May contain nuts, p.14
May Contain Nuts, page 14
The invigilators strode up and down with ponderous heavy steps while occasional coughs and sneezes echoed around the hall. I took my glasses off and rubbed my temples as if I had a headache. Her answers were clearly visible. Question 5: answer ¾. Question 6: answer ½ – for every mathematical door that I’d found impossible to unlock, here was a set of duplicate keys. She looked up at me, and a split second too late my eyes moved to stare at the space above her head, as if I was concentrating really hard and sought inspiration from something in the near distance beyond where she sat. She went back to her work and then immediately looked back at me, catching me craning my neck to get a better view. Oh I was tired! How tired I was: look, look at me stretching and yawning! No, no, I hadn’t been craning my neck to look at someone else’s work, certainly not; she had merely caught the beginning of a particularly demonstrative yawn. I pointedly rubbed my shoulder muscles and head and lowered my arms again as my big stretch petered out. Damn, I must’ve really blown it now, I thought – caught red-handed trying to cheat by the only girl whose paper I could see to copy. Now she would block my view to prevent me from stealing her answers, now I’d never get the chance to see those solutions she was confidently and methodically working out. Or perhaps I was giving her too much credit. Because when I attempted one last desperate look over at her desk she wasn’t attempting to shield her exam sheet with her arm at all. In fact, her paper actually happened to shift slightly, which gave me a better view. What incredibly good fortune, I thought to myself. Then as I began hurriedly copying down her answers, she pushed the sheet closer towards me, right to the edge of the desk at an implausible 90-degree angle to herself. Without making eye contact with me, she was subtly but deliberately allowing me to copy all her answers.
Oh Ruby, I love you! Thank you, thank you, thank you! When she could tell that I had finished copying one sheet, she turned over the page of her booklet so that I could see all the answers to the next section, and I quickly scribbled down the solutions to a couple of questions I hadn’t even attempted yet. She was canny enough not to look directly at me during any of this, coolly staring ahead waiting until she could sense that I had got everything I needed. At one point she skilfully swivelled the sheet back to face herself without changing the angle of her head one iota and I realized that the invigilator was approaching. I stared into the middle distance, appeared to find the answer I was searching for there and so suddenly wrote it down on my page. Then he span on his heels, like an oblivious guard in a prisoner-of-war camp, and began his long slow patrol back down to the other end of the hall. By the time he had reached the end I had answers for every empty box on my sheet.
‘Could you put your pencils down now, please!’
I had done so several minutes earlier – there had been nothing else left to check. After our sheets were collected up we were allowed to leave the hall one row at a time, with my row leaving first. As I brushed past Ruby’s desk I mouthed ‘thank you’ and she gave me a half smile, and that was it.
Heaving themselves to their feet, the children all looked so drained and tired. Their faces were pale and there were bags under their eyes. Many would have more tests still to do, other entrance exams for other schools, more evenings spent with private tutors after hours of homework and cello practice and writing up their reading log before they collapsed exhausted into their beds. I wasn’t the only adult-child there when I thought about it. These children had already reached adulthood in a way, putting on their ties, commuting across London every morning through the traffic to their desks, slogging through their forty-hour weeks, full-time workers by the time they were ten. It was the modern, white-collar equivalent of putting children up chimneys.
This was the last of the three weekends of tests for Chelsea College and there was a perceptible sense of relief among the teachers there. The registration desk was now abandoned and in the melee of chatting children and concerned inquisitive parents, I helped myself to a spare copy of the test papers I had just sat. If we were going to get Molly to pretend to sit an entrance exam for Chelsea College at home, she might as well do the real thing.
With David having three children to look after, we’d decided it would be perfectly believable if this particular odd child were expected to make her own way home. However, I felt it was important that I should remain in character right up until I walked through my front door, so I opted to take public transport rather than simply hail a taxi. I went and stood at the bus stop for twelve minutes. And then I hailed a taxi.
‘Well, how did you get on?’ said David as I crept through the front door, having checked the coast was clear.
‘What’s a quarter divided by a quarter?’
‘Well – one. Obviously.’
‘Oh, thank God, that’s what she put.’
‘Er, the little girl … I was pretending to be. That’s what she put. A quarter divided by a quarter is one.’
‘So how did you do?’
‘Pretty well, I think, pretty well …’ I said modestly. ‘The fractions were the only thing I was briefly unsure about and there were loads of them, but I got them all right in the end … So a flawless performance all round, I would say.’
‘Right – and no one suspected you were cheating?’
‘Cheating?’ I said indignantly.
‘Hello? You’re thirty-six years old?’
‘Oh that. No. No, I think I passed both tests with flying colours.’
‘Dad? Is that Mum?’ came a voice through from the lounge.
‘Shh! Get back to watching television,’ admonished their father and I slipped upstairs to the shower.
I peeled off my spots and scoured my face and watched my brief second childhood wash down the plughole. I knew I’d done something pretty extreme, but that was it – I resolved that from now on my children would have to do things for themselves. I was not going to proceed to the next stage and live out the whole of Molly’s secondary school career on her behalf. It might get a bit weird when I started being asked on dates by fourteen-year-old boys after netball practice.
I looked at myself in the mirror as I dressed. I felt strangely deflated now this project was all over. I was still anxious about the school place for Molly, but for myself I felt a sense of loss. A new-found sense of purpose had been abruptly taken away from me. I wondered aimlessly into the children’s rooms and just stood there looking at all their possessions. So many toys and books and games and things to occupy themselves with and barely time to play with any of them. On top of Jamie’s wardrobe was a football on a thick piece of elastic. Our London garden wasn’t big enough for a normal game of soccer, so I had bought my son a special ball that could never stray further than a few yards from where it was firmly staked into the ground. Even the football was kept on a lead.
I went downstairs to find that David had turned the television off and had Molly seated at the kitchen table to finish off her school homework.
‘But I’m ill …’ she was protesting.
‘No, you’re better now,’ he announced. ‘And you haven’t practised your violin today and, Jamie, you’ve got to do some work on your project …’
Their faces fell, resigned to the grim fact that the work didn’t stop at the weekends.
‘Oh well, no hurry,’ I said, to my husband’s obvious annoyance. ‘Here, David – I bet I can get a higher score than you on the dance mat!’
‘The dance mat? What are you talking about?’
Although it was one of our children’s favourite toys, neither of us had ever had a turn on the PlayStation dance mat ourselves. But suddenly I thought the kids might think it enormous fun to see their parents try it out.
‘Yeah, Mum and Dad on the dance mat!’ clapped Alfie delightedly.
‘You know if we leave her violin practice to the end of the day she gets grumpy about doing it,’ he whispered.
‘Oh, what’s one day missed! Come on, it’ll be fun …’
‘Alice …’ he whis
It was a whole ten days before we received any form of communication from Chelsea College. I had tried to restrain myself from calling the school too often. Indeed, on the fifth day I didn’t ring them once after David said I should add their number to our list of BT friends and family. The information vacuum was quickly filled with all sorts of nonsense in my head. Maybe they knew what I was up to all along and it was taking this long for them to prepare criminal proceedings? What if Ffion broke into the office at night and stole Molly’s entrance paper? Maybe the biology department has a tank of African termites that have escaped and eaten their way through Molly’s paper before it was marked?
David sensed that I was worried when I came back from the shops. ‘Oh what did you get in Ryman’s?’
‘Oh nothing, just bits and bobs …’
‘It’s a whole roll of bubble wrap.’
‘What, you’re buying it specially now, are you?’
‘I just thought we might have to send some valuables through the post.’
‘Yeah, right. I think I may sleep in the spare room tonight …’
Finally after a week and a half I came home to see a significant-looking envelope sticking out from under the usual half a hundredweight of clothing catalogues, pizza leaflets and free local papers full of muggings and murder. The envelope was neither heavy nor embossed, as you might hope when you were paying several hundred pounds just to take the exam, but the historic crest of Chelsea College (est. 2001) had been respectfully printed with as much upper-class polish as their franking machine could muster. My heart went up a gear, my mouth felt cold. Right, this is it. It was addressed to both David and me. Hmm, is that a good sign? But then even before the envelope was opened I could see the first few words printed underneath the address. ‘Dear Mr and Mrs Chaplin, I am pleased to inform you …’
That was it, that was all I needed to know. Molly was into the school we had set our hearts on, she had made it, she was safe, there would never be anything as important to worry about ever again; a huge valve of stress was suddenly released and I disintegrated into tears. ‘Drug dealer found murdered in council flat’ said the headline on the local free sheet lying on the mat. Yes, but not anywhere between here and Chelsea College, I thought.
‘Oh my God, that’s fantastic!’ said David, actually taking the trouble to read the letter. ‘A scholarship! Look, you got a scholarship!’
‘Look, here … “exceptional examination performance”, blah, blah, blah, “the governors invite you” … blah blah – they’re going to pay all our fees in full!’
‘A scholarship? What you mean, we don’t have to pay for her education? A scholarship!’ I kept repeating. ‘God, that just never even occurred to me …’
‘Didn’t it really?’ said David incredulously. ‘I’d been secretly hoping for this right since the outset. I didn’t want to mention it and put you under any more pressure, but you did it! You got a scholarship; Molly’s got a place and we don’t have to pay …’
I strode into the living room and began to busy myself, plumping up the cushions with slightly too much force, picking up empty video boxes, returning stray bits of Lego to their rightful place under the sofa.
‘What are you looking like that for? Aren’t you pleased?’
‘Of course.’ I shrugged. ‘Just rather taken aback, that’s all. I hadn’t reckoned on, well, committing fraud …’
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David persuaded me that Molly had as much right to a scholarship as anyone else. We had less money than Ffion and Philip or Sarah and William, so why shouldn’t it be our daughter who got help with her schooling? After all, she was very bright. ‘Well, that’s true,’ I conceded, ‘she just doesn’t do well in exams.’
‘Exactly, so she’s precisely the sort of pupil who should be given a chance …’
I had been sitting in the office, going through my dormant in-tray, sorting out that pile of charity letters that had worked their way down to the bottom of my pile of outstanding correspondence. They always seemed to be the last bit of admin to receive my attention, with the possible exception of the postcard I was supposed to send off to activate the guarantee for the yoghurt maker. But tonight I felt the vague need to do something for someone else.
‘Do you think we should send some money off for that Mexican earthquake appeal?’
‘What’s suddenly brought this on? The disaster was weeks ago – they must have dug everyone out by now.’
‘They probably still need money … Or there’s these … we ought to send something to both, it’s just so hard to choose. What do you think: Rainforest or Donkey Sanctuary?’
‘Um, I dunno, send a few quid for the rainforest but ask if they could set a bit aside for the retired donkeys.’
I had an erratic relationship with various charities. I posted them occasional guilty ransom payments and they sent me cheap biros and small change sellotaped to letters. The 5p coins made it much harder to just throw the letter away. You had to fiddle around taking the coins off and then throw the letter away. But it was rare that an appeal went straight into the bin without a decent interval during which I at least intended to send off a cheque.
I went to squash the pile of charity letters down in the wastepaper bin, but then decided that I might not feel quite so guilty if I at least recycled all the paper.
‘Of course, Chelsea College is a registered charity,’ David pointed out, ‘and we’ll be supporting that by sending our daughter there.’
‘Though not actually giving them any money, as it turns out …’
‘No, well, anyway, it’s not a proper charity. That’s just a scam that the government go along with to help keep school fees down …’
It was good to have the principled lodestar that was my husband to guide me through these complex ethical issues.
For me, the most uncomfortable moral predicament had involved deceiving Molly. As parents you lie to your children all the time. I had told Alfie he was really, really clever to sit on his potty, when really it’s not that clever, it’s pretty basic when you think about it. I had left a pound under Jamie’s pillow and told him it was from the tooth fairy (though by the time he grew up the government would probably decide that coins from the tooth fairy were only a loan and had to be paid back out of his taxes). But even though it was in Molly’s long-term interest, this little white lie felt different; it just didn’t feel that white. Not even a calming pastel off-white like Ice Storm or Jasmine Dawn, not even Apple White or Magnolia; in the soothing colour scheme of all our little white lies, this one clashed terribly.
We had sat her down to do the test the day after I had sailed through it on her behalf. ‘Do they let you just do it at home then?
‘Only in exceptional circumstances, darling, like if you’ve been ill or whatever.’
‘But it would be so easy to cheat. I mean, your parents could help you with some of the answers …’
David and I looked at one another with shock at such a suggestion.
‘I suppose it would be possible, yes. But what sort of parent would do a thing like that?’
‘Ffion,’ she had whispered to herself, and then glanced at us as if this had been a slightly naughty thing to say.
‘Yes, well, the school are making a very special exception for you,’ explained David, ‘but they don’t want people making accusations or having suspicions, so one thing they did ask is that you don’t mention this to any of your friends or their mums or dads or whatever.’
‘OK,’ she chirped.
‘No, I mean seriously!’ I said perhaps too emphatically. ‘You must never tell anyone about this, not your friends or teachers or anything, that’s really important.’
‘OK, OK, you said …’ she pleaded, as David cast a worried look in my direction.
‘Sorry, darling, but parents can start acting very strangely when it comes to getting their child into a certain school.’
She didn’t feel the need to question that statement. This was despite the fact that the pressure on Molly had eased up considerably since I’d ceased to worry about her school tests. While her ashen-faced school friends were becoming irritable or waking in the night, and in one case developing a pronounced nervous twitch, Molly had become almost carefree. I didn’t have to tell her to stop biting her toenails any more. It made meal times slightly more civilized.
Now, finally confronted with the challenge itself, Molly did her best to make this examination a big deal, but neither of her parents seemed particularly willing to play along any more.
‘Oh no! My favourite pen isn’t working!’ she declared dramatically, expecting us to rush to her in total panic.
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes