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May contain nuts, p.16

May Contain Nuts, page 16


May Contain Nuts

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  ‘Well, if she was here for seven years, um, that would be three times three and a half thousand times seven, which is, um …’

  ‘Seventy-three and a half thousand …’ said Ruby quietly.

  ‘You see how clever she is? Just like that! Can these other children who got the scholarship do sums in their head like that? I’d like to see them try.’

  I could feel Molly’s eyes boring into me. Don’t you dare suggest it, said the silent laser glare.

  ‘How much did you say, Ruby?’

  ‘Seventy-three thousand and five hundred pounds.’

  ‘There’s no way I could ever find that sort of money.’

  ‘No, it’s madness, isn’t it? It’s like they expect us to sell the house or something just to pay the school fees …’

  ‘We don’t own a house.’

  I felt my face flush with the warm glow of embarrassment and Molly finally whispered her first words since we had sat down.

  ‘Mum. Shut up!’

  ‘No, well, that would make it even harder, I suppose …’

  ‘Seventy thousand pounds to spend on each child! I’ve never met anybody with that much spare money in my whole life.’ And then she gave a little laugh and added, ‘Apart from you, I suppose!’

  I hadn’t wanted to say it, but now the alternative seemed worse.

  ‘No, well, actually we don’t have that sort of money either. Molly here got a scholarship.’

  ‘Mum. Shut up.’

  ‘She did? Oh my lord, you must be a very clever girl!’

  Molly managed a half smile and then asked me how much longer we would have to wait. Almost on cue, the headmistress came out of her office and Ruby’s grandmother stood up and said, ‘Hello, we have an appointment. I am Mrs Osafo and this is my granddaughter Ruby …’

  ‘Hello, Ruby,’ said the headmistress. The head was younger than I had expected; in contrast to her surroundings, she had a modern, friendly air about her.

  Mrs Osafo gestured to her granddaughter to stand up and held her arm out to direct the head teacher’s gaze. ‘Isn’t she lovely?’

  ‘Er, yes. She must make you very proud.’

  ‘She’s very polite. And she can play the recorder. I have it in my bag, would you like to hear her?’

  ‘Another time,’ she said, ushering them into her office and casting me a brief smile as she closed the door.

  Five minutes later the door opened again and I heard a fairly competent recorder player racing through the concluding notes of the theme tune to EastEnders.

  ‘Very nice, Ruby, and thank you for coming in. And best of luck elsewhere …’

  The old lady looked dignified but couldn’t hide her disappointment. She addressed me directly: ‘You have to try, isn’t it?’ then headed past me with Ruby scurrying along behind staring at the ground.

  The inside of the head’s office was a shrine to Achievement. There were silver trophies on the shelf, plaques on the desk, framed newspaper clippings of children holding up science projects, all underlined by several long school photos showing hundreds of healthy smiling children, all with that uniquely rosy complexion that comes from generations of good diet and skiing holidays.

  ‘Well!’ said the head teacher as she closed the door behind her. ‘I’ve never had anyone ask for a place on the basis of a private recorder recital before!’

  ‘It must be very difficult. I expect you wish you could give a scholarship to everyone.’

  ‘Actually that girl came very close, one hundred per cent in maths, just let down by a couple of mistakes on her English paper … It’s a great shame. We would have loved to have her here.’

  I paused uncertainly, not wanting to presume to take a seat until offered. The last time I had been in a head teacher’s office was for writing ‘Duran Duran’ on my arm in biro.

  ‘Anyway, I’m Miss Reynolds, and you must be … Molly Chaplin! Ah yes, one of our new scholars! Well done on your splendid exam result!’

  ‘Thank you,’ said Molly.

  ‘Were you surprised you did so well?’

  ‘Well, I was, what with being ill and having to do it at home and everything—’

  ‘No, darling, that was the mock exam I set you, you’re getting confused!’ I said, correcting her more sharply than might have been appropriate. ‘No, we weren’t too surprised because Molly’s always been a very bright girl and, as I say, always been a very bright girl, so we weren’t surprised at all, we did a few dummy runs at home, the mock exams at home, as it were, and she scored very well in all of those and jolly good, jolly pleased to be here, jolly good!’

  Molly stared at me and I attempted the tiniest imperceptible shake of the head at her, hoping the intensity of my glare might warn her off saying anything more.

  ‘A straight one hundred per cent in all three papers. We don’t get many of those. I hope you are not going to let your standards slip from there, Molly?’

  I looked expectantly at my daughter, willing her to perform as she managed a nervy shake of the head. After that I think the rest of the interview went very well.

  ‘Do you have any hobbies, Molly?’

  ‘Oh yes, she has lots of hobbies, don’t you, darling, she plays the violin, and she likes drawing and swimming and she goes to ballet and she loves to read; Molly and her friends even have their own book group.’

  ‘Have you travelled much, Molly?’

  ‘Oh yes, she’s been all over the world, haven’t you, darling? France, Italy, America, Kenya, um, Center Parcs …’

  I had desperately wanted to like Miss Reynolds and I was not disappointed. Her warmth and interest in my daughter filled me with excitement and optimism; she was more liberal, friendly and unstuffy than I had dared to hope. At the interview for Spencer House, the head always wandered back to the car park with potential parents to see what sort of car they drove. Here there was no sense that we were being judged or pigeonholed – it was the child that interested her, she said, not the bank balance or social standing of her family. Miss Reynolds would never send a snotty letter home asking that mothers refrain from picking up their children wearing jeans. Not that I had taken any notice of that letter from Spencer House. Those jeans were a bit unflattering anyway.

  It was raining when we got outside, so we postponed our planned walk round the site. As Molly skipped over the puddles in the car park, I asked her how she felt about going to her new school.

  ‘Mmm,’ she said nodding, doing her best to provide the answer I was hoping for. But as she waited for me to unlock the car I could sense there was something troubling her.

  ‘Mum, you know I got this scholarship? Well, how can I have got one hundred per cent in all three papers if I didn’t answer every single question?’

  I struggled to find the right key.

  ‘Oh, I think they probably must allow for leaving one or two questions unanswered, don’t you? Or maybe they rounded it up, yes, that’ll be it I should think, they rounded it up,’ I stammered, finally realizing that the house key was never going to unlock the car. ‘Though, as I said, it’s important that you don’t talk about the exam any more. We don’t want some jealous person trying to question your result, do we?’ At that moment I managed to set the car alarm off. The siren wailed and the lights flashed and I suddenly felt panicky and stupid.

  The rain turned into a downpour as we climbed into the sanctuary of the 4x4. I switched the hot air up to maximum and the windscreen wipers began their eternal rhythmic game of tag: ‘Got you, got you back; got you, got you back.’ I steered my urban tractor out of the school and turned down the road. The rain was so heavy that the street lights had blinked awake, confused at the sudden darkness in the middle of the day. In the distance I could see two figures standing by the side of the road, sharing a damaged foldaway umbrella. As I got closer I could see through my half-misted windows that it was Ruby and her grandmother, still waiting for a bus. They must have been there twenty minutes. I steered the car out away from the kerb as I passed
them, not wanting to send any spray too close, but my eyes stayed firmly locked ahead. I didn’t see if they looked directly at me or not. I turned the wipers up to double speed. Then I glanced in my rear-view mirror: the two figures standing in the rain began to shrink into the blurred distance. I wondered where that little girl would end up going to school, what she would do with the rest of her life, where the bus would take her now. And then I stopped the car.

  ‘Mum, what are you doing?’

  I slowly reversed the 4x4 back up the road, pulled up beside them, lowered the electric window and said, ‘Hello there. Er, I’m sort of going in the same direction as the bus route. Can I offer you a lift?’

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  — 8 —

  It turned out that Ruby and her grandmother lived about five hundred yards away from the end of our road.

  ‘Oh, we live in Clapham as well, don’t we, Molly,’ I’d said brightly, when she told me where they were headed.

  ‘Really! Well, you know the Wilberforce Estate?’

  ‘Yes …’ I lied. I had vaguely heard of the Wilberforce Estate, but I’d never have been able to place it. Those roads didn’t feature in my mental A–Z; there were just a few invented hills with the legend ‘Here be monsters’.

  ‘We live in Gisbourne House.’

  ‘Oh right. Lovely.’ And then not knowing what else to say I heard myself ask, ‘Do you have a nice view from up there?’

  A little voice in my head was saying, ‘Alice – shut up!’ but this was drowned out by the louder voice of my daughter saying, ‘Mum – shut up!’

  ‘No, our block is only three storeys high. We look out onto Thornton House.’

  ‘Oh yes …’ I said, as if that had helped me place it.

  ‘What about you? Where do you live?’

  ‘We live in Oaken Avenue?’

  ‘Oh, that’s a very nice road. So she can hop on a 137 and that’ll take her all the way to Chelsea College!’

  ‘Mmm, although the school lay on a special bus, don’t they? It picks them up from the Old Town.’

  ‘Yes, I read about that in the prospectus!’ Ruby’s grandmother hooted with laughter. ‘Why would anyone pay seven hundred pounds a year for a private bus when the 137 goes from door to door for only 40p?’

  ‘Well, quite!’ I laughed, tutting at the madness of some people. Because it felt safer … I thought. Because we are frightened of the idea of letting our precious children travel alone on the white-knuckle ride of a public transport bus. Of course, even using the private bus is still a worrying prospect – one mother I knew let her son travel on it, but then manically cycled alongside every day to make sure he got there safely.

  ‘I expect Molly will just get the 137 …’ I mumbled.

  There was a minute’s silence in memory of my honesty as we waited for the lights to change at Chelsea Bridge.

  ‘You have a very nice car.’

  ‘Thank you. Do you, um, have a car?’


  ‘Good for you. I mean, well, they’re very bad for the environment, aren’t they?’

  ‘Ruby’s mother used to have a Metro but it died.’

  ‘Oh, I’m so sorry …’

  I was shocked by how self-conscious I felt, by my nervousness at making small talk with an elderly black lady. Despite the fact that I lived in south London I didn’t know any black people at all. Obviously there are occasions when one finds oneself in conversation with smartly dressed elderly black women, but since Ruby’s grandmother was not offering me a copy of Watchtower I didn’t know quite how to react to her.

  ‘So, er, did you grow up in south London?’ I finally enquired, having decided that this sounded better than: ‘So where are you from?’

  ‘No, I’m from Accra.’

  ‘Right …’ I nodded. I’d heard the name but couldn’t place it. ‘My husband and I went to St Lucia for our honeymoon.’

  ‘Oh really? Accra is the capital of Ghana. In West Africa.’

  ‘Yes, of course, but you just reminded me of St Lucia because, well, it was quite sunny there. Um, like Africa is …’

  My face changed to red, the lights changed to amber. I switched on the cassette player, hoping some pop music might puncture the embarrassing silence.

  ‘Only through sharmatha can you enter into the truth of Zen …’ said an eastern-sounding man as wind chimes tinkled mysteriously in the background.

  ‘Oh not that one, let’s see what other tapes we have here … Avril Lavigne, Dido … Ah, perfect, Motown’s Greatest Hits. … Oooh baby love! My baby love …’

  ‘Mum, why are you singing along? Just shut up!’ said Molly.

  ‘Ooh miss kissing you …’ I crooned. ‘We love Motown, don’t we, Molly? And soul music. I’ve got some James Brown somewhere … I like all black music, actually: Motown, soul, reggae … Except rap, I don’t like rap, but not because it’s black because I don’t like Eminem either and he’s white, isn’t he?’

  ‘Mum, which bit of shut up don’t you understand?’

  In the rear-view mirror I saw Ruby’s face register shock at my daughter’s rudeness and for a moment I was embarrassed by Molly’s privately purchased overconfidence.

  As we approached Clapham I wished I hadn’t casually claimed to be familiar with their estate. ‘So what’s the best route to your block exactly?’

  ‘If you just take the main entrance into the estate, it’s on the left,’ she said unhelpfully.

  ‘Right, OK … so just remind me, which road is the Wilberforce Estate off again?’

  ‘Wilberforce Road.’

  ‘Of course, Wilberforce Road … which is … up here on the left, isn’t it?’

  ‘Third right.’

  ‘Third right. That’s it, yes.’

  The council estate might as well have been on another planet. Except I imagined if Captain Kirk beamed down into this estate, the moment he flipped open his communicator he’d probably be mugged for it by some fifteen-year-old hoodie. ‘Wicked mobile! You can text, send pictures and be transported through antimatter.’ We pulled up outside their block, a utilitarian postwar build combining concrete and Lego, where the architects had decided the first thing you would want to see were a couple of huge steel sani-bins. The patches of grass were all worn and there was the stripped skeleton of an old bike pointlessly locked to the railings. Kids who had wanted to make a name for themselves had graffitied the doorway, though their names were completely illegible, which seemed to me to rather defeat the object. The rain had eased up but I still made an effort to get as close to their doorway as possible.

  ‘Well, thank you very much for the lift.’

  ‘Yes, thank you for stopping,’ said Ruby.

  She fumbled for the door handle, but I hadn’t released the child lock yet.

  I pulled on the handbrake. ‘So, w
here will Ruby go to school now, do you think?’

  ‘I don’t know, she’s got one more exam to try and get a scholarship for Barnes Girls. They do their exam later, isn’t it?’ Mrs Osafo didn’t say ‘innit?’ at the end of each sentence like most of the indigenous population of south London. She was far too well spoken. She said, ‘Isn’t it?’

  ‘Oh good, yes, there’s one or two girls from your school hoping to go to Barnes Girls, aren’t there, Molly?’ Molly gave an affirmative surly nod, which would have been undetectable in the back seats. ‘But what if she doesn’t get in there, what will you do then?’

  ‘Well, tell me, what do you think of Battersea Comprehensive?’ said Mrs Osafo.

  ‘Oh goodness no!’ I blurted out. ‘I mean, none of Molly’s friends would have been going there, so it would have been completely unsuitable for us …’

  ‘I like the headmaster. And the new art block, isn’t it?’

  ‘Well, I’ve not actually been there as such, myself, but you know, one hears about various schools and it was just never a place we even considered …’

  ‘Her mother says Ruby will probably go to Battersea Comprehensive. We can’t afford private school without a scholarship. But Chelsea and Barnes get more children into Cambridge University, where Ruby is going, isn’t it?’

  ‘Are you going to Cambridge then, Ruby?’ I said with a smile.

  ‘Yes,’ she said flatly.

  ‘And what are you going to study?’ I chuckled.

  ‘Pure Maths.’

  ‘Oh. All right.’

  She was deadly serious. Eleven years old. My daughter wanted to be a pop star.

  It was now that a sense of gloom descended over me about the chances of Ruby’s obvious potential ever being realized. She was never going to get a scholarship without intensive one-to-one coaching from one of the handful of private tutors who specialized in getting children through those exams. I had been there, I’d learnt what was required, I knew the hoops that the children had to jump through. I turned off my engine.

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