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May contain nuts, p.26

May Contain Nuts, page 26


May Contain Nuts

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  Whether we could have ever crossed that social chasm without having our best friends make the leap with us, I don’t know. William’s born-again certainty undoubtedly helped persuade my husband. For a man who normally sat in the background making the occasional sarcastic comment, William was suddenly very loquacious on the subject. ‘Thinking you can get a complete education at private school is like going to Claridge’s in Delhi and thinking you’ve travelled,’ said William audaciously. ‘The whole journey of childhood is about learning that you are not the only person in the universe, that you are just one person in a society. First you have to learn to share with siblings, then you have to learn to consider friends and classmates; the biggest lesson of the first ten years of your life is fighting the infant instinct to push in and say “Me first!” and “Biggest piece for me!” But then all those overanxious parents like we were pay good money to send their kids to schools where they are actually taught “me first” and “biggest piece for me”, and it’s no wonder they revert to grabby, greedy toddlers all over again. I want my kids to learn that they are special, but not that they are better.’

  ‘Sure, William,’ I said standing on the doorstep, ‘but would Kirsty like to come to the park with us or not?’

  Having spent so long indoctrinating our daughter on why she would be happiest at Chelsea College, we did not have very long to perform a complete back flip and now convince her of the exact opposite. What would be the best way to do this, we wondered. Leave a small typed erratum slip in her homework diary? Please note: administrative error by parents. ‘Darling, you’ll be really happy at Chelsea College’ should have read, ‘Darling, you’ll be much happier at Battersea than that silly old Chelsea College, don’t you agree?’ Or maybe we could hire a hypnotist. ‘You will forget everything your parents have told you about your new school … Yes, yes, you much prefer the other one … and while we’ve got you, you’re going to remember to clean out the goldfish bowl …’ In the end we just told her the truth. That the reason we didn’t want her going to an aggressively academic school was the same reason that she didn’t have to learn bridge with Ffion any more or go along to children’s book club or do all those extra lessons that used to eat up every evening.

  David and I didn’t see F-f-f-fion and Ph-ph-philip socially any more, though Sarah and William kept us up to date with all the gossip. Apparently Ffion’s life coach had recommended she commit suicide. Once when I had to be out early I did see her setting off for school at about seven thirty with her children’s pasty faces pressed against the car window. If Ffion saw me, she didn’t acknowledge it. The only annoying thing about all that was that Ffion and Philip’s software idea ended up being a huge commercial hit, the computer craze of the year with parents and single people alike. Suddenly everyone was buying into this new obsession of designing personal league tables in which they or their children always seemed to end up in top place. I didn’t sink to such tragic self-delusion. Ffion and Philip had struck gold and probably thought it finally proved their total superiority over everyone they knew, but of course I secretly knew it was me who had said to Ffion that you couldn’t measure a child by just one exam result – the whole thing had been my idea all along, so in my personal league table I would have been way above the two of them.

  As part of the formal closure of that hypercompetitive phase of Molly’s life, I helped her clear out her bedroom, filling a black dustbin bag with old exercise books, project folders, homework sheets and revision timetables. I read about one teenager in Hackney who had left his school and the following night burnt it to the ground, which is another means of achieving closure I suppose. After Molly and I had sorted her desk, we attacked the box files in the kitchen, emptying them of completed test papers and extra homework set by expensive private tutors. Hours and hours of her life were now being thrown away, or rather, had been thrown away long ago. We laughed at all these extra test papers now, like prison guard and inmate meeting as equals after sentence had been served. ‘If Simon has fourteen apples and eats twelve, what has he got?’ I asked her. ‘Indigestion,’ she replied, remembering the joke I’d always recited in the forlorn hope of extracting a smile during extra maths lessons.

  ‘What’s this?’ said Molly, suddenly pulling some test sheets out of an envelope.

  ‘Just some test papers, darling … Do you want to keep any of these booklets or shall I put them in the recycling bin?’

  ‘No, these aren’t like the others … “Entrance examination, Chelsea College” …’ she read, seeming perplexed.

  Somehow, incredibly, David and I had never disposed of the test papers we had got Molly to sit when we told her that she’d be doing her Chelsea entrance at home.

  ‘I remember doing these. How come we’ve got these here?’ she asked.

  ‘Um, maybe they sent them back, I can’t remember, darling. Let’s stick them in the recycling bag, shall we?’ – but my slightly less than gentle attempt to extract the sheets from her hands met with equal resistance and she began to flick through the paper.

  ‘They’ve never been marked! It doesn’t make sense, no ticks or crosses or anything …’

  ‘Oh, er … that’s strange, let me see …’ – and this was my excuse to take the documents from her hands. I glanced down at the questions I had last seen under exam conditions months earlier and it sent my mind spiralling back. I could smell the floor polish of the examination hall, feel the sweat soaking into the brim of the baseball cap. It seemed perverse that David and I had never been curious enough to see what she would have got, that the papers that had caused us so many sleepless nights had just been tucked away unmarked and forgotten in a pile of old schoolwork.

  ‘Oh, I remember …’ I suddenly announced. ‘We had to send them a photocopy. And keep the originals in case the copy got lost in the post or something …’ And I popped the papers in the pile of rubbish, a few layers under the surface.

  Just out of idle curiosity I gave the papers to David to mark that evening. And twenty minutes later he came into the kitchen with a look of apologetic astonishment on his face. ‘You’re never going to believe this …’ he said. ‘She would have got a scholarship anyway.’





  ‘Oh. So how did she do?’

  ‘Not very well. She got all the dividing fractions wrong …’

  After dinner I looked at the maths paper staring up at me from the sideboard and a curious thought crossed my mind.

  ‘David, could you rub out all of Molly’s answers? I want to see if I can do this now …’

  ‘What’s the point? Molly’s got the school we want now.’

  ‘It’s not for Molly. It’s not for anyone else. Just for myself.’

  And so in the twilight peace of my own kitchen, with the audio water-feature of our dishwasher churning away in the background, I worked my way through the Chelsea College entrance exam maths paper. And where once I would have seen a fog of random numbers, now there was a logical staircase, a sequence that I could tackle one step at a time. ‘0.7 x 0.9 = 0.63.’ Yes, even though you are multiplying, the number actually gets smaller; it’s perfectly rational once you get your head round it. In fact, there is a little internal buzz of satisfaction to be had at the symmetrical logic of it all. That was the strangest thing. I was enjoying it. It was gratifying to be in total command, to be capable of producing the appropriate response to every challenge that was hurled at me. From all angles the questions attacked, like the drug-pushing pimps in PlayStation Scum-Slayer 7, or Urban Vigilante, but I was ready for every one of them: I had an Uzi pistol in both hands, I’d acquired the kung-fu skills and tucked a flick-knife in my boot, and could shoot and stab and stun them however the sums came at me. Why could I never make the children see that doing arithmetic was just as thrilling as patrolling the streets of the Bronx exterminating heavily armed social deviants? Take that, 270 – 280! In your face, 12 x 12,0
00! Hurr! Splat! You’re history, 7 x (7 + 13)! I realized I’d begun to add explosive sound effects as I worked. But I was unstoppable now. I had vanquished all adversaries on the first level. ‘Congratulations Player One – you have successfully completed the initial phase. Now you must do battle with more formidable opponents: converting fractions into percentages!’

  It had taken me several lessons but I had finally overcome the mental block I had about these. David had attempted to explain the basic principle but the tutorial had broken down when I’d accused him of coughing in an impatient and patronizing manner. Only Ruby had managed to illuminate me – when I’d been supposed to be the one tutoring her. We had laughed about this when she’d come to play during the summer holidays. We had bumped into Ruby and her grandmother in the high street one Saturday morning and her granny was as warm and friendly as ever, chatting and laughing as if nothing had ever happened between our two families. She was delighted that Molly would be joining Ruby at Battersea, and welcomed my suggestion that her granddaughter came round to play. Ruby was as polite and well behaved as ever. Except that towards the end of the afternoon, Molly and Ruby were playing a board game and some sort of argument developed over whose go it was. A few months earlier Ruby would have let Molly have her way, but a little bit of my daughter had rubbed off on her since then.

  ‘Shut up, Molly, you cheater. It’s my go!’

  ‘Ruby is your guest, Molly. Let her have her go if you can’t agree,’ I interjected.

  ‘That’s not fair,’ protested my daughter. ‘Why do you always believe Ruby?’

  ‘Because I have never heard Ruby say anything that wasn’t true …’ and I smiled at her and then as she understood the full meaning of what I was saying, her eyes opened wide before she looked away a little embarrassed. ‘And you can tell your mother that from me, Ruby …’

  Now, only months after I had copied my maths answers off an eleven-year-old stranger, I was able to do it properly. I turned to the final sheet and allowed myself a satisfied nostalgic smile. Multiplying and dividing fractions. What is a half divided by a half? That’s one. One whole unit. That’s what I am, whole again; complete. ‘David’s wife’ is only half a person. ‘Molly’s mum’ is only half a person. Alice Chaplin, that is me, that is the entire thing. ‘You must know Alice Chaplin: rather small, brown eyes, good at maths.’ What is 4 in binary? Why, that would be 100; I can think about that without checking out the availability of the nearest toilet. And now I was proud of myself instead of my children. This wasn’t ‘well done, Molly’ or ‘isn’t Jamie clever’, this wasn’t the vicarious pride of the soccer mom hovering on the touchline. This was me, centre stage: in the movie poster of my life I had finally reclaimed top billing. ‘Those with small children be sure to attach your own oxygen mask before helping others …’ Was that what this was all about? Had my brain craved the oxygen of independent learning to give me the sanity to cope with three children? Had I done this to be a happier person or a better mother, or are they inevitably the same thing? All these impossible questions – now I understood the attraction of mathematics. You work out that x equals 7 and that’s the end of it. Unless you’re Ffion, of course, in which case x equals 7 but has a reading age of 9.

  Molly was brimming with excitement and enthusiasm when I picked her up at the end of her first day at Battersea. She and Kirsty came dashing out into the playground, where William was also just arriving. For some reason I felt enormously grateful to William, as if he had sent his daughter here just for Molly’s sake, and when he reached us I gave him a long and meaningful hug. I was so happy that my daughter was so happy, and felt so indebted to him for helping it happen, I wanted to kiss him full on the lips. In fact, what I wanted to do was have sexual intercourse with him right there in the school playground, but children that age are quite self-conscious, and seeing her mum having it off with her best friend’s dad is one of those silly little things that might have embarrassed my eleven-year-old daughter.

  Molly gabbled at me about how each of them had been given their own computer password and how they had different teachers for different subjects and she was learning German and Maths and Drama and Information Technology and English and Netball and Humanities and Science and Maths, and I couldn’t believe she had said Maths twice and I breathed a secret sigh of relief that she hadn’t spent the whole day painting yoghurt pots. In addition, there seemed to be a whole parallel curriculum taught by the older children: how to wear your huge tie knots at half-mast and how to blot out certain letters on your blazer badges to turn the motto into a swear word. The two girls from the private prep school were in the same class together and I knew that they would have to learn to play down their privileged backgrounds, but adolescents invent an image for themselves wherever they are. Molly became a bit self-conscious about the little treats I put in her packed lunch, which is a shame because she used to love quail’s eggs. But she was happy. My daughter was happy at her new school and exuded such pride in herself and goodwill towards the whole world that even though her friends were around I noticed her quietly take the hands of her two younger brothers as we all walked back towards the car.

  The following day, I walked with Alfie to take him for his first day at his new school, Ruby’s old primary just down the road. And after that David and I found ourselves in an empty house, all the kids at school for the first time ever, just the two of us, alone. I made a pot of coffee and we sat opposite each other across the kitchen table. ‘What’s this?’ said David, picking up a newspaper in which I had circled an advertisement.

  ‘Oh, I don’t know, I just thought I might send off for the details …’

  ‘A job? Excellent idea. If there’s an exam, let me know and I’ll put on a wig and a dress and take the test for you …’

  Seven hours later Molly walked home from school on her own and it was still a beautiful summer’s afternoon, and the kids wanted to get the hosepipe out in the garden and of course we said yes. ‘Shouldn’t they put their swimming costumes on?’ suggested David and I said, ‘What does it matter?’ and in their crisp clean cotton underwear the kids took turns to run through the spray from the lawn sprinkler, giggling with delight each time they leapt through the glistening curtain of cold water. They looked so healthy and happy, Jamie with his little tongue sticking out of the side of his mouth, his resolute brow furrowed in determination as he prepared to make the courageous dash once again, and then whoosh, and hysterical laughter as he slipped right over on the wet grass and landed on his bottom.

  ‘Quick, quick, the water is coming back!’ screamed his overexcited sister, running into the oncoming wall of spray to help him up, getting soaked herself but pulling her little brother to safety. ‘Alfie’s turn!’ shouted the older two, and Alfie just ran and stood still in the middle of the downpour, getting himself deliberately soaked, laughing because his big brother and sister were thrilled with his courage, and their skin was so smooth and perfect, glowing pink under a shiny film of cold clean wetness, and then suddenly I ran down the garden and I jumped through the spray as well, and all the kids clapped and cheered and I ran back again and Molly picked up the hose and threatened to completely soak me with it, and David came and stood beside me and said, ‘If you soak her, you’re going to have to soak me too …’ and then with all three of them holding the hose, they turned the jet onto us and shrieked in delight as we were completely soaked, both parents falling to the floor, ‘Please, we beg you on our knees, don’t wet us any more …’ which was their cue to hold the spray directly over our heads, relishing the brief reversal of power, almost sadistically drenching us from head to foot as we pretended to beg them to stop. Actually we weren’t pretending any more, we were now genuinely begging them to stop – they’d switched to the most powerful jet and it hurt – but Alfie was clapping his hands in delighted hysterics and then all of us took turns to deliberately soak one another, until I grabbed all three of them and held their precious slippery bodies close to mine: ‘Please don
’t grow up any more, my lovely beautiful precious children, please stay like this for just a little bit longer …’

  The period in which your children are totally dependent upon you is such a short phase of your life. You think it’s for ever, then suddenly it’s over; before you’ve even looked up from checking their coats were buttoned up properly, it’s over. One day you are in your kitchen when the doorbell rings and it is your own child arriving home from school, staggering over the threshold with a four-ton rucksack of books on her back and her mind weighed down by a million thoughts that you will never know. And you glance up at those framed photos on the stairs of when they were so little, wearing clothes you chose, sitting in swings you had to lift them into, laughing uncontrollably as you pushed them back and forth. And it’s gone. That’s it, she’s grown up – that expression of total trust in her face, it’s gone for ever; just a memory. There was always so much to think about, so many potential pitfalls that sometimes it was easy to forget to enjoy it. In the playground of parenthood there’s always going to be a big seesaw between fun and fear, but if you keep plonking your big fat worries down on one end, it’s never going to be any fun, not for kids or parents. You have to let them fall and fail and then try again. Nobody ever learnt anything except by doing it (said a book I’d read to make me a better parent).

  On Molly’s third day at Battersea there was an incident during the lunch hour. Three girls from the year above grabbed Ruby in the playground and told her she was going to be ‘happy slapped’. Ruby knew what this meant: that she would be struck in the face and her subsequent tears would be recorded on a videophone for posting on the internet or broadcasting on Al-Jazeera or whatever. It was a particularly unpleasant craze that was currently sweeping through secondary schools – though all credit to those emotionally disturbed bullies for learning how to put video files onto a website.

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