AIDA AUSTIN: “I am quite simply, numerically obtuse”

I came to a workable accommodation with my Arithmophobia the second I left school; “From this day forward,” I vowed, walking through the school gates for the last time, “I will never again, for as long as I live, put myself in a position where there’s even the tiniest chance that I might have to do mental arithmetic in front of people.

Cross my heart, hope to die.”

And, being the sort of person to take vows seriously — still honouring ‘till death do us part’ after nearly three decades; not sat in a ski lift since 1979; never touched tequila since 2002 — I’ve been as good as my word.

Yes, I upheld this solemn vow until January 2013, when my friend suddenly formed the idea that I’d like to do the odd day in her vintage shop.

She’s having none of my Arithmophobia. She’s been having none of it ever since January. She just says, “Never mind the till, there’s great banter in a shop. You’re good at banter,” and takes no notice of my face, which must look stricken, if my pulse is anything to go by.

So here I stand in her vintage shop again, staring at the till, which may as well be a pair of slippers for all the use it is to me, and wondering whether, if I blew on it before every transaction like a gambler blows on his dice, it might give me the right number. I pick up my Special Calculator with its outsized buttons and super-high-visibility digits, and intone my new apothegm sternly: “In the current economic climate, you must become the kind of person that can survive outside her own front door.”

It seems to me that the process of becoming the kind of person that can survive outside her own front door is in fact, the business of discovering uncomfortable truths. I have, for example discovered that:

1. Overcoming my maths phobia is littered with moral pitfalls: A) In the event of an apocalypse, and there being only one Special Calculator left in the whole world, I would sell my body for it. B) In my darkest change-fumbling moments, I’ve considered rounding every single price in the shop up to even numbers.

2. When I’m counting up change in my head, and customers rattle around in their purses for coins, saying, “Do you want the ten, to make things easier?” I find myself fighting an urge to shout in their faces A) “AS IF IT BLOODY COULD,” or B) “SHUT UP, CAN’T YOU SEE I’M ASSEMBLING MATHEMATICAL BRICKS IN MY HEAD?”

3. I do not have whatever it takes to endure being helped with “the basic principles of subtraction” by my husband.

4. Great banter and adding up in front of people using a Special Calculator/till are mutually exclusive phenomena.

5. I’ve been gravely mistaken in thinking that managing a phobia by endeavouring never to encounter its stimulus is the same thing as a phobia going away. It is not; my phobia has simply been hibernating like a starving bear.

6. At 2 am, when I’m practising ‘counting up the change’ in my head and my moral fibre is weakening, I’ve found the art of relativism to be a useful tool in my fight against fear.

I’ve drawn great comfort from the Online Indexed Phobia List: “It could be worse [breathe in], I could have Dextrophobia* [breathe out]. It could be worse [breathe in], I could have Clinophobia* [breathe out]. It could be worse [breathe in], I could have Ithyphallophobia* [breathe out],” etc.

7. The art of relativism is only helpful when I’m not standing in front of a till. Nothing but dumb courage and a Special Calculator can help me then.

8. My secondary school maths teacher Mrs Lakomi’s final judgement is correct: I am “quite simply, numerically obtuse”.

But I am the sort of person to take vows seriously. And I vow solemnly, here and now, that I will show Mrs Lakomi.

With my dumb courage and Very Special Calculator, I’ll show her.

Cross my heart, hope to die.

* Fear of all things to your right

* Fear of dampness/ moisture

* Fear of seeing or thinking about erect penises


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