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May contain nuts, p.5

May Contain Nuts, page 5

 

May Contain Nuts
 



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  ‘It would never work. You could pass for twenty-something, my darling, but eleven?’

  ‘What about Henrietta in Molly’s class? She’s taller than me and she has bigger bosoms. The cow. She’ll be in the exam hall, so will hundreds of other kids of all shapes and sizes. With a baseball cap pulled down over my face and wearing kids’ clothes, who’d look twice at me?’

  He paused for a moment as the plane turned sharply when the pilot realized he wasn’t going directly over our bedroom.

  ‘But what would we tell Molly?’

  ‘She can sit a test paper at home – we’ll tell her there wasn’t enough room in the exam hall or something. That’s the least of our problems …’

  ‘It just feels like a pretty extreme thing to do …’

  ‘It’s no worse than going to church to get into a faith school, or lying about your address to get in on proximity.’

  ‘Yes, it is.’

  ‘All right, maybe a bit. But we have to do what we think is best for our children. I mean, it’s not as if we’d be defrauding anyone, we’re still going to be paying them thousands of pounds in school fees every year.’

  The plane was right overhead now; it seemed to change gear or something as the roar shifted to a higher pitch.

  ‘Well, that’s true,’ said David thoughtfully. ‘And Molly would be an asset to any school.’

  ‘A great asset. Lead violinist in the orchestra probably. And she is bright …’ I insisted.

  ‘… Very bright.’

  ‘She just doesn’t do well in exams …’

  ‘Which is something Chelsea College might be able to help her with once she was actually in there …’ said David.

  The plane noise had begun to fade, but the sonic scream of the next jumbo was already building in the distance.

  Make Fear Your Friend

  By Barney Travers MGSc

  Sunrise Books £6.99

  Have you met your fears yet? No???? That’s strange, you’ve been living with them for most of your life!!! Isn’t it kinda rude to keep ignoring them like that? Maybe you should have gotten to know your fears a little better; find out who they are? ‘Hello, Fear-of-Failure, my name’s Barney, how do you do?’ ‘Hello, Fear-of-Embarrassment, how come you keep stopping me doing stuff?’ Guess what? I nearly didn’t write this book because I was kinda frightened it might come across as annoying phoney-baloney, but I MADE THAT FEAR MY FRIEND and now look: you’re actually reading it!!!!

  — 3 —

  It is a Tuesday morning in February at the beginning of the 1980s. I am thirteen years old and I am sitting in the front row in the middle of the classroom. The ancient furniture dates from the era of slates and corporal punishment: a dark wooden bench and back rest connected to a gnarled desk with a worn flip-top lid upon which generations of girls have carved their initials or preserved for ever the names of boys they loved that week. There is still an inkwell but these days the ceramic pot inside is stuffed with old pencil shavings.

  This is my worst, worst subject. Miss Torrance, squat and old, clothed in beige tweed, bulky rings on all fingers except the one that matters, has a smouldering temper capable of exploding at the unlikeliest of provocations. I stir the dusty inkwell with my pencil. I need a wee but there is only ten minutes till morning break and I daren’t risk the wrath of Terrible Torrance.

  ‘Tamara, what is nine in binary?’

  ‘One, zero, zero, one.’

  ‘Correct.’

  ‘Susan, what is twelve in binary?’

  ‘One, one, zero, zero.’

  ‘Correct.’

  Where is this place called Binary? I think. And why is everything there in ones and zeros?

  ‘Jennifer, what is twenty-four expressed as a binary number?’

  ‘One, one, zero, zero.’

  ‘Sheep!’

  On hearing the word ‘sheep’, Jennifer knows she must stand until she gets an answer right. If she gets her second answer wrong, she becomes a ‘goat’ and must stand on her seat; three wrong answers and the offending pupil becomes a ‘billy goat’ and must stand on her desk until coaxed down from the mountaintop by a correct answer. Miss Torrance thinks this makes it fun; she thinks this is her being ‘a character’.

  Five minutes later I am one of the half-dozen girls standing up for an answer that I knew was wrong, but which I judged as preferable to telling the truth, which was: ‘I have not had the faintest bloody idea what you’ve been talking about all lesson.’ I sway from side to side. My need to wee has increased since I was ordered to stand. It is beginning to crowd out everything else as Miss Torrance fires questions round the room at increasing speed, and there are giggles as girls sit or clamber onto classroom furniture.

  ‘Jennifer, what is fourteen in binary?’

  ‘Is it one, one, zero?’

  ‘Goat!’

  Jennifer unhesitatingly stands on her seat; she always makes it to goat, but never billy goat – soon a well-timed easy question will ensure that she is back to the floor.

  ‘Alice, what is fourteen in binary?’

  I am caught off guard. I had been hoping that if I didn’t make eye contact she might not notice me there, standing up right in the middle of the classroom.

  ‘Er … one, zero, one, zero,’ I say, making a random guess in this foreign language in which everyone else seems so fluent.

  ‘Goat!’

  I stand on my seat. I am seriously uncomfortable now. It comes in waves, it aches, and I try not to jiggle too obviously where I stand. Then an unprecedented breach of the unwritten rules from Miss Torrance. She asks me a second question in a row. ‘Billy goat!’ shout a couple of her favourite pupils in unison with their teacher and now I am the only one in the room tottering on my desk, towering over my classmates, who one by one answer correctly and return to the dignity of sitting down.

  Think of deserts, I tell myself, dry, dry deserts, with no water for miles around, but a mirage appears with a cascading waterfall, which turns into a flushing lavatory, a hallowed private sanctuary, with a door and a lock and a place to sit and let go. Think of dust, think of sand, think of air, think of a big round toilet seat … no, no, put that out of your head.

  ‘OK, Alice, today’s billy goat,’ says Miss Torrance finally. ‘An easy one for you, I think …’ but I don’t even hear the question, it is as much as I can do to present a face of apparent total concentration, to appear to be working out the answer, when what I am really thinking is: I really, really need a wee now, lesson please end, school bell please ring … but the minute hand on the clock is still in the same place it was the last two times I looked. Silence. A room full of faces staring up at me.

  ‘Please can I go to the toilet?’

  ‘No, you’re not getting out of it that easily, young lady!’ she barks.

  ‘Come on, Alice, you can do it!’ whispers a friendly voice.

  ‘Alice, have you listened to a single thing I have said this lesson?’

  ‘Yes, miss.’ It is hard to appear sincere when I am towering above her, worrying about spraying urine all over her classroom.

  ‘So what is four expressed in binary code?’

  ‘Go on, Alice, you know this …’ whispers another voice.

  All faces are staring up at me, all my classmates willing me to say the right answer. I think hard about the separate words that make up her question, repeating them slowly to myself, but this is a pointless exercise – it is like carefully pondering, ‘What … is … blinky-blonky tum-te-tum?’ and then hoping the answer may present itself.

  ‘Well?’ she says.

  ‘Sorry, could you repeat the question?’

  ‘It is basic binary. Set two, Alice, remember? What’s four in binary?’

  I have to say something. All this pressure on me, it is pressing on my bladder, it is squeezing and pushing – any answer, just say something … ‘One, one, one, one.’ It seems like an intelligent guess. Four ones are four, I am sure of that. I must be in with a chance.
>
  ‘NO!’ she booms incredulously. ‘NO, NO, NO, NO! That’s fifteen, isn’t it?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Do you understand why one, one, one, one is fifteen?’

  ‘Er, yes.’

  ‘So what is four?’

  ‘Oh, what is four?’ I repeat as if she hasn’t made herself clear before now.

  ‘Yes. What is four?’

  Silence. Standing on this desk ten feet above the floor, I can see the top of her head, I can see out of the glass partition into the corridor where the salvation of the toilets is just a few yards away. My skinny bare legs are level with the faces of my classmates, white socks and black shoes shuffling nervously on the desktop. It feels like for ever but I suppose it can only be fifteen or twenty seconds that she lets me stand on that desk in silence with the whole class looking at me. The first thing I notice is how warm the liquid feels upon my leg, how quickly it flows down my inner thighs to my calves, then soaks into my socks, a little urine finding its way inside my shoes. The sheer amount of it, too, is surprising: it just keeps coming and coming, forming several fast-flowing streams that run to the edge of the desk, dripping down to bulging pools that spread across the dusty classroom floor, while a few splashes bounce off the desk and onto Miss Torrance’s tweed jacket.

  It was quite a few moments before she realized what was happening, before she understood why girls around me were shrieking ‘Urgh!’ and leaping away from the downpour. She was barking at them to be quiet and sit down, unaware that little flecks of dampness were appearing on her jacket. Miss Torrance never did tell me what four was in binary. She never wore that jacket again either. But at least we didn’t do sheep, goat, billy goat again after that.

  Most of the girls in my class wore badges on their lapel for outstanding achievements in their particular fields: choir or netball or library monitor. It turned out there was no enamel shield for having pissed on your maths teacher. Of course, I was completely traumatized and was off school for a while, but time passed and the worst thing that could have happened in the whole world was eventually forgotten. I went on to be appointed form captain, to win medals for the debating society and star in the school play. Life moved on. I peeked at my old school on Friends Reunited. Somebody had put: ‘Whatever happened to old Alice Niagara-Knickers?’

  ‘Oh, Friends Reunited,’ said David, looking over my shoulder. ‘Are you on there?’

  ‘Er, no, can’t be bothered with all that mid-life crisis nostalgia nonsense,’ I said, hastily turning off the computer. Getting the children into bed that evening had been a greater battle than usual and I hauled myself up from the computer and collapsed on the sofa. It was only now that I realized how tired I was following the sleepless night we had spent debating our daughter’s school entrance exam. I flicked through the TV channels until I found the programme about a young family leaving behind their hectic life in north London to become organic olive farmers in Tuscany. I wondered if olive farmers watch programmes about people who’ve decided to become anxious inner-city parents tooting their horns in traffic jams because they’re already late for their daughter’s Scottish country dancing lesson? I let out a long exhausted sigh, kicked off my shoes, wiggled my body slightly to get extra comfortable in the soft folds of my favourite sofa and raised a large glass of chilled white wine to my dry lips.

  But the glass didn’t stop there. The arc of its flight continued upwards as it was deftly removed from my hand and placed on the sideboard by David.

  ‘No wine yet, I’m afraid, young lady. You’ve got work to do …’

  ‘What? Don’t be ridiculous. Give me my glass back!’

  ‘You can’t do a test paper after drinking alcohol. It will affect your score. You can have a drink when you’ve finished – that can be your reward.’

  ‘Don’t treat me like a child, David. I want my wine and I want it now!’

  ‘After you’ve done a numeracy test. Come on! There’s a paper waiting for you on my desk. And a glass of milk and some biscuits.’

  Why was it that whenever I announced a project my husband had to be even more keen on it than I was? Why couldn’t I be married to one of those wonderful husbands who are completely unsupportive and uninterested in their wives or children?

  ‘I’ll do it tomorrow,’ I mumbled sulkily.

  ‘No, tomorrow is non-verbal reasoning. I’ve worked out your revision timetable’ – and he thrust his spreadsheet under my nose as if this was some higher authority that neither of us could argue with.

  ‘Now, come on, if we’re going to do this we’ve got to do it properly. All the kids going for this exam will have been tutored and tested for the past couple of years; you can’t assume that you’ll do better than them just because you’re an adult. It’s twenty years since you got your maths O level.’

  This didn’t seem the moment to mention to my husband that in fact I never got my maths O level. That I had failed it twice and then given up. Even now I regularly set the video for 18:30, thus failing to record the programme that started at half past eight.

  ‘Well, I was just going to have ten minutes, but I can start now if you want,’ I said getting to my feet. ‘I am thirty-six. I would imagine that I’m going to be a bit smarter than any tenor eleven-year-old …’

  David’s desk had been cleared of all clutter. Reflecting the harsh glare of the spotlight, a clean white test paper stared up at me from where it lay beside a freshly sharpened pencil. An alarm clock was placed on the desk where it ticked slightly too loudly.

  ‘I’ve made it as much like the real thing as possible. Now remember to check your answers,’ he said, ‘and show any workings out.’

  ‘Yes, yes, I know,’ I said tersely.

  ‘And if you get stuck on a question, just move on to the next one and come back to it if you have time at the end.’

  ‘Right, that’s it! I’m not doing it! If you are going to patronize me and exploit this exercise to try to make yourself appear all superior then I’ll do the tests in my own time.’

  ‘But that’s what you say to Molly …’

  ‘Molly is eleven.’

  ‘And so are you, my darling. You have to walk like an eleven-year-old, talk like an eleven-year-old, write like an eleven-year-old and even fidget like an eleven-year-old. Now come on, do this paper and I’ll buy you an Avril Lavigne CD.’ I read the first question and was surprised by how easy it was. Converting fractions to decimals … I remembered doing these with Molly. 1/100 as a decimal is 0.01, so I quickly wrote the answer in the box and was aware of an approving grunt from behind me.

  ‘Could you shut the door please, David?’

  He pushed the door to and, without looking round, I added, ‘No, from the other side.’

  I occasionally wonder how husband-and-wife teams ever achieve anything. Did Hilary Clinton really think it would be possible to reform US healthcare policy when the president was her husband?

  ‘Bill, have you read my draft report on Medicare reforms?’

  ‘You don’t have to say it in that voice …’

  ‘I’m not saying it in any voice, I just want to know if you’ve bothered to read it?’

  ‘Bothered? So you’re saying I’m lazy now? Just because I forgot our anniversary when we were invading Somalia …’

  I was determined not to give David a single incorrect answer at which he could tut and shake his head in disappointed pity. My husband considered himself something of an intellectual. When he watched University Challenge or Mastermind, he usually got the answers wrong, but still took pride in the fact that his wrong answers were the same as the wrong answers given by the super-brainy contestants. This evening he would have no reason to feel smug. He would mark my paper and force himself to say, ‘Well done. A perfect score,’ as he tried to remember why it was he felt a vague sense of disappointment. I finished the decimals and fractions and moved on to the next section.

  ‘Which are the next two numbers in this sequence: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17 … ?’
OK, I thought, not immediately obvious, but these things are always very straightforward – it’s just a question of working out a pattern. Now, let me see … the numbers increase by one unit once, then by two units twice, ah yes, I see the pattern, now it will be increasing by three units, three times, will it? No, it won’t; damn. OK, there must be some other sequence … I reread the question just to make sure I wasn’t missing something obvious.

  Ah, I’ve got it. If you add 2 and 3 you get the next number, 5. So if I add 3 and 5 I should get the next number, which is … shit, it’s 7. They must mean 8, it must be a misprint … Every time I tried to listen to my own quiet thoughts it was like there was a car alarm going off in another part of my head, and ten minutes later I was still staring at the numbers until eventually they blurred into dead meaningless shapes. Ugh, it is SO unfair, I sulked to myself, infuriated by being forced to endure extra maths homework like this. My head was resting on my hand and my arm was slumped resentfully across the desk. I let out a long grumpy sigh. I ran my fingers through my hair and noticed a few flecks of dandruff fall onto the test paper. Dandruff, urgh, how long had I had dandruff ? There was none on my shoulders, but by vigorously scratching my scalp I was able to send a few more tiny specks of skin tumbling onto the exam paper. I adjusted the spotlight slightly to get a better look and tipped up the paper to pour the collection onto the desk. There were a couple of dark hairs in the mix and one that looked albino white. It wasn’t enough that I was going grey, now the grey hairs were falling out as well. I was slowly turning into one of those old ladies with thin white hair and a shiny pink scalp clearly visible underneath. I might as well buy a tartan shopping trolley and fill it with half-price loaves of sliced white bread to empty out on the edge of the common for all the pigeons.

  ‘You’ve had twenty minutes,’ called David through the office door. ‘You should be on section two by now!’

  ‘Thank you, darling!’ I shouted, sticking two fingers up at the closed door. I quickly brushed away the fascinating detritus of my scalp and returned to the paper. I was miles behind. I was not even halfway through section one. I left the stupid number sequence question with the obvious misprint and moved on to some straightforward percentages. ‘If Simon has 7 apples, Peter has 6 apples and Jennifer has 11, what percentage of the total number of apples does Peter have?’ Easy. There are 24 apples altogether, and Peter has 6, so to get the percentage you just multiply that by 24 and divide by 100, which gives … 1.44 per cent. Hmm, that doesn’t sound right. OK, it must be the other way round. It is 24 divided by 6, times 100, which gives you the answer … 400. Peter has 400 per cent of the 24 apples. This was serious now. I was going to do badly. I wasn’t anxious about the test I would be sitting for Molly just yet – strangely, that felt too far away to worry about right now. It was David’s likely reaction to my failure this evening that I couldn’t bear to contemplate. The prospect of him patiently explaining to me where I had gone wrong on each question between now and midnight, the tone of voice he would use when he said, ‘You mean you don’t even know how to work out a percentage?’ … I had to do well, if only to ensure I wouldn’t be convicted of murdering my husband, leaving my children to be taken into care while I spent the rest of my life in Holloway prison writing sexually explicit letters to Premiership footballers.

 
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