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May contain nuts, p.25

May Contain Nuts, page 25


May Contain Nuts

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  There was a moment’s silence. Miss Reynolds looked suitably impressed with this point.

  ‘What difference does that make?’ interjected Ms Osafo. ‘She’d have to know you to recognize you, innit? You stole her place by cheating and we just want it back.’

  The head interjected quickly to prevent the temperature rising. ‘Now, Ms Osafo, I have to remind you that this is a very serious allegation and many schools wouldn’t have invited you here to hear your side of the story at all …’

  ‘You didn’t invite me, I just come.’

  ‘Er, no, but my point is that we have to proceed with—’

  ‘Sorry, Ruby, do you take milk and sugar?’ shouted Mr Worrall from the other side of the office.

  ‘Yes please.’

  ‘That’s milk and sugar?’

  ‘Yes please …’

  ‘We have to proceed with—’

  ‘How many sugars?’

  ‘Two please.’

  ‘What was I saying?’ frowned Miss Reynolds.

  ‘You don’t even need a scholarship. You’ve already got a big house and flash car – like what’s the point of giving a scholarship to rich people?’

  ‘Oh dear, this is degenerating into exactly the sort of horribleness that I was hoping we might be able to avoid. That is an entirely separate issue, Ms Osafo; suffice to say it is not the school’s business to go prying into parents’ financial status.’ The brusqueness of Miss Reynolds’s tone made it clear that she felt inclined to take our side in this dispute. We were almost there.

  Mr Worrall placed the tea down in front of Ruby, who thanked him quietly. It looked like this would be all she would be getting from Chelsea College.

  ‘Is there any sort of partial scholarship that might be open to Ruby, since she came so close?’ asked David constructively, knowing full well that there wasn’t.

  ‘She don’t want a partial scholarship, she wants a full scholarship,’ barked Ruby’s mum.

  ‘I’m sure everyone would like to have their school fees paid in full, Ms Osafo … but the bottom line is that Ruby got 91 per cent whereas Molly got an unprecedented 100 per cent.’

  ‘100 per cent! No kid gets 100 per cent – didn’t that make you suspicious?’

  This was a direct hit for the prosecution. David seemed momentarily flummoxed, so I jumped in.

  ‘Well, Molly is very clever actually …’ I proudly pointed out. ‘I mean, her whole class had to write a poem called “My Mother” and Molly got an A plus! I keep the poem in my handbag. I can prove it to you if you want.’ I took the tatty scrap of paper out of my bag and pointed to the big red letter at the bottom of the page. ‘“A plus” you see, so I mean it’s no surprise she did so well in the exam, is it?’

  ‘Well, that’s all the evidence we need, isn’t it?’ said Miss Reynolds. I’d won it. We were home and dry.

  ‘Quite. I mean, A plus. That’s the best you can get … It was read out in assembly.’

  ‘No, I meant Molly’s handwriting,’ said the headmistress calmly. She buzzed through to her secretary. ‘Meg, can you dig out an entrance exam paper from the files for me. Molly Chaplin: one of next term’s scholarship girls, thank you.’

  ‘Molly Chaplin, OK, I’ll bring it in,’ buzzed the robot voice from the speakerphone.

  I was momentarily confused by this development, but sensing that it may not be to our advantage, I glanced nervously at David. All the blood had drained from his face. I hadn’t seen him look that appalled since I put all his LPs up in the loft.

  ‘All we have to do is compare the handwriting on the examination paper with the writing on the poem …’ said the headmistress brightly, ‘… and that will put an end to this unfortunate episode once and for all, won’t it?’

  I think I may have tried to say something but my throat had seized up. A strangulated noise came out that was an attempt at an upbeat, affirmative ‘Mmm!’, but sounded more like an old dog whining before it was put to sleep.

  ‘May I see the poem?’ said the headmistress.

  David kept trying to think of something to say but no words would come. His mouth opened and closed silently like a fish gasping for oxygen on the deck of a boat. I stammered and prevaricated, with Molly’s girlish loopy handwriting clutched tightly in my hand. ‘Well, I … but … I mean, she wrote this some time ago, and their handwriting changes so much, doesn’t it?’

  ‘Not that much actually, you’d be surprised …’ The head-mistress’s hand was outstretched but I was clutching the poem so tightly that I was in danger of tearing it in two.

  ‘The thing is …’ said David, ‘that it’s actually quite a personal poem about a daughter’s love for her mother and I think we should respect Molly’s privacy.’

  ‘Yes!’ I concurred, looking gratefully at David.

  ‘I thought you said it was read out in assembly?’ she said, her hand reaching out to take the scrap of paper once again. There was a second’s pause while the head teacher continued to smile at me and the paper remained locked in my fist. At that moment the door opened and the school secretary scurried in. ‘I’ve got the files with all the entrance exams, but I can’t find Molly Chaplin’s paper.’

  Oh thank you God! I thought. Just when we needed an unlikely piece of luck, here it was delivered straight from the heavens. I promised myself never to question the existence of our Lord God ever again.

  ‘Oh sorry, Meg …’ said the head teacher. ‘Of course. I’ve got all the scholarship papers in my desk here’ – and she opened a drawer and pulled out a file. There on the top of the pile was the paper with Molly’s name on the top. Yeah, right, thanks a lot, God, I thought, as if you even existed, which you so obviously don’t …

  She placed the sheet of my handwriting directly in front of her.

  ‘I’m sorry we have to do this, but it’s important that these sorts of complaints are seen to be dealt with properly when they come in. We aren’t just talking about a place at the school, after all – there are thousands of pounds of scholarship money involved here …’

  I looked hopelessly at David, and with neither of us able to think of a way out of this suicidal situation, with a forced smile I slowly handed the piece of paper across.

  Miss Reynolds placed the poem down on her desk beside the examination sheet. I knew that no two samples of handwriting could have been more different. Well, perhaps if Molly had written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, although with a big smiley face in the middle of the letter ‘o’ in the title she was already well on the way. But there could be no similarity at all. My sloping tiny spindly writing beside Molly’s curly round letters. My thin stooping consonants beside the youthful puppy fat of my daughter’s boisterous vowels. They were also in different coloured inks, but I thought it might be a little too obviously desperate to point this out.

  ‘Well …’ said Miss Reynolds, studying the two exhibits before her as Ms Osafo craned her neck, straining but failing to see for herself. I braced myself for Miss Reynolds’s reaction, hoping in that split second that she would at least opt for disappointment rather than anger.

  ‘Yes, well, I think there’s not too much difference between these …’ She was blinking rather rapidly. ‘Yes, given the different pens and the time difference and everything …’ She twitched manically. ‘Er, excellent match, yes.’

  ‘Let me see …’ said Ms Osafo.

  ‘No, I don’t want to get into a protracted debate about this and, as Mr Chaplin said, it is a private poem by a child about her mother and I think we should respect that … so that’s that cleared up, yes, jolly good, I have to say that I am satisfied with this evidence. I’m so sorry that we’ve had to have all this horribleness and nastiness …’

  ‘So that’s it then?’ said Ms Osafo. ‘You’re just going to believe her? That poem doesn’t prove a thing – she could have written it out herself.’

  ‘That’s not the point, Ms Osafo. I pride myself on being a very good judge of character. That is one of the things that he
lps Chelsea College set the excellent standards of which we are all so proud.’

  At this moment Ruby suddenly and noisily spat her first gulp of Earl Grey tea back into the delicate little teacup.

  ‘Urgh. It’s still got washing-up liquid in it!’ she announced.

  ‘No, it’s supposed to taste like that,’ said Mr Worrall helpfully.

  ‘I don’t like it.’

  ‘Oh well, not to worry, just leave it on the desk.’

  Miss Reynolds looked skywards in exasperated disbelief at this complete waste of time. She was irritated now. Mr Worrall thought this might be the moment for him to offer the Osafos some sort of way out.

  ‘Ruby, I put it to you that perhaps you were so disappointed not to get the scholarship that it might have affected your memory of the examination? That you might have imagined you saw Mrs Chaplin sitting in that exam?’

  Ruby said nothing. The deputy leaned across his desk and folded his fingers together slightly too meaningfully. ‘Ruby, your mark of 91 per cent puts you next on the waiting list for a scholarship to this school. But unless you now withdraw this very serious accusation, Miss Reynolds will never be able to offer you a place were one to come up. Do you understand?’


  Miss Reynolds raised her eyebrows at her deputy with a look that suggested he might be speaking out of turn here.

  ‘So let me put it to you again. Do you think it is possible that you were mistaken? That what you saw was Mrs Chaplin’s daughter, who would obviously have a strong family resemblance to her mother? That’s who you saw, wasn’t it, Ruby?’

  Ruby looked at me and her mother and shook her head. ‘No. It was Mrs Chaplin …’ she said quietly. Ruby had thrown away her last chance. All she had to do was go along with a gift-wrapped lie that was being presented to her, that would allow everyone to get out of this with a little dignity intact, but instead she rose above all that and took the far more difficult option: she did the right thing. I cannot pretend that it did not move me nearly to tears to see it. Especially as Ruby herself began to well up, her frustration at this incomprehensible injustice finally spilling over.

  ‘No one believes me but it’s true …’ she whispered as the tears ran down her cheek and were wiped away by her mother, who only had one card left to play.

  ‘If we were white and she was black, you would believe me and not her,’ said Ms Osafo, standing up to leave.

  ‘I beg your pardon?’ blinked Miss Reynolds over her glasses.

  ‘If we were white and we told you that a black family had cheated, you’d believe the white people not the black.’

  Miss Reynolds shook her head sadly. ‘I’m disappointed that you have accused us of racialism, Ms Osafo, though not surprised. As a matter of fact we have several coloured children at the school, including the son of the Nigerian ambassador, and we’ve even gone to all the effort of putting up basketball nets for him, so I think that proves we are not racialist, don’t you agree, Mrs Chaplin?’

  Ruby was just staring at me. I had made a liar out of her. There was a little less optimism in her watery eyes, as if all the knock-backs that she would experience for the rest of her life had suddenly loomed into view. She blew her nose on a tatty piece of tissue and gave me a look that said: I know that you know that I know.

  ‘Actually I don’t feel very well,’ I said into the silence.

  ‘There’s a cup of Earl Grey tea going if that might help?’ offered the deputy.

  ‘Mum, I don’t want to come here now anyway …’ Ruby whispered. ‘I want to go to Battersea.’

  ‘That’s fine, darling, come on, let’s go. We’re not going to get nothing from here.’ Ruby followed her mother out of the door and it slammed behind them. Miss Reynolds looked more disappointed than ever. ‘Double negative …’ she sighed. ‘Not really a Chelsea College sort of family …’

  ‘Not really a Chelsea College sort of family …’ repeated Mr Worrall.

  ‘See you in September, Mr and Mrs Chaplin … I hope you’ll be coming to our newcomers’ assembly. One last thing, here at Chelsea College we do pride ourselves on our discretion and I’m sure you’ll be able to support us in that. Oh, and here’s your daughter’s poem back. It is amazing how much a child’s handwriting can change!’ – and she gave a conspiratorial laugh. But I couldn’t return her little chuckle. I finally had the prize but it had turned to dust in my hands. I felt nervous and sick and disorientated all at once. And then the school bell went and I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.

  Kids Say The Funniest Things!

  A hilarious collection of delightful real-life quotes from the little children of Spencer House Preparatory School.

  Collected by Alice Chaplin

  £6.99 (or just priceless, bless ‘em!)

  ‘What do you mean, you only have one home? Where do you stay at weekends?’ Bronwyn, aged 9

  ‘Mummy, the stupid chalet girl put my ski-pass in the wash.’ Julian, aged 9

  ‘Molly didn’t even know the difference between a gelding and a colt!!’ Jemima, aged 11

  ‘I’m better than Kirsty and Molly at EVERYTHING.’ Bronwyn, aged 10

  ‘No potato for me, thank you. I’m on the Atkins diet.’ Druscilla, aged 10

  ‘Mum, why can’t the nanny come in the same bit of the plane as us?’ Charles, aged 7

  Mum, Alice just called me a precocious little brat.’ Bronwyn, aged 11

  — 12 —

  Finally it was September. The first day of term. We had made our decision, we had settled on our choice of school – whatever our reservations, we had to do what was best for Molly. She had to have a secure and happy teaching environment to compensate for those anxious parents constantly fretting about her education. I had to select a school that would turn her into a highly qualified adult, so that when the time came she could afford to put me in a half-decent old people’s home.

  The early morning traffic on the first school run of the year seemed less aggressive than usual: tanned drivers glowed with the warm goodwill of the summer holidays, car headlamps still sporting the sticky-tape eye-shadow they’d worn for their tours across the continent. Outside a dangerous wind was whipping through the dappled plane trees, spinning polythene bags up into the air and bringing down chunky angular twigs with leaves too green to fall yet. As I got nearer to the school I could see more and more children and parents, all headed in the same direction, mothers still allowed to clutch their darlings’ hands for what might be the last time. Finally I pulled my 4x4 up outside the teeming gates of Chelsea College. Dozens of other outsize vehicles were depositing fresh-faced children, all modelling stripy new blazers that it was hard to imagine them ever growing into. One young chap arrived on his own in a London cab and nonchalantly told the driver to keep the change. I sat there watching the scene for a while and turned and looked at the empty seat in the back of the car. Molly could have been one of those children heading in there today. Molly could have attended this private club of the privileged and cosseted. But twenty minutes earlier I had dropped her off at Battersea Comprehensive. I had kissed the top of her head, and then watched that shiny sweet-smelling hair disappear into the crowd. I had cast one last anxious look over my shoulder as I drove off, my view partially obscured by the ‘For Sale’ sign in the back of our 4x4, but Molly was gone. And then I had driven up here to see for myself what I had surrendered. Just one last glimpse at the strange tribe I had inadvertently been part of for the past decade. Obviously there was a part of me that still wondered if I had made the right choice. That morning on the way to Battersea Comprehensive, I had reached Queen’s Circus where I would have turned off for Chelsea Bridge.

  ‘Mum,’ asked Molly, ‘why have we just driven round and round the roundabout four times in a row?’

  David had been hard to convince that we could make such a giant leap. ‘This is Molly we are talking about, our real live daughter!’ he exclaimed during one late-night discussion. ‘Not some model child on the end
of a pole that we shove into the middle of the comprehensive to see what happens!’ But I came to realize why he was so agitated about it all. It was because he just didn’t know the answer. He knew more bare facts than anyone I’d ever met, but when he had to decide what was best for our children, the answer couldn’t be found on the cards of his Trivial Pursuit Third Reich Special Edition. David just had to trust me. The only fact I could offer was a gut reaction, an intuitive understanding. ‘I may not know the capital of bloody Mongolia,’ I told him, ‘but I know what’s best for our children.’ He was quiet for a moment, but was unable to resist mumbling ‘Ulan Bator’.

  I’d simply felt so uplifted when I went round Battersea, like an adopted child finally meeting her real parents. I was appalled by the hypocrisy of Miss Reynolds at Chelsea College. It reminded me of the darker side of me. And so I became resolute that Battersea was the only choice. In any case, the little fisherman’s cottage on www.lundy-properties.comwas snapped up by someone else.

  Of course, I was still concerned about that old problem of class sizes in state schools. The working class is just too big. Maybe the comprehensives could adjust their curriculum to attract more middle-class parents like us, I wondered. Woodwork lessons could involve teaching children how to hover nervously behind a carpenter saying, ‘We tried to assemble it ourselves, but found the instructions a bit confusing …’ The cycling proficiency test would simply require fifteen minutes sitting on a bike machine watching daytime television. School dinners would feature tiny portions of monkfish tail on asparagus soufflé, while table monitors led conversations about house prices and whether one should take the au pair skiing. But Molly would now be part of a society made up of children of all sorts of colours, different religions and varying social classes. She’d have friends who didn’t think it was completely normal to put the au pair staring out of the back of the 4x4 alongside the golden retriever. She would meet Muslims and would learn that Islam wasn’t all jihads and fatwas but was a peace-loving religion based on the belief that – well, whatever it’s based on. I can’t say, I don’t really know any Muslims. She’d grow up in a school in which all sections of society were represented – like the queue in the post office but with no one slapping the children.

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