table and was leaning across it in a most threatening manner.

“And I think it’s about time you stepped outside and toddled off home so that I can read my paper.” said the Accountant, unfolding the said broadsheet and returning to his study of it.”

“You ain’t got the bottle, ‘ave yer? You’re just chicken-shit.” The Bighead was really spluttering now and drops of spittle sprayed across the columns of print.

The Accountant sat back very slowly, contemplating his adversary. “Macro-economics,” he said, very quietly, his face relaxing into beatific smile. The Bighead still looked very fierce but a tremor of doubt crossed his features as he stared into his opponent’s eyes. “You want to prove something?” the Accountant continued. “I expect you could knock me senseless, but what would that prove? That you’re stronger than me? I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t you prove you’re cleverer than me?

The Bighead glanced quickly around the company, the tremor of doubt rising up the Richter scale as the Accountant’s challenge reflected off every face he encountered. “What’re you trying to pull?”

“Good!” said the Accountant, taking the question as a challenge met. “Barman. A loan of your notepad and two biros if you please.”

The scurry to provide the requested writing implements was almost unseemly as the items passed quickly across the bar to land on the Accountant’s table between the adversaries. The Bighead looked his full confusion now as the Accountant tore off the top sheet and handed it to him along with a pen. “Just write a twelve figure number across the top, there’s a good chap.”

“What?”

“Twelve digits – any ones you like. I’ll do the same.”

The big-head glanced around again nervously but did as he was bid.

“Good. Now write a four figure number below it. Any number.”

The bighead applied his pen and the Accountant did the same.

“Right. Now we swap. That’s right. Now, this is not exactly macro-economics, but it all starts with simple arithmetic, doesn’t it? So! All you have to do is divide the smaller number into the larger one. Off you go, starting now!”

The bighead stared at the Accountant and then down at the paper, clearly conscious of the eyes of the audience drilling into the back of his head. The Accountant slipped his watch off his wrist, placed it beside him on the table and began to contemplate the sum set for him. Then, just as the Bighead gathered his concentration, his pen hovering over the paper, the Accountant cast his own pen aside and seized up the watch.

“Good God! eleven seconds. It must be the beer.” He pushed the calculation across the table. “I’ve only taken it to two decimal places. Do you want to check it? How are you getting on? Finished?

The Bighead, his pen still poised, stared down at the Accountants paper, screwed his own into a ball a threw it in his opponent’s face. “F*** you!” he said as he rose shoving his chair back with such violence that it crashed into the table behind where the occupants, with great presence of mind, raised their drinks to a point of safety well above their heads. “F*** you!” he shouted again as he headed for the door and out into the rain-sodden night. The much put-upon Vince downed the remains of his pint in one gulp and followed his friend, but not before offering two raised thumbs to the Accountant as he backed out through the door.

“That was brilliant!” said the Singer as the Accountant sat back to enjoy a smug smile.

The Gardener crossed the bar and picked up the Accountants calculation. “How did you do that? I have trouble adding up my shopping list.”

“Oh, so do I,” said the Accountant, “I’m useless without my calculator.”

“But you…”

“Oh, it’s not difficult. If you look at the first couple of digits of the two numbers, the first digit of the answer is obvious. So, given that a four digit number divided into a twelve digit number always produces an answer of eight or nine digits, I just added the first seven that came into my head. And a couple more after the decimal point, of course.”

“But suppose he’d checked it?” asked the Singer.

The Accountant smiled and gave her what is commonly termed ‘an old fashioned look’.

“Oh yeah! I see what you mean.” she said.