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May contain nuts, p.13

May Contain Nuts, page 13


May Contain Nuts

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  However, as a mother I had found it very hard to leave the house that morning, what with my daughter being so unwell. ‘Gosh, Molly, you look pale …’ we had both said to her the night before. ‘You’re white as a sheet; you look like you’re going down with something …’

  ‘I don’t feel ill,’ she had countered brightly.

  ‘Ah, you see, no, you wouldn’t do; not with this particular virus that’s going round,’ David added. ‘What incredible bad luck – and just before you’re supposed to be doing the test for Chelsea College …’

  ‘But I feel fine …’ she protested as I popped a thermometer in her mouth. David fetched her duvet down for her to lie on the sofa in front of the telly and gradually Molly seemed to be persuaded that this might be what was required. A few minutes later, frowning severely at the ‘normal’ reading that shimmered in the glass, I announced that her temperature was very high and she couldn’t possibly sit the exam the next day; we’d have to arrange for her to take it later at home.

  With David ensuring that the attention of all three children was diverted by the fail-safe hypnotist that is television, I proceeded to execute the now well-rehearsed transformation into Odd-kid. Locked in the bathroom, I applied the constellations of zits that even made me want to look away. I stuck on the baseball cap, pulling the peak down low. With the clothes came the whole persona. I found myself naturally hanging my head slightly as I stood in front of the mirror, picking nervously at my nails: timid, self-conscious and awkward. There had been a girl just like this when I was at school. Always on her own, alternately laughed at and despised. I spoke to her only once. When three girls had emptied her bag in a puddle, I helped her pick her things up. ‘Thank you,’ she had whispered without daring to make eye contact.

  ‘That’s all right,’ I had said. ‘They’re horrible.’

  And then I didn’t think about her for another twenty-five years. Until suddenly there I was, back at school, remembering her mannerisms and the way she stared at the ground, as I stood alone in the queue at Chelsea College awaiting my turn to whisper my name at the registration desk. Having no grown-up to push into the queue on my behalf meant that I was going to be one of the very last children to be ticked off the list. I could see only one other girl who was also unaccompanied. A neatly dressed young girl with tightly braided hair and a shy face, who stood behind me looking a little bewildered. It was only when I saw her that I realized I had not seen another black child in the whole hall. Apart from a Japanese child and one or two Asian kids, every child here was white and looked just like Molly and her friends. A whole hall full of children who would all have had their comfortable lives documented in tasteful black and white photos up the stairs of spacious Victorian townhouses like ours.

  I was wondering if any of Molly’s friends would be taking their entrance exam on this particular Saturday when I spotted Bronwyn, and then, striding out a few yards in front, her mother, completely bypassing the registration desk to claim the best spot for her daughter before anyone else had even thought about the next stage of the arrangements. The chair was tested and deemed to be unsuitable. While Bronwyn was instructed to place both hands on the table to prevent anyone else making any territorial claims (‘No, both hands, darling’), her mother tried out a couple of other seats, finally taking a seat from a desk a few rows back where a nervous-looking man was just settling his child. Bronwyn was clearly embarrassed by her mother’s chutzpah, particularly now that she noticed that the whole episode had been observed by that strange spotty girl with the thick glasses. For a split second she seemed to have the impression that she had seen me somewhere before, but once our eyes met she looked away and continued to scan the room in vain for the real Molly.

  I sensed that the black girl in the queue had somehow gravitated towards me; maybe something in her perceived that I too was an outsider, I was alone and different like her. It wasn’t just her skin that was different; her clothes were different from those of the other children around us. The shoes were the giveaway. They betrayed the guilty secret that she alone in this room did not come from a family that could afford to spend forty pounds on a pair of child’s shoes every six months. She was trying to catch my eye but I’d learnt my lesson about saying as little as possible and so I stared hard at the floor, hanging back, letting the last few harassed parents push past us in the rush to register their children. Finally it was my turn to be ticked off as I found myself looking at a rather shell-shocked teacher.

  ‘Hello, and your name is …?’ he sighed.

  ‘I’m …’

  I was frozen. I could say nothing. Standing right beside me was Ffion, waiting to register Bronwyn now that she had settled her daughter in the best possible spot. How could I say ‘Molly Chaplin’ with Ffion standing right there?

  ‘Sorry, your name please? I have to tick you off our list …’ said the teacher staring at me. I felt myself shaking. I bit my nails, trying to cover my face, praying that Ffion wouldn’t engage me in conversation.

  ‘I’m … um …’

  There was a period of silence, somewhere between two seconds and a decade.

  ‘You have to tell him your name …’ said the black girl. ‘What’s your name?’

  ‘Excuse me, my car’s on a double yellow,’ butted in Ffion. ‘Can I just register Bronwyn Russell who’s seated in the far left corner at the front there?’

  ‘Russell … Russell; Bronwyn, yes, got her, thank you, see you at one o’clock …’ said the teacher scanning his lists, and then Ffion was gone. I looked round to watch her sweep out of the double doors with one last glance towards her daughter and finally I blurted: ‘Chaplin. Molly Chaplin.’

  ‘All right, Molly, yes, there you are; find yourself a desk and just listen out for the instructions …’

  I managed a half smile at my fellow examinee and whispered, ‘Thank you, sorry,’ to her.

  ‘Don’t worry, it’s OK, you’re gonna do just fine …’ she whispered back.

  I heard her give her name, Ruby O-something, and then the pair of us were placed beside one another in the last two available desks at the back of the hall. Ruby O-something gave me a brave smile and I managed a shy smile back.

  Now the parents were gone and their abandoned children were left to cope all alone at these desks for the rest of the morning. The only adults left in the room were the invigilators. And me. One exasperated teacher was despatched outside to tell a lingering handful of mums and dads that they were not permitted to watch their children through the hall window, nor could they mime encouragement from the other side of the glass for the next three hours. ‘Yes, the children do get a break halfway through. Yes, they will be offered fruit juice. Yes, I mean, no; oh look, I don’t know if the bloody juice is pectin-free or not.’ I listened to the instructions as the test papers were placed face down on our desks. The duplicated sheet smelt of offices and jammed photocopiers. A life before children. I followed the instructions extremely carefully; as clearly and as neatly as possible I printed my name in the box at the top of the paper as I had been told. I looked at it with a little pride, paused, then hurriedly rubbed out the name ‘Alice’ and replaced it with ‘Molly’.

  The written comprehension was very straightforward. It was a piece of writing about Columbus sailing to America. Contained within the text were phrases like: ‘The largest of the ships was the Santa Maria, which often left the two other ships struggling to keep up’, and then I just had to answer questions like, ‘How many ships were there on the trip altogether?’ It was so simple it felt like there must be some kind of catch, as if I was missing something. But I just wrote a rather ungratifying ‘three’ and restrained myself from showing off that I also happened to know that the trip took place in 1492 although the Vikings had actually discovered America hundreds of years earlier. I finished in half the time allowed and checked and rechecked but could not see any mistakes.

  The non-verbal reasoning paper was less straightforward. You couldn’t be so sure tha
t you were definitely right with these perplexing rows of abstract shapes and lines and dots. But in the past few weeks, while every other pupil in this room had been busy at school, I had spent hours and hours practising these papers, learning the different ways in which they tried to trip you up, spotting sequences and odd ones out. I methodically worked my way through them all with the sort of patience and thoroughness that I would never have sustained when I was eleven years old. I felt confident and in control: here inside the worst possible exterior was the brain that would get the highest score in the whole room.

  During the break I stood alone sipping my squash from a paper cup and nibbling my one permitted biscuit. If I’d had my phone I would have rung home to give David an update on how it was going, but we were under strict instructions not to bring mobiles into the exam hall. There had been an incident a year or two earlier in which a boy had been caught exchanging text messages with his mother about one or two of the trickier maths questions. The giveaway was when the child dutifully reported that the square root of 81 was ‘9 – CU L8R’.

  Bronwyn was standing just a few yards away, still scanning the crowds for a glimpse of Molly. Then she began to wave enthusiastically in my direction – I even began to raise my hand to wave back but realized my mistake and scratched the back of my head with it instead. She was waving at Kirsty, who came bounding right past me to talk to who I maintained was still only her second-best friend. I edged closer to eavesdrop on their excited chatter. What had they made of the exam so far? Would they wonder why Molly wasn’t here? Were they aware of the life-changing importance of this test?

  ‘Did you get a biscuit?’ said Kirsty.

  ‘Yeah, but like, you’re only allowed one?’ said Bronwyn.

  ‘I know, but I like managed to get one of the ones with like the sugar on top?’

  ‘Oh not fair, those are like my favourites.’

  And to think if I had never gone to all the trouble of adopting this disguise, I would never had been privy to this secret conversation.

  I had watched these two girls growing up ever since Bronwyn had been the first child to walk in our mothers and toddlers group, and today they were on the threshold of going off to big school. Of course, I wanted them to get into this exclusive college as well, but not if it was at the expense of a place for Molly. In fact, deep down I knew the main reason I wanted them to get places was so that Molly would move on to the next stage with her best friends; if Molly had failed, I would have wanted her friends to fail as well. If I’d ever displayed such a level of personal selfishness I’d have felt ashamed of myself. Strange that such egotism on behalf of one’s offspring is seen as acceptable. All is fair in love, war and secondary transfer.

  The chatter in the hall slowly faded as we were summoned back to our seats for the final paper. Maths. No problem, I told myself; you have practised this, you do not have an irrational fear of maths. In any case, I had been to the toilet in the break and I’d be very surprised if they asked me to convert numbers into binary while standing on top of the desk.

  ‘You have forty-five minutes. You may turn your sheets over … now!’ On reflection, it was incredible that I never got any sort of apology from my maths teacher for that humiliation when I was thirteen. My eyes scanned the questions and I felt my heart fluttering at the prospect of this final hurdle. I still felt angry about it; would I have passed my maths O level if Miss Torrance had allowed me to go to the toilet when I’d asked?

  The first question looked fairly straightforward: ‘Which value does the 9 in 14,971 represent? Circle the correct answer: a) 9 b) 90 c) 900 d) 9000 or e) 12.’ I circled answer ‘c’, double-checked it and moved on. Next came a bar chart representing the popularity of boys’ names: 125 were called James, 50 were called Bill (unlikely, but never mind) and 25 were called Kevin (poor things). How many more Jameses were there than Bills? I wrote 75 in the box provided and then felt a momentary pang of guilt that we had given Jamie such a stunningly unoriginal name. That was David’s fault. In the ‘it’s-my-turn-to-name-the-child’ argument, he’d even gone as far as to say that the biggest favour we could do our new son was to give him the most popular boy’s name in London that year. He backed down when this turned out to be ‘Mohammed’.

  I looked at the clock and I realized that my thoughts had allowed ten wasted minutes to slip by. I wondered if old Terrible Torrance was still alive. And then I had another flashback to the sensation of humiliating defeat I had felt in her lesson, physical and mental surrender, my only thought at that moment the desire to die. I tried to concentrate again. The third question was multiplying fractions, my old bête noire, the one topic that my husband-tutor had retaught me so many times that I’d had to overcome a mental block about it. But I’d mastered it. You multiplied both the top figure and the bottom figure, so ¼ x ¼ = . Definitely. But then my confidence wobbled. So what was the next question: a quarter divided by a quarter? Surely that must be one sixteenth? The alternative would be to multiply a quarter by four, giving me one, but there was no way that dividing something could make it bigger, so where was I going wrong? I stared hard at the figures for a while – I was now looking at them without seeing them. I shook my head out of my numb trance and attempted a slow step-by-step conversation with myself.

  ‘So you’ve got one quarter, right?’ I stated patiently and clearly.

  ‘A quarter; one over four, yup!’ I replied confidently.

  ‘Yeah. And you divide that by a quarter?’

  ‘Divide, right …’

  ‘So, what have you got?’


  ‘Are you listening to me?’


  ‘No you weren’t, you were looking over there.’

  ‘I was listening, honestly. Er, what was the question again?’

  My chances of scoring a perfect 100 per cent seemed to be evaporating, and I decided I had better leave this one tricky sum and come back to it at the end. I turned over the sheet. There staring up at me was a whole page of dividing and multiplying fractions. I felt flushed with panic and tried to put all thoughts of binary numbers and standing on a school desk out of my head. I glanced round expecting to see all the other examinees sharing my sense of outrage and injustice at this insidious trap, but everyone else seemed to be methodically working through the paper. Admission to Chelsea College demanded that I excelled in all three papers, and so now this one gap in my numeracy skills seemed like it would be enough to make the difference. That was one bit of maths I certainly could do. ‘If you have three girls, and one gets 98 per cent and one gets 45 per cent and the other one’s already got a place because her bloody mother’s got a job at the school, which child’s life is ruined because her brain-dead mother can’t get her head round dividing and multiplying stupid sodding fractions?’

  Come on, Alice! Come on, I told myself. Think about it. A quarter divided by a quarter? A sixteenth. It must be. So what was a quarter multiplied by a quarter? One? No, how could it be … I looked at the next sum, and the one after that, and the one after that and I felt cheated and stupid, it wasn’t fair, I’d come all this way and now I was going to fail, I was a bad mother, I had let my children down because I couldn’t multiply and divide fractions because of bloody Miss Torrance, and then the next sum was blurred by a tear landing right on top of it. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fair. The tears were falling freely now, but I didn’t care, and so what if my earlier correct answers were being smudged into indistinguishable inky blobs, it didn’t matter now.

  ‘Shhh!’ said the invigilator, and I jumped slightly as I saw him striding towards me. I hadn’t realized I was crying out loud. Now he was crouching right beside me and I stared hard at the ground between my feet.

  ‘Try to be quiet, you’re disturbing the other students …’ he whispered, slightly more sympathetically. He passed me a folded tissue from a little polythene packet, and I dabbed my eyes with extreme care in case I knocked one of the spots off and made him think I had lep
rosy. Actually he was rather gorgeous, but I was a married woman and also a hideous eleven-year-old schoolgirl; frankly, it was never going to happen.

  ‘Just answer the questions you can and leave the rest, there’s nothing to worry about.’ Oh no, nothing to worry about, he says. Nothing to worry about at all … no, things couldn’t be better! I nodded but I tried not to look at him, keeping my head in my hands, continuing to stare at the desk in front of me.

  ‘Do you want us to talk to your parents?’ he whispered.

  Talk to my parents? I thought. What, we’re going to have a seance now as well, are we? I shook my head.

  ‘If we let you out of the examination hall we can’t let you back in, do you understand?’

  I nodded. I just wanted him to go away now. I could sense the other children nearby looking round at me, staring at this strange girl who had cried like a big baby under a bit of pressure.

  ‘So you’re all right to carry on?’

  ‘Yes. Sorry,’ I whispered almost inaudibly, desperate that he stop making me the centre of attention.

  I was alone again and I tried once more to make any sense of the page of sums before me. It was useless. I stared across at the Ruby girl, confidently dashing through her sheet. She saw me look at her, gave me a brave smile and I looked away. Then I waited a minute or two, and keeping my head facing directly forwards I directed my eyes slowly to my left just to see if it was possible to make out the figures on Ruby’s sheet of paper.

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