Pythagoras and the Ides of March

Once it was established that Robin’s life and his future mobility were not in the balance, Mr Lawson allowed his irritation to show through: “I’m beginning to regret giving  you two licence to endanger life and limb in aimless ramblings. The result: a thoughtless tree climbing exploit, ending with your leg in a cast and likely the loss of a week’s schoolwork while you lie in hospital feeling sorry for yourself.”

“Sorry Sir,” Robin muttered, eyes downcast.

Robin was allowed two visitors at a time in Stracathro Hospital. His parents had left, and Mr Lawson had spent about twenty minutes privately with Dr and Mrs Coventry prior to their leaving. Now the two regulation metal folding chairs were occupied by Mr Lawson and Martin, one on each side of the bed. The ward was half empty. Martin was surprised and secretly amused by the headmaster’s evident discomfort at being reduced to the humble status of hospital visitor, whose function was simply to impede the orderly accomplishment of Sister MacNeill’s duties. The Beak wore a heavy overcoat, with a silk cravat and his bony hands rested on a grey tweed cap in his lap. Everything about him spoke eloquently of the fact that he was just passing through and that he would soon be much relieved to find himself elsewhere.

The Sister’s movements seemed to be a precisely calculated compromise between expedition and dignity. Her trajectory from her lair to Robin’s bed like the motion of a billiard ball, geometrically straight, purposeful, inevitable. She tugged the corner of Robin’s bedclothes furthest from the visitors into a regulation hospital corner. Her voice was an efficient murmur, almost a whisper, but guaranteed to carry clearly from one corner of the ward to the opposite: “Young man, are you needing anything?”

“Oh, yes!” Robin said quickly. I need to—”

“Yes. I see. Perhaps your visitors—?”

The hint was all Mr Lawson needed. He signalled to Martin with an economical motion of his eyebrows and they moved a little way off as Sister began briskly to draw the curtains round Robin’s bed.

Mr Lawson stood there, his thoughts unknowable, rocking on his heels as they listened to the only audible side of the dialogue that accompanied the medical sacrament being conducted behind the curtain:

You will not find any use for modesty here, Robin. The staff of this ward are quite familiar with the human body, and you need to turn a wee bit more towards me to get everything lined up. . . There! Good! . . Excellent! Well done, Cutty Sark! . . Well, yes, just a wee bit. We’ll get you a clean sheet when your visitors leave. . . Is that all? Are you sure, now?

Then the curtains were swept apart and Sister surged out of Robin’s alcove with some kind of mysterious treasure covered with an immaculate linen. As she passed the two visitors, she said, “You can go back in, but be sure and not overtire him.”

Mr Lawson’s eyebrows drifted upwards in silent comment that Martin immediately understood, since it was exactly the response his own father would have had: It’s only a knee, Sister!

Mr Lawson didn’t sit down. Instead, he held out his hand to Robin. “Goodbye, you hooligan. I understand you won’t be here too much longer.”

“No Sir. That’s what they told my parents.”

Martin got up from his seat.

Mr Lawson waved him back. “No. Why don’t you stay and keep him company? I have a little chore to do before the drive back, so I’d like us to meet in twenty minutes in the car park.”

After Mr Lawson left, Robin said, “I was bursting. All the time my parents were here. My nurse went off for a break. She said she told the Sister but—”

“I’m sure they’re very busy,” Martin said.

“They’re always busy,” Robin said crossly. “Meg is the best but she has the whole ward. The Sister took ages to come.”

Martin said, “So you’re going to get out?”

“I think they might let me go tomorrow after they put on a new cast in the morning. Apparently the student doctor put on the wrong kind.”

“So you’ll go home?”

Robin sighed. “The doctor says there’s no reason I can’t go back to Drumwhinnie and keep up with my schoolwork. I’ll just have crutches.”

“Pity you won’t get to go home,” Martin said.

“Yeah. Pity.”

Martin was trying to look sympathetic, but was secretly delighted Robin was not going to have an extended break at home. He said, “How are things, Rob? Is it painful?”

“Painful? Of course it’s painful!”

“You don’t look like you’re suffering too much.”

“What? Oh. Ooh! Aaah! Oh! I can’t take it!—”

“Master Coventry!” Suddenly Sister MacNeill was there, her uniform crackling, the watch bouncing on her starched front, her eyebrows a straight line: “What is this commotion?”

“Sorry, Sister.”

“I take it the noise has more to do with amateur dramatics than actual pain?”

“I was just joking.”

Sister MacNeill energetically clapped the spare chair shut and wagged a finger at Robin. “Pain, real pain is not a joking matter, young man.”

“No, Sister. I’m sorry, Sister.”

“Right, well, see you are.” She left, her head held indignantly high.

After a brief, embarrassed silence, Martin said, “You’re looking much better than yesterday.”

The image Martin had for yesterday was the terrifying image of Robin, pale as flour, lying like a broken doll at the foot of the tree with the upper part of his right leg making a strange angle with the lower half.

Collateral something of the knee, said the doctor in A&E. He’ll need a couple of days of our hospitality.

“It’s boredom mostly,” Robin said listlessly.

Martin thought Robin was playing it up a little. Then, why not? Wouldn’t he be milking the sympathy udder too?

After a brief pause, Martin whispered, “Rob, can’t you smell it? It smells of pee in here.”

Rob giggled. “Loony! It’s me. It’s pretty hard to aim properly when your leg has a ton of plaster all the way up to your willy.”

“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t mean to insult your feelings.”

“Tell you what, Mouse. I’m having a lot of trouble in that department. The peeing department.” Robin nodded his head significantly.

“Oh, Rob!” Martin said sympathetically. “It’ll be better with the new cast.”

A nurse Martin had not seen yet came to check on Robin. She was one of those fresh-faced Scottish lasses, no more than a couple of years older than themselves, and had a different uniform from the other nurses, with a plain white blouse rather than a fine pinstripe. She had green eyes behind enormous, thick lashes, freckles and mischief in every muscle of her face. She grinned as she made an unnecessary adjustment of Robin’s bedclothes. “How’s Master Robin?”

“Fine, Meg.” Robin said blushing. “Martin, this is my nurse, Meg.”

“Hello, Martin. I was on my meal, but I had to hurry back to take care of my young gentleman.” She looked at Robin and smiled. “Are you needing anything special?

Robin’s face was beet red and he stammered something incoherent. Meg just patted his hand. “Tell you what. I’ll come back after, so I can get you comfortable, without you missing any visiting time.”

“Thanks, Meg.” Robin said, “. . .sweetheart.”

Meg seemed embarrassed, annoyed: “Och, now, Robin. You cannot call a nurse sweetheart. It’s not allowed. Sister—”

“Shoot me!” Robin said.

Meg moved away. It seemed she was trying to appear hard and professional. She said, severely, “Maybe I will! And don’t think I won’t!”

Robin sighed, his face dominated by a big grin. “See what I have to put up with, Mouse?”

“I see.”

“She’s going to bully me and push me around to get my gown off, then she’ll have to get Barbara or Teresa to help change my sheets, but I think she’ll manage to wash me all over with a wash cloth by herself.”

“Poor you. How embarrassing.” Martin said. “All over?”

All over. And I’ll tell you something else.”


“It’s not just the peeing I have a problem with.”

Martin giggled. “Rob, I just stopped feeling sorry for you!”

Robin whispered, “I’m serious. I’m going to get all dislocated.

Martin laughed. He said, “You fell out of the bloody tree but you landed pretty damn well, Sir Robin.”

“I did, didn’t I?” Robin sighed. “But. . . all good things come to an end. I’m pretty sure they’re letting me go tomorrow. . . where are you going?”

Martin looked at his watch. He bolted up from his chair. “Sorry. I’ve got to go. The Beak will be waiting for me in the car park. He’ll be annoyed of he has to wait. See you tomorrow, you lucky pig.”


Martin wasn’t sure how he felt about the Beakess, more properly the Ice Witch. Up to the moment when he was transferred along with Robin into her Tutorial class, she had been a remote figure gliding about the school in a severe tweed suit with a starched white blouse and frayed academic gown, scarcely deigning to notice him. She had abundant hair of a brilliant white that was almost hurtful to the eye, although she was not that old. She couldn’t be too old because Jessica, the youngest of the Lawson children was only ten.

She had been taking him for Latin for two weeks, during which time he had apparently become a constant source of disappointment to her. A typical remark, delivered in a sad, wondering tone might be: Your people have worked hard to send you here, Musgrave. I wish I could say that the effort you have put in has been commensurate. Or: It may require more than your own good opinion of yourself to get you a decent scholarship to Strathallan, Musgrave.

On the day that he and Robin were moved into the Tutorial, Mrs Lawson suffered, for about ten minutes, the noise and the disruption of wholesale cramming of desks and belongings of six boys into a space previously occupied by four, then her expression hardened. “You will just have to make do.” She said. “I don’t want to hear any more of this chaos. Put some of the tuck boxes on top of the others to make room.”

Once the dust of the physical move had settled, she announced, “The aim of the Tutorial Class, for which I am responsible, is to prepare boys for scholarship examinations. There is no other reason for you to be here. Miss Fraser will take you for mathematics, Mr Lawson will do French, the Reverend McLeod will give Greek to those boys whose chosen schools offer a Greek paper. I will have you for Latin and English. Between morning break, sometimes referred to by people who don’t know any better as elevenses, and lunch, the two periods are mine, and will be dedicated to English and/or Latin at my discretion, depending on where I feel you need more emphasis.”

Mrs Lawson had certain expectations. When she came into the room, at ten-forty-five precisely, the boys were expected to rise and chant, “Good morning Mrs Lawson!”

She would answer, “Good morning, gentlemen! You may be seated.”

The boy closest to the door would close it behind her as she placed her books on the desk and checked the date, which one of them would have written in Latin, neatly, on the top left hand corner of the board. This was a duty that was assigned in rotation, and was feared and detested cordially by all. The Roman calendar system was to say the least, complicated and unintuitive.

On the morning of the day after Robin came home from the hospital, Martin was tense. The two of them had worked on it collaboratively after prep the evening before and eventually, using the model in Kennedy’s Latin Primer, had come up with:




Icewitch glanced at the words and gave a wintry smile. She said, “The grammar is fine, but today is not the pridie— the day before the Ides of March, is it? That was yesterday, I think you’ll find. So?”

Stewart, put up his hand and said, smugly, “It’s the actual Ides of March. Idibus Martiis.”

“Thank you, Stewart. Today is the fifteenth of March, thus the Ides. Idibus Martiis, in the ablative, is correct. Who did today’s date?”

Martin raised his hand. He and Robin had decided that although they would do their date duty together, they would alternate admitting ownership. He was furious that nobody had thought fit to warn them that in their effort to get the grammar right, he and Robin had done yesterday’s date by mistake.

But the Ice Witch was inclined to be merciful: “Well, Musgrave, it’s lucky for you it’s one of the models in Kennedy. But date wrong. So slapdash as usual. Pass. Take a moment to write that down, everybody, and Musgrave, correct the board. . . Now, let’s move on to our Aeneid, Book Six. Dalziell? Start us off, please.”

They were learning that being asked to construe was a minefield littered with the mutilated corpses of the timid cannon fodder of Latin scholarship. The best way to avoid being volunteered for it was to be sitting straight up, book open at the correct page and finger at the appropriate line of the text, and making frank, confident eye contact with her. The worst way, guaranteed to get oneself invited into no man’s land, was to be staring into space or out of the window. Mrs Lawson had a sixth sense for identifying boys who had failed to prepare.

However, that particular day, Icewitch paused and sat back in her chair, marking her place with an index card. She asked, “The Ides of March. An interesting date. Who can tell me why?”

Icewitch frowned. Scanned the blank faces before her. “Oh, come! Surely you’ve read Shakespeare? Somebody, surely, must have read some Shakespeare? Julius Caesar? Nobody?”

Stewart, the resident swot, put up a timid hand: “Caesar was born?”

Stewart flinched as the dart of the Icewitch’s sorrow skewered him: “Tsk, Stewart! Don’t just make a blind guess when you don’t know. No, it was not the date of Caesar’s birth. It was—?”

“His death?”

“How? How did he die?”

“In battle.”

“Oh? Against whom?”

The ironic amusement of her tone told them all that Caesar did not die gloriously in battle. Martin was about to suggest In bed, when Robin took up the standard: “Wasn’t he murdered?”

“Yes, Coventry, thank you. Yes. At last. He was murdered. Where?”

“In the Agora?” Robin hazarded.

Mrs Lawson shook her head in long suffering surprise, as if Coventry had proved himself even more doltish then even she had suspected. “Well, Mr Hill did say you and Musgrave were shaky, but I see we have quite a bit of work to do to bring you up to Tutorial standard: No, Coventry. He was not murdered in the Agora. It would have been a miracle if he was, since the Agora is in Athens, and Julius Caesar lived and died in Rome. He was assassinated on the floor of the Senate, on the Ides of March 44 BC by conspirators led by a man called Brutus. According to Shakespeare, his dying words, as Brutus thrust his dagger into his heart were—?”

After a long pause, during which she scanned their faces from one end of their hypnotised semicircle to the other, then back. She sighed again, then with deliberation she reopened her Aeneid: “We will return to our contemplation of the beauty and the genius of Virgil. For homework, you will all research Caesar’s last words, and I want them in Latin, by tomorrow. If any boy thinks he can give me an actual contemporary citation, I will award him a large bar of chocolate. And by the way—” She said in her loud, most significant voice: “44 BC. Does that ring any bells? Anybody? What is 44 plus 1957?”

Martin said, “Two thousand and one.”

“And since we go straight from 1 BC to 1 AD, we have to subtract one, which gives us. . .?”

“Two thousand.”

“Thank you Musgrave. So what happened exactly two thousand years ago today?”


After the period was over and the Ice Queen had swept from the room, gown billowing behind her, her final challenge was addressed communally by consulting Shakespeare and writing et tu, Brute in all their exercise books. Then Martin volunteered to trawl the Encyclopedia Britannica for the contemporary citation.

Stewart giggled. “I wouldn’t bother, if I were you, Musgrave. If she’s offering a bar of chocolate it means there is no contemporary quote out there, so save yourself a ton of work.”

Martin was puzzled. “So if she knows there’s nothing, why does she send us out looking for it?”

“That’s the Icewitch,” Stewart said.

“The Ice-Bitch.” Dalziell corrected.


One day, about a week after Robin came home from hospital, Mrs Lawson appeared to be in an unusually good mood. She was actually smiling and made no sour comment to find her board contaminated by Miss Fraser’s neat geometric speculations. She made a gesture to stop Dalziell from erasing it: “No. Leave it up. It takes me back to see Pythagoras. That diagram is exactly as I remember it in my textbook from far too many years ago, when I was a girl in pigtails and pinafore. I remember when our mathematics teacher, Mr McKay made me come to the board to prove it.”

“Really?” Robin said, surprised.


Robin said slyly, “Do you think you could still do it? I bet you couldn’t ”

“Oh?” She said smiling. “What makes you think that?”

“Could you?”

Mrs Lawson’s smile became a little uncertain. She said, “Do you have our date, Dalziell?”

“Yes, Mrs Lawson.” Dalziell was printing in the top left corner:


“Good. A good start to the day. I hope you can keep it up.”

She sat down and arranged her books neatly in front of her, placing her elbows on the desk and folding her hands in an attitude of prayer. “First, how are you feeling, Coventry?”

“Very well, Mrs Lawson. It hardly hurts at all.”

“Very well, Mrs Lawson, thank you!

“Yes. Sorry. Thank you.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Now. . . Virgil. Aeneid Book Six, line 187, I believe. You can start us off, Coventry.”

Robin said, “Yes, but could you? Prove Pythagoras, I mean?”

The Ice Witch’s expression clouded and her eyebrows came together in the middle. All the boys were familiar by now of the warning signs.

She said evenly, “Of course. That proof is a classic and I’m sure that you’ll remember it too, thirty years from now. But— Don’t let us get distracted from our task. We are doing Latin. Virgil, young man. Execute! Aeneid Book Six. Line 187, Si nunc se nobis. . .”

After the period, as Mrs Lawson was leaving, hugging her gown to herself, Robin intercepted her, grinning and bouncing on his feet as if he were a much younger boy, “I bet you a chocolate bar you couldn’t.”

Mrs Lawson looked surprised. She said,”Couldn’t what?”

“Prove Pythagoras.”

“And you want to wager a chocolate bar on it?”

“Just for fun.”

“Oh, fun!” Her lips sketched a smile, as if fun was a distant memory. “I wonder if the Headmaster would approve.”

“You could talk to him.”

“I could indeed. . .” She paused a moment for thought. “All right, I accept. I’ll wager you a chocolate bar. If I succeed, you will owe me, of course. You realise that?”


It was as if the entire period, twenty-two lines of Virgil, had been nothing but a comma in her conversation with Robin about Pythagoras.


The following morning, Miss Fraser confided that Mrs Lawson had expressed an interest in having a look at the geometry textbook to check something.

She said, “Mrs Lawson is a very clever woman, you know. Much cleverer than me. I only know mathematics and science, but she knows all that Latin and Greek and quite a bit of mathematics too. I’ve promised to lend her a copy, and perhaps one of you could take it to her at lunchtime?”

“I will,” Robin said.

“You’re sure you can run around like that with your cast?”

“Oh, yes. On crutches, I’m Speedy Gonzalez!”

“Well, thank you, Robin. By the way, how are you feeling?”

“Very well, Miss Fraser, thank you.”

Robin told Martin he had a special reason for volunteering, but would not say what it was.


The following day, Miss Fraser spoke to Robin at the beginning of the mathematics period: “I hope your leg is better, Robin. You didn’t forget to give Mrs Lawson the book, did you?”

Robin slapped his forehead dramatically. “Oh bother! I knew I was forgetting something! Sorry. I’ll do it after morning break, shall I?”

Miss Fraser’s eyebrows rose millimetrically. “That’s not like you, Robin. See you do. . . Maybe I should ask someone else?”

“Oh, please don’t, Miss Fraser. I promise I’ll do it. It’s no bother. I’m sorry I forgot.”

“Apology accepted. Please do it before you have your cocoa.”


Still Robin seemed in no hurry to perform his commission. As he sipped his cocoa and stuffed bread and jam into his mouth, he said to Martin, “I’m going to get that bar of chocolate.”


“Wet! She’ll never remember how to prove Pythagoras, of course.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure. She was pretty clever about the Julius Caesar thing, The Beak even mentioned it during Assembly, when he asked for a moment of silence in memory of Caesar.”

“Well, he’s on her side, isn’t he?”


At the beginning of the Latin period, Robin put up his hand in that peculiar way they had when they were eager to give some brilliant, urgent response to a question, with the elbow rigidly straightened, the hand waving like a semaphore. “Please, Mrs Lawson!”

“Yes, Coventry?”

“Miss Fraser wanted me to give you a book. Would you like it now?”

“After the period will be fine, Coventry.”

“And did you have any more thoughts about Pythagoras? About our bet?”

The realisation dawned on Martin. Mrs Lawson was trapped. If she suggested they do the bet tomorrow, she would have suffered a moral defeat, even if she managed to prove the ancient theorem, because everybody would know she had borrowed a book to refresh her memory.

She smiled ruefully, as if to acknowledge a fine move in a game of chess. She said slowly, “But I have to do it right now, don’t I? Otherwise you might argue I had looked it up.”

Robin’s face was expressionless. He said, “Oh, no, Mrs Lawson. Tomorrow will be fine.”

But everybody would know that if she accepted the delay, even if she won the bet, she would automatically forfeit the game. Her best strategy, in Martin’s mind, was to do it right away, then if she failed to prove Pythagoras after a creditable effort, cheerfully accept defeat, giving Robin his prize.

She said, “No. We’ll do it today. After we finish Latin.” She was looking at Robin carefully and Martin thought he could detect a certain respect.

Martin was having an odd reaction. It was strange, like the feeling he got in his stomach when he was about to have a beating. It was unpleasant. It felt like it had something to do with what was happening between Mrs Lawson and Robin, but he did not know what it was. The unpleasantness, and the feeling it was linked to Robin made him feel disloyal.     Robin was saying, “When you were showing Mr McKay, did you have to do it at the board?”

Martin’s discomfort increased. The whole idea of the bet seemed soiled somehow, and Robin’s suppressed glee, indecent.

Mrs Lawson frowned. “We need to move on. Let’s say I undertake to demonstrate Pythagoras’ theorem at the blackboard in no more than 10 minutes.”

“You can have fifteen if you want.” Robin said generously.

“Ten is all I need, young man, and all you can afford to miss from this Latin period. Now. Back to Virgil.”

Her voice was taking on that loud tone, like a steamroller, which she sometimes used when she wanted to get the lesson back on track after an exuberant diversion.

Martin again felt some admiration for Mrs Lawson. Her insistance on doing it in ten minutes was not so much arrogance, as a refusal to allow Robin to control the conditions. She didn’t want his fifteen minutes. She preferred her own ten. If she lost it would have been that she herself had demanded the most rigorous parameters.

She did not call on Robin or Martin for the rest of the period, a good thing as far as Martin was concerned, because he was feeling quite scattered. An odd metamorphosis was taking place in his image of the headmistress. He realised he could never again call her the Ice Witch. Even her facial features were softened, made more youthful. He wished he could do something to make her like him.

Precisely, at eleven minutes to twelve, she snapped her book shut and announced, “Now This elderly teacher of the Classics will attempt to make good on her rash wager regarding the proof of Pythagoras’s theorem. I have to do it before the lunch bell, is that it?”

“Go!” Robin said.

At one point Martin really thought she was going to do it, but in spite of getting the diagram right, she missed some subtle logical step and when the lunch bell rang, she shrugged, dropped the chalk into the little shelf under the board and smiled. “Well, I guess I lost!”

Stewart said, “But you were very close, Mrs Lawson!”

A chorus of voices consoled her.

“I agree,” Martin said eagerly. “Very close.”

Robin said slyly, “A very creditable attempt,”

Mrs Lawson seemed not to notice the almost insolent use of a phrase she herself used when one of them got something almost right.

She looked steadily at Robin and said, “I assume I can have twenty-four hours to pay this debt of honour?”

“Of course,” Robin said. “You can take a week to pay up if you want. Or as long as you want.”

“Tomorrow will be fine,” she said. She held out her hand. “You won, fair and square.”

“You played well too.”

“Yes, I did, didn’t I?”

Martin was fascinated by the sight of her hand, resting very lightly in Robin’s grip. He knew how cool, how light it would feel, and how coarse and sweaty Robin’s would be.

Then the moment was gone. She gathered up her books, and swept out of the room. An aristocrat.

Martin was silent over lunch, thoughtfully attending to his beef stew, listening to Robin celebrating his victory with what seemed to him to be indelicate triumph. After lunch Robin wanted to get his games kit on and head out for a walk to the stables, which was about the only adventure he could manage on crutches. He seemed hurt that Martin had other plans, but said nothing.

Martin said he felt like he needed to run. He would run a slow circuit round the grounds, then do his prep.

He was fed up with Robin always bossing him around.



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2 responses to “Pythagoras and the Ides of March”

  1. elainecanham says :

    I like the way Martin’s attitude changes, and how we are drawn into liking Mrs Lawson.

  2. penjedi says :

    Thanks! I will treasure your perceptive comments!

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