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May contain nuts, p.22

May Contain Nuts, page 22


May Contain Nuts

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  The tour of the school allowed us to step into lessons that were in full flow, and a few of us stood at the back of a room of children learning French. It was remarkable – this boy couldn’t have been more than thirteen but he read absolutely perfectly in front of the whole class. I wondered if Molly would learn to speak fluent French like that at Chelsea College.

  ‘Thank you, Jean-Pierre,’ said the teacher as he sat down.

  I have to confess that when I saw the other mums and dads waving hello to one another and chatting to friends, I felt a little jealous of them. Ruby said hello to lots of people as we walked round. ‘Who’s she?’ I quizzed when she first waved at an elderly white lady on the other side of the playground with a family.

  ‘That’s Vera.’

  Oh right, I thought, that explains it. ‘No, I mean, where do you know her from?’

  ‘She used to help at Brownies.’

  ‘What about them?’ I asked when a passing mother and daughter said hello. ‘Are they from your school?’

  ‘No. Church.’

  ‘What about her?’

  ‘Er, I dunno where I know her from. She just lives in Clapham.’

  I was learning that in the place where I lived there was a complex local community like some huge Venn diagram. There was, of course, a big overlap between the parents at Battersea Comprehensive and Ruby’s junior school. Ruby’s school also overlapped with the church in the high street. Both of those overlapped with the local charities and youth clubs, and then there were other rings containing babysitting circles and dog walkers on Clapham Common and evening classes at Lambeth College, and pub quiz teams who knew people who were involved in local politics who had neighbours who ran kids’ football teams in Battersea Park who had shared a flat with the lady who delivered the meals on wheels to the old woman who used to be the lollipop lady outside Ruby’s school. All of their lives were intertwined and connected, everybody knew someone who knew someone else, they were all stopping and chatting with one another, and I realized that I wasn’t in this Venn diagram at all. I didn’t overlap with any of them; my family and friends were in their very own isolated high-security private circle, somewhere on the edge of the page.

  And it was apparent that the school’s intake wasn’t all Joe Public, there was the occasional Charles Public and Phoebe Public as well. Using the sophisticated polling method of counting the boys with angelic choirboy haircuts and the youths with shaven bullet heads, I could see that the middle-class kids were in the minority here, just like in the rest of society, I suppose. But there was enough of a social mix to make you feel uplifted about how everyone seemed to be getting along together. Because although it was the noisiest, busiest, most bustling, excited place imaginable, there was something about the atmosphere of this school that was like being allowed to lie back in a warm bath after years and years and years of running on the spot. There was far less urgent anxiety about all the other parents or their children; it was as if the place was saying to me, ‘It’s fine, Alice, it’s OK. Just relax.’ I caught myself rushing to be first through a door for the head teacher’s talk, but then realized that another visitor wasn’t competing to be first into the hall at all. She held the door open for me and Ruby and said, ‘After you.’

  ‘Sorry, thank you, sorry.’ I felt ashamed of myself. Ffion wouldn’t have held the door open for me. She would have brought a shepherd’s crook to yank all the other people’s children back by the neck.

  As we filed into the hall, the school choir was singing on the stage. It had the effect of making you tiptoe swiftly to the nearest seat in case you distracted the children from their performance. No one left a gap – the other parents came and sat right next to you, half crouching lest they block the others’ view, then discreetly waving at friends in the crowd or proudly pointing out children they knew in the choir. Ruby was transfixed by these older singers swaying gently to the tune they belted out from the stage, singing in imperfect harmony, which somehow made it all the more perfect. And when the hall was completely full and the doors were closed, I thought they would stop, but now that they had everyone’s attention, the music teacher nodded to the piano player and began conducting one last number.

  I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself as the student piano player bashed out the opening chords of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. A 1970s weepy, aimed straight at the heart of all the grown-ups in the hall. I’d owned this album when I was a wide-eyed student but at some point in my mid-twenties I must have decided it was a bit corny because I hadn’t listened to it since. I adopted a benign smile to hide the cynicism that so many years had put between myself and this song. Then the children started singing. Softly at first, but with a gentleness that alerted you to the vocal power they were holding back. And as the song built, the command that the choir had over their increasingly spellbound audience was almost tangible. I felt a lump building in my throat as the raw emotional power of all these beautiful children connected with some lost part of my life. The head teacher hadn’t even spoken yet, but already he had me. In pure marketing terms it was the most persuasive argument that could ever be advanced for sending your child to a school. OK, Battersea didn’t get as many children to the top universities as Chelsea College, and maybe the kids didn’t look so smart or win the National Debating Competition two years in a row, but just listen to that stirring crescendo: how could anyone sitting there experience the passion of that tragic climax and not want to sign on the line there and then? Please let us send our children here, we haven’t even looked at the league tables, we don’t need to read the Ofsted report, the siren voices have persuaded us. There is no more direct route to a parent’s heart than the sound of children singing, and as for a whole stage full of kids singing a song from our own childhood, well, that was it – total and unconditional surrender.

  ‘Why are you laughing?’ said Ruby.

  ‘I’m not laughing, dear. I’m crying.’

  Once they had finished there was an explosion of applause which had most of the room standing up and cheering, so that when the head teacher walked out to talk about his school he could have said whatever he wanted – he could have announced he planned to sell all the children for medical experiments on the first day of term, everyone would have agreed that this was a wonderful idea. Instead he thanked the choir and politely asked them to step down from the stage, which they did in perfect order, one row at a time, filing out of the hall, smiling with a quiet pride for what they had just achieved together, which broke into laughter when we applauded all over again. And then he gave a talk that was unlike any head teacher’s talk I had heard since I had started worrying about secondary transfer about three weeks after Molly had started primary school.

  He didn’t list exam grades or awards or victories in sporting competitions but he did use the word ‘happy’ more than once. He talked about ‘well-balanced children’, ‘considerate children’, ‘compassionate children’, ‘kids discovering what they loved to do, children learning respect for one another’, and it was like somebody talking a new language that I’d never realized I was already completely fluent in. It wasn’t all upbeat and positive; he got very serious and quite scary about bullying, which he called the single greatest enemy to the happiness of a child in a school, and his determination not to tolerate bullying of any sort made me want to stand up and shout, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ He was inspiring, resolute, funny, moving and sincere. When the time came for us to ask about anything he might not have covered, the only question I could think of was, ‘Could you please become the leader of a political party so that I can vote for you to be prime minister?’

  Battersea Comprehensive had got a bad reputation back in the 1980s when it was chronically underfunded, but it turned out that a desperate shortage of money was, in fact, a problem that could be solved by throwing money at it. The head of English with whom I chatted about all this was clearly very proud of their new ‘intranet’ system and the new computer clusters and the interactive whit
eboards, and I tried to pretend to know what he was talking about. I explained that Ruby was a friend of my daughter’s; my child wasn’t actually coming here. ‘Well, she managed to get into Chelsea College. She’s very bright, you see, so we felt we had to go private …’ I gabbled apologetically.

  ‘Mmm,’ he concurred. ‘Whereas my children on the other hand are very stupid. That’s why my wife and I felt they should go through the state system …’

  ‘Oh no, I didn’t mean, well, I’m sure you have bright children here too …’ I could feel my face going red.

  ‘It’s all right.’ He smiled. ‘We do have lots of bright children here, and before you ask, no, they are not held back, there are extension classes in most subjects. But a good education is about more that just how many grade As a child gets in their exams. You can’t judge a school by its place on a league table.’

  ‘No,’ I said absently. ‘Or a child …’



  I was so happy that Ruby would be going to such a splendid comprehensive with all her classmates, just as Molly was going to a top school with all her friends. For a brief few days it seemed that all was well with the world. Surely now I could stop worrying so much that my hair was turning grey faster than I could have it recoloured?

  But the golden age of peace and reassurance is always just over the next hill. Two days later Sarah was sacked from her job at Chelsea College. It was a terrible thing to happen to your best friend; a distressing personal humiliation that left one unable to do anything other than listen and nod in agreement.

  ‘I was good at that job …’

  ‘You were good at that job …’

  ‘She had no right to sack me …’

  ‘She had no right to sack you …’

  ‘It’s a rubbish school anyway …’

  ‘Erm, yes, I expect it must feel like that to you right now …’

  It had happened very suddenly. Sarah had not realized that all her questions about the school must have been irritating for the headmistress, but every anxious query about what subjects Kirsty would be doing, which class her daughter would be in, whether the children were allowed to have water in lessons (‘still and sparkling?’) – each one was an accumulating black mark against this busybody mother.

  Because I had been so impressed with the headmistress, I found a small part of myself secretly blaming Sarah for what had happened. Apparently the dismissal when it came had been executed with ruthless charm and good manners; the headmistress just didn’t think Sarah was ‘a Chelsea College sort of admin assistant …’ William said that this was the preferred upper-class phraseology for all forms of exclusion or dismissal. ‘Anne Boleyn learnt she was going to have her head chopped off when her husband said with a charming smile, “I just don’t think you’re a Henry VIII sort of wife.”’ The head teacher hadn’t said anything about withdrawing her daughter’s place from the school, but Sarah was no longer so sure she wanted Kirsty to go there anyway.

  ‘You can’t pull Kirsty out now. It wouldn’t be fair to take her away from all her friends …’ I reasoned calmly, quietly panicking inside.

  ‘Well, we’ve got nowhere else to go anyway. But Chelsea College is not so great, you know, Alice, not now I’ve seen it close up …’

  ‘Well, no school is perfect, especially if they’ve just sacked you. But we have to hold our nerve now …’

  ‘I mean, if a child doesn’t fit their narrow mould of what an Oxbridge-bound pupil should be like, then they’re just not interested in them …’

  ‘Wow, imagine Molly going to Oxford or Cambridge …’ whispered the devil on my shoulder.

  ‘If a child presents them with a problem, they just expel them.’

  ‘No problem children to distract your child …’ the devil continued.

  ‘They care more about academic averages than they do about the individual children.’

  ‘A school with high averages! How perfect for your kids!’ countered the wicked voice in my ear.

  ‘And some of the children … well, they’re just rude. Arrogant and rude. All their lives they have been told they are innately superior and perfect and they really believe it.’

  Ah, but my children would never be like that … I thought. Because only my children are completely perfect …

  But what had been a mildly humiliating rebuff for Sarah turned into a disaster a couple of days later when they received a letter informing them that since Sarah was no longer an employee of the school they could no longer justify giving a place to a pupil whose entrance exam result was below the expected standard. Although the note was dictated by the head teacher, it was signed in her absence – presumably by Sarah’s replacement as admin assistant. I couldn’t believe it. That charming liberal headmistress I had met – this must have been forced upon her by the governors or something. Sarah and William were utterly shell-shocked. Less than two and a half months until the start of the autumn term and suddenly Kirsty had no secondary school to go to. Sarah said they were appealing, and had even written to their local MP, but suddenly everything seemed uncertain once again. She wept and wept down the phone to me and at some deep level I felt this must somehow be connected with my initial misdemeanour.

  I decided I would try to cheer them up by taking them on a surprise evening out to the theatre. ‘Is it the National?’ quizzed Sarah as she climbed into the car, looking, I realized, a little overdressed for the occasion.

  ‘Not exactly …’

  ‘The Royal Shakespeare Company?’ asked William.

  ‘Not Shakespeare, no – maybe England’s second greatest writer …’

  ‘Fantastic!’ said William. ‘It’s that Jeffrey Archer play …’

  At first I was pleased when I heard that Battersea Comprehensive would be doing the classic musical Oliver! A good Dickensian story, some great songs and a couple of weepies to boot; how would Sarah and William be able to resist that? But it was only when the performance began that I realized they were doing a reinterpreted version set in the present day. The songs had all been rewritten to say things like, ‘Who Will Buy This Week’s Big Issue?’ and ‘You Gotta Nick a Mobile or Two!’ Fagin’s gang consisted of a lot of dodgy-looking fifteen-year-olds with their hoods up. ‘The muggers looked worryingly convincing,’ said William in the interval. ‘I wonder how much research they did?’

  ‘Interesting idea to make Oliver Twist an asylum seeker …’ Sarah chirped bravely. ‘I suppose that has the stigma that an orphan would have had in Victorian times.’

  ‘Either that or they needed an excuse for why he could barely speak English.’

  ‘No, he just has rather a strong accent, that’s all. Nice pictures …’ I added as I finished my lukewarm cup of tea with biscuit. William was staring at the programme: a single sheet of folded yellow A4 listing the cast, with some fairly amateurish scratchy drawings round the edges.

  ‘Hmm … I think the Royal Academy is safe for another year.’

  I had only meant to plant the possibility of this school in the minds of Sarah and William, but I found myself willing them to like it as much as I had, and I watched their every reaction to the teachers and the other parents. Please make the play better, I wished; make it so good they will think about sending Kirsty here with Ruby …

  By the time Nancy successfully fought off Bill Sikes using Thai-Bo, I had developed a headache from facing the stage while trying to gauge Sarah and William’s reactions alongside me. At the end William applauded politely, even though his mind was clearly somewhere else. We peeked in a couple of classrooms on the way out, and they nodded inscrutably as I pointed out the computers and the new sixth form and the art block. But they were very quiet. I feared that they were silently appalled by it all.

  It was very subdued in the curry house afterwards. I realized it was impossible not to make a comparison with the operetta we had seen a couple of weeks earlier, and clearly the production at Chelsea College had been much, much better. N
one of us spoke as we pretended to stare at the menus that we knew off by heart. The only noise came from David breaking little bits off his poppadom as if he was working on some two-dimensional sculpture.

  ‘What are you doing?’

  ‘Trying to make Cyprus,’ he replied, proudly holding up a shape I think we were supposed to recognize.

  ‘Very good,’ I said. It looked like a bit of poppadom to me. He attempted one more tiny adjustment, but swore as the whole of the northern peninsula snapped off. ‘Shit! Cyprus has split in two,’ he announced. ‘Appropriate enough, I suppose …’ he added before dipping the Turkish half of the island in the mango chutney and popping it in his mouth. ‘You have a go, William …’ he said.


  ‘Making a country …’

  William clearly wasn’t really in the mood and lifted up the spiciest tub of pickle. ‘Chile,’ he said.

  ‘Very good. Actually Chile is about the hardest country of all. It always snaps somewhere north of Santiago …’

  ‘David, I think they’ve got more important things on their mind …’ and that was the cue for Sarah to break down in tears.

  ‘It’s just not fair, everyone’s got a school except Kirsty … Five different tests she had to take. Two and a half years’ extra tutoring and for what? To have no school to go to, no place anywhere, totally rejected at the age of eleven.’

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