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May contain nuts, p.3

May Contain Nuts, page 3


May Contain Nuts

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  Having failed the first big test of my life made me determined that I’d do everything possible to help Molly pass hers. When she was nine, we realized her friends’ parents were already paying for extra coaching to get their children into Chelsea College two years later. And so the recommended private tutor was contacted and diaries were compared. Obviously when somebody is incredibly busy they can’t always find the time to fit in another lesson. But Molly had an hour’s window on Wednesdays between violin and ballet and so was able to squeeze her new tutor in there. Our children were like Olympic athletes: years and years seemed to be spent preparing for a single event, this one far-off academic high jump on which everything depended. If Molly was off-colour on the day, if her approach was wrong or her timing was out and she crashed through the bar, it would all have been for nothing.

  Obviously we tried not to make a big deal of it in front of her, though I feared she was picking up our tension.

  ‘Lots of kids bite their nails,’ said David.

  ‘Yes, but not on their toes as well.’

  So I tried not to appear too worried about it. It was just that if she continued to let herself down in exams and failed the entrance test to Chelsea College, then she’d probably end up becoming a drug addict and selling her violin to pay for her next hit of crack cocaine. I’d always promised that I’d support my children in whatever they wanted to do, so if Molly ended up working as a prostitute under the derelict railway arches of King’s Cross to pay for her drug addiction, then obviously I would try to back her decision.

  ‘Mum, Dad – this is my pimp, Sergei.’

  ‘Hello, Sergei, delighted to meet you at last.’

  ‘Sergei’s offered to handle all my finances for me and just pay me in low-grade heroin.’

  ‘Whatever you think best, dear. I’m sure Sergei has only your interests at heart.’

  It seemed a harsh punishment for failing a school’s entrance exam back when she was eleven. And so we were determined to tutor her, test her, encourage her and bribe her. Oh, and there was one other thing we decided we had better do, just to give our precious eldest child the best possible chance. We would cheat.

  The Herbal Homework Helper

  How Ancient Herbal Therapies Can Unlock Your Child’s Academic Potential

  By David Zinkin

  Published by Sunrise Books £6.99

  Did you know that the long-forgotten Manoai Indians of the Amazon basin possessed a highly developed understanding of the powers of natural and herbal remedies, which they believed gave them immunity from all diseases? Sadly many of these secrets were lost when the Manoai were wiped out by chicken pox and influenza following their first contact with European explorers. But in among the data that survives is a fascinating window into the various ways in which wholly natural stimulants can also assist in specific areas of brain activity.

  We already know that the chemistry of the brain depends upon complex proteins, vitamins and minerals to help the synapses process all those billions of little signals that are handled every day. So it’s a small step to realizing that nature’s medicine cabinet can help us improve our own mental agility and intellectual performance. Now using this book as your guide, and with the help of the organic herbs which may be ordered by using our credit card hotline, you can prescribe the precise herbal restorative for whichever academic discipline is confronting your child.

  Echinacea is a natural facilitator for the part of the brain which deals with logic and analysis. Ideal for assisting in the study of mathematics, particularly logarithms, equations and binary code. For algebra take equal parts echinacea and belladonna.

  Calendula assists the synapses that process language and speech. Take two drops dissolved in filtered water an hour before approaching novels, poetry or drama. Three drops if your child is attempting to study Beowulf.

  St John’s Wort For thousands of years recognized as being a synergic aid to the study of geography. For human and social geography, hypericum may be used as an alternative.

  Nettle assists the mental processes required for sustained periods of concentration, such as examinations. NB Do not attempt to give your child nettle in its natural form, as its ingestion may hinder rather than enhance exam performance.

  There is as yet no known herbal facilitator for metalwork.

  — 2 —

  ‘I don’t want it, it’s disgusting!’ protested Molly, confronted with a clear glass of water containing a mere couple of drops of nettle and echinacea.

  ‘How can you say it’s disgusting? It doesn’t taste of anything, it’s just water, your body hardly knows that the traces are in there!’

  ‘So what’s the point of taking them then?’

  ‘It’s a bit like homeopathy, darling. It’s hard to explain but I’ve read a book about it and it’ll help your synapses. It’s all 100 per cent natural and organic echinacea and nettle.’

  ‘Nettle? What, like stinging nettles?’

  ‘Er, yes, but just tiny doses of plant extract – it won’t hurt you.’

  She lifted the glass. I’m not sure whether or not any actual liquid made contact with her lips, but the reaction was dramatic.

  ‘Ow! It stings! You’ve stung me!’

  ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I snapped. ‘It’s water, it can’t sting you – now stop this nonsense and drink it up.’

  Molly started crying just as David walked into the room.

  ‘What’s the matter, darling?’

  ‘Mummy’s trying to make me eat stinging nettles!’

  ‘I told her there are tiny amounts of nettle extract in the water – it’s a herbal therapy to speed up her synapses.’

  ‘Well, don’t make her drink it if she doesn’t want it. We don’t want her in tears just before she does the exam, do we? That’s not going to help.’

  The preparations for Molly’s mock test were not going well. Then I made her go to bed early so that she wasn’t tired. In protest she forced herself to stay awake and came down three times between eight o’clock and midnight before finally crashing out. And I noticed that Molly’s nail-biting habit had now extended to the surrounding skin. There was a raw crescent of bloody skin around the base of each nail. She had talked about becoming a vegetarian but I told her she would have to stop eating her own fingers first.

  Even though this was just a practice run, I couldn’t help but feel that it was incredibly important, that tomorrow I would discover whether the rest of my daughter’s life would be one of spiralling success and happiness or whether she would fall at the first fence in the high-pressure steeplechase of modern life. Did Molly sense my anxiety? Is it normal for parents to snap at their children like that just for asking to watch a second episode of The Simpsons and then burst into tears saying, ‘Sorry, sorry, darling. God, I’m just so worried about your mock test – no, I didn’t mean that, I’m not worried at all, just do your best and I’ll buy you a really big present if you do well. Or even if you don’t.’ None of the parenting books had recommended this particular approach, but we all find our own methods for dealing with our children. Shouting at them, then crying, apologizing, then bribing: all within sixty seconds. I sometimes wondered if I simply wasn’t cut out to be a mother. I tried to imagine myself as a single childless woman approaching forty, friends with lots of gay men and over-concerned about animal rights. Maybe I would have been just the same if I had lived on my own with a golden retriever. ‘Oh my God, Shandy isn’t retrieving as well as the other dogs in the park, maybe he’s dyspraxic, maybe I pushed him too early, maybe I should get a private life-coach to help him with his stick-fetching.’

  Molly’s practice test would be modelled on the entrance exam for Chelsea College. Everyone knew that it was the only school to go to, because everyone else said so. Chelsea College had rapidly become one of the great London public schools after the government flogged off the Royal Hospital and shipped the few remaining Chelsea Pensioners off to a hospice somewhere on the south coast (pledging that they w
ould jealously safeguard the dignity of the newly dubbed ‘Bognor Pensioners’). The imposing pillars, vast courtyards and lush sports pitches all in a central riverside location had given this new school a grand air of tradition and magnificence and created a stampede in the panicking herd of middle-class parents desperately chasing places at ‘the best school’.

  My children simply had to go there. All the problems of the world would evaporate once my daughter had got herself a place, and every snippet of information was viewed through that lens. ‘The main item on the news tonight: militant Islamic terrorists threaten bomb attack on Britain.’

  Oh no, I’d think, what if Chelsea College got blown up? They wouldn’t be able to admit any new pupils.

  ‘… And how global warming could leave half of London under water …’

  Yes, but which half ? Molly’s new school is right next to the river, are there enough classrooms upstairs?

  Molly would not be taking the mock exam on her own. All her friends had gone to the same private tutor to give them an edge over their friends. And today the tutor’s pupils were brought together in a rented hall where he did his best to recreate authentic exam conditions by sitting at the front sneezing and blowing his nose loudly for three hours. A practice run would allow them to approach the real thing with a little more confidence, we told one another, and, who knows, maybe the competitive element might spur them all on to try their very hardest. Not that we were making it into a competition, though Ffion did announce that there would be a giant tin of Quality Street for the child who got the highest score.

  ‘Which I’m sure the winner will open so that everyone can pick a favourite,’ I added.

  ‘They’re not having any green triangle ones,’ said Ffion’s charming daughter Bronwyn, clearly confident of being handed the chocolates to hold aloft on the open-top bus her mother had organized for the victory parade through the streets of Clapham. ‘Don’t worry, Molly,’ she added, turning to my slightly podgy daughter, ‘you can have the coconut ones. They’re the least fattening.’

  I thought it laudable that the government was bringing in legislation to prevent parents from slapping their children. But what about slapping other people’s children? Surely they could add a clause saying: ‘It is illegal to slap any child except Bronwyn.’

  I dropped Molly off at the hall, got her settled and told her I was sure she’d do really well. I could see she had now passed the age where she believed everything her mother told her. The mock exam consisted of three separate papers, with two short breaks for the children to have a drink of juice and a biscuit. Sarah was just checking the ingredients on the side of the juice carton when I got there. I bumped into Philip and Ffion as well. They were off to the park so that Gwilym could have a few practice runs for the nursery school sports day. I’d forgotten we had that coming up on Tuesday, but it was no big deal, it was just a bit of fun.

  ‘It’s ridiculous,’ said Ffion as she headed off to the running track at Battersea Park. ‘I’ve looked all over – you just can’t get running spikes for children under five.’

  Molly was on my mind all morning. I did my best to send her positive vibes, to will her to do well, as if the strength of my desire would somehow transmit itself across the cosmos and fire her with enthusiasm and a new-found mental agility. But when Molly finally emerged at the end of her exam she looked pale and exhausted. Before either of us even had the chance to speak, her pasty pallor and defeated posture told me that she had not risen to the occasion.

  ‘Hello, darling, well done. That was a marathon, wasn’t it?’


  ‘You must be exhausted. Well done. What would you like for lunch?’


  ‘Do you want to have a run around in the park with Bronwyn and Kirsty first?’


  Before the test I’d told her that if she didn’t know how to respond to a question she should ignore it and move on to the next one. She was clearly going to follow this advice for every query I put to her between now and her wedding day.

  I hated myself for having forced my daughter to go in and face that test all on her own. She always got much higher marks for her homework when I sat right beside her, gently hinting that she might cross out that answer and put in this one. Every new step my children had taken in their lives had been with me beside them holding their hand. For days after Molly had first learned to ride a bike I had run wheezing and panting beside her, holding her firmly round the waist in case her handlebars showed the slightest wobble. I wanted to do everything for my children: clear every obstacle from their path, fight every battle and take every blow. Apparently the mother pelican plucks the meat from her own breast to feed her young, and when I heard that I recognized a little bit of myself. Though since my children turn their nose up at most things I serve them, persuading them to eat raw human flesh might be a bit of a long shot. Breaded human-flesh goujons in dinosaur shapes maybe.

  Letting the children go off and do things without me felt wrong. As if part of me was suddenly missing. When each of my three children had been born, their father had ceremonially cut the umbilical cord, a moving and symbolic moment – but frankly it was far too early. I know it’s the convention to go wireless as soon as possible, but I’m sure it would have been fine to keep the cord attached for another year or two. I suppose one or two of the less baby-friendly restaurants might have been a bit snooty about their diners having to look at the tangled flex of veins and skin connected to the toddler crawling around the floor of the pizza parlour.

  ‘Alfie, keep still, darling. You’ve gone and got your umbilical cord tangled round the waiter’s legs again.’

  I think that’s what those baby harnesses are all about really. A substitute umbilical cord. I’d had one for Alfie ever since he’d started walking. We all had them. And if we found ourselves within five hundred yards of open water or a moving car, the emergency procedure would be followed and the children would have their safety harnesses strapped across their chests and would then continue their day out tugging at their leashes like excited spaniels. Something had gone seriously wrong somewhere. The parks were full of big scary dogs that had been let off their leads, and the mums were all clutching restraints attached to their toddlers. Obviously after they’re four years old you can’t have them wearing those restricting safety harnesses. Then you can buy a Mothercare wristlink.

  A few days later it was the nursery school sports day and we all gathered on Clapham Common. Sarah spotted a couple of large dogs in the middle distance and was so concerned she insisted that little Cameron took part in the running race wearing his reins and that she would run along behind him, clutching on.

  ‘Oh, I’m sure they’ll be fine,’ said the young Australian nursery teacher, but Sarah was adamant that she couldn’t possibly let her child off the reins when there were big dogs on the common. ‘What if they’re those Rottweiler dogs?’ she said, looking around anxiously. ‘A running toddler’s like a rabbit to them, they’re bred to grab their prey by the throat – did you see that piece in the Mail?’

  Oh my God, I thought on hearing this. I’d seen that article. There’d been a huge colour photo of a poor little boy covered in bite marks and stitches after being attacked by some vicious ‘devil dogs’, as the paper called them, and there had been a big drawing of the beast savaging the child, and beside it an article by a TV animal expert explaining that dogs were actually descended from wolves. I was panicked by this terrible vision of an enormous killer hound bounding out of the woods, its ruthless hunting instinct reignited on seeing my little Alfie trying to run away, me hearing his screams as it leapt at his throat and shook him like some broken rag doll.

  ‘I think I’ll just put the harness on Alfie as well, just to be on the safe side,’ I said.

  ‘Yes, I think I better had as well then,’ said Ffion. ‘I wouldn’t want Gwilym to think I was the only mum who wasn’t there for him.’

  ‘Well, you can’t have so
me mothers allowed to run along behind and not others,’ said another, slipping off her shoes in anticipation of the race. Before long all the other mums were lined up behind their children, clutching their reins like a row of novelty jockeys from some Japanese extreme sports channel.

  ‘Um, ready, steady, go!’ said the bemused nursery teacher, but several mothers had already shoved their kids off on hearing ‘ready’.

  Little Alfie tottered along at a reasonably determined pace and I did my best to run at exactly the same speed. But somehow his reins were a bit too short and I found myself having to run along at a sort of half-crouch. ‘Go on, Alfie, faster, darling, faster!’ I urged supportively as I scurried along behind him, but the other mothers were screaming so loudly that I found myself shouting as well.

  Alfie and I were now lying about fourth with Ffion and Gwilym a yard or two in front of us. Suddenly Gwilym seemed to lose his footing, but fortunately Ffion was there to pull the leash violently upwards to prevent her son tumbling to the ground and hurting himself or, worse, coming second. In fact, she lifted him clean off the ground, where he remained swinging for a few seconds as she ran along, the pair of them suddenly seeming to make up a couple of yards on the front runners. On noticing this, some of the other more competitive mums also started to use the reins as a way of trying to force their children to run more quickly. No longer were they scurrying discreetly behind their kids, they were now dragging their children faster than their four-year-old legs could naturally run. The result was that the kids sort of bounced along the track, their mothers swinging them up into the air, occasionally touching their little leather sandals back onto the grass for appearance’s sake. But because this pretence slowed them down slightly, soon any semblance of fair play had completely disappeared and the mothers were basically running the race themselves, dangling their confused children in front of them with their little legs still running six inches above the ground. I noticed an old lady watching us, shaking her head and mumbling to herself. She looked a little worried and confused about something. I remember thinking: That’s old people for you.

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