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May contain nuts, p.20

May Contain Nuts, page 20


May Contain Nuts

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  ‘Really? Did she get caught?’

  ‘No. I let her see them deliberately.’

  ‘Mum! Mum!’ said Bronwyn. ‘Ruby says that when she took her entrance exam here, she deliberately let the girl sitting next to her copy all her answers.’

  ‘Why did you do that, dear?’

  ‘Because she looked so sad and worried.’

  I was staring very hard at the programme. Then I turned it the right way up.

  ‘Well, I’m sure you were trying to be kind, but you really shouldn’t have done that, dear,’ continued Ffion. ‘That person was cheating. If you see her here you should point her out.’

  It was only for a split second, but I was sure Ruby glanced at me. And then the overture struck up.

  I did my best to enjoy the operetta. The story tells how the Pirate Apprentice was supposed to have been born into respectable society, and it was interesting to see how the young actor chose to convey this notion by affecting an extremely posh accent throughout. The singing was exceptional; the boy warbled like some angelic choirboy who might suddenly shoot to stardom with an unexpected Christmas number-one hit. The glossy programme notes recounted how he was in some grand choir that I think we were supposed to have heard of, and boasted that he had already performed in a number of professional concerts in Vienna, Paris and Bracknell. (I would have left out Bracknell.) There were thanks to parents who owned designer shops and had lent costumes. There were photos of the lead players taken by a well-known fashion photographer whose daughter was one of the stars. It was like the programme you would get at a West End show, right down to the little details, like it costing five quid. The whole thing was incredibly slick and professionally produced. ‘Away to the cheating world go you, Where pirates all are well-to-do,’ sang the Pirate King. Had I read too much into that glance from Ruby? I thought. Or did she know? Had she known ever since I’d first picked her up at the bus stop?

  During the interval I glanced at Ruby for any clue as to her thoughts. She was looking round in amazement at all the people sipping wine at the back of the hall, at the slim and tanned women in Moschino tops and the men whose idea of chillin’ was taking off their tie and wearing a cravat.

  ‘Are you all right, Ruby?’

  ‘Yeah. Are all the people who go to Chelsea College rich?’ she asked me.

  Once I would have instinctively fudged such an embarrassing issue but having been to Ruby’s council flat and to both of Ffion’s enormous houses, it was hard to bracket both families together in the middle somewhere.

  ‘Well, yes, I would say that pretty well all of them are richer than … than the families on the Wilberforce Estate …’

  ‘So are you rich then?’ she enquired, as if this was like asking my star sign. Being English and middle-class, this was obviously something I preferred not to talk about. When our accountant had asked how much we had earned in the previous financial year, I had shrugged. ‘Well, we get by, you know …’ But Ruby deserved an honest answer.

  ‘Well, I never would have said so before, but I suppose we are rich. Yes.’

  ‘Before what?’ said my daughter impatiently.


  ‘You said you never would have said so before … Before what?’

  ‘Before I got an education.’

  The girls wandered off to get themselves a soft drink and Ffion smiled approvingly as Ruby followed her daughter and friends. I had been anxious as to how Ffion would react to Ruby. It was no accident that they had never met before.

  ‘I think it’s marvellous that you’ve been helping that little Ruby girl. You’re a saint, Alice, you really are – everyone should do something for charity. Bronwyn has sponsored a donkey, hasn’t she, Philip?’

  ‘Well, it’s not really charity. I’m just trying to give her a chance to realize her potential.’

  ‘Yes, super. But I think it was probably for the best she didn’t get in here, don’t you, hmm?’ she said looking round. ‘She wouldn’t really have fitted in …’

  I followed her gaze. Nearby Sarah was trying to break into a circle where the headmistress was talking, but nobody seemed to be moving for her.

  ‘I don’t see why not – she’s as clever as all the other children …’

  ‘But we can’t pretend she’s not different, can we, hmmm? I mean, I suppose it must have occurred to you that her mother might be a, you know –’ she lowered her voice – ‘a prostitute?’


  I was a little too emphatic and a couple of other Chelsea College parents looked round. I attempted an upbeat smile at them.

  ‘Think about it, Alice,’ she whispered. ‘You say she works in the evenings, and I mean we don’t know who Ruby’s father is, do we, hmm?’

  ‘I have made a point of never asking. But lots of families have no father – it doesn’t mean a thing. Listen, the hours that Ruby’s mum works, if she was a prostitute she’d be a millionaire by now.’

  ‘Unless she had a drug habit,’ said Philip, checking the nicotine patch on his arm as his wife nodded sadly at that pertinent point.

  ‘Cannabis …’

  ‘Heroin …’

  ‘Crack cocaine …’

  ‘SHE HAS NOT GOT A CRACK HABIT!’ I blurted out and a few more parents turned in my direction. ‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this. They are a perfectly respectable family – they go to church, they work hard, they just happen to be different to us, that’s all.’

  The girls returned with their soft drinks, plus a tub of ice cream each.

  ‘Ice cream too! I only gave you a pound,’ said Ffion.

  ‘Ruby paid for it all. Her mum gave her ten pounds to buy us all something.’

  And Ffion raised her eyebrows meaningfully at me. No further evidence required.

  I knew Ffion was wrong. In fact, it was an incredibly liberating experience, because for years I had been nervous and unsure about so many things and so I’d allowed Ffion’s total self-confidence to guide me. Now that I was sure that she was completely wrong about one thing, it opened up the possibility that she was misguided about so much else. Ffion’s strident certainty had been a rock to cling to in the perfect storm of parenthood. But like the shipwrecked sailor in Alfie’s picture book, I hadn’t been clinging to a rock at all, but to a whale. A big fat killer whale with a facial hair problem.

  For a while now I had been wanting to stop the fencing classes that Molly begrudgingly did with Bronwyn every Thursday, but I’d never quite had the courage to say so to her mother. Now I would just announce it – just tell her that Molly didn’t have time for fencing.

  ‘What, do you mean she’s got too much on?’ demanded Ffion, when I finally spat the words out the following weekend. We were all gathered in my kitchen as usual, but now I was shocked to notice my hands shaking slightly as I poured the coffee, knowing I was about to stand up to Ffion.

  ‘What’s she going to do instead of fencing?’

  ‘Well, I just thought she might, um … do nothing …’


  ‘Yes, on Thursdays between four and five, I’m timetabling in nothing. Just being at home and, I dunno, having fun.’

  ‘Fun? Fun? These children have nothing but fun. No, Bronwyn, if Molly bid hearts you have to put down hearts as well.’

  Sarah bravely attempted to change the subject. ‘Still not smoking, Philip?’

  ‘Four weeks!’ he said proudly. ‘And I’m down to about forty nicotine patches a day!’ He grinned, showing us the little sticking plaster on his arm.

  ‘I think you should still have to stand in the garden,’ said William.

  Bronwyn picked up the card she had placed on the card table and replaced it with the two of hearts.

  ‘No, clockwise, Kirsty! In contract bridge you always go clockwise!’

  ‘Well, I know they’re very lucky and everything to have so many opportunities,’ I continued, ‘and I’m sure fencing is lots of fun, but just not sandwiched
in between their maths tutor and swimming lessons …’

  ‘Swimming is fun. And horse-riding, and ballet and real-tennis and drama and fencing and piano – you have lots of fun, don’t you, Bronwyn, hmmm, darling, don’t you, you have lots of fun?’ Her baggy-eyed daughter looked up from where she was being cajoled into learning bridge.

  ‘Yes,’ she nodded obediently before returning her furrowed brow towards the cards in her hand.

  I didn’t have a problem with any of these pursuits per se; if someone’s passion was real-tennis or fencing, then good luck to them. But you can’t load too many programs onto the computer or it’s useless for anything. ‘I don’t know …’ I mumbled. ‘It’s just that when Molly stopped studying hours every night after dashing from this lesson to that, she suddenly seemed a lot happier …’

  ‘Well, that’s super and I’m sure that Molly will be very happy watching television when the other girls are getting their fencing gold for Chelsea College, but fun doesn’t pass exams, does it, hmm, does it? Fun doesn’t make a child strive for excellence or get to the best universities, hmm? They have plenty of time to have fun at home. No! No! No! Bronwyn, don’t put down the four of clubs if Molly has already led with hearts, for goodness’ sake, concentrate, child!’

  Sarah was looking a little anxious at Ffion’s growing irritation. ‘I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if Molly just did fencing alternate weeks, Alice?’

  ‘That’s a lovely thought, Sarah, but I don’t want Molly to do it all.’

  ‘It’s not always about what we want, though, is it?’ said Ffion. A suppressed laugh escaped from William’s mouth that turned into an affected cough. ‘Our children are individuals, people in their own right, not extensions of our own egos,’ she added, retrieving the card her daughter had just played, and choosing a better card from Bronwyn’s hand.

  Sarah’s suggested compromise made me realize how totally Ffion had dominated our lives. A few months ago I would have agreed to the compromise of fortnightly fencing lessons just so as not to irritate Ffion, but now I felt ready to do what I was certain was best for my children. I’m not going to let Ffion’s obsessive pushy parenting affect my own family any more, I thought as she hovered behind my nervous daughter to see which card she would play.

  ‘I’m collecting nines,’ Molly whispered, and Ffion pressed her fingers to her temples in exasperation.

  ‘I said at the beginning, you don’t collect cards of the same number.’

  ‘Can we go and play in the garden?’ said Bronwyn.

  ‘Look, I don’t have to do this you know,’ snapped Ffion. ‘A lot of parents wouldn’t bother. So you better have a good think about the alternative. Do you want to arrive at secondary school not knowing how to play contract bridge? Is that what you really want?’

  The children stared silently at Ffion, and tried their best to imagine just how great a social impediment this might be. Molly tentatively took a card from her hand and placed it on the pile, nervously looking to Ffion for some sort of reaction.

  ‘Snap!’ shouted Kirsty, and her mother tried to laugh as if she had been joking, though it was quite possible that she wasn’t. Ffion seemed dangerously close to completely losing patience. She was determined that these children were going to learn contract bridge, and now set them up in the next room to play a few games on their own. Jamie didn’t want to play bridge with the three girls. ‘You have to. I already explained you can’t play bridge with three people, weren’t you listening, Jamie?’

  The coffee tasted more bitter than usual. But the atmosphere lightened slightly as Ffion and Philip enjoyed being quizzed about the progress of their personal-league-table software.

  ‘What about humility?’ asked William. ‘Can people give themselves a really high score for that?’

  Ffion said she couldn’t see why not and William cast me the tiniest of conspiratorial grins. Then Alfie wandered into the kitchen having done as his father had privately requested: he had refrained from cross-dressing in front of our guests. He came in disguised as Spiderman, a macho role model that would make any father proud of his boy. ‘Look – Spiderman’s got boobies!’ announced our son, proudly jutting out the pair of oranges he’d stuffed under his costume.

  We had expected the South-west London Junior Bridge Club to return after ten minutes declaring that they were bored, but without their parents to intimidate them it seemed that they had become genuinely absorbed. Half an hour later they were still in there. At one point I had suggested going to check on them but Ffion said that we should leave them to it and Sarah had agreed with her, which left me with no option but to sit down again. When Ffion had finally decided that they would have played enough hands, we returned to explain the scoring system to them. I was the first into the lounge to witness a scene of total and reverential concentration. All four of them were gathered round the television watching Bronwyn and Molly leaping about in front of the screen playing Wishy-Washy on the PlayStation Eye-Toy.

  So engrossed were all the children in the computerized window cleaning that none of them even turned round as Bronwyn swung her arms about in front of the tiny camera on top of the telly, watching herself on the screen wildly wiping away the virtual suds on the TV while a distorted cover version of ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ boomed out of the speakers. ‘Bird poo!’ chorused the other children delightedly as a white smear appeared on the screen. It was then that Molly looked up and saw us standing there horrified. ‘Mum, I beat Bronwyn at Wishy-Washy.’

  By the end of the sentence I could see Molly was already sensing that this wasn’t perhaps the point.

  ‘Bronwyn, what on earth do you think you are doing?’

  ‘Molly turned it on,’ she squealed.

  According to my script, this line is followed by that child’s parent saying, ‘Well, you should have said you weren’t interested,’ or, ‘Don’t blame Molly, it takes two people to play,’ but to my astonishment I heard Ffion direct her fury to my own child: ‘Molly, say sorry to Bronwyn for making her go on the PlayStation.’

  ‘Sorry, Bronwyn.’

  ‘Don’t look at me, look at her when you say sorry.’

  ‘Sorry, Bronwyn.’

  I replayed this scene several times in my head afterwards and every version ended with me saying, ‘Now just a minute, Ffion. I’ll admonish my own child, thank you very much …’ but I’m ashamed to say that I was so shocked and her disappointment in Molly seemed so convincing that I found myself persuaded by it.

  ‘Yes, Molly, you really should know better,’ I concurred. ‘Ffion goes to all this effort to teach you bridge and you go and fritter away all the chances we give you. There are children in Africa who would love to form a little bridge club, but they don’t even have playing cards.’ I didn’t know what I was saying now, it was just nonsense, but you have to keep up appearances. The other grown-ups did their best to nod as if this was a well-made point. I looked at Sarah and she put on her best disappointed face at her own daughter, although I sensed that William seemed to think it was all quite funny. Deep down I suspected that if Molly hadn’t beaten Bronwyn’s high score on the PlayStation, then her mother wouldn’t have objected quite so much. I suppose her daughter hadn’t had as much practice at this particular game as my kids. If Bronwyn had tried to play Wishy-Washy at her house, Ffion would have got the Croatian au pair to clean the virtual windows for her.

  ‘It really is very, very disappointing …’ continued Ffion, as the children bowed their heads in shame while the upbeat ukulele theme tune continued strumming in the background. ‘You really should know better, I’m very disappointed in you, Molly.’

  Molly she had said again. Molly. Ffion had puffed just once too often and at that moment the balloon suddenly burst.

  ‘Now hang on a minute, Ffion. It wasn’t just Molly, they were all playing it. I’ve told Molly off – why don’t you have a word with your own child?’

  ‘Because Bronwyn was really looking forward to learning bridge. Bronwyn was h
oping to join the bridge club at Chelsea College but she won’t be able to if your daughter keeps leading her astray and turning on Splishy-Sploshy.’

  ‘Wishy-Washy,’ Molly corrected her, perhaps unwisely.

  ‘BE QUIET, MOLLY!’ shouted Ffion. ‘We’ve had quite enough from you today, thank you very much.’

  ‘DON’T YOU SHOUT AT MY DAUGHTER,’ I suddenly shouted back. ‘I’ll tell her off, not you!’

  ‘You have to admit—’ began Philip in his best placatory tone.

  ‘No, I don’t have to admit anything. This is my house and she is my daughter and I will not have her taking all the blame for everything.’

  My anger had shocked everyone, including myself. Some primal defensive instinct had kicked in and now I was tearing up the ancient treaty under which adults had agreed to always present a united front in the face of errant children.

  ‘Why don’t you have a word with your own bloody daughter, instead of everyone else’s? Why don’t you face up to the fact that your child is not, in fact, the only child in the world that is one hundred per cent bloody perfect?’

  ‘Because Bronwyn wasn’t the one who turned on the Game Cube, that’s why!’

  If Molly considered pointing out that it was a PlayStation, not a Game Cube, she decided against it. The children were staring open-mouthed to see the adults turn on one another like this.

  ‘And Bronwyn didn’t start playing computer games, so don’t blame me for Molly’s intellectual immaturity.’

  ‘Intellectual immaturity? What sort of bollocks is that? You think your child’s so bloody smart just because she came top of a league table that her own mother designed! Well bugger me, what a surprise!’

  ‘Please don’t swear in front of Bronwyn,’ said her mother. The language had taken the children’s amazement to an even higher level. Their faces betrayed an uneven mixture of excitement rapidly being swamped by acute embarrassment.

  ‘I’m sorry that you are so angry that Bronwyn is a higher achiever than Molly,’ she continued, ‘but perhaps that’s what happens when your children start mixing with coloured children off a council estate. I don’t mind you frittering away your own daughter’s potential, but I won’t have you letting it affect mine.’

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