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May contain nuts, p.18

May Contain Nuts, page 18


May Contain Nuts

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  ‘Where? In Africa?’ she said contemptuously.

  ‘No, in Clapham actually.’

  ‘Oh yeah, right …’ Then almost immediately she got up.

  ‘Where are you going? Sit down!’

  ‘The toilet – durr! Aren’t I even allowed to go to the toilet any more?!’

  ‘No, do one question and then you can go to the toilet … “Jane’s mum buys a new dress at half price. The original cost of the dress was £9.50. How much change does Jane get from a £20 note?” So what are the two sums you have to do here?’

  But Molly’s body was doubled up in agony; in the space of about ten seconds some sort of bizarre internal flash flood had clearly deposited several pints of urine into her bursting bladder and now only by rocking back and forth and clutching her tummy was she able to hold off wetting herself and David’s new office chair.

  ‘Go on then, quickly!’

  Five minutes later I was knocking on the toilet door.

  ‘Come on, I thought you only needed a wee?’

  ‘No. Both.’

  At least if she ever suffered from constipation in later life she would have an instant cure. Problems with constipated children? Give them Extra-Math™, the natural laxative that will have them locked in the bog for hours. I was losing the battle of wills but I was determined that Molly was not going to get out of doing maths just by taking too long to go to the toilet.

  ‘Molly!’ I shouted through the door. ‘What’s seven times nine?’

  ‘What?’ came the muffled reply.

  ‘Come on, we can practise your tables while you’re in there. What’s seven times nine?’

  ‘I’m on the toilet.’

  ‘I know, but you’re not getting out of it that easily. Seven nines are … ?’

  ‘What are you doing?’ said David, standing at the top of the stairs.

  ‘Oh hello. It’s extra maths.’

  ‘Can’t it wait till she’s out of the toilet?’

  ‘No, because then she just stays in there. Come on, Molly, you should know this by now. Seven nines are – actually, what are seven nines, David?’


  ‘Seven nines are sixty-three, Molly! So repeat, what are seven nines?’


  ‘Molly?’ shouted David, feeling obliged to take my side in this power struggle. ‘Molly!’ he repeated banging on the bathroom door. ‘Say “sixty-three” to your mother when she asks you.’

  ‘Sixty-three,’ mumbled a weary voice from the other side of the door.

  ‘OK …’ I said, pretending to myself that I had won a victory of sorts. ‘That’s probably enough maths for today.’

  In contrast to his sister, Jamie had become a whirlwind of enthusiasm since he had been allowed to finish his project on his own. He spent hours drawing tanks, gluing down pictures and writing captions with such painstaking care that he made one side of his mouth sore by sticking his little tongue out of the side in concentration. But despite all the hours that Jamie put into it, the project clearly wasn’t good enough for the sulking, jilted father. A couple of days later David plonked a fat scrapbook on the kitchen table. It was obvious from his manner that my intervention had ruined his precious History of World War Two.

  ‘Well, I did what you said. I let Jamie do it himself.’

  ‘Good. Ah, bless him, he’s worked so hard …’ It was beautifully presented with photos from the internet glued on every page and brightly coloured captions scrawled underneath.

  ‘But he can’t give it in like this …’ said David indignantly.

  ‘Oh, don’t be so possessive. I know you might have done it differently, but we have to learn to let the children do things for themselves.’

  ‘It’s wrong.’

  ‘Look, it may not be perfect in your expert eyes, but this is Jamie’s history of the Second World War, not yours.’

  David raised his eyebrows at me. ‘The Germans win.’


  ‘In his project on World War Two, the one you said I should let him finish on his own? The Germans win.’

  My knowledge of the war was not as encyclopaedic as David’s, but one detail I had gleaned was that the German army were definitely on the losing side.

  ‘How did they win?’

  ‘I don’t know, on penalties? Look at his caption for the last picture: “The German people celebrate their victory in the war.”’

  ‘Ah, look how neat his writing is, bless him …’

  ‘That’s not really the point, is it? When Admiral Doenitz signed the unconditional surrender in May 1945, his mum wasn’t standing over him saying, “All right, so we lost, but look how neat my son’s writing is …”’

  I skimmed through the lovingly glued maps and pictures and felt a surge of pride.

  ‘These Germans do look quite happy, though – was Goering lying to them about the result or something?’

  ‘It’s a picture of a Berlin crowd celebrating the fall of France. He’s five years out.’

  ‘OK, so he wrote “celebrating their victory” instead of “celebrating a victory” – it’s only one word. It doesn’t matter.’

  ‘What, it doesn’t matter that our son’s history of World War Two has Germany winning? Well, call me a pedant but I’d say that was quite an important detail myself. I mean, you know, historians disagree about some aspects, but all the primary sources I’ve read seem to concur on that particular historical detail. Let me think … A.J.P. Taylor, Alan Bullock, Richard Holmes, Simon Schama? Nope, I can’t think of a single historian I’ve studied who has the Third Reich triumphant at the end …’

  ‘Yes, but Jamie has worked hard and must be really proud of this. How’s he going to feel if we now say, “You know that one bit you did on your own, well, that’s complete rubbish, start all over again”?’

  ‘Hang on – so you’re saying that for the sake of our nine-year-old’s feelings, Hitler wins. All Europe is subjugated by a brutal genocidal dictatorship for evermore, but our little boy doesn’t have to endure any criticism from his parents and that’s the main thing …’

  ‘It’s only one mistake,’ I said. ‘Admittedly, quite a big one.’

  ‘It’s not just one mistake – look at this …’ David skimmed back a couple of pages. ‘“Germany occupies Romania”: correct. “Germany invades Bulgaria”: correct. “Germany invades Narnia”: incorrect.’


  ‘Yes, Jamie’s project lists Narnia as one of the countries invaded by the Wehrmacht.’

  ‘Blimey, I’d have put the Snow Queen on the Nazis’ side myself. Does he describe the invasion? I mean, there must have been a bit of a bottleneck at the wardrobe …’

  ‘He can’t give it in like this.’

  ‘It’ll prove it’s his own work …’

  ‘Oh right, well, let’s make it really obvious it’s his own work, why don’t we? We can have Vietnam win at the end. After Rommel and a load of fawns beat Hermione Grainger to secure the vital bridgehead at Pooh Corner.’

  ‘It’s not that bad.’

  ‘I’m embarrassed by it.’

  ‘Well, that’s the test for us as parents, isn’t it? Can you bear to let your son give in a piece of work knowing that it is wrong, or do you write the correct answer in yourself and pass it off as all his own work?’

  David’s astonishment could not have been greater if I’d let the kids go to bed without flossing. ‘Er, hello? So helping Jamie with his project is going too far, whereas taking Molly’s exam for her is normal parental support, is it?’

  ‘That was a one-off.’

  ‘No – when Molly did her project on “Endangered Species in Nature” you wrote the whole thing from start to finish, then bribed her with Kinder Eggs to copy it out in her own writing.’

  ‘I did not.’

  ‘Yes, you did. And you got that handyman who was fitting the kitchen units to assemble the free toys. Why are you suddenly so against doing the same for Jamie?’

/>   ‘Because we won’t always be there to assemble their Kinder Egg toys.’

  ‘Or to get the handyman to assemble their Kinder Egg toys …’

  ‘Whatever. Eventually they will have to assemble their own Kinder Egg toys.’

  ‘Or pay someone to assemble their Kinder Egg toys.’

  ‘I didn’t pay him.’

  ‘Yes, you did – he was working on an hourly rate … He even put the stickers on. Surely Molly could have done that.’

  ‘Exactly. That’s my point. We can’t do everything for them for ever. That’s what I realized in the exam hall. And is it any surprise that Molly is so reluctant to do any work on her own when we hold her hand over every obstacle, telling her how clever she is because she managed to write down the correct answer that we just gave her? Is that what we are going to do for Jamie as well?’

  David tried to form a sentence in reply but the words didn’t come. He knew I was right, and I pressed home my advantage.

  ‘Which is better for your son? A project with mistakes that he wrote, or a perfect project that you wrote?’

  There was a pause and he looked away, possibly at his complete boxed set of The World at War videos. ‘So the Germans win?’

  ‘The Germans win.’

  He shuffled uneasily and finally mumbled, ‘All right. But if he ever does a project on the World Cup, they’re not winning the 1966 final as well.’

  Jamie’s fervent enthusiasm for his project had made me all the more determined to make Molly learn to sit down and study like any other child. I made a deal with her. I said she could have someone round to play on Sunday while the boys were off visiting the Cabinet War Rooms if she and her friend did a little bit of study together for just half an hour. She readily agreed. ‘Can I invite Bronwyn?’ she added excitedly.

  ‘Um, they’re probably going to their cottage for the weekend …’ I said doubtfully.

  ‘OK, can I invite Kirsty?’

  ‘I’m not sure what they’re doing … I know, what about that nice girl we gave a lift to on the way back from Chelsea College?’

  Molly’s little turned-up nose wrinkled in confusion.

  ‘But … but I don’t know her.’

  ‘But she seemed nice, didn’t she? And she only lives round the corner.’

  ‘But … but we don’t know their telephone number or anything.’

  ‘I already looked it up. Osafo, 23 Gisbourne House. It’s surprising how many Osafos there are …’

  It seemed to me the perfect arrangement. I could suggest to Ruby’s family that she came round to play with Molly, and we could use the opportunity to have a quick look through any spare practice papers I happened to buy in the bookshop before Sunday. Ruby would have the space and peace she couldn’t get at home, and Molly would see what it meant to sit still and study. And apart from anything else, Ruby seemed like the nicest, most unprecocious child I had met for a long time. It would make a pleasant change to serve lunch to an eleven-year-old girl who wasn’t having a month off carbohydrates. ‘No mash potato for me, thank you,’ Bronwyn had said last time she was round for tea. ‘It goes straight to my hips.’

  On Sunday morning the doorbell rang and I tried to gee up Molly at the imminent prospect of having Ruby round to play. I had been hoping that this might be my chance to meet Ruby’s mother, but through the frosted glass of the doorway hovered a giant silhouette. Either Ruby was standing on her grandmother’s shoulders or there was someone else at the door. I must confess I leapt back slightly at the sight of Ruby’s enormous brother standing on my doorstep. I’d seen a photo of him at Ruby’s house, but the picture didn’t convey the Manhattan scale of the boy. He must have been six foot six or six foot seven, though his bony frame seemed ashamed of his height: his shoulders were hunched and his head hung low, hidden inside its grubby hooded top.

  ‘Brought Ruby round,’ he mumbled, and his little sister smiled shyly from somewhere near his waist.

  ‘Oh thank you. Tell your grandmother I can drop her back after lunch.’

  He managed a mumbled affirmative. And then I realized I had seen this boy before. He was one of the youths at the bottom of the road I had imagined were going to mug me that night I was walking to Blockbuster on my own after dark. And now here he was on my doorstep, mumbling and shuffling and avoiding eye contact – it was he who was intimidated by me.

  ‘See you later, Ruby. Be good …’ he said, and then he was gone.

  So he wasn’t ‘Scary Youth #2’ but ‘Ruby’s brother, Kofi’. He had an identity and a place in the universe. He was seventeen years old, studying at Lambeth College with his friend Aubrey from Norbury; he was six foot six and he slept in the bottom bunk underneath his sister, where Ruby told me his legs stuck out the end of the bed. The more detail she imparted about her brother, the less frightening he became. That’s why they don’t let you get acquainted with the auks in Lord of the Rings. They’re only terrifying while they’re anonymous; they’d cease to be scary if Auk #3 turned to camera and said, ‘Hi, my name’s Malcolm and I’m just mad about macramé and Lloyd Webber musicals.’

  I was relieved to see Molly being so friendly and welcoming to Ruby, even though I had taken the precaution of giving Molly strict instructions to be friendly and welcoming to Ruby. There was still the statutory period of awkwardness that was probably exacerbated by having me hovering over them clucking, ‘Molly, why don’t you show Ruby your bedroom?’ or, ‘Why don’t you show Ruby your doll’s house?’

  ‘Oh yeah, my doll’s house – like, I’m still six years old.’

  It saddened me that my only daughter had already grown out of her doll’s house. David and I had bought it when she was a baby; it had been as close as we could find to the big Victorian houses in Oaken Avenue, with the exception that the dolls didn’t disappear off to a little doll’s house in the country every Friday night.

  Before long the two girls were jumping round on the dance mat, finding some deeper form of communication in the ancient leveller that is the Sony PlayStation. Molly claimed they were taking turns, though every time I went into the lounge it seemed to be my daughter’s go. She had never had anybody so compliant round to play; everything that was suggested was politely agreed to, there were no arguments about which game to play next or who had won the last one. Molly chose the game, and then won it. And then I listened to them talking about which secondary school they were going to, and Molly said that she had got a scholarship into Chelsea College and Ruby said she had tried for a scholarship too but hadn’t been clever enough, so it seemed that Molly had won that one as well.

  I had decided that I’d let them have an hour or so playing together and then after lunch I would spend a little time with Ruby helping her prepare for her one last crack at a top-flight school. I had also been right when I had thought that Ruby might be able to teach Molly a few things. Over the course of the morning I overheard Ruby saying, ‘Don’t you know what “cuss” means?’ And, ‘You don’t know what “dissin” is?’ Ruby eagerly ate up all her lunch, and Molly felt less inclined to mime vomiting and follow each agonized mouthful with a hasty gulp of water to wash away the disgusting flavour. And then, incredibly, Molly did her English homework in silence while I sat at the other end of the kitchen table going over some test papers with Ruby. She was so keen to learn, and it felt rewarding to teach a child who listened and who I could almost see making progress. By the time I dropped her back at her flat, I felt like the day could not have been a bigger success. The whole thing worked perfectly and left me feeling vindicated and, if I admitted it, a little proud of myself. Ruby had looked up at me with such a quizzical gaze, with such wonder in her eyes. It was as if she was thinking: Why are you doing so much to help me? Why are you being so kind? At least, that’s what I imagined she was thinking.

  ‘She’s a smart girl, isn’t she?’ said her grandmother proudly as she helped her off with her coat.

  ‘Oh yes,’ I happily concurred. ‘A very smart girl.’

p; The Brain Allergy Cookbook

  Are Wheat and Dairy Lowering Your Child’s IQ?

  By David Zinkin

  Sunrise Books £6.99

  Many parents are becoming increasingly aware of allergic reactions caused by our gluten-heavy Western diet. Allergies to wheat, dairy, nuts and shellfish can prompt highly visible physical symptoms such as skin rashes, swellings and wheezing. Much harder to identify are what nutritionists refer to as ‘brain allergies’ – chemical reactions in the mind that can cause your child to fall short of his or her intellectual potential. Often the only symptoms are behavioural; you may have punished your child for being naughty when the fault actually lies with you, the parent, for feeding him nuts or tomatoes. Try these simple tests to see if your child is ‘brain allergic’.

  • Your child shows hostility to a sibling. This is a classic symptom of a cranial wheat allergy. Cut out bread, pasta, pastry, breakfast cereal and other wheat products.

  • Your child has demonstrated a reluctance to do homework. Your child’s brain may well be lactose- intolerant. Cut out milk, cheese, butter and yoghurt.

  • Your child usually gets a cold in the winter. Your child may well have an allergy to additives. Cut out all prepared meals, tinned foods, packet food and frozen foods.

  • Your child is pale, tired and listless. You have not replaced the food that you cut from your child’s diet.

  — 9 —

  It was the first really hot weekend of the summer, when millions of Londoners are spontaneously drawn by some genetic migration instinct that sees us all jump into the Land Rover and seek out the lush greenery of the natural world that lies beside the garden centre car park. Ruby’s grandmother had invited Molly round to play, and with David and the boys off watching a display by the Bombing of Dresden Re-enactment Society or something, I found myself sitting alone in the queue of traffic with all the other garden makeover refugees, adding to the carbon monoxide haze and doing my bit to help warm up the city.

  This new friendship has been good for my daughter, I thought, staring at the cosmopolitan mix of south London pedestrians. Ruby was always so grateful and well behaved, and with Ruby’s family being from Ghana, it also gave me the opportunity to open Molly’s eyes to a bit of African culture, so I’d recently taken them both to the theatre to see The Lion King. Ruby was mature in lots of ways, but unlike Molly’s other friends, there was nothing phoney about it. She was just at ease with herself; she took everything in her stride and didn’t seem to bear any resentment about not getting a pony for Christmas.

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