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May contain nuts, p.12

May Contain Nuts, page 12


May Contain Nuts

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  The other children were unattracted by the proposal of getting thrashed by the precocious champion and then being endlessly reminded of it ever after. ‘Come on, losers, who’ll take me on?’ he repeated. The defeated silence was embarrassing to behold.

  ‘I’ll give you a game of table tennis,’ I heard myself say. I don’t know what made me volunteer. I suppose I was just irritated at the way he was dominating the other children. Deep down I think he reminded me of Ffion. I must stay in character, I said to myself as I picked up the frayed and peeling bat; I must play like a nervous, unconfident child. He announced that he’d serve first and smashed the ball over the net five times in a row, while I did my best to look nervous and overwhelmed on the other side of the table.

  ‘Yes! Five nil to Danny!’ he broadcast, telling me that this meant it was my turn to serve. I patted a pedestrian, high-bouncing ball over the net to him and he smashed it back at a hundred miles an hour. ‘Yes! Six nil to Danny!’ he said loudly, looking round to check that everyone else had heard. Seven love, eight love, nine love – his delight increased with each point. Until I became too irritated to tolerate him any more and decided to hit a shot back. He launched a fast low smash to the end of the table and I sent it hurtling back to the other side with a little backspin just to throw him. He missed it completely. There was a pause.

  ‘Lucky fluke!’ he said, leaving me to pick up the ball even though it was nearer to him.

  What young Danny didn’t know was that I was an extremely good ping-pong player. We had a table at home and only last summer I had reached the dizzy heights of the Corfu Club Med final. I could have beaten this spoilt arrogant little boy twenty-one love if I had wanted to. Except now I had decided to beat him twenty-one nine.

  ‘Ellie, hold my glasses, would you?’ I said solemnly.

  It was his serve again but my return shots whizzed to the edge of the table, sending him jumping from side to side. A crowd started to gather.

  ‘The new girl’s beating Danny Shea,’ I heard someone announce when I went ahead, and I saw him start to really sweat. It was then that I suddenly broke off.

  ‘Danny Shea?’


  ‘From Spencer House school in Clapham?’

  ‘Yes. Why?’

  Here he was, the boy who had ruined my son’s school life this term. Standing on the other side of a table-tennis table actually looking a little bit pathetic. The boy I had imagined as a huge muscle-bound thug was not particularly big or scary, just massively over-confident and aggressive.

  ‘Oh, no reason. I just wondered why you don’t go to a youth club in Clapham?’

  ‘Because I don’t live in Clapham any more, stupid. We moved to Putney. It’s twelve nine to you.’

  ‘No, thirteen nine …’ corrected Ellie.

  ‘I’m not bothered.’ I shrugged. ‘Twelve nine is fine by me …’ and the other children looked as if they had never encountered a child like this before.

  ‘You’ve got the best bat,’ he announced with the scores at fifteen nine to me.

  ‘OK, you can have this one,’ I said, showing, I feel, a confidence and maturity well beyond my eleven years.

  ‘Go on, Molly …’ whispered Ellie to me as I passed her. I saw she had her fingers crossed.

  Danny might have been quite a decent player if he hadn’t been so determined to go for a dramatic macho smash every single time it was his shot. It was as if all this child’s anger and frustration were being vented on this table-tennis table. Where did all this rage come from, I wondered. Perhaps it was important for his development that I allow him to continue to be the best table-tennis player. Perhaps he should be permitted to continue to excel in one legitimate pursuit so that he might be less inclined to bully and torment the other children like mine. And then I thought: Sod that, I am going to smash the vicious little bastard right off the table.

  With the score at twenty twelve, Danny was now serving to stay in the game, when suddenly he put his bat down.

  ‘I don’t want to play any more. It’s boring.’

  ‘That means you lost,’ said Ellie.

  ‘Shut up, Smelly Ellie,’ said Danny. ‘And go and play with your spotty new friend.’

  ‘You lost. Molly beat you …’ said Ellie.

  ‘Smelly Ellie loves Molly. Smelly is a lesbian,’ quipped Danny.

  ‘Don’t call Ellie Smelly, Danny,’ I said, calmly putting my glasses back on. ‘And whether people are gay or not isn’t something they can be expected to know or understand until after they have reached puberty. Then if Ellie decided she was a lesbian or you realized you were homosexual, there would, of course, be absolutely nothing wrong with that.’

  This made the others laugh at him and I felt that my rejoinder should have closed the society’s debate on ‘Whither Sexuality?’ but the erudite young man opposing my motion had another rhetorical trick up his sleeve. I felt a sharp tug at the bag of my hair.

  ‘You calling me a gaylord, you spotty lezzy?’

  ‘Let go of my hair, Danny …’

  ‘Why’s your face like that? Have you got AIDS?’

  ‘Let go of my hair, Danny, you are actually hurting me now …’

  ‘Stop it, Danny … someone get Simon …’ said Ellie.

  ‘Ow, you little bastard, I’m warning you – let go!’ I said, but he tugged harder, pulling my head down and nearly causing me to topple backwards. In a flash of anger my elbow flew back into Danny’s stomach, probably harder than it should have done, and he yelped in pain and doubled up. Then I span round, grabbed his arm and forced it right up his back till he cried out in pain.

  ‘And listen carefully, Danny Shea,’ I whispered into his ear. ‘If you ever, EVER, EVER, lay another finger on Jamie Chaplin in your class at Spencer House, if you so much as say something horrible to him, let alone hit or kick Jamie Chaplin, I swear I will come and knock your teeth into the back of your fucking skull, do you understand?’ and I shoved the arm further up his back for good measure.

  ‘Yes, ow, yes, please let go …’

  ‘Molly, get off him!’ shouted Simon sternly, striding into the room.

  Danny was openly sobbing, crouched down on the floor. I think his arm was hurting, though I hadn’t really pushed it that far.

  ‘I will not have you bullying people in my youth club.’

  ‘He was pulling my hair.’

  ‘Don’t tell tales, Molly.’

  ‘I’m not telling tales. I’m explaining the context. He was pulling my hair and refused to let go.’

  ‘I’m not interested in who did what to who.’



  ‘It’s who did what to whom,’ I said, perhaps stretching the characterization of my chronically shy eleven-year-old. But I was angry that he was taking Danny’s side, and perhaps I was angry at myself for having lost control in the way I did. ‘And these children should not have been left totally unsupervised. The Childcare and Children’s Supervision Act of 1994 specifically includes youth clubs and summer camps in subsection two, stating that children under fourteen may not be left without adult supervision, and what is worse your absence was a transgression of the trust placed in you by these children’s parents,’ I barked. Ellie and her friends stared open-mouthed at me.

  ‘How old are you, Molly?’ said Simon.

  ‘Er, eleven?’

  ‘Come on, what’s your game? What are you, some kind of undercover reporter or what?’

  ‘I’m eleven, really. I was born in, er, 1994. You remember – that really hot summer? Oasis, Blur, um … Live Aid?’

  ‘Either you leave now or I am calling the police and informing them that you have assaulted a child.’

  David looked surprised to see me half an hour before he was supposed to come and pick me up. He was sitting in the corner of the pub, reading a newspaper and sipping a pint when I dejectedly plonked myself down opposite him and announced that it hadn’t worked.

  ‘What do you

  ‘The supervisor rumbled me; he threatened to call the police.’

  ‘The police? Shit! Did he think you were trying to kidnap a child or something?’

  ‘Worse – he accused me of being a journalist.’

  I felt totally exhausted; the intense mental effort involved in sustaining my subterfuge had finally hit me. ‘Shit! I can’t believe it – it’s not going to work. All that effort, all that study and it’s not going to work! What are we going to do? I mean, that’s it, isn’t it? We’ll have to take Molly out of school altogether and teach her ourselves, or we’ll have to sell our house to pay for another school and we’ll have to live in a mobile home that we can park right outside the gates to make sure we live close enough to get in and all our children will be teased and bullied for being trailer trash.’

  ‘Calm down, calm down. We’ll think of something.’

  ‘Oh great! That’s your solution, is it? We’ll think of something. You’re about as much help as Microsoft Help.’ I was devastated. I felt utterly miserable and negative and defeated. ‘I need a drink. Do you want another half?’

  ‘No, I’m all right, get yourself a large one – I’m OK to drive.’

  The stout and bearded landlord was chatting with a regular and seemed to do a strange double-take as he saw me approach the bar.

  ‘Vodka and tonic, please,’ I said with a long-suffering sigh. ‘And make it a large one.’ My body ached for alcohol, like chocolate after swimming lessons.

  ‘Sorry, but I wasn’t actually looking to lose my licence this evening,’ he said in exaggerated sarcastic tones.

  ‘I beg your pardon?’

  He pointed to a number plate behind the bar with the registration RU 18. ‘Can’t you read? Or have they stopped teaching you that at school these days? Go on, out! Come back in a few years when it’s not way past your bedtime.’

  I was dumbstruck. ‘Oh, thank you!’ I cried. ‘You have made my day!’ I could have leant over the bar and kissed him full on the lips, except that he was hideous and smelt of stale pipe tobacco. ‘David! David!’ I shouted excitedly across the bar. ‘He won’ serve me, he says I’m too young!’

  ‘Oh yes!’ declared my husband. ‘What a result!’

  On the way home I told David all about the youth club.

  ‘The Childcare and Children’s Supervision Act of 1994? How did you know about that?’ he said, laughing.

  ‘I didn’t. I just made it up. Do you think he might contact the police?’

  ‘No, because then it will come out that he was flirting with the other play leader instead of keeping an eye on you lot.’ When David had heard a full account of the evening he put it to me that I had indeed got away with being a child up until the point that I’d decided to take on Danny Shea at table tennis. His newfound excitement persuaded me that he was right. I had done it really. I had just blown it at the end by coming out of character. But I wouldn’t do that a second time. I had learnt my lesson – that was what this evening was supposed to be about. David persuaded me that it followed that there was no reason why I shouldn’t get away with it at Chelsea College, so long as I managed not to hit anyone.

  ‘Not even if I see Ffion?’

  ‘Oh yeah, Ffion excepted. If you see Ffion, you can punch her as hard as you like. But you’re ready, Alice. The exam is just a few days away and you are ready.’

  I felt a surge of excitement and trepidation as I faced the prospect ahead of me.

  ‘Why are we stopping?’ I said as he pulled up at a petrol station.

  ‘The final touch for your exam,’ he said enigmatically. ‘These places always have a few soft toys. We are going to buy you a lucky gonk …’

  Feng Shui Your Mind

  By Rohan Jayasekera

  Sunrise Books £6.99

  Your mind has various compartments, or ‘chambers’, just like the rooms in your home. There are passageways that are cluttered and untidy, there are little nooks and crannies that you’d almost forgotten about. Most of your everyday thinking is done in the central part of your brain; this is your mind’s ‘Living Room’. Go upstairs from there and you come to the chamber that is used for dreaming – let us call that the ‘Brain-Bedroom’. And through a little door in here is your psychological ‘Attic’, that dark space where we put all the things we don’t want to think about any more. And just as in a building you can redirect and concentrate the positive energy flowing through a space, so using meditation and positive thinking can you harmonize the ‘chi’ within, letting energy and light flow through the windows of your mind!


  including Psychoneuroimmunology, Neuropsychopharmacology, Reproductive Medicine, Chronobiology and Human Ethology,

  With regard to specialized brain compartments involved in motivational processes, the physiological substrate for appetitive or aversive motivation primarily lies within the limbic system. The limbic lobe surrounds the corpus callosum and consists of the cingulate gyrus and the parahippocampal gyrus. The hippocampus, which is in the floor of the temporal horn of the lateral ventricle and is closely linked to memory processing, is also included in the limbic lobe. Additional structures incorporated in the limbic system are the dentate gyrus, amygdala, hypothalamus (especially the mammillary bodies), septal area (in the basal forebrain) and thalamus (anterior and some other nuclei). Functionally, the ‘hippocampal formation’ consists of the hippocampus, the dentate gyrus and most of the parahippocampal gyrus.

  — 6 —

  I re-read both explanations of the brain’s compartments, and decided to go with the Feng Shui one. I mean, if you’re worried about your mind’s ability to concentrate, it doesn’t help to have your husband print out some advanced medical guide to your brain that has you giving up at the end of the second sentence.

  The time to put my brain to the test had finally come; it was my mental D-Day, as David put it. We’d been looking at a picture of the Normandy beaches that Jamie had drawn for his project: hundreds of stick soldiers wading ashore, grenades going off, ships sinking and planes exploding in the sky. June 1944: the greatest invasion force ever unleashed. However, this was nothing compared with the onslaught being faced by the staff of Chelsea College on the Saturday morning of their school’s entrance exam. Hundreds of middle-class mothers and fathers, all pushing to the front of the reception desk at the back of the examination hall to explain that their child had woken during the night because of the neighbour’s car alarm and could this be taken into account when their child’s exam was marked:

  ‘This is Edina Symes from Thomas’s Preparatory School – she has poor circulation. I have a doctor’s note here saying she needs a seat near a radiator, look, you can read it, that’s from an actual doctor saying she needs a seat near a radiator, she has to do the exam near a radiator, this letter proves it …’

  ‘Excuse me, my wife knows the deputy head Mr Worrall? Yes, well, you see we were under the impression that the exam was two hours, not three hours; we’ve been practising two-hour tests, so he’s not really geared up for a three-hour test, I mean it’s hardly his fault, will this be taken into account during marking? As I say, my wife knows the deputy head Mr Worrall …’

  ‘My son will need to go to the toilet during the exam, won’t you, Henry, can he go to the toilet during the exam, he always evacuates his bowels at exactly 11.30, don’t you, Henry, he’s very regular but it does take him about ten minutes, can he have ten extra minutes at the end because it wouldn’t be fair if pupils were penalized for having regular bowels, you should get extra marks if anything …’

  Was this what I was like? Surely I could never be as aggressive as these mothers; I didn’t have the fanatical certainty of these über-parents. David says I always worry too much about doing the wrong thing or appearing rude – just because I still put ‘yours sincerely’ at the end of text messages.

  The teachers behind the registration desks seemed to age se
veral years during this frantic twenty minutes. They tried to reason that only genuinely ‘exceptional’ factors could be taken into account, but this only seemed to reinforce the very point that every single mother was making. The teachers had suddenly transformed into monstrous authority figures who dared to try and drive a wedge between their child and the word ‘exceptional’. The parents had, in fact, been told not to come into the building at all but to drop off their children outside, but this ruling didn’t apply to them, any more than the double yellow lines outside the school gates where rows of 4x4s were all double-parked with their hazard lights flashing (which apparently makes it acceptable to block all traffic going in both directions).

  I felt curiously detached from the whole manic experience. Like my war-artist son, I was an invisible observer. Perhaps this was because I seemed to be the only student to have no adult fussing over me, crouching down to give me last-minute guidance or checking yet again that I had my back-up fountain pens with spare cartridges. My invisibility was no doubt aided by the retiring persona I had adopted. I wore my baseball cap pulled low over my face, and I stared at the ground and hovered inconspicuously at the back waiting to be ticked off. Such was the chaos inside the school that I wondered if after all my efforts I could have just turned up in my adult clothes and sat the exam as I was without anyone noticing. One or two of the other children glanced at the spotty strange girl for a moment, but soon found their chins being yanked back to face their parents who were manically gabbling ‘… and-don’t-forget-to-have-a-drink-from-your-water-bottle-but-don’t-drink-too-much-because-you-don’t-want-to-have-to-waste-time-going-to-the-toilet-during-the-exam-blahdy-blahdy-blahdy-blahdy-blah-blah-blah …’ but by now the children seemed so cranked up with endless conflicting tips and advice that they were just nodding blankly as if they’d been plonked into the middle of a teeming Arab souk after five years in solitary confinement.

  Honestly, why can’t these parents just leave their children to it? Why can’t they let their kids put out their own pencil cases and choose their own desks and find their own way of doing things? I mused as I prepared to take the entire examination on behalf of my daughter. In the urgent competitive atmosphere engendered by so many desperate parents I felt strangely serene and prepared; I may have had only one spare pen, I may not have brought a cushion for my chair or a glucose energy drink but I felt that I did have one advantage over many of the other entrants to this exam: I was thirty-six rather than eleven. This factor, I thought, could well be decisive.

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