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May contain nuts, p.6

May Contain Nuts, page 6


May Contain Nuts

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  The next page of sums appeared to be completely incomprehensible. I began to panic. Maybe I have ‘dyscalculia’, I thought to myself, maybe I’m ‘number-phobic’. When I’d had lunch with Ffion and Sarah in Mange Tooting recently, the bill had been plonked down in front of me to be split into three. And I had stared at it for a while before announcing; ‘By the way, this is my treat, let me get this … no, really, because you paid for the parking meter.’ Not that Ffion had put up much of a fight.

  My mind was just so cluttered and messy – it was worse than the loft. I used to know exactly where everything was up there but now there were so many useless bits of rubbish piled on top of one another that I could never lay my hands on anything. David’s brain was like his office: methodical and ordered. Looking around his study it occurred to me that I had never dreamed in my wild student days that I’d end up being married to a man who put a polythene cover over his computer in the evening. He had a desk tidy on his tidy desk. He had CDs that were in their cases. He had a tear-off calendar actually showing today’s date, a magnetic paper-clip sculpture in a perfect line between the Sellotape dispenser and the pocket calculator. A pocket calculator!

  It stared at me, defying me to switch it on, just to check a couple of answers that I was pretty sure I had answered correctly already. Don’t be ridiculous, I told myself. The point of this test is to see how much work I have to do between now and the examination at the end of next month. If I cheat now, I will be completely wasting my time. Anyway, knowing David’s thoroughness, he would have already taken the batteries out as a precaution. I actually became indignant at this thought: that David should trust me so little, so I pressed the ‘On’ button to see if the screen came to life or not. A digital zero glowed at me, reminding me of the possibility that zero might well be my final mark. I double-checked my last answer and found that it was correct, so there was no harm done. But then the answer before that turned out to be wrong, so I wrote in the correct total, reasoning that there is no point in giving a response that you know to be incorrect. Then the calculator told me that the solution to the first question of section two was 147. I discovered that the average number of clothes pegs in question seven was 93. I worked out that 6 over 24 was in fact 25 per cent. The square root of 196 is 14. Lunch at Mange Tooting would have come to £13.72 each. I whizzed through all three sections making up for lost time. There were still a couple of questions too obtuse for me even to work out with a calculator, but most of them could be answered instantly, leaving me twenty minutes to realize that the numbers in the impossible sequence that I had struggled with had one thing in common. Of course, they were all prime numbers. Like Ffion and her money, they could not be divided. So the next two numbers in the sequence were 19 and 23. With my confidence brimming I managed the last remaining blank questions on my own. I had done it, I had completed the whole paper in time and even had a feeling that I might have done rather well. I went to turn the calculator off. It was the advanced model with all sorts of buttons that I didn’t understand. There was a button that said ‘sin’, so I pressed it to see if it made the screen say ‘repent’. ‘Time up!’ said David, bursting through the door. Giving out a little squeal of surprise, I quickly leant my arm over the calculator. The suddenness of my movement made it slide across the desk and it was now poised to fall off the edge unless I kept pressing it hard against the corner. ‘Oh you made me jump!’ I said. I couldn’t move my arm or the calculator would clatter to the floor.

  ‘Right, let’s go see how we got on,’ said David.

  ‘Good idea,’ I said, not moving a muscle, smiling up at him.

  ‘Strange,’ he said, looking at his perfectly ordered desk. ‘That doesn’t look right.’

  There was a big gap between the magnetic paper-clip sculpture and the Sellotape dispenser. I couldn’t keep pressing the missing calculator against the corner of the desk for much longer.

  ‘My dispenser has run out of Sellotape. I wonder when that happened?’

  He grabbed my exam paper from in front of me and headed through to the kitchen. I breathed a sigh of relief and replaced his calculator. And then I glanced down at where he had revealed the next sheet in the folder: ‘For Parents Only: Answers to Paper One.’

  ‘Congratulations! You did fantastically!’ exclaimed David, coming into the lounge to find me draining the glass of wine that I had surrendered earlier in the evening. ‘You got 91 per cent on your first go, and you’d said that maths was going to be your toughest paper …’

  ‘Whatever,’ I mumbled, brushing past him to refill my glass, not wanting to betray my guilt with any eye contact.

  ‘Well, aren’t you pleased?’ he asked deflatedly.

  ‘Yeah, great, where’s that bottle of wine?’

  ‘Alice, you just scored the sort of mark that is going to get Molly into Chelsea College and you seem disappointed.’

  ‘No, I’m just tired.’

  This was true enough, but deep down I felt angry. Those bastards had been right all along. I was only cheating myself. I was also irritated by his presumption that this was all going to be so easy for me. ‘Anyway, I guessed a lot of the answers. I must have just got lucky …’

  ‘What, you guessed that the square root of 196 is 14? Come on, you did brilliantly. You’re going to walk it.’

  ‘I am not going to walk it, all right?’ I snapped. ‘It is not as easy as you think! You don’t understand what the pressure is like: having all this responsibility on my shoulders. It’s bloody hard enough being a good mother without having to sit bloody maths exams to decide their future as well! As if there aren’t enough tests already without having to hurriedly recheck that eight-twelfths expressed as a percentage is seventy-fucking-five, knowing that if I make one little mistake it might ruin my daughter’s entire life!’



  ‘Eight-twelfths is two-thirds, which is 66.6 recurring. I’m sure you would have got it right if you’d checked it …’ mumbled David, realizing that this probably wasn’t the best time to correct me on my mental arithmetic.

  ‘That’s it! I quit! You take the bloody exam. You put on a pink gingham skirt and a blond wig and pretend to be an eleven-year-old girl, if you’re so bloody great at maths.’

  ‘But I’m six foot one.’

  ‘So she’s tall for her age …’

  ‘And I have a moustache.’

  ‘So what, so does Ffion, I don’t care, I’m not doing it! I can’t do it. It’s not going to work.’

  I claimed that I was going out to take Alfie’s video back to Blockbuster, although it wasn’t clear why this required me to slam the front door quite so hard. It wasn’t until I was outside that I realized that I didn’t have my car keys in my coat pocket. I couldn’t go back inside and endure David’s upbeat encouragement all over again, so I decided to walk. We only lived five minutes from the high street, or fifteen if you were in the car, but it suddenly struck me that I never made this journey on foot after dark. And as I took my first brisk steps between the towering 4x4s and the shadowy hedges, I realized that it was not just habitual laziness that prompted me to climb into the car every time I needed so much as a pint of milk. It was fear. I was nervous of walking down my own street after dark.

  ‘Make Fear Your Friend,’ I kept repeating to myself as I hurried past a couple of suspicious-looking wheelie-bins, which to my great relief did not have a couple of muggers waiting to pop out as I passed. ‘Make Fear Your Friend.’ Why did I have to have such noisy shoes? Their hasty clattering seemed to broadcast the message: ‘Wealthy lone female taking mobile and bulging purse out for late-night walk. Probably wearing a Rolex. Help yourself.’ A recent neighbourhood-watch leaflet had reported that the last local resident to have their briefcase stolen had managed to take a photo of the fleeing muggers with his new mobile phone. I’d thought this was rather inspired, until I read that the thieves had then turned round and nicked his phone as well. I clutched the prize booty mark
ed ‘Blockbuster video’ tightly to my chest as I imagined members of the criminal underworld trying to unload a stolen copy of Barney and Friends for the price of a hit of crack cocaine. Fragments of broken car window glistened in the gutter; in the distance I could hear a police siren rushing to the scene of some other routine crime.

  Then ahead of me from out of the shadows emerged two figures. A couple of teenage boys, both tall with their hoods up, had come out of a doorway and started to walk up the road towards me. This was it. Fear wasn’t my friend at all – he always made me feel awful. My pace slowed while my heart was racing. For a second I carried on walking towards them, thinking that turning round now would be too obvious, that it would concede defeat too easily, surrendering myself as a willing target. I could see them more clearly as they passed under the orange sulphur glow of a flickering street light: they were both black, and looked lanky and sullen. They walked a couple of yards apart so that I would have to walk directly in between them. That would obviously be the moment when they’d strike. One of them was a giant, maybe six foot six; would he be the one who would hit me while the other demanded my purse? Would they want more than the usual? I’d read somewhere about a robber cutting off a woman’s finger to take her wedding ring. Maybe they’d read the same article in the Mail and had decided to try this out? They were only twenty feet ahead of me when I suddenly turned and started to rush back towards the safety of my home. Without actually breaking into a run, I scurried back up the street, adrenalin pumping, my heart in overdrive. I heard them laughing close behind me and now I ended any pretence and just dashed to the electronic security gate that we’d had fitted at the end of the path. My hands were shaking as I entered my code on the keypad. Nine four nine six – Jamie’s date of birth and the four-digit code number I used for everything. A tiny red light flashed at me and a defiant beep told me that this code had now expired. I had paid for the best system available, which meant having to change our security code every two months. I had had this gate fitted to protect me and my family from criminals and now it had trapped me outside with them: stranded and about to be mugged by two dead-eyed youths. I was frantically pressing the buzzer but it was too late. I glanced round and they were upon me.

  Would they say anything first or would they just do it, I wondered as my eyes were squeezed shut and my shoulders hunched up. ‘No!’ I squealed. Then the split second became several seconds. I looked round and they had continued past me, walking at the same pace, still several feet apart, laughing and joking, and I saw in an instant that despite one of them being the height of a giant redwood, they were just a couple of kids walking down the street, not going anywhere in particular, but not the slightest bit interested in me.

  I am scared of black teenage boys. There, I’ve said it. I, Alice Chaplin, am scared of black teenage boys. Is that a racist thing to say? I think it probably is. I never considered myself a racist. Racists are shaven-headed football supporters with tattoos and bulldogs and BNP posters in the window, and you don’t get many of those in Oaken Avenue. Whereas I sign up to the generally accepted moral viewpoint that racism is A Bad Thing. Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King? Good people, definitely. The Ku Klux Klan? Bad people, very bad; if ever I met someone with a pointy white hood burning a cross I would think worse of them, no question about it. But black teenage boys? Well, I’m sorry, but either I lie or I say ‘scary people’ – that’s just my honest reaction. Maybe when they were fourteen, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King hung about with their hoods up at the bottom of Oaken Avenue on bicycles that looked as if they didn’t originally belong to them. Maybe Trevor McDonald began his interest in journalism by writing illegible graffiti on the side of railway bridges. Maybe those black teenage boys who don’t ever seem to be in school and leave half-eaten Big Macs on underground trains will grow up to be respected newsreaders or great leaders giving moving speeches about freedom or whatever, but in the meantime I cannot be a hypocrite and pretend that I do not feel alienated from, threatened by and simply scared of black teenage boys.

  My reaction is, of course, based upon the fear that a black teenage youth might try to rob me. That if I attempted to edge my way between the phalanx of pushbikes blocking the shadowy pavement, one of them might grab my handbag and cycle off to some concrete hideout where he’d feverishly empty out the contents, wildly estimating how much easy cash he might get for a pocket umbrella, a small bottle of Clarins Eau Dynamisante and a couple of battered old Lil-lets. And even if the police were to catch him, everyone knows you never get the tampons back. Could any insurance payment ever replace their full sentimental value? Would I ever find another pocket umbrella like that one with two broken spokes that cost £4.99 from Boots?

  If it is not the material loss that would bother me, why am I so scared? I suppose it is the thought of so much naked hostility being directed towards me, the idea of another human being showing me that much hateful contempt that I find so terrifying. This fear is not based on any personal experience. I have never been assaulted, robbed or even bothered by a black teenager. I have suffered more violence from old ladies elbowing me on buses, but I don’t break out into a sweat when I see a pensioner coming along in a little electric buggy because I think they might be planning a drive-by shooting.

  I suppose I’m actually scared of white teenage boys as well, at least the pasty hooded variety that ride bicycles on the pavement at night with no lights on and look like they eat only crisps for breakfast. Why can’t criminal youths be like they were in the old days? All rosy-cheeked and tousle-haired and singing ‘Consider Yourself’ while dancing in formation behind Ron Moody? I can’t imagine any teenage muggers these days cheekily helping themselves to an apple off the basket on the head of a tap-dancing Covent Garden porter. Mind you, my own kids wouldn’t fancy the apple much either – they’d have to stop all the singing and dancing while I peeled and sliced it for them and mixed it up with some organic raisins.

  Make Fear Your Friend said that the only way to overcome my greatest fears was to go out and experience them. Did this mean wandering up and down Brixton Road at midnight wearing a gold necklace and chatting on an expensive mobile phone? I wasn’t sure I was ready for that yet. And this evening I had failed even to walk to the end of my road. Instead I slipped back inside the house, picked up the car keys and drove to Blockbuster, and rather than say anything to the pimply youth behind the counter, I dropped the tape in the 24-hour drop-box outside the shop and was soon back home, double-locking the door behind me. The ordeal had reminded me why I was so utterly determined to get Molly into Chelsea College. Because I wanted her kept separate from the gangs of teenage criminals that roamed the streets and the pond life that worked in Blockbuster who had piercings through their eyebrows, lips and probably through several internal organs as well. I wanted to protect her from all those people who scared me; I wanted her to meet only nice young people, teenagers who were concerned about the environment and thought knowing your twelve times table was cool and wrote thank-you letters after Christmas. Then she would grow up to be a lovely charming well-educated young lady and have a boyfriend who didn’t have ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckles but who was maybe in the orchestra with her and said things like, ‘Hello, Mrs Chaplin, I’ll make sure we’re back from the cinema by half past nine; it’s jolly lucky they’re showing A Room with a View because we’re both studying that for A level, although of course it’s no substitute for reading the actual book.’

  I suppose if I was honest with myself, it all came down to social class. I didn’t mix with people from the local council estates and I was frightened of allowing my children to. We had very few dinner parties where I found myself saying, ‘Ffion, this is Shaz. Shaz works as the receptionist at Body Brown Instant Tan Centre and is hoping to win the National Lottery.’ The indigenous population of this part of south London was a foreign tribe to me, and their forbidding grey tower blocks were another country. In fact, they were further away than that, beca
use I was happy to fly off to Umbria or Provence, but nothing would ever tempt me to wander a few hundred yards away into the alien ghetto of the council estates. The drug dealers in there probably couldn’t flog me any echinacea anyway.

  Perhaps the schools should organize some sort of exchange programme. When I was a child we all went on French exchanges; I had two weeks staying with a ‘typical French family’ in Lille, though I couldn’t believe it was typical to keep your spaniel tied up next to the washing machine in a cement-scented garage-basement or to force visiting English children to eat what I remain convinced was raw bacon. Maybe now we should be sending our children on ‘class exchanges’; instead of sending them overseas they should just move down the road for a few weeks and stay with a bona fide working-class family: drinking Tango, wearing enormous puffer jackets with Yankees logos on the back and hanging around the streets after bedtime. Of course, we’d keep in touch. Jamie could send me a postcard telling me how he was adjusting to his new adoptive family amongst the urban working classes:

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