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May contain nuts, p.10

May Contain Nuts, page 10

 

May Contain Nuts
 


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  My husband’s own formative years had been at an all-boys minor boarding school in Yorkshire, where he had been admitted despite failing to demonstrate an aptitude for talking too loudly or masturbation. He always said that he’d been miserable there. But in the same way that some victims of child abuse grow up into abusers, David convinced himself that boarding school would be good for Molly.

  ‘But you hated it.’

  ‘Yes, but it made me what I am,’ he said.

  As if this was a good thing.

  ‘Welcome to St Jude’s,’ intoned our deadpan teenage escort. ‘We’ll start in the main block and then I’ll take you across to the swimming pool …’

  ‘Wow, a swimming pool, Molly, how about that?’ said her overenthusiastic father.

  ‘Pah! Swimming pool,’ I tutted. ‘Imagine being forced to jump into a freezing-cold school swimming pool!’

  ‘No, it’s heated,’ corrected David glancing at the school prospectus.

  ‘Oh yeah, they say that in there, obviously. But as soon as the last parents’ cars disappear through the gates, the boiler’s switched off and the girls are made to rub cooking fat all over their skin before they break the ice and get thrown in …’

  Molly looked in amazement at the way in which this famous old institution managed to combine classical grandeur with the very latest state-of-the-art digital technology.

  ‘This is where we have our Spanish lessons …’ narrated our tour guide in a flat monotone.

  ‘Wow, this looks nice, doesn’t it, Molly?’ said her father.

  ‘Oh dear, look at that bull-fighting poster, Molly. I think that’s really cruel, don’t you?’

  David had volunteered to take Molly round on her own ‘just to see what she thinks’, but there was no way I was leaving my daughter for a whole afternoon of intensive lobbying from her father. He’d have her signed up on the spot and Molly would be taken away from me and condemned to a lifetime of believing that rowing was an interesting sport and being given some stupid nickname from a character in Winnie the Pooh.

  ‘Through here is the gymnasium …’ droned our thirteen-year-old guide, avoiding eye contact and constantly pushing her glasses back up her spotty nose. I had presumed that the gymnasium wouldn’t have very much to excite my daughter, but as we walked in we were confronted by trampolines. Trampolines! Damn, why didn’t they go the whole hog and have water chutes and a bouncy castle?

  ‘Oh, this looks fun, doesn’t it?’ enthused David.

  ‘Wow!’ said Molly.

  ‘I don’t suppose you get very long on the trampoline?’

  ‘We have to take turns.’

  ‘I bet. Shame. So you’d mostly be watching other girls on it, Molly …’

  The dispute between her parents had handed all the power to Molly. She was suddenly the empress and we were two fawning courtiers persuading her of the merits of our contradicting counsel, knowing that if either of us was too obvious about our intentions it might count against us.

  ‘Hmm … it’s a beautiful old building, isn’t it?’ said my opposite number.

  ‘Very old. Is it haunted at all?’ I asked.

  ‘I don’t think so.’

  ‘Wouldn’t be surprised. A lot of these old buildings are packed with ghosts.’

  Our guide looked uncertain as to what to say, and it was quite possible that she would now lie awake all night trembling in her dorm. Although, by the look of her, the night-time would be when she normally climbed out of her coffin. This was something of a lucky break. The girl who was showing us around, the example who was supposed to make our daughter want to come to the school, was some kind of weird androgynous Addams family reject and I could see Molly staring at her strange thick spectacles, over-ripe pimples and joined-up eyebrows. Occasionally a child is so musically gifted that they become completely unaware of their appearance or lack of social skills. On that basis this girl was the next Mozart.

  Next we were shown into the dormitories. Rather disappointingly, they did not remotely resemble the huts in a World War Two prisoner-of-war camp. I had expected to see rows of metal beds in a long, cold Nissen hut, preferably with a frail girl in her vest and knickers cowering nervously under one of the frames while some bloated bully strode up and down the centre aisle flexing a riding crop in anticipation of administering yet another thrashing. But the dorm into which we were escorted was a warm and cosy boudoir with only four beds in it. There was a view across the hockey pitches where the entire school seemed to be out huffing and puffing in the wintry air.

  ‘Oh, this is very nice, isn’t it …’ said David over-emphatically.

  ‘Hmmm, very compact …’ I observed. ‘Very little room for your things in here, Molly, once all the other girls are crammed in.’

  ‘Look, Molly … Beyoncé …’ whispered Dad conspiratorially, pointing to a poster that unhelpfully declared its allegiance to Molly’s favourite singer. Knowing that this was the sort of deal-clinching evidence upon which an eleven-year-old child would decide the entire basis of her future education, I urgently pointed out a tiny Kylie Minogue badge pinned on the notice board.

  ‘Oh dear, Kylie Minogue. You can’t stand Kylie, can you, darling. Imagine sharing a room with someone playing that song over and over again. Nah, nah-nah; Nah, nah-nah-nahnah … it would drive you up the wall.’

  ‘Oh, I’m sure they put you with girls you have things in common with. Best friends probably. Imagine that – pillow fights and midnight feasts, it would be like having a sleepover every day of the week.’

  ‘Don’t tell her what to think, David, let her make up her own mind … It’s really very poky, isn’t it, Molly?’

  David raised his eyebrows at me, and then almost under his breath just said, ‘Cosy.’

  ‘Poky,’ I reiterated, as if correcting him on an established point of fact.

  ‘Cosy.’

  ‘Poky.’

  I was about to add: And imagine not having Mum and Dad around all the time, darling, when it occurred to me that this might now be the factor that finally swung it in the boarding school’s favour.

  Molly was smitten. Here was a child raised on Harry Potter suddenly being shown round her very own Hogwarts. I could see the years stretching out in front of me, my precious firstborn sent a hundred and fifty miles away, leaving me to turn on my computer every morning in the vain hope that she might have sent her lonely mother a brief email. David knew the balance was tilting his way and was excited at the prospect of his daughter following in his footsteps.

  ‘Of course, there are some day girls,’ I said, clutching at straws. ‘She wouldn’t have to board. I could drive her in every morning.’

  ‘Alice, it’s in Wiltshire. It’s two and a half hours each way.’

  ‘I could get a camper van, and she could sleep on the way there. And do her homework on the way back …’ I implored, my voice trailing off as David strode along the corridor ahead of us, urging us to come and have a look at some of the excellent artwork on the walls. ‘Or we could see if they have any nice schools in Lundy?’ I pleaded, more to myself than anything.

  ‘Come and see these, Molly. Very impressive.’

  ‘Wouldn’t you rather have your old bedroom at home, darling?’ I said quietly to my daughter.

  She looked at me as if she knew her answer was going to hurt my feelings.

  ‘Because I was thinking of getting you your own telly and DVD and everything to have up there.’

  ‘Really? My own telly? With a DVD?’

  ‘But, of course, you wouldn’t be allowed to bring those to boarding school …’

  ‘But like, when I asked before, you and Dad were like absolutely not …’

  ‘Well, that was to make it an even bigger surprise for your birthday. And a mobile. You can have a mobile phone if you stay at home.’

  ‘Oh cool!’

  ‘Although, don’t mention it to your father yet, because I’m still working on persuading him.’

  ‘Wow, thanks, M
um.’

  David returned and I tried to make Molly’s delighted hug appear like comforting reassurance. ‘… You’d still see us at Christmas, darling … but if you would really rather sleep here with some strange girls instead of in your room at home with all your own things then that would be your decision.’

  ‘No, I think I would rather be at home.’

  ‘What?’ said David, dumbfounded. ‘But we haven’t even looked at the music rooms yet. And that’s what the school does best – you could be in the orchestra and everything.’

  ‘We said we’d let her decide, David.’

  And then the irritating little thirteen-year-old guide piped up, ‘We do have televisions here. And a DVD library.’

  ‘Who said anything about DVDs?’ I said to her as if she was profoundly stupid. And the odd child pushed her glasses up her nose again and stared at the ground.

  Molly had to go to the toilet and Morticia’s younger sister took her across the green. I hoped that Molly wouldn’t come back with two tiny teeth marks in her neck.

  ‘She has to come here,’ implored David. ‘She’s not going to get into Chelsea College, Alice.’

  ‘She might still get in …’

  ‘Get real. This is Molly’s only chance. A musical scholarship to St Jude’s.’

  ‘She doesn’t want to come here, David – you heard her yourself …’

  ‘Then we’re left with nothing. No school whatsoever. Or we just send you into the examination hall anyway and pray the invigilators are all completely blind.’

  ‘Well, it would be better than sending Molly here and letting her turn into a weirdo like that one. That girl hasn’t smiled once since we met her. Look at her with her greasy hair and her blank expression. Thirteen years old and going on forty.’

  David went silent. His thoughts were suddenly elsewhere.

  ‘Well, it’s true.’ I laughed. ‘She looks like she was born in the war, and has been held back a year fifty times in a row.’

  ‘That’s it!’

  ‘What?’

  ‘That girl. You look like her!’

  ‘Oh, thanks very much, David. My day is now complete. I do not look anything like her.’

  ‘No, no, you don’t understand …’

  ‘How dare you. She’s plain and ugly and geeky and spotty.’

  ‘Yes, yes and you just said it. Thirteen, going on forty. We can’t make you look like a pretty little eleven-year-old, but we can make you look like an ugly one.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘For the exam for Chelsea College. You need to look like “Odd-kid”. One of those weird children whose age is imperceptible. But like really freaky so that people look away immediately.’

  ‘So I’m not just old, I’m ugly as well now, am I?’

  ‘And we can make you geeky and spotty and greasy and put you in really square, ugly clothes.’

  ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t think I look like her …’

  ‘Maybe we should give you a great big port wine stain down the side of your face? Or you could eat Tippex or something? No, it might draw too much attention to you …’ He was really excited now, running away with this idea.

  ‘I’m sorry, David, but this just won’t work. I do not look anything like that. Sarah said she’d never seen me looking so young and attractive,’ I said indignantly.

  ‘Yes, yes, you look nice now …’ he said dismissively, as if it was easy. ‘But imagine if you dyed your hair black and put half a tub of margarine in it? Imagine if we gave you thick chunky glasses with a bit of Elastoplast holding them together. And you had spots, lots of them, really big red shiny spots all over your face, and you were so self-conscious that you bit your nails the whole time so half your face was obscured anyway? No one’s going to think, Well, she’s obviously not eleven. They are all going to think, Poor child, I wonder what her home is like?, and then they’ll look away quickly in case you thought they were staring and because it’s much nicer to look at the pretty smiling children from Spencer House.’

  It was a brilliant idea. Inside I had to concede that it sounded infallible. The rest of the tour was conducted at lightning speed, especially since our guide was becoming increasingly uneasy about the way the two of us spent the whole time looking her up and down, studying her clothes, her mannerisms and the way she wore her hair. On the way home I wondered if part of the appeal of pretending to be eleven had been because I was attracted to the idea of making myself look young and beautiful once more. Well, now I had to face up to it: to put my children first meant sacrificing my own looks and vanity. Nothing new there.

  *

  My first attempt at zits had looked like cartoon spots, a few dabs of red lipstick speckled randomly across my face. Any examiner would have taken one look at me and rushed me out of the hall before I infected someone else with the comedy measles I appeared to have caught from Tom and Jerry. But after a visit to a stage make-up shop in the West End, I taught myself how to stick on the latex base with spirit gum, how to use foundation to help it blend in with the surrounding skin, how to colour it and shade it. The final touch was a film of olive oil on my face: the greasy sheen on my skin somehow made the acne look particularly authentic. I decided that no two zits should be the same. Some would be emerging, others would appear to have been recently popped, while here and there was the faded crater of some long ago seismic eruption. Each spot would be carefully constructed over several layers so that there was a tangible three-dimensional swelling that changed subtly in shade from its yellowing peak to the pinkish aureole. The final touch was to resurrect my old thick-rimmed glasses from the days before I wore contact lenses.

  ‘Urgh, you look horrible,’ said David.

  ‘Thank you,’ I said sincerely. It was actually quite fulfilling, creatively speaking – making myself this hideous gave me a real sense of achievement. I’m spotty, I’m greasy, I’m ugly; I haven’t felt this proud of myself in ages.

  If only the maths could have been as easy, but my brain was even less clear than this teenage complexion. Peter is tiling his bathroom wall. The black tiles are 20cm wide, and the white tiles are 15cm wide. If he alternates the colours, how many tiles will he need to cover exactly 120cm? Well, I don’t know, can’t Peter just call Balham Bathrooms? They have a Polish decorator who’s very polite, even if he does smoke roll-ups out of the window and leave the butts in the toilet. Come on, Alice, concentrate … try three of each, that would make 60 plus 45 … 105, which is just 15 short of what they want, so add in one more 15cm white tile and that’s the answer! It’s seven! Four small tiles, three big ones, yes, I did it, yes! I am Einstein! I am Pythagoras! I am, um … another famous mathematician … can’t think of any. Wouldn’t have chosen those tiles myself, though – they’re a bit 1970s public toilet for my taste.

  Through continual practice and endless tutorials I got better. Finally I felt I had the confidence to tackle any mathematical challenge that confronted me, as long as it wasn’t correctly estimating the right amount of pasta for three children without ending up scraping a ton of the stuff into the swing-bin.

  We bought two copies of each practice paper, though Molly left so many of her answers blank I could have used the same one. We had to keep up appearances and keep her practising, but now the panicky atmosphere had lifted; when she didn’t do very well, she didn’t have to listen to her fretful parents arguing through the bedroom wall all night. I still spent time helping Molly with her homework, but now I didn’t care far too much, now I didn’t have to suppress anger that she wasn’t getting 100 per cent after spending half an hour staring resentfully at a sheet of questions. Molly has two parents. If you take away one panicky mother and one highly competitive father, what does Molly have then? Answer: skin growing back around her fingernails.

  But just as one worry receded, another reared up to take its place. Now that Molly’s next school no longer consumed me, I became increasingly aware that something wasn’t quite right with Jamie. A mother just instinctively
knows when something is up – we have these hypersensitive antennae that can detect a slight shift in mood or morale. And the fact that on Monday morning he burst into tears when I said it was time to go to school might have been the final clue.

  Bullying is a very common phenomenon that most children are likely to experience at some point, and childcare professionals have developed very clear strategies and step-by-step policies for tackling this complex problem. However, when it was my child being bullied, I still felt that the most appropriate response would be for me to go into the playground myself and smash the little bastard’s face in.

  It was like a random illness. I had heard about other children being bullied at school, never imagining that the dreaded victim virus would strike down my own child. There was no obvious reason why this disorder should suddenly befall Jamie; I hadn’t dyed his hair ginger or made him wear white ankle socks with sandals. He was very reluctant to talk about it at first and between his half-sobs rather unconvincingly attempted to deny that there was anything the matter. But eventually it was teased out of him that a boy called Danny Shea was tormenting him from the moment he walked in the gates until the end of the school day. Only now did I discover that the reason he didn’t want me cutting his sandwiches diagonally was that Danny Shea had been teasing him about them. The reason he had wanted packed lunches in the first place was because Danny Shea had been waiting for him in the lunch queue. Danny Shea kicked him when he walked past his desk, pinched him in the changing rooms for PE, tracked him down every playtime and pushed and slapped him until the playtime supervisors finally intervened to dutifully tell them that they were both as bad as each other.

  Part of me was indignant that one of my children should be a target for bullies and need so much help with his school project. I mean, that wasn’t fair – surely the deal was that if your child was victimized in the playground at least there was the consolation that he sailed through all his A levels at the age of thirteen. But the strongest sensation was anger, the primitive fury of the mother wanting to protect her young. Because I didn’t just want to frighten off Danny Shea, I wanted to really hurt him. I wanted to pull his hair back until he cried, I wanted to grab him by the throat and shout in his face to never touch my son again, I wanted to make him so frightened of Jamie Chaplin that he would hide behind the piano while Mrs Soames was playing ‘When I’m Sixty-four’ rather than so much as brush past him.

 
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