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May contain nuts, p.21

May Contain Nuts, page 21

 

May Contain Nuts
 


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  ‘What are you talking about? They were playing a bloody computer game …’

  ‘I’m sorry, but Molly is holding Bronwyn back academically, and I simply cannot have that.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Your daughter is holding my child back academically. I don’t think the friendship is benefiting Bronwyn.’

  Suddenly my rage crossed a line and I felt possessed by some sort of serene calmness that came from no longer caring. I was furious without being volatile, incandescent but in control. There was a pause and then I just looked her up and down and said, ‘Hey, F-f-f-fion? Why don’t you just f-f-f-fuck off ! Just f-fuck off and f-find something more worthwhile to do, like shaving off that hideous moustache, you big fat walrus.’

  There was a stunned silence. And then William said, ‘So, um … anyone fancy a game of Wishy-Washy?’

  ‘Shut up, William!’ said Sarah, but Ffion was already gone. We hadn’t even set a date for the next bridge lesson. And out by her car I caught a glimpse of her husband taking a long slow drag of a cigarette.

  Can Crystals Cure Cancer?

  By Dr Henry Bagge

  Sunrise Books £6.99

  No.

  — 10 —

  The book didn’t actually say ‘No’, but I felt able to make up my own mind about this without reading two hundred pages of what David termed ‘bogus anti-scientific mumbo-jumbo’. I don’t think I’d have been very comfortable if one of my children was rushed to hospital and the doctor said, ‘I’ve just read this amazing book on crystology, so instead of giving him the usual cure for pneumonia I thought we might rest some agate on his forehead because that’s the birthstone for Scorpio, although we might try some topaz since he’s on the cusp with Sagittarius.’ I’d always thought it was rather liberal and forward-thinking to be open to ideas about alternative medicine, spiritualism and astrology. But now I’d lost the faith.

  I pulled Can Crystals Cure Cancer? from the shelf and chucked it on the pile destined for the Oxfam shop, and then decided it might be a bit tactless to give them Think Yourself Thinner. But they did get Yoga for Toddlers, The Womb-man’s Guide to Lunar Menstruation and Choose Your Child’s Star Sign: How family planning and elective caesareans can help you pick the best sign of the zodiac for your baby. Nor did I keep Men Say Tomato – Women say Tomato, Homeopathy for Cats or the book that suggested I might use tarot cards to help me pick my child’s GCSE subjects. Looking at the pile now made me feel there was something rather decadent and narcissistic about all these quasi-alternative bibles and endless self-help books. Funny how there isn’t a market for ‘help-other-people books’.

  Ruby failed to get into Barnes School for Girls. Despite a planned programme of study sessions round at our house, despite mock examinations done in David’s office while he tutted and huffed around in the kitchen, my adopted prodigy failed to make the grade. And it wasn’t because I didn’t give her any echinacea and nettle. Her grandmother rang me to thank me for all my efforts but to say that Ruby would be going to Battersea Comprehensive with all her friends after all. She didn’t want to talk for long; when I asked how Ruby did in the interview with the head teacher, she mumbled something about them missing it because the bus had been late. There was a suggestion of embarrassment in her voice as if she now felt foolish ever to have harboured such social aspirations for her granddaughter. But I felt a personal sense of failure, as if I was somehow responsible for Ruby’s fate. Her brother Kofi dropped round the practice papers that I hadn’t wanted back.

  ‘He really is very tall, isn’t he?’ said David. ‘Do you know what occurs to me? That somebody should put him in contact with a professional basketball team.’

  Sarah happily agreed to my suggestion that we take our girls out to buy their uniforms for Chelsea College together, and then her daughter let slip that this was the second set of school clothes they had bought; they’d already been out once with Ffion and Bronwyn. (Ffion and I had not been in touch since I had happened to allude to her striking similarity to an enormous whiskery sea-mammal.) Now with the kids all at school and David visiting a client, I sat at home sewing Molly’s nametags on her Chelsea College blazer. I didn’t use the whole space provided because Molly didn’t have a triple-barrelled name. But I couldn’t get Ruby out of my head. She would never wear a blazer like this one, I thought as I held it up. I pictured her in the whole outfit, walking side by side with Molly up the steps of Chelsea College. And then I shuddered at the thought of my daughter being friends with Bronwyn for another seven years.

  My attention was distracted by seeing a police car pull up in the road. Had a resident of Oaken Avenue committed some crime? Had somebody been putting white flour in their bread-maker? But then my casual nosiness turned to panic as I spied a uniformed officer striding down my path. Inside my brain, some sort of instinctive rapid-response unit instantly kicked into action: heartbeat alarm on maximum, adrenalin mobilized, hand movements set to medium-level shaking. I must try to remain calm, I told myself. I must not appear to panic; no, I am going to remain in complete control. And then I dived behind the sofa. I lay there hidden, feeling my heart thumping too loudly against the carpet, staring into the darkness of the gap under the couch. The police had come for me, they had found out, it was all over. But at least I had located Sneezy from Alfie’s Polly Pocket Snow White Cottage, so that was something to be positive about.

  The doorbell made me jump even though I was expecting it. What was the point of having electric gates if I was going to leave them open in the daytime? The police had warned us about undesirable characters knocking on people’s doors and now they’d been proved right. I stayed hidden. I would just ignore it and the policeman would go away again; yes, that was surely an excellent and foolproof way of dealing with this particular problem. The carpet down there was much less worn that in the centre of the room, I noticed. Give it another minute or so and the arresting officer would be gone. The doorbell rang again.

  ‘I’ll get it!’ shouted Carmen, and I heard the front door open.

  Since when did Carmen start answering the door for us? Ironing, hoovering and a little light dusting: that was the deal. I’d never mentioned anything about handing me over to an arresting officer.

  ‘Mrs Chaplin, policeman to see you …’ said Carmen, showing him into the lounge with more than a tinge of excitement in her voice.

  ‘Ah, hello there …’ I said smiling, my head popping up from behind the settee. ‘Just getting the bits of fluff off the carpet. Carmen, don’t forget to hoover behind the sofa when you do this room, will you?’

  ‘OK.’

  ‘But maybe you should do the upstairs rooms now,’ I emphasized, getting to my feet and placing a rather paltry amount of fluff in the wastepaper basket.

  ‘OK.’ And she left me alone where I was trying too hard to adopt some sort of natural standing position.

  ‘Alice Chaplin?’

  ‘Yes,’ I said, stiffening. I was sure this was it.

  ‘Hi there, Alice, I’m Mike.’

  Oh how lovely! How friendly and informal! Even though he’d come to drag me down to the cells and probably beat me into a signed confession, how charming that some expensive PR consultation had concluded that arresting officers should take the trouble to establish first-name terms beforehand. I’m sure when the hangman put the noose round Ruth Ellis, it would have really brightened up her day if he’d said, ‘Hello, Ruth, I’m Albert. I’ll be your hangman for this morning …’

  ‘Hello, er, Mike …’ I mumbled.

  On his lapel, his walkie-talkie chattered away on a special frequency reserved for distorted static and bizarre non sequiturs.

  ‘So, Alice, do you know why I’m here?’

  ‘Er … neighbourhood watch?’

  ‘Ruby Osafo?’

  ‘Ruby Osafo … ? Ruby Osafo … ?’ I repeated, in the hope that the name might ring some distant bell. ‘Ah yes, I remember.’

  ‘I’ve just been round to the flat of the family in q
uestion. They claim to be the victim of a crime?’ and he looked at me with meaningfully raised eyebrows. I think that was the moment that I was certain I was done for.

  When I had gone to court for causing a road accident with the model child, I never felt that bad about it because deep inside I felt no shame.

  ‘Really? A “crime” – that’s a very strong word, isn’t it?’ I gabbled, my voice cracking slightly. I was conscious that I was avoiding eye contact, and was also concerned that my impression of an innocent acquaintance with the Osafos might not be made more convincing if I suddenly threw up all over the fluffy carpet.

  ‘Oh yes. But I’m concerned that this is far more serious than it looks. We might be talking fraud here, Alice.’

  The excessive use of my first name was not an act of friendship at all – it was a subtle form of police brutality, designed to make the interviewee explode with indignation, inadvertently revealing all sorts of incriminating information in the outburst.

  ‘Fraud?’ I was fighting back the tears but had to stay strong. ‘Aren’t I allowed to phone my solicitor or something?’

  ‘There’s not much point in that, Alice.’

  I slumped into a chair.

  ‘Fraud? What’s the punishment for fraud? A fine, maybe? A suspended sentence?’

  ‘Ooh no, it’s a very serious offence. Custodial sentence is quite common. So I need to ask you a few questions, if I may …’

  I could just make a dash for it now, I thought. Go on the run, live wild in Richmond Park, dig out a secret den and live off raw rabbit meat and venison, occasionally popping to the Centre Court Shopping Centre, Wimbledon for essential toiletries and Belgian chocolates.

  ‘Have you given any valuables of any sort to the Osafo family during the past couple of weeks?’

  ‘Hmmm?’ I lifted my face out of my hands. ‘Yes, my old laptop computer. Why?’

  ‘Oh. Really?’ He sounded extremely disappointed. ‘What sort of computer was it?’

  ‘A little grey one – er, a Sony “Vaio” – I never know how you pronounce it.’

  ‘Oh, that’s what they said. And you’d be willing to say that in a signed statement, would you?’

  ‘I don’t understand – what’s this got to do with anything?’

  ‘Well, it’s been stolen.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Your laptop. The Osafos have reported it stolen.’

  ‘Oh, thank God.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Thank God, oh what a relief!’ I was almost laughing. ‘I thought you were, I mean, I thought that, um – it doesn’t matter. I thought something worse must have happened. So you just came round to see if I had given them my laptop?’

  ‘I had to check it out. See, it’s the easiest thing in the world for them to fake a burglary, claim they lost an expensive laptop. And when they couldn’t produce any receipt or anything, I thought they might be trying to defraud the insurance company.’ He glanced meaningfully through the net curtains. ‘Wasn’t this the road where that nutty woman got done for sticking a model Tony Blair out in front of a car? One of them anti-capitalist types, you know, anarchist or whatever …’

  ‘Really? No, I never heard about that. So you’re saying the Osafos have been the victims of a crime?’

  ‘Maybe, maybe not …’

  ‘Poor Ruby. I’d only just given her that computer. Was it a serious burglary?’

  ‘Well, robbery’s no big news on that estate. Everyone just burgles each other; it probably all evens out in the end, Alice.’

  ‘Actually, would you mind calling me “Mrs Chaplin”, please? I don’t mean to be snobby, but I don’t really know you, and I can’t be doing with all this Californian pseudo-mateyness.’

  ‘Oh. As you wish, Mrs Chaplin.’

  ‘Or just don’t use my name at all. Just say “as you wish”, without adding my name on the end? Do you think you could do that?’

  ‘As you wish.’

  ‘Thank you … Mike.’

  Half an hour later I got round to the Osafos with a rather limp bunch of carnations to find Ruby’s grandfather trying to patch a hole in the flimsy door with an ill-fitting bit of plywood. He said he would have cut the wood to size but they had stolen his toolbox. The door had been kicked in for the third time in two years. They had also lost the big telly from the sideboard, the defunct computer, the portable CD player and, of course, my old laptop. All the drawers were emptied out, mattresses pulled off beds, books and clothes scattered across the floor. Mrs Osafo had always seemed to have a philosophical stoicism about her but today she looked utterly defeated. She just sat slumped in an armchair surrounded by the chaos. ‘Why do people have to steal from us?’ she said looking at me. ‘We don’t have nothing and they steal from us!’

  All that nervous energy I had expended worrying about being a victim of crime. But people like me – people with burglar alarms and light sensors and electric gates – we aren’t the ones whose lives are ruined by endless burglaries. We’ve got too much money to be robbed.

  ‘I’m fed up with it …’ she went on. ‘Fed up with it …’

  ‘Maybe the police will find who did it and get the stuff back …’ I offered weakly.

  ‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘The policeman said he was going to make a few enquiries.’

  ‘Ah right. Well, there you are …’

  ‘But why did he go and see you?’

  ‘Well, he just wanted to ask … to check the value of the stolen laptop.’

  I was surprised to see Ruby arrive at the door with a small bag of shopping. She placed a bar of chocolate in her granny’s hand and her grandmother pulled her close and held her there as tears spilled from her closed eyes. ‘You are a good girl, Ruby. You’re a good girl.’ I was embarrassed to be intruding on this private moment.

  ‘Did you come home from school specially, Ruby?’

  ‘No, I had the day off,’ she said standing up. ‘Gran is taking me to the open day at my new school.’

  ‘We can’t go to that now, Ruby,’ announced her grandmother. ‘I have too much to sort out here.’

  Ruby’s face fell. In the hallway her grandfather threw a piece of wood to the ground and swore in what I now knew was Ashanti.

  ‘Let me take her,’ I said.

  ‘Oh no, you’ve done so much for her already …’

  ‘No, really, I’d be happy to. You’d still like to go, wouldn’t you, Ruby?’

  ‘Oh yes please.’

  ‘You’ve been the victim of a crime. It’s the least I could do.’

  Ruby was proud to be sitting up in the front seat of our big car and called out unnecessary ‘hellos’ to friends some distance away on the estate. She was enjoying the job of being my local guide; after so many months of me being the tutor, now the roles were reversed.

  ‘So you’ve been to this school before, Ruby?’ I asked her.

  ‘Yes, lots of times. ‘Cause my brother went there. You have to turn left after this garage.’

  ‘I must say I’ve lived in this area for years and never known exactly where Battersea Comprehensive was. It’s not like Chelsea College; you have to go past that every time you drive to the King’s Road.’ Inside I winced slightly at the careless mention of the name of the school that Ruby would not be attending. I could feel Ruby staring at me.

  ‘Did you think Molly would pass the exam for Chelsea College?’

  ‘Well, I kept my fingers crossed you know!’ The lights were red and I braked slightly too sharply.

  ‘You must have wanted her to go there very much …’ she continued. ‘Right at these traffic lights.’

  ‘Er, well, yes I did, Ruby. But of course there are lots of good schools …’

  ‘No, right! Not left!’

  ‘Oh yes, sorry.’ I swerved the four-wheel drive in the other direction and vaguely heard a cyclist’s bell and the sound of somebody swearing at me. ‘What was I saying, er, so, jolly good, yes. I’m sure you and Molly will be able to carry on being friends
.’

  ‘Were you worried that Molly might fail the exam?’

  ‘Goodness, you’re being very inquisitive today, Ruby. Well, all mothers worry, it comes with the territory – oh, look at that advert, that’s a funny dog, isn’t it?’

  ‘But, like, would you have, like, given anything in the whole world-wide-web to get Molly into Chelsea College?’

  I looked across at her.

  ‘Carry straight on down here for a while,’ she added.

  ‘Er, well, no – I knew there were other schools. We just were keen for her to go to the same place as all her friends, like you’re going to. Are we nearly there?’

  ‘Nearly; it’s left down here. But you must have been pleased when she got the scholarship?’

  ‘Well, she’s always been a very bright girl; she just didn’t always do well in exams. She struggles a bit with her mathematics, but then she gets that from me. I’m useless at maths.’

  ‘I know,’ said Ruby. And then we were there.

  My first impression of the school was of the incredible diversity. I looked at what I think is traditionally referred to as the ‘rainbow mix’ of children ambling round the playground: scruffy kids, smart kids, black, white, tall, short, Sikh boys chatting with Chinese boys, children who judging by the iconography on their hats and bags worshipped gods ranging all the way from Nike to Adidas. We were taken round the school in small groups by a couple of sixth-formers whose job it was to answer any questions with an embarrassed mumble.

  ‘How long has the new art block been open?’

  ‘hmnem nmemn …’

  ‘Really? Fascinating …’

  ‘It’s even better than the one at Chelsea College, isn’t it, Ruby?’ I wasn’t exaggerating either; even the students’ paintings on the wall were more interesting. Here the self-portraits weren’t all the same colour.

  Battersea Comprehensive actually looked a lot better than I’d expected. There was a sixth-form common room where a girl was about twenty pages into Ulysses, which was a lot further than I’d ever managed. There were computer suites where pupils were designing their own web pages and no one was shouting, ‘David! Everything’s disappeared off the screen again!’ From the way that other mums had gossiped at Molly’s school, I’d imagined some unruly run-down New York holding pen, with subway graffiti in the corridors and hooded youths selling the first years Bostik behind the bike shed. Spencer House parents were frightened of the pupils in this school without ever having been here. All fear is based on ignorance really. Except if you shared a flat with that American serial killer who ate all his victims, I suppose – then your fear wouldn’t be based on ignorance. ‘No, no, I am not at all ignorant about Jeffrey. There’s nothing in the fridge and he’s suggesting I have an early night; this fear is based on a thorough working knowledge of my flatmate’s eating habits.’

 
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