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May contain nuts, p.15

May Contain Nuts, page 15

 

May Contain Nuts
 


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  ‘Oh, there’s a little disposable biro tied to the downstairs phone – you can use that if you want.’

  ‘All right then,’ she said just sitting there.

  ‘Well, you’ll have to fetch it yourself, dear, I’m sorting the washing out …’

  When her three hours were up, we ostentatiously placed her completed sheets in an envelope before her very eyes, which was to be sent straight to the school to be marked along with all the other papers.

  ‘Well?’ she demanded.

  ‘What?’

  ‘Aren’t you going to ask me how I got on?’

  ‘Oh yeah … how was it?’

  ‘It was hard. There were loads of multiplying and dividing fractions. I’m rubbish at those.’

  ‘Oh, they’re quite easy once you get the hang of them,’ I informed her casually.

  I had noticed that Molly had left quite a few questions unanswered when I’d popped the exam paper into the envelope, which made it all the more impressive now Molly had managed to get a scholarship. She was genuinely delighted when we told her the news, not just by the prospect of going to the school that everyone thought was best, but also the realization that she had done well in a test, that she had excelled at something at last. I found it impossible to disagree with everyone’s verdict that my daughter really was a very clever girl.

  Telling Ffion about Molly’s scholarship never really happened in the way in which I had fantasized. ‘Did Bronwyn get the result of the entrance exam for Chelsea College?’ I casually enquired over Sunday lunch at Ffion’s house.

  ‘Oh yes, we got the letter days ago. She passed with distinction. We’re so delighted for her. I mean, distinction is about as high as you can get …’

  Without actually getting a scholarship, I thought, but I didn’t say it. Though it would be dishonest of me to keep Molly’s result from Ffion when she asked about my own daughter’s performance in a few moments’ time.

  ‘Yes, it’s very gratifying, though thoroughly merited, of course. Bronwyn worked very hard and I always thought she would get in but you can’t help worrying about it, can you?’

  ‘No, I was very worried about Molly …’ William cast me a mischievous smile; he could see exactly what was going on.

  ‘Yes, but she’s such a clever little girl …’

  ‘Hmmm, I suppose she is,’ I admitted modestly.

  ‘I don’t know whether she gets her intelligence from me or Philip; both of us, I suppose,’ continued Ffion, ‘but it’s good for Bronwyn to see that if she really works for something, she will actually get it.’

  ‘Yes, that’s what I told Molly,’ I said, waving a big placard saying, Conversation, this way … Diversion: please follow signs marked ‘Molly’ …

  ‘… But then Bronwyn’s always been advanced for her age, but that’s because Philip and I always felt her education was important. I mean, I remember the book saying that by the time they were two they should know their primary colours, but that seemed so unambitious to us, so we made up flash cards for all of the secondary colours as well, you know, turquoise, olive, indigo, yellow ochre, cerise, teal …’

  ‘Teal? That’s a sort of duck, isn’t it?’

  ‘Well, it’s a colour and a species of duck. But we didn’t confuse her by teaching her all her ducks till she was five.’

  Molly had been awarded a scholarship to the most sought-after school in London and Ffion had made me feel anxious that my daughter was eleven years old and still didn’t know her ducks.

  Lunch was a culinary triumph. Philip did three courses and then we sat back and relaxed as their Croatian au pair played Swingball with all the kids in the back garden. Four-year-old Gwilym got a ball in the face and angrily repeated the strongest swear word he’d ever heard: ‘INDICATE!’

  He ran to his father who was enjoying a relaxing smoke on the patio.

  ‘Is there no cream for the coffee, Philip?’ called his wife.

  ‘I’ll have a look,’ he said, stubbing out his cigarette on the bird table. There were so many fag ends on there it looked like the sparrows were on forty a day.

  ‘No, no, Philip, let me go,’ I said, leaping up from the dining table, ‘you’ve just cooked.’ And then as I went to the kitchen I wondered why Ffion couldn’t have got her own cream for the coffee. Somewhere along the way Ffion had hijacked the cause of feminism as a moral justification for simple laziness. Philip staggered through the front door every evening and then proceeded to cook dinner and wash up and tidy away the children’s toys, and then brought his wife a cup of tea and was still made to feel guilty that he had chosen to absent himself from the family home all day, selfishly doing things like earning all the money that paid for everything. He was so liberated he was a slave. Perhaps that’s why he couldn’t give up smoking, because it would mean being inside the same building as Ffion every evening.

  As Sarah and I carried a few dirty plates through to the kitchen, I told her that Ffion hadn’t even asked whether Molly had got in to Chelsea College or not. ‘Oh, that’s because she already knows Molly got a scholarship. I rang her as soon as you told me. I hope you don’t mind. I just thought it was such exciting news.’

  Incredible, I thought to myself. She had known but she just couldn’t bring herself to refer to it. She’s totally obsessed with her own children. I hope my kids don’t grow up to be like that. I was about to head back through to the kitchen, but then added, ‘Sarah, do you think when they arrive at Chelsea College they’ll be expected to know their ducks?’

  ‘Sorry?’

  ‘I was just a bit worried that Molly might go on a field trip or something and end up being teased for mixing up a teal with … with a um, you know, another sort of duck.’

  ‘Is there more than one sort of duck then?’ Sarah said brightly.

  In the back garden the game of Swingball seemed to have developed into some sort of knockout championship. I watched Ffion’s au pair deliberately missing shots to allow an easy victory for her employer’s daughter. So that’s why the last one was sent back to Poland. Kirsty had already been knocked out, not helped by Sarah wincing and saying, ‘Ooh, mind out, ooh, careful!’ every time the ball came in her daughter’s direction.

  ‘Bronwyn’s rather good, isn’t she?’ said Ffion, catching me watching them through the window. I don’t know why but I just didn’t reply. I gave her a forced half smile, and we rejoined the others round the dining-room table, where a surreal conversation had developed that I struggled to comprehend.

  ‘Value of car,’ said David.

  ‘Got that; I just put car,’ replied Philip through the open French windows.

  ‘Golf handicap,’ continued my husband.

  ‘Good, golf handicap,’ said Philip waving his smoke away, ‘or batting average or whatever.’

  ‘Value of home or homes.’

  ‘What on earth are you talking about?’ I interrupted.

  ‘It’s Philip’s big computer idea,’ explained Ffion. ‘He’s got it at last! You remember that league table I sent round of the children measuring their all-round achievement?’

  ‘Oh yes, I think I glanced at it …’

  ‘Well, everyone thought that it was such fun that Philip decided to develop it a little further and now he’s got a buyer for it as a commercial piece of software … Isn’t that fantastic?’

  ‘Only not just for kids, for adults too!’ added Philip. ‘David and I are just designing some example league tables for adult males to adapt.’

  ‘You’re letting in smoke again, darling …’

  ‘Adapt?’

  ‘That’s how it works. You judge yourself by what you think is important. Say Mike Tyson was chatting with Stephen Hawking – he wouldn’t immediately feel a failure because he didn’t understand how the universe worked, he’d be content in the knowledge that he’d probably beat Hawking in a fight.’

  ‘Probably. Over ten rounds …’ said William.

  ‘See, everyone measures his self-worth by the things t
hat he excels in. That way, everyone is near the top of their own personal league table.’

  ‘Except Prince Edward. Surely he must put himself somewhere near the bottom,’ William added.

  ‘Oh yeah, all right, except Prince Edward. But once you have set out the criteria by which you and your colleagues are measured, you can keep a running tally on your position. If you get promoted, or your work rival gets a new car or whatever, you enter the appropriate value on the computer and the table changes automatically.’

  ‘The software company are very excited about it,’ added Ffion.

  ‘What about “salary”?’ David continued. ‘Or is that just the same as job status?’

  ‘No, I think you could have a separate column for that …’ mused Philip. ‘Mind you, if this takes off like they think it might, we’ll be scoring 100 per cent in both columns.’

  ‘Penis size,’ suggested William, to laughter around the table.

  ‘It might be a tough one to measure. But I suppose it would liven up a dull board meeting.’

  ‘OK. What about “beauty of wife”?’ suggested David, rather provocatively smiling at me.

  There was a pause in which I saw Philip half glancing towards his spouse. ‘No, I don’t think that’s a particularly important one,’ he said, making no effort to prevent his exhaled smoke coming into the dining room. Ffion bristled very slightly, her wispy moustache just twitching in the afternoon sunlight.

  ‘Is it particularly good for one’s mental health to be so ultra-competitive all the time?’ I volunteered into the embarrassed silence.

  There was no time for anyone to give an answer. At that moment, Bronwyn burst into the room sobbing in anger while my son followed behind looking a little anxious. The Swingball championship had ended acrimoniously: Bronwyn had just lost the final.

  ‘Jamie was cheating,’ she wailed. ‘He was hitting it too hard.’

  ‘Really, Bronwyn!’ exclaimed Ffion. ‘Jamie’s two years younger than you … You’re going to have to learn to be a slightly better loser …’

  ‘But he was hitting it too hard on purpose.’

  ‘All right, but don’t cry just because you lost, Bronwyn. Now, why don’t you make the final best out of three? Go on, off you go. But Jamie, try not to hit the ball quite so hard,’ she added as an aside. Whether Bronwyn’s eventual victory in the Swingball championship was ever entered in a specially designed league table I never discovered.

  My chance to check out some of the other parents at Chelsea College came sooner than I expected. A letter came asking me to bring Molly to the school for an opportunity to meet the head teacher for a little one-to-one chat. This was wonderful, I thought. Such a charming letter, such a lovely thought – this was exactly the sort of extra pastoral attention that made Chelsea College worth every penny that other people were paying. The letter did, however, list the items we would be expected to provide ourselves: sports kit (summer and winter), hockey stick, indoor PE kit, apron (woodwork), apron (food technology), tennis racquet, fencing mask, lacrosse stick, small tiara … it just went on and on. When David added up the total he was thrown into a blind panic; he put the war project to one side and started ringing back prospective clients saying he did have time to take them on after all. So it was just Molly and I who walked up the grand steps to the school’s entrance feeling like we were going to Buckingham Palace to collect our knighthoods.

  Chelsea College looked different now that I wasn’t staring nervously at the polished floor. It felt grand and important, it flattered you with its imperial columns and panelled walls, it assured you that you’d gone up a notch on the social scale by getting your child in there. I found myself walking past other visiting parents and teachers with an exaggerated benevolent smirk. ‘Hello, yes, we’ll be starting here in September …’ said my munificent nodding grin, and passing teachers smiled hesitantly back wondering whether they were supposed to recognize us. I was directed towards the office where we were to have our individual chat with the head teacher. ‘It’s for my daughter, because she passed the entrance exam you see …’ I wonder if we’ll become friends with them, I thought as I passed other adults bustling down the corridors; I wonder which prep school that lady’s daughter goes to; I wonder if Sarah has an appointment today?

  But then I did recognize someone. Sitting in the open-plan waiting area outside the head’s office I suddenly spotted Ruby, the little girl whose exam paper I’d copied. She was perched awkwardly on the edge of one of the large low chairs as if she shouldn’t really be there, shiny plastic shoes locked firmly together on the floor. Beside her was an elderly woman, her grandmother I presumed, who sat clutching a defensive handbag in front of her while swivelling her head hawk-like, looking for someone to talk to. Ruby’s grandmother wore a coat with polished gold buttons and a big hat that made her look as if she was going on to a wedding. Seeing this little girl again unsettled me. My memory had succeeded in burying the particular details of how Molly had won her place here. In fact, recently I had felt a growing sense of pride in Molly’s academic achievement – the stunning exam result had gained her a certain amount of kudos at Spencer House. ‘Well done on getting the scholarship!’ her form teacher had said to me. She looked a little puzzled when I snapped, ‘It wasn’t me, it was Molly …’

  Ruby glanced briefly at me but gave no reaction and I told myself to stop worrying. We took our seats opposite them and the girls briefly eyed one another.

  ‘Excuse me, do you work here?’ said Ruby’s grandmother in an accent that I found hard to locate.

  ‘No, no. Prospective parent!’ I said, adding a long-suffering phoney laugh. I looked away. This was uncomfortable. I didn’t want to get into a conversation.

  ‘My granddaughter passed the entrance exam.’

  ‘Jolly good. Well done.’

  ‘Thank you,’ whispered Ruby and for a split second we had direct eye contact for the first time since she had given me her maths answers. I quickly looked back to her grandmother, smiled, and found something inconsequential to mumble to Molly. Though I would rather not have encountered the accomplice to remind me of my crime, the fact that Ruby had also got into this highly sought-after school made me feel somehow exonerated. No harm was done.

  A rather gangly and flustered teacher struggling to hold a pile of exercise books to his chest popped into the waiting area to check his pigeonhole.

  ‘Excuse me, sir, do you work here?’

  Although he clearly did, he appeared cornered by this question, as if committing himself to any sort of answer might be a mistake.

  ‘Er, yes, yes, I do.’

  ‘This is my granddaughter Ruby.’

  ‘Right, um, hello, Ruby. Are you waiting to see the head?’

  ‘Isn’t she lovely?’

  ‘Yes. You must be very proud.’

  ‘She’s very polite; always says please and thank you, isn’t it …’

  ‘Glad to hear it.’

  ‘So can she come to this school then?’

  He paused, unsure of how to respond to the old lady’s novel idea of an admissions system.

  ‘Um, well, you know the college has an entrance exam? She has to take that.’ The books still threatened to burst from the volatile pile pressed against his chest, and he bent his body awkwardly to try and keep hold of them all.

  ‘She passed the exam.’

  ‘Oh splendid. Well, look forward to seeing you in September then, Ruby. I’m Mr Worrall, deputy head.’

  ‘So she can come to the school?’

  ‘Yes, if she passed the entrance exam. You should have got a letter. I’m sure the head will be out in a minute.’

  ‘Can she have a scholarship please?’

  ‘I’m sorry?’

  ‘Please can she have a scholarship to pay for her to come to this school?’

  ‘Well, that depends on how well she did in the exam. Look, admissions isn’t really my department. Why don’t you wait until the head is finished and speak to her?’
/>
  ‘She’s very clever, you know.’

  ‘I bet she is.’

  ‘And she can play the recorder …’

  ‘Jolly good …’

  ‘So can she have a scholarship?’

  ‘Well, you see, that’s not how it works. You have to get an exceptional mark to get a scholarship, and you’d have been told if Ruby had done that well.’

  ‘She very good at her internet. She practises every night … Look at her, isn’t she lovely?’

  ‘Why don’t you have a word with the head when she’s finished …’

  ‘Can you just tell me please, Mr Worrall, is the scholarship related to how much money you have?’

  ‘Er, no … it’s just how gifted the child is.’

  ‘Ruby is gifted. She can send emails and everything, isn’t it? But her mother doesn’t have any money. She has three jobs, she’s working all the time, but it all goes on the children.’

  This conversation had now strayed into the uncomfortable territory of money, an area that Mr Worrall seemed not to want to accommodate into his imaginary universe of the happy high-achieving school where fees were an unspoken minor detail, a slightly embarrassing fact of life that one knew about but didn’t need to refer to, like going to the toilet or one’s parents having sex.

  ‘Um, well, I can’t really, um, as I say, I’m just one of the deputies and I teach English here. Have a seat and I’m sure the head will be happy to explain how it works as soon as she’s free …’

  ‘How much does it cost if she doesn’t have a scholarship?’

  ‘It’s in the prospectus there – oh, there’s normally some on the table …’

  All this time Ruby had been watching this teacher as if she was reading his face, her brow slightly furrowed as she struggled to comprehend his embarrassment. As Mr Worrall made his escape, Ruby’s grandmother turned her attention to me.

  ‘Excuse me, madam, do you know, how much does it cost to come to this school?’

  ‘Oh, well – at the moment it’s about three and a half thousand pounds a term.’

  ‘Oh my lord! That’s a lot of money.’

  ‘Yes, yes it is.’

  ‘We don’t have three and a half thousand pounds a term … oh my lord, so how much would that be till Ruby went on to Cambridge University?’

 
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