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May contain nuts, p.17

May Contain Nuts, page 17


May Contain Nuts

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  ‘Those private tutors are very expensive, aren’t they – has Ruby had any one-to-one sessions or anything?’ I asked tentatively.

  ‘I sit with her while she does her homework … She always does extra.’

  ‘Right, and what about practice papers? Has she done any of those?’

  ‘What do you mean, practice papers?’

  ‘To practise doing a test so you can see where she needs help before the exam proper?’

  ‘Oh yes, they do tests at school – sums and spelling and all that, isn’t it? She always comes top …’

  This lady had no idea of what she was up against. Parents who would have arranged private tutoring for their children while they were still in the womb if they’d possessed the technology. Kids who’d spent the last six years at a preparatory school specifically designed to prepare them for getting into the top private schools. Parents with the time and money to make sure that their children reached the peak of their mental and physical condition at the exact moment that they hit the Exam Olympics. I stared straight ahead, where a young Alsatian, locked out on a first-floor balcony, was frustratedly pacing back and forth.

  ‘Look, I have some spare practice papers left over at home – we don’t need them any more. I could let you have them, if you like …’

  ‘Well, that would be very kind, wouldn’t it, Ruby?’

  ‘Er, OK, I’ll drop them round then,’ I blurted out carelessly.

  ‘We live at number 23.’

  The Alsatian gave a long low howl at nothing in particular.

  And so it was that I found myself agreeing to return to the foreign country that was the Wilberforce Estate. I didn’t think it was even worth mentioning to David. Anyway, he was busy failing to get the children to play football in the back garden, repeatedly suggesting to little Alfie that he might like to put on his new Arsenal shirt. ‘No, darling, the referee wouldn’t let you play dressed as Pocahontas.’ I would just pop round and give Ruby’s grandmother the test sheets and that would be that. It was no big deal. I looked at myself in the hallway mirror before I left. And then took off my Nicole Farhi coat and swapped it for the old anorak I wore when we went blackberry picking in the countryside.

  I walked down Oaken Avenue, now struck by the sheer volume of wealth on show all around me. Every car on my street must have cost over twenty thousand pounds, with many couples having a car each. The big four-wheel drives would breed at night and a few weeks later there would be a little two-seater BMW sports car in between them. The homes were all tall Victorian townhouses arranged over four floors, expensively refurbished with kitchen extensions and incongruous conservatories bolted onto the back. And despite all this room and expense, most families spent all their time in the basement; the poorly lit subterranean kitchen area that was originally intended for the servants. You could have the prettiest Aga-heated oak-floored designer kitchen that money could buy, but the view was still out onto a damp stairwell which all year round filled up with an urban pot pourri of dead leaves, sycamore seeds and discarded burger cartons. The basement windows all had bars over them, of course, which seemed a perverse way to solve the problem of crime. It was as if we had all decided we were never going to be able to put all the burglars behind bars, so instead we all shelled out to create individual private prisons where we would stay locked inside. On the doorstep were vulnerable-looking terra-cotta pots that would just have to take their chances on the other side of the security zone. The general presumption was that it was the kids off the estate who stole the window boxes and the holly wreaths at Christmas, but on reflection I was not convinced about this. It was hard to imagine teenage boys sidling into the pub carrying a neatly clipped bay tree in a big glazed pot and trying to get a fiver for it. ‘No way, bro’, bay leaves are a pain, you always have to pick ‘em out of the casserole.’

  Within a couple of minutes I was at the top of Wilberforce Road, and already the parked cars were older and tattier, occasionally attempting to cheer themselves up with semi-humorous car stickers in the back window. ‘Mafia Staff car – keepa da hands off!’ Unless of course that really was a Mafia staff car, and that’s how people knew not to cut it up at the traffic lights. I had to confess I felt a little ignorant of London working-class culture. I imagined things had probably moved on a little since they all dressed up as Pearly Kings and minced round singing hits from Me and My Girl. My kids would never do the Lambeth Walk – they’d expect me to drive them.

  Now I was entering the estate itself. There was no official frontier as such, no Checkpoint Charlie where you were quizzed by border guards about your reasons for wishing to visit the proletarian zone. Was I unwise to venture in here without a guide? Should I have brought an interpreter? Then I decided that the locals must surely be used to the occasional middle-class person wandering onto their patch, even if I wasn’t asking for their votes or making a disturbing documentary for Channel 4. The Wilberforce Estate seemed to have been chosen as the venue for the Bored Teenagers Conference: a group of boys, some of them as young as my own children, were hanging round by a doorway just doing nothing; barely summoning the enthusiasm to talk to one another. One of them had a big Nike tick shaved into his scalp. It was not a hairstyle I could imagine the salon doing for my children; we were far too middle-class to worship the brand of Nike. Maybe Jamie could have the John Lewis logo shaved onto the back of his head.

  The feral kids chose not to notice me as I walked past and once I was clear of them I realized that my muscles had tensed up and that my heart was beating faster. The exam sheets were clutched tightly to my chest, as though the kids might rob me if they realized what I had: ‘Forget the iPods and video mobiles – she’s got secondary transfer practice papers!’ At the big steel door of Gisbourne House I pressed the buzzer for number 23 but no voice came out of the speaker grille. Instead there was just a loud discordant buzz from the door, which now opened without resistance. Uncertainly I ventured in, hearing the heavy door clunk behind me as I inhaled the faint scent of cement and boiled cabbage. I decided I would forgo the uncertain claustrophobia of the lift and headed up the echoey concrete stairwell. On the third floor a sign directed me towards the appropriate flat number and I walked along the external walkway. One front door had a glittery sticker on the front saying something in Arabic. Another had a big metal plate over the entire door. Then I stood outside number 23 and paused for a while.

  I could just slide the envelope through the letterbox and slip away, I thought. But then I would never know what happened to Ruby. And it was then that I realized I hadn’t just come round to drop off the practice papers. I had to be sure that Ruby was going to do these tests; I felt a need to go through them with her, pointing out the pitfalls, passing on some of the secrets and techniques I had learnt. I wanted to give her the tools to go on and achieve things for herself. It’s like that saying – give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. But teach a man to fish, and you – well, actually you condemn him to endless weekends sitting by the pond on Clapham Common looking bored out of his skull.

  Over the past year my own eleven-year-old daughter had become increasingly hostile to me, instinctively rejecting my maternal advice and encouragement. But here was a child I could still really help, who would appreciate what I had to offer. It’s like those letters from third world charities in my in-tray: ‘Sponsor a child in Africa’. I was sponsoring a child on the council estate, I thought, blushing at such a patronizing notion. ‘With just a few minutes of your week you can make a real difference: help them get a basic education, provide them with the tools to help themselves and maybe ask them not to eat McDonald’s sitting next to you on the underground.’

  I gave the knocker three loud bangs and listened to approaching footsteps, but was surprised to see an elderly black man smoking a rolled-up cigarette open the door.

  ‘Yes?’ he said lugubriously.

  ‘Oh hello, is Mrs Osafo in? I’ve brought round some exam papers I promised for Ruby.’

; ‘Constance! Someone here to see you …’

  Mrs Osafo came out of the darkness, looking older in her everyday clothes despite the fact that she was carrying a baby on her hip, a little white boy.

  ‘Oh hello again,’ I said, smiling. ‘I’ve brought those practice papers for Ruby …’

  ‘Well, thank you very much,’ she said taking them. ‘Very kind of you to drop them round.’

  I hovered there for a moment. ‘OK. Well. Just thought they might be useful.’

  ‘Much appreciated.’

  ‘Lovely baby.’

  ‘Yes, isn’t he?’

  ‘Is he yours?’

  I don’t know quite how such a stupid question escaped from my mouth. She was at least sixty years old and black. Of course this little white baby wasn’t hers.

  ‘No, I’m looking after him for a neighbour,’ she said with a gentle smile.

  ‘Right. Well, OK, hopefully Ruby will understand them. Is, um, is she in at the moment?’

  ‘She’s practising her internet …’ she said a little proudly.

  ‘Right, I see.’

  The baby stared at me, a dummy lodged firmly in his mouth. He had an expression that suggested he was permanently startled by the world. ‘Because if you like I could just explain the format of these tests to her …’

  Mrs Osafo gave me a smile, which in my paranoia I imagined as somehow knowing. ‘Well, that’s very kind of you; come in. Ruby! Turn off the world-wide-webs now, there’s someone here to see you, isn’t it.’

  Ruby’s flat was what estate agents would describe as ‘compact’. ‘A bijou apartment, situated in the increasingly popular “Wilberforce village”, comprising three bedrooms, lounge – oh, hang on, the lounge is one of the bedrooms – kitchen, TV room, well, the kitchen is the TV room, bathroom and balcony-cum-dovecote. Well, doves, disease-ridden pigeons, it’s all the same.’

  Ruby said a polite hello and then her grandmother explained why I was there. I felt excited by the possibility of having so much I could offer this child, a sponge who would eagerly soak up all I could teach her. She was my own little Pygmalion, except in this version … actually, I had never seen or read Pygmalion, but I knew it was by George Bernard Shaw, and it was adapted into the musical My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, and that was enough to get by if the subject happened to come up at a dinner party. Oh, and George Bernard Shaw had a big beard, there, that was another thing I bet Ruby didn’t know about English Literature. Really, there’s so much to tell her I didn’t know where to begin.

  I was less nervous about chatting with Mrs Osafo than I had been that first time in the car. I made casual conversation about whether she ever went back to Ghana, or if she’d ever visited the neighbouring countries, such as Ivory Coast to the west, Togo to the east or Burkina Faso to the north (at least I think that’s how it was pronounced, Jamie’s atlas hadn’t given any guidance). I enquired about where Ruby usually did her homework. ‘Does she have a little desk in her bedroom or anything?’ I asked, casting a hopeful glance down the corridor.

  ‘No, there’s no desk, no. You sit yourself down there,’ said Constance. ‘I can lay the table later …’ and she indicated the tiny kitchen table, where Ruby’s grandfather sat watching a televised football match through the nicotine fug of Golden Virginia.

  ‘Right … we wouldn’t maybe be better off in the lounge perhaps?’

  ‘Lounge? No, I don’t think so. Is it the television you don’t like?’

  ‘Well, it might make it a bit hard to concentrate …’

  ‘Yes, I understand. Lloyd! Turn down the television, isn’t it …’

  And without looking round Lloyd picked up the remote control and very slightly lowered the volume on a TV set that was far too big to look comfortable on a kitchen sideboard. It was actually a rather expensive-looking set, I found myself thinking admonishingly, as if they didn’t have the right to have as good a set as ours.

  Ruby had hopped up onto a stool and sat there expectantly. She was a model of respect, politeness and good behaviour, like a parody of a character from some 1950s British film in which all the upper-class children wore clean, white, pressed clothes and only spoke when they were spoken to.

  ‘Right, Ruby, I just thought that since I was dropping these papers round I might as well point out one or two of the pitfalls that you need to look for—’ I began.

  ‘Did you hear that, Ruby?’ chipped in her grandmother. ‘You’ve got to look out for pitfalls!’

  I turned round and acknowledged the unsolicited assistance with a weak smile.

  ‘So first of all, when you did your exam for Chelsea College, was there any of the three papers that you felt you were weaker on than the others?’

  ‘I think my maths was OK.’

  I decided to take her word for this, particularly since the head of Chelsea College had told me that Ruby had scored a hundred per cent in mathematics.

  ‘All right, what about the non-verbal reasoning: how did you feel you did on that?’

  ‘OK. I like those; they’re like puzzles.’

  ‘Good, good. They are like puzzles, aren’t they, but sometimes they trick you by giving you false clues to try and make you put down the wrong answer …’

  ‘Offside!’ said Ruby’s grandfather. ‘By a yard, at least.’

  Ruby glanced up briefly while I persevered, pulling out a perfect example. ‘Um, right, you see on this sequence of pictures, they are all shapes within shapes, and at first sight you think, well, they’re all circles except the last one, so the odd one out must be the square.’

  ‘You listening, Ruby?’ interjected Constance. ‘The square is the odd one out.’

  ‘No, no, it isn’t the square!’ I said hurriedly. ‘I was just saying it looks like it is …’

  ‘Got that, Ruby? It’s not the square.’

  ‘That was a foul, definite.’

  ‘Which one do you think it is, Ruby?’

  ‘The second one: b.’

  ‘Yes. Clever girl. Why is it the second one?’

  Ruby looked at me as if I was completely stupid. ‘Because you’ve put a letter “b” in the answer box.’

  I let out a sigh as the football commentator became increasingly excited.

  ‘Did she get it right?’ said her proud grandmother.

  ‘Well, yes, but—’

  ‘Well done, Ruby! Did you hear that, Lloyd? She got it right!’

  ‘Well done, Ruby. Square! Square!’ exclaimed Ruby’s grandfather at the television.

  ‘No, it’s not the square,’ said Constance, ‘it’s the second one, number b,’ she explained with a smug nod to herself.

  Then one of the teams on the television scored a goal and Lloyd shrieked so loudly that it made the baby cry and Constance passed it to Ruby to hold while she warmed up some milk in a pan. Ruby stood in the kitchen rocking the baby expertly back and forth and I didn’t know quite what to do.

  ‘So the answer isn’t always the first thing that strikes you, see, Ruby?’ I said over the din. And she nodded at me but both of us felt unable to ignore the action replay on the huge screen that dominated the room.

  The answer certainly wasn’t the first thing that struck you. I had thought this would be so easy. That I could just go in there and give Ruby a private tutorial at her little desk, leave her some practice papers and maybe come back to check her score a few days later. But the answer was no longer apparent to me; the puzzle got harder the closer you looked. After just a couple of questions explained against a running commentary from Ruby’s grandmother – ‘Clever girl, Ruby!’ she said. ‘Yes, that really was excellent!’ agreed John Motson – I had left the papers with them and suggested she try and look at them when she had a bit more time. It had been impossible. How could I have been so stupid to think that I could walk in there and duplicate the precious study periods I had set up with my own daughter? I had thought I could dispense spare learning in the same way that I dropped off old clothes at the char
ity shop, expecting thanks and perhaps the odd compliment on my taste in pashminas. But a simple truth struck me as I walked back to my own comfortable house. The one in need of education was clearly me.

  I have no idea of how most people live, of the obstacles that people face, of how little money people have. I thought we were relatively hard up because I was comparing myself to Ffion and Sarah. But Ffion’s idea of poverty is someone who buys their nanny a second-hand car. Her idea of stress is having to sack her eleven-year-old’s personal trainer. And I’d thought life was a battle because I couldn’t find the right Hoover bags for Carmen, our cleaner. What must it be like for Ruby’s mother, leaving her children in the care of her mother while she went out as sole breadwinner for all three generations, juggling several different jobs to make sure that her children had all the things they needed? What must she think when she looks at the clock at their bedtime, and wishes she could be with them instead of out earning a few extra quid to make sure they were as smartly turned out as all the other children? Ruby had been eager to work but just didn’t have the space or peace, while a few hundred yards away our house had special children’s study zones sitting there empty.

  Apart from David’s office, which doubled as family work station and Allied command centre for the D-Day Landings, our children each had their own bedroom with their own private desk laid out with sharpened pencils and crisp new stationery. Their work stations were a shrine, places of reverence and respect; glasses of milk would magically appear beside them, grown-ups would whisper on the landing if children were trying to concentrate – all hail the mighty god of Study.

  That night I could not help but notice the contrast when I tried to sit down with Molly to go through her maths homework. The setting was perfect yet the very suggestion of work prompted weary sighs from the pupil; Molly’s body flopped onto the chair like a tangled marionette, her head suddenly so heavy as she stared blurry-eyed at the page that an elbow was needed to prop it up.

  ‘Some children would relish a chance to have this much time to study …’

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