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May contain nuts, p.11

May Contain Nuts, page 11


May Contain Nuts

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  Deep down, of course, I knew that it wasn’t acceptable to take things into my own hands; I knew that these things had to go through the proper channels. OK, I couldn’t remember exactly why it would be totally inappropriate to take on a nine-year-old bully on my own, I just knew that it was. It’s a bit like assassinating evil dictators; David would patiently explain to me why this is not a viable United Nations policy and I’d finally understand and agree. Then after a couple of days I was back to saying, ‘But why didn’t they just plant a bomb under Saddam Hussein’s car? Why did they have to invade the whole country?’

  Jamie begged me not to tell the teachers at school, claiming this would make it worse, and in an attempt to reassure him I foolishly promised I wouldn’t. And so I was left feeling totally powerless. Watching him reluctantly traipse into school every morning like a lamb to the slaughter, thinking about him every moment of the day, wondering if it was happening right now, I’d fret the hours away until I’d got him safely home. Then I would anxiously ask how school was that day and he would parrot a neutral ‘fine’ and without wanting to be too direct I would say, ‘No problems of any sort or anything or whatever as it were?’ and he would say nothing, instead voluntarily opt to practise his piano and I would know then that something was very amiss. I knew it would have to be tackled head-on eventually. If you don’t stand up to a bully when you are young, you will be bullied for the rest of your life. Ffion told me that and I didn’t dare disagree with her.

  That week I was the victim of Ffion’s most direct assault to date. Or perhaps ‘offensive’ would be a more appropriate word.

  Dear All,

  Alice commented that the table that I emailed everyone after the girls’ mock exam wasn’t fair because it didn’t take into account all the other things that the girls do, like Molly’s violin etc, which I thought was a fair point!!! So Philip and I have had a bit of fun adding in everything else!!! I think it’s interesting to see where their strengths and weaknesses lie!!! Enjoy!!


  Attachment: revised league table

  I clicked on the little icon and my computer asked me if I was sure I wanted to open this attachment, which was probably quite a wise question. The first thing that struck me about the document that popped up on my screen was how complex it was, how much work this elaborate new league table must have involved. No, that’s not true, the first thing I noticed was Molly’s position on the list. Just as a seal can hear its own pup on a beach of thousands, a mother can instantly spot her own child’s name on a whole page of text. Molly was fourth. The only girl to reach grade 5 at violin and she was still only fourth. But Ffion had taken all sorts of other attributes and achievements into account and my daughter’s musical supremacy had been qualified by shortcomings in other areas, from ‘sporting achievements’ to ‘ballet grade’ and, rather incredibly, ‘manners’. And looking at the public-speaking scores, I thought Ffion might have made a little more allowance for Jemima’s stutter.

  So where had Ffion and Philip’s complex system for grading all these children left their own daughter? Where in a league table of eight girls could Bronwyn possibly have ended up? Ooooh, there she is, look, right at the top, well done, Bronwyn, what a clever girl! It was there on the computer screen. Who could possibly argue with Ffion that her child was the best when her specially created computer spreadsheet had proved it?

  Looking more closely at the scores I saw exactly how she had contrived to persuade the computer to make her daughter champion. Bronwyn got 83 per cent for horse riding, for example, whereas Molly, who did not ride, scored 0 per cent. ‘Well that’s just ridiculous!’ I said out loud; this is all complete nonsense. Then for sporting achievements I noticed that Molly had scored a dismal 12 per cent and my heart sank on recognizing this bitter truth about my precious darling daughter. In fact, 12 per cent was probably generous. She wouldn’t catch a ball in twelve attempts out of a hundred because she was terrified of them. If anyone so much as tossed a little beanbag at her she would duck and cower in fear. ‘Worse than an England cricketer,’ as David had said.

  However, I was gratified to see that Molly had merited an excellent 88 per cent for manners, second only to Bronwyn’s 97 per cent. Eliza Rhys-Jones managed 5 per cent for manners. Yes, well, that was probably about right, I thought to myself. In fact, looking at all the grades in more detail, I had to concede that many of them were pretty fair assessments of the children concerned, with the exception of Bronwyn’s scores, which were patently much too high, and Molly’s, which were much, much too low. I mean, fourth out of eight, it was so insulting! The more I stared at it, the more incredulous and indignant I became. And Ffion’s emails had a really annoying habit of using exclamation marks to sugar an outrageous message. I suppose the next stage would be for us to start using those smiley-faced emoticons that our kids put on the end of their messages, in the hope that we could get away with being even ruder: get stuffed ffion you fat cow :) or drop dead yourself alice, you anorexic flat-chested bitch ; -)

  This file had been sent to every parent on the email list on Ffion’s computer, nearly every parent I knew would see that Molly had only scored 54 per cent for ‘general smartness and appearance’. (Although I noticed that Eliza’s parents, whose dreadful daughter was bottom, were wisely omitted from the list of recipients.) It was insulting nonsense, it was preposterous, and yet I knew some less judicious mothers might take it seriously. Where was the A+ for Molly’s Mother’s Day poem entitled ‘My Mother’ that I kept in my handbag? And she had given her own daughter 55 per cent for music, which was way too high. (Bronwyn was being taught the piano; they were using the Suzuki method. On a Yahama keyboard. And she sounded like a knackered old Kawasaki.)

  Examining the league table in more detail, I wondered what would happen if you discounted the rather arbitrary criterion of horse riding. Using David’s calculator, I discovered that if you took out the stipulation of being expected to be able to ride a horse in London in the twenty-first century, Molly would move up the table two places, so really you could say she should have finished second. Second out of eight was pretty impressive, though if you deducted 15 per cent from Bronwyn’s score for ‘manners’ for that time she asked me if we couldn’t afford an au pair, then Molly would have been top.

  And at least Molly didn’t go round to other people’s houses and then neglect to flush the toilet after doing number twos, like Bronwyn, but I didn’t see ‘ability to flush toilet after doing a poo’ listed among Ffion’s criteria. No, I mustn’t resent little Bronwyn, I thought to myself, even if I had wanted to buy her a ‘lack-of-charm’ bracelet for her last birthday; she’s one of Molly’s best friends and she’s not to blame for her over-competitive mother. Even if she did cheat in the school’s egg-and-spoon race. No penalty for that on the league table, I noticed; no points deducted for the tell-tale traces of Blu-tack discovered on the winner’s teaspoon. The whole thing was farcical. It showed how pitiable Ffion now was, how pathetic and insecure a mother she had become. And then when David finally came in late that night to find me sitting up in bed popping bubble wrap: ‘David,’ I asked, ‘do you think that Molly should maybe start riding lessons?’

  When I moaned about Ffion to David he always asked me why I remained friends with her, but you can’t just cancel a friendship like a monthly direct debit. Come to think of it, I never got round to cancelling my direct debits either. I think I was still paying for membership of a gym I had only ever visited twice in January 2003. Lasting friendships are forged when people are thrown together under extreme duress: comrades in the trenches, cell-mates in prison or middle-class new mothers reeling in shock from giving up careers to be kept awake and puked on for twenty-four hours a day. Once you have shared the hell that was the Mothers and Babies Aqua-aerobics, you feel a profound bond that is hard to break. Both my parents had died before I became a mother and so I had been desperate for some support during those early days. And we had kept finding we had new things in common.
When to my shock and amazement my baby daughter started growing teeth, it turned out that Ffion and Sarah’s children were growing teeth as well. When she turned five, their children turned five as well; it was uncanny.

  But on a deeper level I think I didn’t want to give up on Ffion because I didn’t want to lose. I was scared of dropping out of the race. Besides, the last mums to disappear from our group had given us someone new to badmouth for years after. It’s human nature – as soon as someone walks out of the room you want to bitch about them. I’m sure it was the same in that Antarctic snowstorm when the frostbitten Captain Oates staggered out to die in the blizzard rather than be a burden to his comrades: ‘I’m just going out. I may be some time.’ A very brief pause and then, ‘That bloody Oates, he’s so bloody worthy, isn’t he?’ ‘God, yeah, what a martyr, oh don’t worry about me, leave me to die, blah, blah, blah … I’m glad to see the back of him quite frankly.’

  So every time Ffion won a battle like this it made me all the more determined to win the war. Molly’s entrance examination to Chelsea College required me to pass two tests. But while I had practised countless mock exams, not once had I actually attempted a dummy run in the more difficult of the two tasks. Not once had I gone out there in disguise and seen what sort of reaction I got as I tried to pass myself off as a girl about to leave junior school.

  ‘Youth club?’ said David in astonishment. ‘What if one of Molly’s friends is there?’

  ‘We’ll go somewhere else, somewhere miles from here.’

  ‘But, then, how do we find one? I mean, where do we …’

  ‘We make a few calls. Honestly, David, you’re supposed to be the adult here …’

  Since he’d had the idea that I disguise myself as ‘Odd-kid’, I had felt the need to reclaim the initiative on this project, and so I made the most of the fact that he was struggling to keep up with the next part of the plan. A vicar in Putney said that our daughter would be more than welcome to come along to their youth club on Friday evening, and promised to tell the young chap who ran the club to look out for her. ‘Whereabouts in Putney do you live?’ he asked David. ‘Er, just about to move in …’ improvised David, rather impressively I thought, though I didn’t say so. ‘And we thought it would be nice for Molly to come along to the youth club so that she’d know a few children before she arrived … Yes, that’s it.’

  ‘Super. So which road are you moving into?’

  There was a pause.

  ‘Sorry. You’re breaking up …’ said David, his hand half covering the mouthpiece. ‘I’m on a mobile and we’re just going into a tunnel …’ he croaked, casually twiddling the flex on his office phone before placing his finger over the button to cut off the call.

  I sat in the back as we drove west. We had left early, before the kids were picked up from school by our babysitter so that our children wouldn’t be permanently scarred by the vision of their mother wearing geeky kids’ clothes and a baseball cap with spots all over her face. David thought I had rather overdone it on the acne, but I maintained that it had to make people look away, this had to be a ‘rude-to-stare’ face; that come D-Day, the decoy explosions on my skin had to be sufficiently alarming to distract the lookouts from spying on the secret infiltrator slipping behind enemy lines.

  We were so early that we went for something to eat. I’d never allowed the children to go to McDonald’s, but now it just felt right, and in any case it was nice to be somewhere where the staff had worse spots than I did. I asked for a Happy Meal. In all the acting that I was going to have to do, surely nothing would be as demanding as pretending to relish every bite of that disgusting burger.

  ‘Finish your chips, Alice.’

  ‘It’s Molly,’ I hissed. ‘My name is Molly, Dad. And they’re called “fries” …’

  ‘Right, of course. Finish your fries, Molly. Um, do you like the little toy?’

  ‘What, a plastic Disney figure? I’m eleven years old; not a loser.’ And I made a letter ‘L’ with my thumb and index finger and stuck it to my forehead in the way that Molly and her friends did. On a nearby table sat a slightly bewildered-looking father of teenage children, who looked like he had just picked them up for his occasional weekend of legal custody. He gave David a look of long-suffering sympathy, as if he recognized a fellow divorced dad making the best of it.

  By now I was enjoying this role of the hypercritical preteen exasperated by her dozy father. ‘Daa-addd!’ I moaned as he got up to leave. ‘You’re supposed to empty your tray into the bins!!!’

  David apparently wasn’t sure whether to enjoy my satirical impression of Molly, or whether his wife had just found another voice in which to tell him he was doing everything wrong. ‘Oh well, not everyone does, though, do they?’

  ‘No, right, just leave it for your slaves to clear up all your disgusting mess as usual …’

  ‘All right, that’s enough now, Molly!’ he said firmly as the other father looked on. ‘Or I’ll hide your zit cream again, you spotty little ball of pus …’ and the empathetic smile of the other dad suddenly dropped away.

  I felt a flutter of nerves as we approached the church hall and pulled the brim of my baseball cap lower over my face. Other children were arriving in twos and threes, excitedly chattering about what had happened that day at school, swapping gossip and catchphrases that were unfamiliar to me. At this moment part of me would have happily turned round and walked back to the car, but for Molly’s sake I forced myself to go on. I realized that my nerves were completely appropriate. I was a weird-looking geeky new girl with a skin problem being sent into a youth club full of strangers. Of course, I would let my greasy hair fall in front of my face and bite my nails and stare at my sandals.

  ‘Hello, this is Molly Chaplin …’ David told the young man who met us at the door. ‘She’s not been before. I spoke to the vicar on the phone about her coming along tonight …’ The young man’s smile almost didn’t crack when he looked across at me and saw this strange-looking child. ‘Hello, Molly!’ he chirped enthusiastically. He was about twenty years old with an irritatingly contrived friendliness. This must be where they train the Blue Peter presenters, I decided.

  ‘She’s very shy …’ David explained, when I mumbled some inaudible reply.

  ‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on her.’ My ‘dad’ paid my 50p, left a contact mobile number and then I was alone. I fiddled with the grubby Elastoplast on my glasses. ‘My name’s Simon,’ said the Blue Peter presenter, ‘and I’ve got a very important job I need you to help me with, Molly …’

  Oh pur-lease, I thought, not that old chestnut, make child feel important by giving her a task. We stopped doing that with our kids when they were about seven. I followed him through to the kitchen, picking my way past children playing board games or table tennis, who didn’t even notice my arrival.

  ‘I really need you to help me set out these paper cups for when we all have some squash, Molly.’

  Great, we were going to have some squash. Next time I’d bring a couple of vodka miniatures to help get me through this.

  If I say so myself, I made a pretty good job of setting the paper cups out on the sideboard. Disappointed that this job had not taken the new girl more than about forty seconds, Simon then sat me down with some craft materials. ‘This is Molly, everyone.’ The other children looked at me uncertainly. ‘Molly doesn’t know anyone here, so will you look after her, Ellie?’

  ‘Er, OK …’ said Ellie, rather reluctantly I thought.

  ‘What school do you go to?’ said Ellie.

  ‘You wouldn’t have heard of it, it’s not round here …’ I mumbled. She shrugged and got on with attaching pipe cleaners to her bit of cardboard, while inside I felt a triumphant euphoria that she hadn’t added, ‘Yeah, but how come you’re still going to school when you’re so obviously nearly forty?’

  I had thought I should avoid getting into extended conversations, but the occasion didn’t seem to arise. The boys ignored me completely, and though one
or two of the kinder-looking girls attempted a friendly question, they soon gave up when I failed to give them anything but one-word answers. But I was getting away with it. No one questioned my right to be there. They may not have wanted to be my best friend, but I was tolerated in their midst: a child. A strange one, but a child.

  My efforts at artwork were ‘abstract’ to say the least, but Simon praised them with the patronizing dishonesty that a care worker might use to applaud a senile old lady who’d finally managed to get a spoonful of trifle into her mouth. There were, in fact, two play leaders at the club, both about twenty, but although I guessed they were supposed to work separately in the two rooms, Simon seemed to be needed far more in the other hall where the attractive female worker was preoccupied. It was so transparent; Simon must have thought I was born yesterday. Or eleven years ago, anyway.

  It was around then that I heard Ellie groan and say, ‘Oh no …’ as a younger boy came into the room. I was used to Molly taking an automatic dislike to boys but this seemed stronger, this was the level of loathing reserved for extra maths lessons or taramasalata.

  ‘He’s horrible …’ she whispered. It seemed a harsh summary of a child’s entire personality, though it rapidly proved to be right on the button. The boy started to grab bits of cardboard that other children were already using. He said his was the best model; he boasted that his parents had the biggest house and that he was the best skier at the youth club – a difficult claim to disprove in the middle of Putney.

  ‘And I’m the best ping-pong player at my school,’ he bragged. ‘I could beat you twenty-one nil, Ellie. Come on, who wants to play me at table tennis?’

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