May contain nuts, p.4
May Contain Nuts, page 4
‘Well done, Gwilym!’ said Ffion, who had been first to carry her suspended child way above the finishing line. ‘You won, darling, you won!’
‘That’s not fair,’ said another mother. ‘Henry was winning! You carried Gwilym the last bit!’
‘Alexander normally goes everywhere in his buggy. I still say I should have been allowed to push him in his buggy.’
‘Why don’t we say they all won?’ chirped the Australian teacher hopefully, which was about the worst suggestion she could have possibly made. The mothers were united on this. The children did not all win; their child had won. I never saw that particular teacher after sports day. I think she wanted to keep a certain distance from us for a while. Like the distance between London and Australia.
As Gwilym accepted his prize for the hundred-metre dangle, and Ffion cheered and clapped slightly louder than might have been considered appropriate, I sidled up to Sarah, who was warmly applauding the winner as if she’d already forgotten the manner of his victory.
‘Have you had the result of Kirsty’s mock test yet?’ I asked her mother.
‘Gosh no, but I’m not holding my breath, to be honest.’
‘Oh God, I can’t bear it, Sarah. This is just the mock, what am I going to be like when it’s the real thing? Molly just has to get into Chelsea, Sarah, she just has to, there’s no other choice.’
‘Oh, you’ll be all right. You’re lucky – Molly’s a clever little girl. Not like my Kirsty, thick as two short planks!’ and Sarah let out a horsy laugh which gave the impression that it ran in the family.
‘How can you be so relaxed about it? What are you going to do if Kirsty doesn’t pass the entrance exam?’
‘Oh golly, she’ll never pass the test in a million years.’ She chuckled.
‘So how can you be so bloody happy, Sarah?’
She glanced left and right to check that no other mothers were in earshot.
‘Can I let you into a little secret? I applied for an administration post at Chelsea College, and I just found out that I got the job!’ And she held her arms out as if to say ‘Ta-daa!’ or ‘Hug me!’, but if it was the latter I didn’t take up the offer.
‘Didn’t you know? Children of school employees automatically get a place. Well, up to a point, obviously. I don’t think they want the dinner ladies’ kids going there, but for us it means Kirsty’s already into Chelsea College, whatever happens! Isn’t that fantastic?’
There was a cheer nearby as another group of children started a race. I was stunned. I actually felt a dizzy wave of sickness wash over me.
‘I was very lucky to get it, really. They had over a hundred applications. All from mothers of ten- and eleven-year-olds, of course.’
‘That’s fantastic news, Sarah.’ I smiled using all the wrong muscles. ‘Congratulations.’
‘Isn’t it? Of course, she still has to take the entrance test for the streaming, so I thought it worth her having the practice. But however she does, she’s in!’
‘Well done, darling, you won, you won!’ shouted a mother in the near distance.
I didn’t ask Sarah why she had kept this job application secret from us, though I knew why. Because she knew Ffion and I would have applied for it as well. We all wanted the same thing, but while we pretended that this put us all on the same side, the exact opposite was true. When Ffion began having her eldest privately tutored for her secondary transfer tests, I had found out about it months later when Bronwyn was casually chatting to Molly. Though it had been hard to get the precise details with my ear pressed to the other side of Molly’s bedroom door.
Of course, when I’d quizzed her, Ffion affected to be as helpful as possible, forwarding the contact details and offering to drive Molly there as well. And now when I asked her when she thought we might get the test results, she was as obliging as ever.
‘You’re right, we should have heard by now,’ she said, clutching Gwilym’s first prize certificate to her chest, face out. ‘I’m dropping Bronwyn there this afternoon. I’ll get all the results off him then and let you know.’
‘Oh no, you don’t have to get Molly’s result for me, I just wondered when they might come through.’
‘No, it’s no trouble, he must have marked the papers by now, but the post could take days yet; I’ll send you an email. I might as well get the rest of the gang’s while I’m there as well.’
‘No, really, I don’t want to put you to any trouble.’
‘It’s no trouble – it’ll be jolly interesting to see how they all got on.’
‘Mummy, Mummy, I came first!’
‘You did, you clever boy,’ she said picking up her little champion. ‘You’re the best runner in the whole nursery!’
I always found it impossible to assert myself with Ffion. This might have been a simple problem of size. Physically speaking, the two of us could not have been less alike: I was very short and skinny, while she was tall and wide. She once claimed she was ‘big boned’ but if I was her I’d be a bit worried about the way those bones wobbled when she was winning races. I also had problems maintaining eye contact with her because I was permanently terrified that my eye would be magnetically drawn to the dark hairs on her upper lip. She might have worn the trousers in that relationship, but Philip still had sole use of the razor.
At six o’clock David wandered into his office to find me sitting there staring at a blank computer screen.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I was just seeing if Ffion’s email had come through.’
‘But you’ve been sitting here for nearly an hour. You don’t have to be in for emails; they don’t leave a postcard for you to collect the email from the e-post office the next day.’
‘I just can’t relax until I know how Molly got on …’
I clicked on ‘send and receive’ again, in the hope that the server might find there was one stray email lying around in the bottom of its bag that it had forgotten to forward, but the same bleak text blinked back at me. No new messages.
Finally at a quarter to ten at night there was a note on the screen. In fact, there were two emails, but I ignored the first one as I was confident I didn’t want a bigger penis. Underneath, the second little yellow envelope glowed with the maddeningly enigmatic title: ‘Test results – interesting!’ ‘Interesting’ could mean anything, though the upbeat exclamation mark obviously meant that Bronwyn had done well. The first thing I noticed was that everyone’s email address was on the one message, when I had presumed that Ffion would just send me Molly’s result. After madly clicking I found that the results were not on the email itself, but in an attachment. I double-clicked, yes, yes, I don’t care if some attachments may be unsafe blah blah blah, I don’t care if my computer gets hepatitis B, just let me see the result. My eye went straight to Molly’s name. It was as I had sensed from her demeanour after the exam. She had done really badly. Far worse than I had feared. I winced as I read along her scores: less than 50 per cent in every paper and a disastrous performance in the maths when she needed to be averaging 80 per cent and above to be sure of getting a place.
I looked again at the scores and my disappointment turned to indignation and then anger. It was only then that I realized the children had actually been listed in order of merit. Ffion had taken the trouble to arrange them into her own little league table, with her child at the top and my child at the bottom. I felt myself shaking with fury. How dare she send this to everyone to show how clever her Bronwyn was and how badly my Molly had done! My God, Molly had even done worse than Kirsty ‘Two plus two equals twenty-two’ McDonald, I realized, looking at the chart once again. She’s much smarter than Kirsty, I thought, and easily as clever as Bronwyn. Molly’s actually very bright; she just doesn’t do well in exams.
Ffion had even gone in for a little editorializing. Her daughter, she thought we might all like to know, was ‘excellent’, while my daughter – it was there for everyone to see – was ‘disappointing’. And her disastrous maths result merited an exclamation mark. Yes, how fucking amusing, Ffion, she only got 23 per cent! Oh and there was a postscript to the message. ‘Could everyone let me have the £1.07 towards the tin of Quality Street I bought for the winner.’
I checked Molly’s totals with a calculator. It wasn’t 38 per cent, it was 38.66 per cent, so it should be rounded up, not down. Molly had actually got 39 per cent, not 38 per cent. Not content with putting Molly bottom of the league table, Ffion had cheated her out of a percentage point as well. I angrily clicked the file closed but then realized David would want to see it and I called him into the office.
‘Well?’ I said angrily, as he stared at the computer screen.
‘I didn’t enquire about penis enlargement, it’s just spam …’
‘No, the one underneath. The test results.’
‘Oh God, how did she get on?’ He clicked calmly and there followed a long silence. ‘Oh shit. Oh dear. What was she doing? 23 per cent in numeracy!’ he shrieked.
‘You don’t have to read it with Ffion’s punctuation.’ He saw the tears dripping on to his desk and put his arm around me to comfort me, deftly wiping the salty water from the immaculate polished teak.
‘Look, it was only a mock test. Far better that she does this now than when it comes to the real thing.’
‘Oh, come off it, David, she’s never going to make up all that ground in a couple of months.’
In my fury I wanted to ring Ffion immediately and shout down the phone at her.
‘You’re angry because Molly has done so badly. Don’t take it out on one of your best friends,’ said David.
‘She’s not one of my best friends. She was just the first other mother I met. Do you think I should email everyone on the list and point out that Molly actually got 39 per cent?’
‘No, it doesn’t matter.’
‘I mean, if Ffion is going to put an exclamation mark after Molly’s maths score, then she ought to know that you round up from .66 recurring, not down. I mean, that’s basic mathematics.’
‘Forget about the half a per cent.’
‘Well, it’s a whole per cent the way she’s done it. From 38 per cent to 39 per cent, that’s a whole percentage point she’s been robbed of there. Do you not think I should just do a quick email to everyone to point that out?’
‘She’d still be bottom.’
‘Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t recognize her methodology. I’m sorry, but who’s to say who is bottom here?’
‘Molly is bottom,’ said David firmly.
‘In how she scored in one test, yes … but that doesn’t take anything else into account. I mean, Molly’s much better, well, she’s much better … at the violin than Bronwyn.’
‘Great!’ he said sarcastically. ‘She’ll be the best violinist at Battersea Comprehensive.’
I thought of little Molly carrying her violin into that rough inner-city school. You could never walk in there with a violin, it would make you stand out too much. You’d have to hide your violin inside a machine-gun case.
That night I was sitting up in bed underlining passages in The Self-Confident Parent when David sprung his Plan B on me.
‘We’re going to have to go for St Jude’s.’
‘Boarding? No way.’
‘She could get a music scholarship.’
‘She’s going to Chelsea College with all her friends.’
‘Alice, she’s never going to pass the entrance exam, you said so yourself. We’re going to have to put her down for St Jude’s and work on her music.’
‘She’d never have got 23 per cent if she’d had that echinacea,’ I said, and David looked at me as if I was insane. I was adamant that Molly was not going to boarding school. I couldn’t bear the idea of her being taken away from me, but I didn’t dare give this as the reason. I feared that David would say I was putting my own feelings ahead of what was best for our daughter.
‘She’s going to Chelsea College. That’s what we always wanted for her. That’s the best school. That’s where her friends are going. That’s where Molly is going.’
‘And how is she going to get in?’
‘I’ll think of a way.’
‘Good. Well, while you do that, I’m going to sleep. I’ll phone St Jude’s for a prospectus in the morning’ – and suddenly everything was total darkness.
My hand fumbled across to my bedside table and I found something to occupy my hands while I worried.
‘Are you popping bubble wrap again?’
‘Sorry. I’ll try and do it quietly.’
I slipped the old padded envelope underneath the duvet and tried to pop the polythene air pockets as gently as possible.
‘For God’s sake, how can I get to sleep with that racket? Pop! Rustle, rustle! Pop! Pop!’
Then silence. Then one more pop for defiance’s sake and then I just sat there staring into the black nothingness of my daughter’s future.
Anxiety had been my default setting ever since the children had been born. I remember when Molly and Jamie were little, there had been a feature on the radio about the risk of asteroids falling to Earth from outer space. The children couldn’t understand why I was suddenly calling them in from the garden. In the end I had to force myself to stop being so irrational, though as they ran back out of the kitchen door I still heard myself shout, ‘Be careful!’ as I glanced nervously up at the heavens. When David came home he wanted to know why the children were splashing around in the paddling pool wearing their cycle helmets.
Be careful. That’s all I ever seemed to say.
‘Mum, can we go on the slide?’
‘Um, all right, but be careful.’
‘Mum, can we jump off the diving board?’
‘Oh, er, OK, but be careful.’
Once when Jamie was swinging at the top of the climbing frame in the school playground he even heard his mother’s voice booming, ‘Jamie, be careful!’ as I happened to drive past. The poor child looked skywards, wondering if he had just heard the voice of God. All right, I didn’t happen to drive past their playground. I had taken a detour to check that he was all right. I couldn’t help it – the worry was always there, a crippling sensation of permanent panic fluttering inside me, searching for something specific to land on.
The fear has many forms. When I was not worrying about something happening to my children, I worried that nothing would happen to my children. That they would end up as failures or embittered dropouts because we’d neglected to give them the best possible start in life. That by the time he was a teenager Jamie would end up bunking off school and spend his days lurking on the London Underground with other feral street urchins, riding up and down the escalators sticking chewing gum on the nipples of the girls in the bra adverts. And all because we’d mistimed the right moment to start clarinet lessons. So my children had to get the best education possible; they had to get into Chelsea College. The spectre of Big School loomed out of the sky like tho
I went to nudge David but realized I didn’t need to; he was wide awake as well.
‘You know that nursery school running race I told you about the other day?’
‘It doesn’t matter that Alfie didn’t win it. Gwilym’s six months older …’
‘No, it’s not that. Anyway, Gwilym didn’t win it, Ffion won it; she dangled him over the line.’
‘I thought you all did?’
‘Yeah, but Ffion started it, so she had a head start.’
‘Forget about it. You’re only five foot one, you were at a disadvantage.’
‘Five foot two. No, my point is: little Gwilym won because his mother ran the race for him.’
I paused for dramatic effect before telling him the idea that had been forming in my head.
‘I’ll take the exam.’
‘I’ll pretend to be Molly and take the exam for her.’
David reached across and turned the light on. The way he screwed his face up in the sudden brightness made him look totally perplexed.
‘You’re not serious, are you?’
‘Well, look at me – I’m short, flat-chested, and last year they charged me half price in the cinema. No one at Chelsea College knows what Molly looks like. If I worked on my appearance a bit I could sit there in the hall with all the other boys and girls, put Molly’s name at the top of the page, make sure she gets 100 per cent and a guaranteed place at the best school in London.’
It was 4.30am and the first jumbo jet of the morning was shattering the still silence of the night.
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes