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May contain nuts, p.2

May Contain Nuts, page 2


May Contain Nuts

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  ‘Listen, everyone. This is the oboe now. Whose theme is the oboe, Alfie?’ continued David.

  ‘The duck!’ he shouted and our friends murmured their appreciation.

  ‘My Cameron likes to clap along to nursery rhymes,’ said Sarah bravely but nobody bothered to respond to that.

  ‘Hang on, hang on, here it comes. This is the clarinet. Who does the clarinet represent, Alfie?’

  ‘The cat!’

  ‘Clever boy, Alfie! That’s one of the wind instruments, isn’t it? What other wind instruments are there?’

  ‘The baboon!’

  ‘Bassoon, that’s right! And who does the bassoon represent?’

  ‘The grandfather!’

  ‘He’s very musical, isn’t he,’ said Sarah, rather perceptively I thought.

  ‘The grandfather is a baboon!’ Alfie repeated delightedly.

  ‘That’s right, the grandfather is the bassoon,’ said David firmly.

  ‘He is a clever boy, isn’t he? Have you had him professionally assessed?’ asked Ffion. I thought I’d already told her about how Alfie had scored at the institute but she must have forgotten.

  ‘Er, yes, we got the report back a couple of weeks ago; the institute said he was “approaching gifted”,’ said David.

  ‘“Approaching gifted.” That’s wonderful news.’ Ffion smiled faintly.

  ‘Well, it’s fine, yes, but I think they’ve underestimated him. Actually I think he’s just straightforward “gifted”. Ideally I’d like him to be aspiring to “exceptionally gifted”.’

  ‘He’s only four years old, darling,’ I said, noticing that William was looking slightly incredulous.

  At that moment there was a panic as Sarah leapt across the room like a presidential bodyguard and snatched a biscuit from her child’s hand. ‘It’s OK, everyone – I’ve got it. He didn’t ingest any, he’s OK …’

  ‘Sorry – is he not allowed biscuits, then?’

  Sarah read solemnly from the side of the packet. ‘“May contain nuts.” Yes, I thought so.’

  ‘I didn’t know Cameron was allergic to nuts.’

  ‘Well, we don’t know whether he is or not, we’ve never exposed him to them. It’s just not worth taking the risk, is it?’

  ‘Er … no, well, it is a worry I suppose …’

  ‘Oh dear. “May contain nuts.” He can’t have these either,’ she said, reading the warning on another packet from the sideboard.

  ‘Well, no, but then that is actually a packet of nuts.’

  ‘Oh yes, so it is. I suppose they can’t be too careful.’

  With the intellectual credentials of our ‘approaching gifted’ son clearly established, Philip took his chance to counterattack by demonstrating the nascent genius of his own four-year-old who was bashing a plastic tyrannosaurus rex against a stegosaurus that had dared stray onto the wrong part of the coffee table.

  ‘That’s very good, Gwilym,’ said Philip, leaning in through the open French windows, holding his smouldering cigarette at arm’s length outside. ‘The tyrannosaurus rex is the carnivore, isn’t he?’

  Gwilym made an exploding noise as the two dinosaurs collided.

  ‘And what is the stegosaurus?’

  ‘A herbivore!’ lisped little Gwilym proudly and there was a light ripple of applause from the assembled adults.

  ‘And what is an oviraptor, Gwilym?’ prompted Philip.

  ‘An ommyvore!’

  ‘That’s right. An omnivore. Good boy.’

  ‘He certainly has a very good vocabulary for a four-year-old,’ said Sarah.

  ‘Well, Gwilym’s report from the institute singled out his particular aptitude for dinosaur-based play, so we are taking the opportunity to teach him about predators and the food chain.’

  ‘Yes, well, why not?’

  ‘Careful, darling. You blew some smoke in just then—’

  ‘No, Gwilym, the herbivore can’t eat the carnivore, can he?’ interjected Philip. ‘Play properly, darling!’

  ‘No, exhale outside, and then talk into the room,’ ordered Ffion.

  Gwilym ignored his father, and, turning the food chain on its head, he granted the plant-eater the power to savage the normally unassailable tyrannosaurus rex. ‘Grarrr! Grarrrr!’ roared the veggy, who’d finally cracked after millions of years of never eating meat, not even at Christmas. Ffion tried to deflect attention away from the slightly strained atmosphere that had developed due to two differing male interpretations of prehistory.

  ‘Yes, well, of course, we’re very lucky our children are “exceptionally gifted”. But you can’t guarantee good news from the institute. The Johnsons had their five-year-old assessed and they were told that she was, er, “able”.’ She whispered this word in case the children overheard.

  ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know,’ said Sarah.

  A shudder went round the assembled adults at the thought of such a heartbreaking misfortune befalling any parent. We all knew there was a statistical risk when we decided to have children; we all knew there was an outside chance of having a child that might only be ‘able’ rather than ‘gifted’ or ‘approaching gifted’, but you just pray it’s never going to happen to you. David glanced at me, but I quickly looked away. For five years we had kept the secret of our eldest child’s assessment result. It wasn’t fair, Molly was actually very bright – she just didn’t do well in exams.

  ‘I’m just grateful that the institute said that Gwilym was “exceptionally gifted”,’ said Ffion, forging on and finding an opportunity to slip in the detail that her youngest had scored higher than ours. There was an embarrassed pause filled by an embarrassing husband.

  ‘Oooh, here it comes, the French horn! Who does the French horn represent, Alfie?’

  ‘The wolf !’

  ‘I think that Alfie is probably “gifted” really,’ said David. ‘He had a cold on the morning of the assessment and so he only scored “approaching gifted”. I’m thinking of going back and having him reassessed.’

  ‘It’s two hundred and fifty pounds, darling,’ I pleaded.

  ‘Yes, but I think it’s worth it, just so that we know where he is in his development and what sort of school and tutors we should be thinking of.’

  Sarah glanced anxiously at her husband, who failed to make any reassuring eye contact. ‘So what is this institute exactly?’

  ‘Have you not had Cameron assessed yet?’ said Ffion, frowning.

  ‘It’s the Cambridge Institute for Child Development – I can give you the number,’ I said.

  ‘Is it in Cambridge?’

  ‘No, that’s just the name. It’s in Balham. The lady who runs it specializes in testing brighter children,’ I explained. ‘She talks to the child, watches him play and looks at his drawings and then sends you a comprehensive report and grading.’

  ‘It’s just a posh woman in a house taking lots of money off gullible parents to tell them that their children are clever,’ William sneered.

  ‘Well, I think it’s vital that parents know how their children are progressing,’ said David. ‘Even if she did get it a bit wrong first time.’

  ‘She assessed you as “approaching gullible”. If you go back again, she re-grades you as “exceptionally gullible”.’

  ‘Shut up, William,’ said his wife. She turned back to me. ‘He’s only joking. Don’t let me go without getting the number off you.’

  ‘And here’s the timpani drum – who’s the big drum, Alfie?’ Alfie didn’t respond.

  ‘Alfie!’ said David slightly too crossly.


  ‘Who does the timpani drum represent?’

  ‘The hunter,’ he said sulkily.

  ‘Er, Philip?’ called William, a little mischievously. ‘I think the herbivores are forgetting their place in the food chain again’ – and he gave a mock-concerned nod in the direction of the prehistoric landscape of our coffee table, where a Roman centurion came swooping in from the arm of the sofa and attacked with a sword.

  ‘It doesn’t matter, Philip, stay outside.’ Ffion bristled.

  ‘Of course, one shouldn’t stifle their imagination too much,’ shrugged Philip, stamping on his cigarette and returning indoors. ‘He does, of course, know that the dinosaurs were extinct by the time of the Romans … What happened to the dinosaurs, Gwilym?’

  ‘Their eggs stink!’

  ‘You see?’ said his father with a proud smile.

  ‘Would anyone like to listen to Peter and the Wolf again?’ offered David.

  I had met David when we both worked in the City; I was a PA and he worked in banking. By the time we were married he had given up trying to explain exactly what he did. People who had never worked in international finance always struggled to understand how it was possible to ‘buy and sell money’. Perhaps David didn’t understand it either; maybe that’s why he got the sack. After that he set himself up as a freelance financial consultant, which he said was the best thing that could ever have happened because working for himself would give him more time to be at home with the children. And he said this as if it was a good thing. Now my husband managed to pull off a scam in which he advised people what to do with their money while taking a large chunk of it off them. We remained sufficiently prosperous for me not to understand all the extra lines of numbers on the National Lottery draw.

  I still worked full time as a PA, but now to three children called Molly, Jamie and Alfie. (No one had told us that the -ie/-y suffix wasn’t actually compulsory.) I organized their diaries, made sure they had the correct soft toy for sleepovers, arranged their meals and transport; like any good personal assistant, I knew they would never be able to manage without me. Jamie had to be cheered from the touchline at tag rugby club, and Alfie had to be applauded for splashing his legs at Little Ducklings Water Confidence classes, and Molly still needed me to sit with her while she practised her violin or she would say she couldn’t do it and it was too hard. ‘No, it’s not too hard, darling, you’re doing really splendidly. I think that’s the most beautiful bit of violin I’ve ever heard. I really do think you’re doing marvellously.’ Praise inflation had spiralled out of control in our home.

  When I was pregnant with our first baby, David and I had bought this nice house near Clapham Common, where we could watch the sailing boats on the pond, drink coffee by the bandstand or have gay sex with strangers in the woods at night. It’s funny how when you live somewhere you never use the facilities for which it’s most famous. But as the children grew older it became a struggle to shield them from the dark underside of urban life. The expensive kids’ school was separate, of course, and our friends came from a similarly protected minority. Our children played outside, but only in our back garden; they went to swimming lessons, but only at the private health club. Apparently you get a much better class of verruca. On the occasions when we did walk out of the house and down the high street, I wanted to shield their eyes from the drunks and beggars and smashed car windows and the big yellow police signs calling for witnesses to a recent stabbing.

  ‘“Appeal for witnesses. Serious assault.” Mummy, what does that mean?’

  ‘It’s just a sign, darling. Ooh, look at that funny pigeon in the road. What’s he found there?’ At which point I would realize that the pigeon was pecking at a dead fellow pigeon that had been squashed by a passing truck. ‘Oh, and look over there, what pretty flowers in the shop window!’

  ‘And look, Mummy, there’s more pretty flowers over there, tied to that lamppost.’

  ‘Oh yes, so there are.’

  ‘Why are all those flowers tied to the lamppost? And there are cards – can we read the cards?’

  ‘No, come on, darling, let’s get to the bookshop before they run out of books. Look at that funny bicycle locked to the railings – it’s got no wheels. I wonder why it’s got no wheels?’

  ‘Because someone stole them,’ Molly would explain tersely.

  Their school reading books hadn’t prepared them for any of this. Not that it would necessarily be a good idea if they had.

  Biff and Chip have found some dirty needles in the gutter. ‘Let’s have a sword fight!’ says Chip. ‘Stop!’ says Dad. ‘Stop!’ says Mum. ‘Those old needles have been left there by smackheads. They are probably infected with the AIDS virus,’ says Dad. ‘Which is also why your father and I never have unprotected sex with total strangers,’ adds Mum. Everyone laughs.

  I could cross the road three times to avoid them, but Alfie would still spot the spaced-out beggars slumped beside the cashpoint machines. ‘Mummy, can we give that man some money?’

  ‘No, Alfie dear, you’re not supposed to.’

  ‘But his sign says he’s hungry. If we give him some money, he could buy some rice cakes and hummus.’

  ‘You can put some money in the pretend dog outside the chemist’s.’

  ‘But he’s got a real dog. Why’s his dog got lots of big bosoms?’

  ‘She must have had puppies recently, dear.’

  ‘Where are the puppies? Can we get one of the puppies?’

  ‘Oh yeah, right, if you want to fish them out from the bottom of the Thames.’ Obviously I only thought this; I managed to prevent myself actually saying it.

  In the end I found it preferable to avoid taking the children down the high street altogether and would drive them up to the King’s Road for their shoes and books and Harry Potter stationery kits. Ideally I’d have liked to keep them inside a giant version of the rain cover that used to unfold over their pushchair: a big protective bubble that would shield them from breathing in the lorry fumes and stop them from witnessing the dirt and the sleaze of the inner city outside their front door. Instead I strapped them into the back of the 4x4 and whisked them off to their preparatory school on the other side of the common.

  A four-wheel drive is vital in this sort of terrain. When you are transporting children across a remote mountain region such as Clapham and Battersea, the extra purchase you get with a four-wheel drive is absolutely essential. Ordinary vehicles would have to be abandoned at Base Camp at the bottom of Lavender Hill, while only hardy Sherpas with mules and four-wheel drives could cope with the sort of incline you face as you pull away from the KFC towards the Wandsworth one-way system. Of course, the traffic on the way to school is terrible, forcing us to leave so early in the morning that sometimes the children have to eat their breakfast while strapped in the back of the car.

  ‘What’s six times nine, Molly?’ I would chirp on the day of her test as I swerved down a back street to try to beat the gridlock.

  ‘Fifty-four,’ she would splutter, spitting out bits of Marmite toast onto the upholstery as her brother shouted, ‘Mummy, Molly talked with her mouth full!’

  On one occasion a child stepped out on the road in front of us and I had to do an emergency stop. How could a mother just let her child walk to school on his own like that? Thank God it was me, I thought. Imagine if it had been one of those speeding drivers who tear down Oaken Avenue. Obviously I am aware that I’m contributing to the traffic by driving the children to school, but there’s simply no choice; there are too many cars on the road to let my children out of the car. I do my bit for the environment in other ways. When I do my supermarket shop on the internet, I always try to click on the little green van symbol so that I have a delivery from a driver who’s already in my area.

  I suppose I liked my 4x4 because I felt safe in it. I could climb in, lock the doors and ferry my children through the dangerous traffic out there without feeling vulnerable to the big wide world. It helped me feel separate from everyone else. Except all the other mothers at Spencer House, of course. Ffion had a huge Japanese one: a ‘Subaru Big Bastard’ I think William said it was called. Even that mother with an only child drove a people carrier – or ‘person carrier’ in her case. Every morning at half past eight there was chaos outside the school as all the middle-class trucker-mums executed three-point turns to get round the mini-roundabout.

  This world of school fees and purple
blazers and children who shook their teacher’s hand at the end of the day was not something I had started out with. Growing up in a leafy suburb in Middlesex, I had been among the last few children in the country to take the eleven-plus exam. This was a universal test once taken by every eleven-year-old in the country, which would determine whether you went to the nice traditional grammar school, whence you would progress to university, or the scruffy secondary modern, which you left at sixteen to get a job sweeping up in the hairdresser’s. Basically it was a fairly crude test designed to establish whether you were middle class or working class. The questions themselves rather gave this away. Question one: What is a motor-car? Is it a) A smart vehicle for driving Daddy to his job at the bank, or b) That rusty thing stacked up on bricks in your front yard? Question two: What is a pony? Is it a) That lovely little horsey at the bottom of your garden, or b) Twenty-five nicker and a lot less than a monkey. You even got a head start for putting the right sort of name at the top of your sheet. ‘Timothy’ or ‘Arabella’ got full marks, but if you were called ‘Wayne’ or ‘Rita’ you were losing points already.

  But occasionally the social sorting hat got it wrong, as I discovered on the afternoon that the results were announced to the class. It never took me as long to walk home as it did that day. In the end my parents cobbled together enough cash to send me to a third-division private school, which for generations had supplied the British Empire with its estate agents and PR girls. Soon after that they abolished the eleven-plus in Middlesex. In fact, they abolished the whole county as well, just to make sure. And all these years later, the only thing that my third-rate education had taught me was that my children were going to have better. They would know the capital of Canada and that a quaver wasn’t just a type of crisp. They would naturally understand all those frightening dilemmas of modern etiquette, like is it rude not to reply to a humorous email that’s been forwarded to every name on the sender’s address book? That is why we were paying all that money to Spencer House and why Alfie had started at the best private nursery, where young teachers were already steering his limp four-year-old hand into making barely recognizable letter shapes, so my children wouldn’t spend the rest of their life feeling that everyone else knew more than they did. By the way, it’s Ottawa. I just looked it up.

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