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May contain nuts, p.23

May Contain Nuts, page 23


May Contain Nuts

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  William put his arm round his wife and David looked a little sheepish as he popped Greek Cyprus into his mouth. I told her she might yet win her appeal to the governors at Chelsea and she wiped the tears from her eyes. The waiter looked a little concerned. ‘Is everything all right, madam?’

  ‘Yes, yes, it’s just this hot Indian food …’ she said sniffing, pointing to the little tub of cucumber raitha.

  ‘Well, I just wanted you to see Battersea …’ I mumbled. ‘Just in case it might be an option. But I know the play was a bit … well, I’ve never seen a version of Oliver! in which Fagin was served with an antisocial behaviour order.’

  ‘No, splendid idea …’ announced my husband, clearly gearing up to launch into a sarcastic overdrive. ‘In order to plant the idea of sending their privately educated middle-class child to the local comprehensive, you took them to a play about an upper-class orphan abandoned into a den of kids from the criminal underclass. Perfect! Spot on!’ And at least this prompted Sarah to laugh a little.

  ‘Look, I know the Chelsea College play was much more impressive—’

  ‘Yes,’ said William, cutting in. ‘That’s exactly what Chelsea’s play was. More impressive.’

  ‘But you can’t judge schools by which one put on the best play.’

  ‘No one said Chelsea did the best school play,’ he asserted. ‘I said theirs was more impressive. Different thing entirely.’

  Sarah looked up from where she had been dejectedly pushing some pickle around her plate. ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘Chelsea’s play was more impressive because that was the object of the exercise. To impress. Don’t you see? Chelsea’s play was put on for the parents. Battersea’s was for the children.’

  The waiter carried a loud sizzling curry dish behind me and for the first time ever I didn’t turn round to see what it was. It sounded like my insides felt.

  ‘In The Pirates of Penzance, the child who was the very best singer sang the solo …’ he continued. ‘So what? They know he can sing; what does anybody gain from that? But did you see the expression of the child who sang the solo in Oliver! She wasn’t a trained vocalist, but she tried her very hardest and then gave that little smile when everyone clapped and cheered; you knew that this was the biggest thing that she’d ever had to do in her whole life. After she came off the stage did you see the way her teacher crouched down and told her how fantastically she had done?’

  ‘Er, no, I was watching you two most of the time …’ I stammered.

  The waiter wheeled a trolley of curry dishes beside the table and ostentatiously wiped the plates as he placed them in front of us.

  ‘Battersea’s play wasn’t staged to impress us, the parents, the consumers,’ continued William, ‘it was put on to help the children develop, to build their confidence, to teach them about creating something together, attempting things they had never thought themselves capable of. The Chelsea play kept the shy children off the stage, banned the mediocre singers from singing; Sarah told me that the other lead performers in Pirates were not even from Chelsea College. They borrowed the best singers from another school!’


  ‘That is true, actually,’ confirmed Sarah.

  ‘What sort of message does that send to the other kids? And it turns out that brilliant soloist sang the solo last year and the year before, so tough luck all the other kids. That wasn’t a school play. It was an exercise in PR, to make the parents feel better about paying out so much in school fees.’

  ‘Hang on, it wasn’t that bad,’ I heard myself saying in defence of Molly’s next school. ‘I mean, the kids were still quite cute …’

  ‘It was awful,’ he went on. ‘A complete sham. All the values are all upside down. It’s not “Can you get better?”, it’s “If you’re not already the very best, don’t even bother turning up” … At Battersea I nearly cried when Nancy sang “As Long As He Needs Me” even if I didn’t recognize that line about “having a career to fall back on if the marriage doesn’t work out”.’

  There was a stunned silence around the table.

  ‘Well, it’s certainly a very cosmopolitan school …’ said Sarah, terrified of mentioning the word ‘race’.

  ‘One chicken tikka masala,’ said the waiter.

  ‘Thank you.’

  ‘Isn’t that part of what their education should be about?’ said her husband.

  ‘One king prawn korma?’

  ‘Over here.’

  ‘Don’t we want them to mix with Muslims and Hindus and Afro-Caribbeans?’

  ‘And one steak and chips …’

  ‘Er – that’s mine, thank you,’ said William. ‘Sorry, I don’t really like curry …’

  ‘Well, anyway …’ said Sarah. ‘We’ll see if the governors at Chelsea College let Kirsty back in and then we’ll take it from there …’

  ‘Excuse me,’ I said, calling back the waiter. ‘What is the Bengali for “thank you”?’


  ‘I’ve been coming to this curry house for ten years and I don’t even know how to say thank you. So, er – dhonnobaad.’

  ‘You’re welcome, luv, innit.’

  The subject was dropped and we found something more agreeable and reassuring to talk about: things that really annoy us about Ffion. Apparently their au pair had quit because she wanted a job with less stress. William said she’d applied for a job with Air Iraq. David ordered himself a lager, which inadvertently informed me that I was driving home. Since the equality of the sexes had not yet extended to a man ever being the slightest bit concerned about what time we got home for the babysitter, Sarah and I eventually left them in the restaurant while they ordered brandies and pondered such profound emotional issues as: ‘If the Nazis had won the Second World War, would The Beatles still have recorded Sergeant Pepper’s?’

  I had offered Sarah a lift home and we headed down the high street together towards my car. ‘That’s one of those completely ridiculous arguments, isn’t it?’

  ‘Totally. I mean, Hitler would never have allowed all those psychedelic army uniforms for a start.’

  I had parked down a side road. A couple of street lights were out, and away from the main drag the shadows suddenly felt colder and more isolated as the moon disappeared behind the clouds.

  ‘Hang on, now where are we, ah yes, I came down this alley …’

  In the middle of some low-rise council houses was a narrow paved path, and I felt a shudder of nerves from Sarah as she followed me into the brick-built warren, but it was only eleven o’clock, the pubs hadn’t even emptied out yet. I’m sure it’s safe, I told myself.

  Three youths appeared on the pathway ahead of us. They had been around the corner, just waiting there, three teenage black boys with their hoods up loitering by the bend in the path. One of them was sitting astride a pushbike, the other two were leaning against the wall. If we wanted to get past we would have to walk through the middle of them. Sarah grasped my arm as our pace involuntarily slowed. ‘Oh my God …’ she stammered. ‘This is it.’ Her arm was shaking. ‘Let’s turn round,’ she whispered. I could feel her body tensing up; she was squeezing my arm so hard that it hurt. Finally we were face to face with them.

  ‘Oh hello Kofi, hello Carl, hello Aubrey-from-Norbury,’ I announced brightly.

  ‘Hello, Mrs Chaplin …’ they mumbled.

  ‘Kofi, I meant to ask you, did you get on to that fashion design course at the college?’

  ‘Nah, I’ve got to have an interview. I’m going next week …’

  ‘Oh well, good luck. And Aubrey, how are you?’

  ‘I’ve finished college now. I’m working at Blockbuster for a bit.’

  ‘Oh well, I’ll see you in there. Give my regards to your family, Kofi.’

  ‘Yeah, all right.’

  And we walked on. I said nothing to Sarah, even though I could feel her incredulous eyes boring into the side of my face. It was as if some aliens had stepped out of a flying saucer and I had
effortlessly conversed with them in fluent Venutian.

  ‘How on earth do you know them?’ she said when we were safely seated in my car and she had pressed down the door lock.

  ‘They live round here. Except Aubrey-from-Norbury, he lives in, er, Norbury. But the other two live very close to you, as a matter of fact.’

  ‘I’ve never seen them before.’

  ‘You’ve probably seen them hundreds of times. But just never looked at them, that’s all.’

  ‘Fancy that enormous boy wanting to be a clothes designer. Is he gay?’

  ‘I don’t think so.’

  ‘It’s such a tragedy when young people aren’t given the guidance towards the right careers. Do you know what occurs to me: he might well have a great future ahead of him as a professional basketball player, but I bet no one has ever suggested it.’

  The next day David was in the garden playing table tennis with Jamie. I watched them rally back and forth for a while. David even contrived to use ping-pong scores to give Jamie extra lessons on important dates from history.

  ‘Seventeen fifteen. First Jacobite rebellion!’ chimed David as he hit the ball into the net. David served again and then deliberately missed Jamie’s return.

  ‘Eighteen fifteen. Battle of Waterloo.’

  ‘David …’ I interjected. ‘Would you be interested in maybe having a proper look round Battersea Comprehensive?’

  ‘What on earth for?’ he said, trying not to look away from where he was patiently returning every eager shot from our bouncing, effervescent son.

  ‘Er, well, it’s just that we never really considered it, and maybe Molly should have a chance to look at it before we finally definitely commit to Chelsea.’

  ‘We have definitely committed to Chelsea: we’ve bought the uniform, sent back the form and told Molly that’s where she’s going. Eighteen sixteen. Argentina declares independence. Anyway, shouldn’t you be taking Molly to ballet by now?’

  ‘Oh, she said she doesn’t want to go, so I told her that’s fine …’ I shrugged as if this was how our family normally operated.

  ‘What has got into you lately? Why don’t we take both kids out of school as well – they can just watch Cartoon Network all day and we’ll keep our fingers crossed that The Powerpuff Girls is one of their set texts at A level.’

  ‘Are we going to get Cartoon Network?’ batted Jamie optimistically from the other side of the ping-pong table.

  ‘No!’ returned his father with an unequivocal forehand lob.

  ‘No, school is important,’ I continued calmly. ‘But why can’t we just lighten up a bit? What does it matter if she has nothing to do sometimes? Maybe it would be good for her to be bored sometimes, and have free time that she has to learn to fill on her own?’

  ‘Come on, Dad!’

  David absently served again, too hard for Jamie to return the shot.

  ‘Damn, now you made me win my point. It should have been nineteen sixteen, Battle of the Somme. I don’t know anything that happened in 1817. It matters because we agreed we wanted her to grow into a fully rounded adult who isn’t going to turn around to us and say, “You never gave me the chance to learn ballet or play the violin or understand mathematics” – because childhood is the best time to learn all these things. And if we let her just give everything up when she can’t be bothered, then she’ll never do anything with her life, will she? Nineteen seventeen – Russian Revolution!’

  ‘What about having fun? What about just mucking about? When did we last timetable that in?’

  ‘Jamie and I are having fun right now. We’re just playing table tennis, which also improves his hand–eye coordination. You make it sound like we never let up, like it’s all learning and constant cramming, but it isn’t. Nineteen eighteen. End of World War One.’

  ‘Good, well Molly doesn’t think ballet would be much fun this evening and if she wants to relax instead of climbing back in the car for the next appointment in her packed schedule, then that’s fine by me.’

  And with his father irritated and distracted, Jamie sent a low shot spinning over the net, which sent his father completely the wrong way and had him clumsily banging into the corner of the table and clutching his side in pain.

  ‘Twenty eighteen …’ said Jamie triumphantly, ‘Dad gets a new hip.’

  The following morning the debate continued. I had just returned from dropping Molly and Jamie off at Spencer House and was clearing up the chaos of the breakfast table when I saw David studying the slight changes I’d made to the children’s timetable, which was pinned up by the fridge.

  ‘What’s this that Jamie has to do between five and six on Monday evenings?’


  ‘What do you mean, Whatever?’

  ‘Er, that’s his new subject. I’m cancelling French, because I’m worried that he’s falling behind in Whatever.’

  ‘I don’t understand.’

  ‘Oh yes, and on Tuesdays, if you look, from now on Molly’s got Double Whatever. I want her to be top of the class in Whatever. To take her GCSE Whatever a year early.’

  ‘What if she doesn’t want to do Whatever?’

  ‘Well, you know. Whatever.’

  ‘I know why you’re being like this. It’s because of William, isn’t it?’

  ‘What on earth are you talking about?’

  ‘Look, we are not suddenly changing the whole ethos of our children’s upbringing just because William has been forced to see Battersea Comprehensive in a wonderful idealistic new light.’

  ‘This has nothing to do with what William thinks …’

  ‘Of course it does. He wouldn’t be talking like that if they still had their place at Chelsea College. You watch, the moment they win their appeal they’ll be straight back in the fold.’

  ‘And if they don’t win, Kirsty will go to school with Ruby and her friends, and think how much better the world would be if we all went to school together …’

  ‘Sure. I agree. In a perfect world that would happen. But we don’t live in happy-bunny fairytale land – we live in inner London, and you try and change the world if you want to, but don’t use our daughter as the first wave of infantry.’

  ‘Oh, will you just shut up about war for five minutes. You’ve completely missed the point. Maybe this way would be better for society and our daughter – that’s what I’m saying. I am a selfish mother, I only want what’s best for Molly. That’s why I want to be completely sure that she’s going to the school where I think she will be happiest. And I’m just not sure that’s the school where she’ll have two hours’ homework every night and feel a failure if she doesn’t get five A levels at grade A and an unconditional offer from Oxford.’

  ‘Cambridge,’ corrected my husband.

  ‘What – you’ve already decided which top university she is going to, have you? I bet you’ve already chosen a particular college!’ His embarrassed silence revealed that my sarcasm was spot on. ‘You have decided which college you think she should go to, haven’t you?’

  ‘No, I was, er, just scrolling through a website and it happened to mention Trinity College, Cambridge, and I thought that would be a good college for Molly …’

  ‘What was the website?’

  ‘Oh, I can’t remember …’

  ‘What was the website?’

  ‘All right, it was Choose Your Child’s University dot com. Look, I know she’s still at junior school, but we have to start thinking about these things now …’

  ‘No, we have to avoid thinking about it now, because the kids pick up on it, they feel the pressure. It wasn’t until I put myself in the place of one of my children that I realized we were forcing them to be adults. That’s why I want us to be really sure we know what we are doing before we send her to Chelsea. Because once Molly finds herself on that academic hamster wheel, she won’t be able to stop running until her childhood is over.’

  He didn’t have time to answer. At that moment the front doorbell rang and I strode dow
n the hall muttering to myself. Why did I still feel so much anxiety, even though my long-standing wish for Molly had been granted? Maybe the abrupt change in pressure had been too much for me; maybe I’d got the bends. Was that what all this worry was about, was it purely a physical need to keep fretting about something? Far-off school playing fields seem greener – or, rather, they would do if they hadn’t all been flogged off to developers years ago.

  I opened the front door, wiping my hands on my apron, and a striking black lady stood towering above me.

  ‘I’m Ruby’s mother,’ she said.

  ‘At last! I’ve been wanting to meet you for so long!’

  ‘Who is it?’ shouted David down the corridor.

  ‘It’s Ruby’s mother! Come and say hello.’

  She must have been well over a foot taller than me and wore a bright red leather jacket. There was definitely a family resemblance, but where Ruby’s face was open and optimistic, her mother’s face was somehow severe and intense. ‘We’ve been so hoping we would get to meet you,’ I continued, ‘Ruby’s such a lovely girl.’

  David joined me in the doorway but our welcoming smiles were not returned.

  ‘You stole my child’s place,’ she spat.

  ‘I beg your pardon?’

  ‘You stole it. Ruby told me she sat next to you in the Chelsea College entrance exam and you pretended to be your daughter.’ I noticed that she was shaking.

  ‘Now hang on a minute,’ interjected David.

  ‘No wonder your daughter got the scholarship! Because you stole it from mine by copying her answers.’

  It was then I spotted a scared-looking Ruby waiting back on the pavement, failing to make herself invisible behind a lamppost.

  ‘That is a ludicrous allegation,’ said David. ‘No one would ever believe you.’

  ‘Is that a challenge?’ she said. ‘Right. Well, I’m going straight to Chelsea College to tell them.’

  The Secret of Good Parenting

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