|Physics and Chemistry
Before Physics and Chemistry's life altered completely and
forever one morning in June, Chemistry added a couple of drops of vinegar to the small
pan, then slid Physics's egg in, slowly. Poaching was a talent. Physics hadn't bothered
trying to poach an egg for about ten years. Even on school mornings Physics and Chemistry
made sure they had a good breakfast. These days the division of domestic tasks in the
house was quite simple: Chemistry poached eggs, roasted chicken, made the salad dressing,
sent the cards, dusted, chose the new curtains, or the shade of emulsion; Physics made the
bed, put the bin out, changed the light bulbs, serviced the cat; wrapped the presents, did
the ironing, wired the plugs. Chemistry washed, Physics dried. Neither believed in
dishwashers - though, at home, in private, they marvelled at those in their staff room who
claimed the dishwasher had saved their marriage.
Physics and Chemistry smiled small scientific smiles
in the staff room when the subject of marriage came up. One of the more insensitive
teachers, Mrs Fife (home economics, big apron) once famously said to Chemistry:
'You are not the kind of spinster I feel embarrassed
talking about marriage to. I mean, I would have thought you could have easily got married,
if you'd wanted to.'
In the staff room that day, quite some time ago now,
there was a gigantic embarrassed silence. It seeped round the staff room making everybody
blush. The odd thing was that everyone, the history teacher; the English teacher; the
maths teacher; the PE teacher; felt a peculiar mixture of glee and shame, just like they
might have for a member of their own family, for Mrs Fife's faux pas. She herself was
blissfully unaware. Almost charmingly so.
'Oh dear; have I put my foot in it?' she finally said
when the big wallop of silence was too much even for her not to notice. It was down to
Chemistry to summon all of her generosity and say, 'I think I prefer the term single
woman, it sounds more modern.' Physics fumed by the kettle, stirring her coffee.
When Mrs Fife made her gaffes, when pupils referred to
Physics and Chemistry as the Science Spinsters, Physics always, always pretended
not to hear. Physics was tall with long bones in her face, a long nose, large hands, and
thick short hair; greying now. She had more hair than she would wish around her top lip.
Recently, she noticed, it was even more of a presence than ever; perhaps it was her age.
Still, there was nothing she could do about it; she was not going to subject herself to
electrolysis, she'd heard that was painful and Physics hated pain. A coward, pain-wise,
Chemistry said so. Physics had never been in hospital or had anything much wrong with her;
but the slightest ache would have her moaning for days. Physics overheard one pupil say to
another; 'Look at that moustache. She looks like a man.' And again she had stared straight
ahead. Every day, in her own silent way, Physics kept something to herself.
At home in their Wimpey house, in Gleneagles Gardens,
off the main Kirkintilloch Road, not too far from Bishopbriggs High School, where they
both taught, Physics pulled the strings to shut the curtains, and put her slippers on.
Physics and Chemistry had identical moccasin slippers, which they replaced every
Christmas. At home, slippers on, fire lit - a fake gas fire that attempted to look like a
real one, but never really fooled anybody - the Scotsman in hand, Physics felt
herself physically relaxing. Most of the long school day, she stayed unlit and dangerous
as one of Chemistry's experiments, the potential to blow up, to turn suddenly pink, to
sparkle and spit, never far from her surface. At home, Physics would tell Chemistry some
of the things she had pretended not to hear that day and Chemistry would tell Physics
things back; sympathy and hilarity bubbled between them; and Chemistry's eyes lit up like
a blue flame.
Some nights they sat at dinner - Physics in her chair
by the kitchen door and Chemistry in the one opposite, and the weight of all the things
they'd listened to in silence moved around them like molecules. The dinner in the middle
of the table, the organic vegetables cooked in lemon grass and coconut oil, sat between
them, a bright, colourful wok of strange ingredients as far as Physics was concerned. If
Physics had her way, she would have a roast lamb, two veg and mashed potatoes and a nice
wee jug of gravy. She ate all these unfamiliar; oddly upsetting, foods out of love. Her
very palette had transformed since Chemistry's culinary habits had turned foreign a few
years back. Chemistry always wanted to do things differently. Physics had to be forced to
change. In the kitchen, the flushed pleasure on Chemistry's cheeks, the brightness of her
voice and eyes, when she held out a spoon and said try this and pronounced some strange
words like gadoh gadoh or sayar lemak or sambal tauco, made Physics
want to drop to her knees with love and disappointment.
Physics was not an enthusiastic woman herself, but she
admired the quality in others, marvelled at the way Chemistry could stretch her arms out
and shout Yippee, or do a little skip or clap her hands loudly together and shriek Yes!
when Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon. Physics's mother had never smiled much; she
thought that people who grinned widely were ignorant or idiotic; Physics's father had
wanted a boy. She had never been hugged in her life until she met Chemistry. Even now she
was uncomfortable if Chemistry touched her anywhere but in bed.
They sat at dinner; Chemistry boldly eating her
Malaysian food with clever chopsticks; Physics clinging to a fork. A bottle of chilled
Alsace in a bucket on the table. This wine bucket was another Christmas present from
Chemistry to Physics, so that they could have, at home, a semblance of a
restaurant. Why go out? Why ever go out? Most nights, Chemistry cooked. At weekends, they
had special meals with wine. Physics always opened and poured the wine. During the week,
they had quick meals with water or a cup of tea. After dinner; they did their marking.
After marking, they'd watch the news. After the news, they might watch one of their
favourite programmes, Frost or Morse, The Street or Panorama. Usually
Chemistry would fall asleep on the chair and Physics would smoke a cigarette outside the
back door. Chemistry was an ex-smoker; the worst kind. Physics usually waited till
Chemistry nodded off, sneaked out of the back door and smoked one or two Benson and
Hedges. She enjoyed figuring out the constellations on such smoking nights on her own back
door-step, puffing upwards towards the brilliant plough. After; she'd lock the door
carefully, double-check by shaking the door and then shoogle Chemistry gently awake. Up
the stairs they'd go to brush their teeth and go to bed. Physics brushed her teeth for a
longer time than Chemistry to try to get rid of the smell of smoke.
Sometimes they had two teachers from Lenzie High
School round - Rosemary and Nancy, PE and Music, who also, like them, lived together and
bought each other comfortable slippers for Christmas. Neither Rosemary and Nancy nor
Physics and Chemistry, ever; ever; mentioned the nature of their relationship to each
other. Every Boxing Day for the past eight years Rosemary and Nancy came round for dinner.
They brought their slippers with them and the four of them sat drinking sweet white
sparkling wine with identical moccasins on their feet, enjoying each other's company.
Physics, when she had guests round, was always rather proud of Chemistry's adventurous
cooking. 'Oh she gets all the proper ingredients, lemon grass, fresh chillies, coriander;
Rosemary looked flushed and horrified. 'Is that what
that taste is - cor-i-an-der?' Rosemary said, exchanging an oh-for-a-turkey-sandwich look
with Nancy. 'Which taste?' Chemistry asked, beetroot with pleasure and effort and heat
from the cooker.
'That sharpish taste,' said Rosemary, barely hiding
'Oh, that'll be lemon grass, definitely,' Chemistry
said with authority.
Physics beamed with pride and poured Rosemary and
Nancy a little more festive wine. Rosemary covered Nancy's glass with her hand. 'Not for
her; she's driving.'
But mostly it was the pair of them alone at the dining
table. Sometimes they'd play music after their dinner. Shirley Bassey was a great
favourite. One night at the beginning of their relationship, Chemistry had become a little
tipsy and had sung along to Gold-finger, flourishing her arms in the air and
tossing her hair like Shirley Bassey. Then she swung her hips and Physics watched
open-mouthed as Chemistry's ample breasts bounced from side to side. It had shocked
Physics to the core and excited her. One year Chemistry got them both tickets to go and
see Shirley Bassey as a birthday present for Physics. When they came home that night,
Chemistry, bubbling, sang Hey Big Spender dancing up and down their living room
whilst Physics smoked a rare cigarette indoors. Chemistry leaned right over her when she
sang spend a little time with me and she sounded, to Physics's ears, exactly like
Shirley Bassey. What a woman, what a voice, Physics thought to herself, now as devoted to
Bassey as Chemistry was. Physics blew a perfect smoke ring.
That night in bed, Chemistry slid her golden fingers
through the fly of Physics pyjamas and touched her gently at first, then firmer; faster;
until she felt Physics's whole body stiffen and tremble. Then she lay her hand on
Physics's flat stomach and waited until Physics lifted her nightdress with alarming speed,
and pushed into her quickly, Physics' long fingers going up and up, deeper and deeper;
Chemistry holding on to Physics for dear life. It was so much, first Shirley Bassey, then
this, so much she felt she could explode. Outside, the sparkling, experimental stars lit
up the suburban sky.
They never discussed these nights. Not a word. Not a
single word was spoken or ever had been spoken about such nights. Physics had never ever
said the dreaded word out loud for fear of it. The word itself spread terror within her.
Chemistry was like her flesh and blood, heart of her heart, a part of her. Chemistry was
Physics. Everything was relative. What they did in the dark at night in their own small
house in Gleneagles Gardens was immaterial. In the morning Physics could almost feel it
disappear like a ghost. But Chemistry knew better. The transformation could be seen on
Physics's face, a face that was usually pale and pinched became brighter; more effusive
somehow. Her eyes became even more familiar; sparkly. The morning after the night before,
Chemistry could not but notice that Physics drove their Mini Metro to school in quite a
cavalier fashion, spinning and abruptly whirling the car to a stop in the school car park.
Physics and Chemistry's life altered completely and
forever one morning in June when Physics walked into the staff room as usual during the
morning break and all the teachers stopped talking. Mr Ferguson coughed awkwardly and Mrs
Cameron said loudly, 'The Head wants to see you. I'm afraid a parent has been up.
'Which parent?' Physics asked.
Sandra Toner was Physics's favourite and most talented
pupil, a girl she encouraged, gave extra homework to, and had promised to spend thirty
minutes extra every Tuesday with her.
'What's the problem?'
Mr Ferguson coughed and said, 'We've no idea.'
Physics looked out of the window in the headmaster's,
Mr Smart's office. There was a blur of pupils beyond the glass at break time, one uniform
part of another; as if they shared cells. There was the sound of them, high, hysterical,
bouncing off the windowpane and back into the playground like a rubber ball. Chemistry was
on playground duty; Physics thought she saw her; small and round, in the distance. Mr
Smart's face in front of her had changed. There was no doubt about it. It was like
witnessing a strange conversion. A man reducing himself. His nose became sharper before
Physics's very eyes. He kept moving his tie from side to side as if his collar was much
too tight and was about to strangle him any second. His neck lengthening and rising above
the collar; appearing for a moment like a snake, high and long, to get some relief, to
taste the air. Why don't men like him wear the correct collar size? Physics thought to
herself as he informed her he was giving her notice.
'You must understand,' he was saying. 'You must
understand it from our point of view as a school. Even if the rumours are unfounded, you
understand it is a delicate business, working with young people...' Physics, who rarely
said more than a sentence to anybody except Chemistry and her students, kept quite, quite
quiet. What was it about?
According to Mr Smart, the school gossiped about the
pair of them, saying that they had a lesbian relationship, shared a house, a car; a bed.
The whole school. It was time for them to go. He could no longer take the risk. Sandra
Toner's father had come to him and said he did not want a lesbian teaching his daughter;
especially out of school hours. Physics suddenly came to life. Mr Smart, said, didn't he,
the pair of them. 'Do you mean to say that you have also sacked Chemistry?' she
asked, appalled. 'Who?' Mr Smart asked, puzzled. 'Miss Gibson, you know, Iris. Have you
'That's ... that's what I've been saying,' said Mr
Smart, stuttering a bit now. 'Maybe you're too upset to take it all in. I can understand.
You've both been exemplary teachers, but I've got the parents to think of.' But Physics
wasn't listening any longer. She lunged forward; a voice came out of her as she grabbed
hold of his collar and shook him; and shook him again. He was wearing a blue-and-white
striped tie. She got hold of the tie and pulled it even tighter. 'You hypocritical
bastard! How dare you sack Chemistry,' she shouted at him. 'She is a wonderful teacher.
How dare you!' Mr Smart had his arm in the air and was trying to get out of her
stranglehold. My God but she was strong for a woman. Suddenly, Physics let go. She gave
him one final push and walked out of the headmaster's office, past the school secretary's
office, aware that she was being watched, with her head held high, taking long, long
strides down the corridor.
Physics and Chemistry's life was never the same since
the day they were sacked. Physics now kissed Chemistry in the kitchen over a sizzling wok.
Physics stopped wearing skirts altogether. She put all of her checked and pleated and
tartan skirts in a big black binbag and drove them to the Cancer Research shop in
Springburn. Their new life became experimental, unpredictable. Once they pulled the
strings of their curtains closed and lay down on their living room carpet and made love.
Sometimes they had been seen at Bishopbriggs Cross, arm in arm at the traffic lights. They
opened up a wool shop in Milngavie and called it Close Knit - the name made
Rosemary and Nancy laugh when they came for their Christmas drink as if they were in on
some big secret. It was a strange relief really. Being out of the classroom, the staff
room, and the school, selling brightly coloured wool; Shetland wool, Botany wool, mohair;
merino, angora, cashmere, cotton, nylon, rayon, wild silk, silk cotton, and patterns, and
bobbles and buttons. Plain did the accounts, the opening and closing, the labelling. Purl
did the selling, the smiling, the recommending, the ordering. From the very first time,
twenty-five years ago, when they had first met, they had this thing between them, this
spark. It could always change colour.