May contain nuts, p.19
May Contain Nuts, page 19
I had made real progress with her English and non-verbal reasoning, getting her scores up to scholarship level so that she was well prepared for the Barnes Girls’ exam. Sometimes Ruby would walk round to our house on her own, though when it was time to go home I always felt I had to drive her back myself. Although her grandfather remained detached, I got to know her grandmother and her brother quite well. Kofi was an awkward boy, embarrassed by his enormous height. I began to think that he too must have enormous potential if only he was guided in the right direction. I had a bit of a brainwave about this. I made a few enquiries and then excitedly announced the way forward for him. ‘Kofi, I was speaking to someone who runs a semi-professional basketball team and they would be more than happy to give you a trial.’ He was nowhere near as excited by my idea as I had hoped. I’m not even convinced he ever rang them up.
The traffic inched forwards and teenage boys on BMX bikes weaved at speed between the pensioners on the pavement with as much care as it is possible to take while doing extended wheelies that jumped alarmingly from road to pavement to zebra crossing, all pedestrians and drivers obligingly giving way to the new emergency vehicles: urban teenagers riding with one wheel in the air. A red light commanded me to stop and the urgent beep of the crossing hurried people to the safety of the opposite pavement. Barely registering the faceless heads that streamed past on the other side of my windscreen, I flicked through the radio presets in search of whichever station was playing ‘Mr Blue Sky’. But something made me look up again. Suddenly in the blur of the crowd, one face was sharply in focus. There crossing the road right in front of me was my daughter. Not sitting behind me strapped into her seat, with me at the steering wheel dictating her direction, but walking freely on the other side of my locked doors – she was just out there, meandering down the high street on a sunny day. In her hand was a McDonald’s milk shake and she was chatting excitedly with Ruby and a couple of other girls as they skipped up onto the pavement and towards Woolworths. I glanced round, presuming that Ruby’s grandmother must be a few paces behind, but unless the girls were under the care of that beggar sitting by the cashpoint machine, there was no adult near enough to be supervising them. No chaperones holding their hands or stressed teachers at front and back pointing them in the direction of the school coaches – just four eleven-year-old girls walking free. The other children were clearly friends of Ruby’s because they certainly weren’t from Molly’s school. I think I would have remembered a girl with pierced ears and a Florida ‘Gators Puffa jacket like that one. Molly broke off from her milk shake and accepted the offer of some chips from another girl, and I tried to press down the electric window to shout across to her, but the window on the wrong side went down and then the car behind me tooted impatiently because the lights had started to flash amber a good half a second earlier.
I looked frantically for a space to pull over, to park up and rescue her from this perilous situation, but buses were pulling out from the left and the side roads on either side were marked no entry. I was helplessly washed downstream with all the traffic, forced to drive straight ahead with Molly’s head receding in my rear-view mirror. A tow-away lorry was just lifting an illegally parked car so I gratefully grabbed the vacated parking space and leapt out. Zigzagging between the traffic, I crossed the road, narrowly avoiding a potentially fatal and particularly messy pile-up with a pizza-delivery moped that was speeding between the crawling cars. But when I arrived at the spot where I had last glimpsed Molly, she was nowhere to be seen. There was a betting shop behind me – maybe they’d dived in there and were now blowing Molly’s pocket money on the greyhounds at Catford? There was a pawnshop a few doors down – perhaps they’d just got 50p for Molly’s friendship bracelet? Or what about the pub next door? Maybe if I hung round till closing time I could catch my eleven-year-old daughter as she spilled out of the pub with a Bacardi Breezer in her hand, staggering over the road for a kebab?
Then I saw them. A stranger that used to be my eleven-year-old daughter was being ordered out of Woolworths by a uniformed security officer for eating burgers on the premises. The girls were giggling as they scurried back out onto the pavement and then one of them threw a bit of burger bun at Molly, who laughed and threw a chip back. And then her face fell as she saw the thunderous face of her mother, striding up the road towards her.
‘You realize you might have a brain allergy to wheat?’
‘Can’t you just pick out the salad? Hello, Ruby … does your grandmother know you’re out on your own?’
Silence. What I really wanted to do was take Molly away there and then, and drive her home till she was behind our electric gates safe from cars, muggers and gluten, but I realized I couldn’t just pull her out in front of these other girls.
‘I’ve got a great idea. It’s such a lovely day, I’ve got my car over there – why don’t I drive you all to Battersea Park?’
The two girls I had never met before glanced at one another warily.
‘We could go to the children’s zoo maybe; you could take turns to have a ride on the pony. I don’t mind paying.’
‘We’re not allowed to get into cars with strangers,’ said the taller of the two girls.
‘I’m not a stranger, I’m Molly’s mum, aren’t I, Molly?’
‘No,’ she said, and then rather undermined her case by adding, ‘Mum, go away.’
‘Or we don’t have to go to the children’s zoo, you could all rent a banana bike if you like, I don’t mind paying, and I’ll buy you all an ice cream, which is dairy, but that’s fine, and, and, um, some chocolate biscuits, which are wheat and dairy, so there you are, see, completely normal. What do you say?’
The two girls who had never met me before just stared at the ground.
‘We’re not allowed to go off with strange adults.’
‘I’m not strange.’
‘Yes, you are,’ said Molly firmly.
In the end I said that if they didn’t want to come to the park then perhaps they should be getting back to Ruby’s flat because her grandmother would be worried about them, and the four girls reluctantly turned back towards the Wilberforce Estate. And while Molly and her friends ambled down the pavement I drove along at walking pace twenty yards behind them, with other motorists tooting and flashing their lights and angrily overtaking me.
I was still contemplating whether to say something to Ruby’s grandmother as I went to pick Molly up. I skipped confidently across the estate, saying good afternoon to the family who lived next door to Ruby, wondering how I might find the words to express the fear I felt about my daughter being allowed out down the high street. A tall Rastafarian was coming out of Ruby’s block and held the door open for me. Ruby had pointed him out to me before; he worked with the infants in her school. ‘The thing is …’ I would say, ‘… is that there are a lot of strange people out there … and, well, it’s different for Ruby because, er, well, she seems to know half of them …’ Basically I had to explain that I hadn’t planned on letting Molly out on her own until she was an age when I was completely comfortable with the idea. Say, when she was around forty-three.
Ruby’s grandmother invited me in for a cup of tea, which I forced myself to drink despite it having about eleven sugars in it, while the girls sat there sipping a luminous squash that looked even sweeter. I made stilted conversation, seated on the edge of the kitchen chair. ‘How’s Ruby getting on with practising her internet?’ I asked, not meaning to sound as if I was mocking her.
‘Oh, our computer died, isn’t it?’
‘Oh dear, that’s a shame.’
‘No, it was our fault. We didn’t get it inoculated against all the viruses.’
Constance said she felt very bad that she’d missed Molly’s birthday and I dismissed this out of hand. But again she apologized that she had not bought Molly a present – ‘after all you have done for Ruby’. ‘Anyway,’ she announced, ‘I’ve got her something now …’
I glanced around the kitchen. The food packets were from Lidl, the cash-only low-grade supermarket for the shopper whose only consideration was cost. On the notice board there were cut-out tokens that would entitle the bearer to 10p off their next bottle of washing-up liquid. Then Constance returned and this time when I said, ‘You shouldn’t have,’ I really meant it. Into the kitchen Ruby’s grandmother wheeled a brand-new girl’s bicycle, gleaming metallic purple with a bell and a water bottle and spokes that glistened and sparkled in the sunlight streaming through the window. ‘Oh my God, you shouldn’t have …’ I kept repeating. Molly’s mouth hung open – she was thrilled but also amazed at the scale of this gift.
‘Wow, cool!’ said Molly. ‘Thanks!’
I didn’t know what to say. It was so excessively and inappropriately generous that I wondered if I should refuse it or offer to pay half or something.
‘You mentioned that Molly didn’t have a bike?’ she elucidated into the stunned silence.
‘Yes, but I hope you didn’t think that I was hinting … I mean, it’s so very generous of you – I’m embarrassed.’ I nearly added, ‘… and you just can’t afford this …’ but managed to stop the words coming out.
‘It’s a sort of thank-you from Ruby,’ she explained and I thanked Ruby as well, but she said nothing. In fact, she seemed as surprised as I was.
‘Did you know your granny was going to do this, Ruby?’
‘Well, I saw the girl’s bike hidden out on the balcony,’ she said, ‘but I didn’t know it was for Molly.’
Molly hauled herself onto the saddle. It looked completely incongruous, my daughter sitting on a bicycle in this little kitchen with her podgy legs dangling awkwardly on either side. She really did look a little overweight. The trouble was there just never seemed to be the occasion for my children to get any exercise – there was so much else to fit in. We’d never managed to find a maths tutor who would be prepared to swim alongside them and explain matrices while the children practised their breaststroke.
‘Jamie will be so jealous that I’ve got a bike and he hasn’t,’ said Molly.
‘That’s not the way to look at it, darling,’ I said, giving Ruby’s smiling grandmother a knowing look. ‘In fact, maybe we should stop off and get him one on the way home,’ I added quickly, thinking that if I didn’t Constance would be round to our house first thing in the morning with a brand-new boy’s bike and maybe a Harley-Davidson for David.
‘You know, it’s just occurred to me,’ I said as I thanked her for the seventeenth time, ‘I’ve got an old computer at home that we’re not using any more. Ruby could have that one if you like.’
‘Oh no, you have been too kind already …’
‘No, it’s my old laptop, just sitting in a drawer. Ruby could use that to practise her internet or whatever.’
As we loaded the bike into the back of the car, I wondered if I should have let them repay what they thought was their debt to me without trumping it with an even more expensive gift in return. Maybe I should have just let Constance be the richest lady for once. Or had this bike come from Ruby’s mother, I mused; was it a guilt thing, repaying me for the time I had spent with her daughter? When I had arrived to pick Molly up, I had secretly hoped that this might be the day on which I finally met Ruby’s mum, but again I’d been disappointed. I gleaned that she was a cleaner who also worked in a bakery in the early morning and then waited on tables in a posh London hotel, often until long after her children were all fast asleep. ‘One of the best hotels in London,’ Ruby had said proudly, as if it gave her mother status to be earning the minimum wage in such grand surroundings.
I must confess I was even momentarily attracted to what I imagined was the simple honesty of Ruby’s mother’s life. Only one thing to worry about: earning enough money to keep the family going. Nothing else matters. What a luxury, I secretly thought, for life to be such a financial struggle that all that other mental clutter was swept aside. Of course, in my more rational moments I knew this must be nonsense, but I occasionally imagined myself struggling to pay for school uniforms, or working weekends to make sure my children had toys at Christmas, and it seemed unlikely I would have the energy to worry about whether my four-year-old’s clumsiness was brought on by a brain allergy to Chocolate Weetos. Are we just programmed as parents to fear and fret, with our worry-dials turned up to the maximum level whatever the situation? Perhaps we were evolutionarily conditioned to be terrified about having our babies stolen away from the cave by packs of wolves or whatever, and now that there are no wolves in Clapham any more, we lie awake agonizing to the same degree about the fact that our child only got the part of second donkey in the school nativity. Among my circle of friends, so much time was spent fretting about our children’s safety that every conceivable danger was removed from our homes. I’m surprised we didn’t get old men knocking on the door saying, ‘Have you got any knives you want blunting?’
Well, today it had been forced upon me: my daughter had been out roaming the big wide world without adult supervision, and I could see that her expedition to the high street had made her feel immensely proud. Then and there I resolved to allow Molly a little more independence before she headed off to big school. David agreed that she should be permitted to walk round to Kirsty’s on her own at the weekends as long as she rang as soon as she got there. ‘Yes,’ he mused, just as I was falling asleep. ‘I mean what’s the worst that can happen?’ And having left that thought in my mind he dozed off, leaving me to follow him three hours and two rolls of bubble wrap later.
While Ruby’s mother never saw her children because she was earning every penny she could to support them, Kirsty’s mum had just taken a major pay cut to be in the same place as her daughter for the next seven years. Sarah had now begun her job at Chelsea College, and I sensed there may have been one or two initial disappointments. As administrative assistant, Sarah discovered that she was expected to work in the school office, when I think she had been hoping she might be allowed to take her laptop and sit at the back of her daughter’s class. Neither were they planning to let her out to watch over her daughter at playtime, nor to help her choose the right foods at lunch; in fact, they didn’t really seem to understand the point of Sarah’s job at all, but had some completely different idea that as administrative assistant Sarah should somehow assist with the administration.
‘Guess what?’ announced Sarah as she came to collect Kirsty one Saturday afternoon. ‘I’ve got us all tickets to see the Chelsea College play.’
‘Oh what a super idea,’ said Ffion. ‘Of course! You can get the tickets for free! We are lucky to have you there, to tell us all about the school and make sure the girls are all in the same class and get us tickets for the school play for free …’ She went on with such enthusiasm that Sarah clearly felt it might seem a bit penny-pinching to point out that she hadn’t got the tickets for free. This year Chelsea College were putting on The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan’s stirring Cornish operetta about extortion, robbery and revised charges at the Tintagel Visitors’ Car Park. And so the following Wednesday evening we travelled in convoy across the river Thames and saw the massed gathering of the tribe into which our families would be initiated. David was completely inappropriately dressed. I don’t think he even owned a pair of mustard-coloured corduroys.
Many criminals return to the scene of their crime. Some in the dead of night to remove incriminating evidence, others pretending to be casual passers-by just to confirm to themselves that it really had happened. But few can have returned quite as brazenly as I did when I walked back into the hall at Chelsea College. What’s more, we would be taking my victim along too – because Sarah had casually offered her spare ticket to Ruby. Right in front of me, without consultation, she had just asked Ruby if she would like to come along to the play at Chelsea College si
‘Oh, you probably wouldn’t be interested in that, would you, Ruby, since you’re not going to Chelsea?’ I had prompted.
‘Yes please!’ Ruby said delightedly.
This wasn’t my first time back at Chelsea College, but now we were returning to the very same room. I thought I might refrain from pointing this out as we all took our seats in the enormous hall.
‘This is where we sat the entrance exam!’ announced Bronwyn unhelpfully.
‘Oh yeah, I sat over there …’ said Kirsty.
‘I sat at the back,’ said Ruby.
‘Where did you sit, Molly?’
‘Oh, er, I didn’t do the exam in here—’
‘You did it somewhere else, didn’t you, darling,’ I cut in, ‘not in this room but in another room on a different day to all your friends. I do hope the play starts soon. They’re taking their time, aren’t they? I am looking forward to it, have you ever seen any Gilbert and Sullivan before, it’s sort of light opera, I’m very excited, aren’t you?’
The girls politely waited for me to stop talking and then continued.
‘I thought the exam was easy-peasy,’ said Bronwyn.
‘I thought the maths was hard,’ confessed Kirsty.
‘When I did the maths paper,’ said Ruby, but then she broke off. ‘Oh it doesn’t matter …’
‘When I did the maths paper … the girl sitting next to me copied all my answers!’
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes