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May contain nuts, p.24

May Contain Nuts, page 24


May Contain Nuts

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  How to ensure your child has the best possible start in life

  By Alice Chaplin – Prisoner number FG 489775

  Sunrise Books £6.99

  Children learn by example and the best start you can give your child is being sent to prison for fraud. Nothing will beat the quality time you’d be able to spend reading to your children during their monthly visits to Holloway Gaol. Watching Mum being found guilty of attempting to swindle a charitable trust fund will teach them all the values and morals that you always hoped they would take out into the world. A high-profile trial in which the child’s name is constantly repeated in the press and on the television will do wonders for your child’s self-esteem, especially if, for example, the world was to learn that you thought disguising yourself as a hideous and spotty weirdo was the best way to impersonate your sensitive eleven-year-old daughter.

  And how much better if their father could be an accessory to the crime! If he too was to receive a custodial sentence, your children might be lucky enough to be taken into care by social services, which is widely recognized as exactly the sort of stable, loving environment in which high-achieving children can really thrive!

  — 11 —

  ‘Come on, come on!’ shouted David throughout the interminable seconds that we waited for our electric gates to heave themselves open. David was poised in the driving seat like a greyhound in a trap. He revved the engine and then screeched off the moment that the gap between them was wide enough, our spinning wheels sending gravel from the drive flying up against our front door.

  ‘We have to get there before she does.’

  ‘What are we going to say?’ Inside I was still hoping that there might be another way out of this that did not involve me entering that darkest of dragon’s lairs, the headmistress’s office. I had this nightmarish vision of me standing in front of the principal’s desk staring at the floor in frozen silence as she repeatedly asked me to explain myself.

  ‘We’ll say she’s making it up, of course. I mean, that’s just how desperate these parents are to get their kids into the right school; these are the sort of lengths that they will go to, inventing a story as ludicrous as this.’ The 4x4 changed gear with a guttural roar as David drove it at full speed down the long straight racetrack of Oaken Avenue. A mother with a pushchair had been about to cross the road but was forced to pull back from between the cars and shouted angrily at us as we zoomed past.

  David was right. If we got to Chelsea College first, we could warn the headmistress that there was a desperate mother going around making wild allegations; we could say how distressing it was for us and that we just wanted to warn her so that she could protect the good name of the school. Then by the time Ruby’s mother actually burst in, the head would treat her with scepticism and maybe outright hostility. I just thought it might be better if David did this on his own while I waited in the car.

  ‘And what was that nonsense about you copying your answers from Ruby? I mean, the woman’s clearly unhinged!’ he said, speeding down a side road.

  ‘Er, no, I um … I did copy some answers from Ruby actually …’

  ‘WHAT?’ He turned his head to face me. A car tooted and David swerved to avoid it. ‘You copied your answers off Ruby?’

  ‘Only a few. Some of the trickier maths questions …’

  ‘But that’s cheating …’ he said as if some moral line had been crossed by this adult pretending to be a child.

  We swung out into the main road. ‘Thank God!’ he declared, seeing that the traffic was flowing freely. ‘We’ll be there in five minutes.’

  ‘I still say we should have telephoned first …’

  ‘No, the head might have been in a meeting or something and we would’ve been given an appointment in a week’s time while Ruby’s mum was in there ranting and raving about us. About you copying off her daughter!’

  ‘Oh my God, there she is!’ I shouted. Ahead of us the striking figure of Ruby’s mother was standing on the pavement, looking out for a bus with Ruby standing beside her. Suddenly it felt as if it was going to be a lot more difficult to lie.

  We drove straight past them. I realized I’d put my hand up to obscure my face as we’d got near, but Ruby’s mother wasn’t interested in passing cars. She still looked angry but I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of pity mixed with guilt as I saw them standing there so helpless. I thought it probably not worth suggesting to David that we stop and offer a lift for a second time. We were two mothers engaged in a desperate race, but it was a race that she was forced to undertake using public transport. Her powerlessness could not have been more obvious if she’d been chained to the bus stop. This is how the battle lines were drawn: four-wheel drive versus double-decker bus. Public versus private, the past versus the future. Surely it would be no contest?

  Objectively speaking, I knew that she was right and I was wrong. But I believed I possessed the card that counted for more than any collective social morality: I was a mother doing what I believed was best for my own children, and that is the ace of trumps that tops everything else in the pack. Yet after we passed her I could feel myself shaking. My insides felt like they were at the centre of some terrible earthquake: two tectonic plates impacting. In one world I had merely assisted my daughter through her entrance exam and then been kind enough to help another child. But in this other world that was now crashing into my consciousness I had robbed a disadvantaged child of her one chance to get a privileged education, cheated and lied and deceived my own daughter, and it was all about to erupt and I would be publicly disgraced.

  ‘Faster, come on!’ I urged David as we hovered behind a lorry. ‘Overtake him on the inside …’

  ‘Shit!’ said David, looking in his mirror. ‘Her bus is here …’ I looked round to see a 137, the one route that went all the way there. We were still over a hundred yards ahead when Ruby and her mother climbed on board.

  ‘But the bus is going to have to keep stopping. Surely we must get there ages before they do,’ I said. ‘I can’t believe she was so stupid as to speak to us before she went to the school …’ I added.

  ‘Well, she was acting emotionally, not rationally, wasn’t she? Typical woman. WHAT IS THIS BLOODY IDIOT DOING?’ ranted my husband as we ground to a halt and a stream of traffic flowed by on our nearside. ‘Oh, now he indicates right … Stupid bastard!’ he screamed. Luckily David seemed to know some secret driver’s code for this situation and he gave the special signal that meant: ‘The vehicle behind requests you move out of the way as quickly as possible.’ It involved pressing his horn and holding it down for ages.

  ‘Can’t you cut in?’

  ‘There’s no gap …’

  Cars continued to whizz by us as the bus got closer. It was then that we saw that the lorry driver had climbed out of his cab and was coming across to remonstrate with us.

  ‘What is your problem, pal?’ he said aggressively. ‘Do you want some or what?’

  On reflection David decided that he didn’t ‘want some’, although it was a very kind offer. He had a strict rule never to get into an argument with any man with cobweb tattoos on his neck. He quickly reversed back up the road and now at last he managed to cut into the traffic, but only after the bus had gone steaming straight past us.

  Ahead of us I saw a little boy was walking beside his mother and my heart sank as I saw that they were passing a pelican crossing. No small child can pass a button without pressing it, and sure enough, as they ambled straight past, his little index finger casually activated the pedestrian light control. He didn’t even look round to where a couple in a Land Rover Discovery were shouting obscenities as they screeched to a halt. David’s fingers drummed impatiently on the steering wheel: ten seconds, twenty seconds – still the pointlessly red traffic light refused to change. And then he quickly looked all around to check there were no police cars within sight before he just took off, driving straight through the red light and prompting the elderly driver behind to begin to follow before anxiously sto
pping once again and looking confused.

  Ms Osafo’s bus was now a hundred yards ahead of us. It taunted us by stopping to pick up a few more passengers and then politely indicated while some idiot lorry driver actually stopped to let the bus pull out. It was so selfish. There was a big sticker on the back of the lorry that said, ‘How’s my driving?’ followed by the freephone number of some road safety agency that you were supposed to ring on your mobile while you were speeding along. I wanted to call the number to let them know. ‘This lorry’s driving is completely inconsiderate. He just stopped to let a bus pull out.’

  Ahead the road widened into two lanes. The right-hand lane was jammed solid with queuing private cars. The left-hand side was a completely empty bus lane, with only Ms Osafo’s bus zooming up towards Chelsea. They never had this problem in the Monaco Grand Prix. ‘And there goes Schumacher in the Ferrari, but oh no, he’s hit the rush-hour traffic and he’s not allowed in the bus lane between 7am and 9pm, and suddenly he’s overtaken by some elderly shoppers on board a big red double-decker …’

  Public Transport was increasing its lead, Private Transport was not moving at all. ‘Go in the bus lane, go in the bus lane …’ David shouted to the car that blocked the way in front of us. Public Transport sailed through a green light; Private Transport revved its engine hoping this might edge the rest of the traffic forwards. The empty road stretched out like some exclusive business-class avenue, but instead of crossing the white-painted Rubicon that separated the unused half of the road, the lemming in front patiently inched his way forward to take his place in the choking traffic jam that stretched out into the hazy distance.

  Finally David was able to mount the pavement to squeeze past the car in front, manoeuvring the 4x4 into the bus lane where he could race past the line of patiently queuing traffic on our right. With half a dozen bus stops between here and Sloane Street, soon we would be back in front and first to Chelsea College; nothing was going to stop us now. It was then a policeman in a Day-Glo jacket stepped out into the bus lane and very unequivocally directed that we pull over. David may have momentarily considered running over and killing him, but though we’d already stretched the boundaries of acceptable morality, he must have concluded that this might have been overstepping the line.

  We arrived at Chelsea College around twenty minutes later.

  ‘Remember we should remain calm and reasonable …’ gabbled David as we scurried into the reception. ‘If she’s been all angry and mad, that’ll help when it comes down to our word against hers …’

  ‘You sound like you’ve got it all worked out – are you sure you wouldn’t rather speak to her on your own while I wait in the car?’

  It turned out that Ms Osafo and her daughter had only been admitted to speak to the headmistress a few minutes earlier. The school secretary was adamant that we could not go in, but David insisted that we had come to help clear up a misunderstanding that was being discussed in the head’s office at that very moment. A brief hushed conversation took place on the other side of the closed door and suddenly Miss Reynolds appeared with a smile and an outstretched hand. If it hadn’t been the middle of summer the whole school could have been heated by the glow from my reddening face.

  ‘Mr and Mrs Chaplin, how nice to see you again …’ she beamed, even though she’d never met David before. ‘It appears that we have another parent making a rather serious allegation about your daughter’s entrance exam. If you bear with me I will try and finish with the lady in question and then perhaps we could have a little chat?’

  This sounded ominous. David glanced at me and then blurted: ‘Well, if false allegations are being made against us then I think we have the right to hear them.’

  ‘Er, well, Ms Osafo has her daughter with her. I don’t think we want her witnessing any sort of ugly scene.’

  I saw a possible way through this.

  ‘Would it help if David came in on his own and I just waited in the car …’

  ‘Although,’ Miss Reynolds continued, ‘Mrs Osafo seems quite calm and I usually find that animosity evaporates when people actually get together and talk these little problems through …’

  And so the door was swung open. The headmistress’s office beckoned, and I took a deep breath as I stepped over the threshold. The witnesses for the prosecution were already seated on the other side. Ms Osafo was impassive; Ruby was even worse at hiding her embarrassment than I was.

  ‘Hello, Ruby,’ I said as neutrally as possible.

  ‘Hello,’ she said without her usual smile. Beside Miss Reynolds sat the clerk of the court, Mr Worrall, the nervous deputy head whom I recognized from our first visit to the school. He gestured for us to take a seat after his boss suggested we take a seat. Finally Lady Justice Reynolds took her place and inhaled deeply in preparation for a very difficult hearing. What would happen if I was found guilty here in this very courtroom? Would Miss Reynolds place a black cap upon her head before she passed sentence on me? Would the tabloids call me the most evil woman in Britain? Would a mob of fat people be waiting outside to spit at me as I was bundled into the police van with a coat over my head?

  ‘Right … now I understand that Ms Osafo has already communicated the nature of her allegation to you …’

  ‘Yes,’ said David.

  ‘Yes,’ I confirmed.

  There was an awkward silence. A police siren wailed in the distance. David cleared his throat. Nobody quite knew where to begin.

  ‘Why don’t I make everyone a cup of tea?’ suddenly chirped an upbeat Mr Worrall, getting to his feet. ‘Cup of tea, Mrs Chaplin?’

  ‘Er, not for me, thank you.’

  ‘Tea or coffee, Mr Chaplin?’

  ‘Nothing, thank you.’

  ‘Ms Osafo – how do you take your tea?’

  ‘Milk and two sugars …’

  ‘Milk and two sugars coming right up.’

  ‘But I don’t want one right now, thank you.’

  ‘Oh …’ he said as he sat down again. ‘Ruby, I don’t suppose you drink tea yet, do you?’

  ‘Yes please,’ she said, and I couldn’t help feeling vaguely proud of her as the deputy headmaster found himself forced to get up again and go and switch on the kettle for this eleven-year-old girl. I noticed that Miss Reynolds now had her fingers pressed to her temples as she attempted to refocus above the noise of the clattering around by the sink in the corner.

  ‘So you are aware of the allegation made by Ms Osafo and her daughter here, and I presume from what you just said outside the office that you completely deny this.’

  David was magnificent and appalling all at the same time. Instead of being cross and indignant, he played it like the understanding social worker: not angry so much as concerned. ‘Look, we are as aware as any family of the terrible stress that all these examinations and tests place on young children. We’ve got to know Ruby here over the past few months and it must have been very hard for her to see Molly, who already has so much, also get one of the coveted scholarships to Chelsea College. Now I don’t think Ruby is deliberately lying. Rather that in her disappointment she has convinced herself that she was robbed of her place as her way of coping. It’s a surprisingly common syndrome …’

  Miss Reynolds seemed very reassured by this; she had given little positive nods of her head as he talked but her face perceptibly fell as Ruby’s mother cut in.

  ‘I know my daughter and she doesn’t tell lies.’

  ‘I think what Mr Chaplin is saying, Ms Osafo, is that to Ruby this isn’t telling lies; that in her mind this really happened because it is less painful for her than to deal with what really did happen, that is to say—’

  ‘Sorry …’ interrupted Mr Worrall from the other side of the room. ‘Ruby, there only seems to be Earl Grey tea, is that all right?’

  Miss Reynolds pinched the top of her nose and gave the impression she had suddenly developed an overpowering migraine.

  ‘What’s Earl Grey?’ asked Ruby.

  ‘It’s li
ke ordinary tea except it’s flavoured with bergamot.’

  ‘What’s bergamot?’

  ‘It’s like a flavouring that they use in, well, Earl Grey tea; it’s quite nice …’


  ‘THAT IS TO SAY …’ continued Miss Reynolds emphatically, ‘that is to say, um, I’m sorry, I’ve completely lost my train of thought now …’

  ‘I know my daughter and she wouldn’t make this up. Ruby, tell the lady what you told me …’

  Ruby glanced nervously at me and then stared at the floor before speaking slowly and quietly.

  ‘In the exam I sat next to Mrs Chaplin, only she didn’t look like that. She was wearing children’s clothes and wore glasses and had spots on her face.’

  ‘But you said it was definitely her?’ prompted her mother.

  ‘Hang on, you’re putting words into her mouth there …’ objected David.

  ‘It was definitely her,’ confirmed Ruby without looking at me.

  Ruby’s certainty coupled with this extra detail seemed to add a worrying credibility to her story. David felt forced to take a dangerous line of attack that would never stand up if pursued any further.

  ‘Well, all I can say is that our own daughter has a very clear memory of sitting the exam, and that I remember bringing her here and collecting her afterwards, and so it is a case of Ruby’s word against everyone else’s … I mean, I could go and get Molly out of school and you can ask her about the exam if you want …’

  Miss Reynolds considered this for a terrifying second.

  ‘No, I don’t think we need to go that far …’

  ‘Digestive biscuit, Ruby?’

  ‘No thank you.’

  ‘Ruby, do you know any other children who got scholarships?’ quizzed David.

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘Apart from Molly – do you know any other children who have got into Chelsea College – kids from your school, for example, any neighbours or friends?’

  ‘Er, no?’

  ‘Isn’t it something of a coincidence that the one person you made this claim about happens to be the only person you know who’s got into the school?’

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