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May contain nuts, p.7

May Contain Nuts, page 7

 

May Contain Nuts
 



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  Dear Mum

  Am doing my best to learn language, yer bitch. Was having a well wicked time till I is getting run over by a train I was tagging. Told Kev I need drugs to ease pain – he said he’d score some for me, innit? Is Strangeways the name of a hospital?

  Love Jamie

  David had obviously given some thought to how best to tackle my outburst because the following night as we both climbed into bed he casually mentioned that we ought to think about what sort of children’s clothes I was going to wear for the exam. This was a bold tactic but one that had worked before. We both knew that the subtitles said: ‘You didn’t mean what you said last night, did you?’ It was understood that my mock-casual response expressing an intention to visit Gap Kids translated as: ‘All right, I take it all back, we’re still going through with it.’ Despite my abject failure when confronted with my first exam paper for twenty years, I could see no other way. I still wanted total control of this process; it was the only way I could envisage coping with it. My daughter was going to have the best life possible, if I just lived this one bit for her.

  We lay beside one another in the dark. I was thinking that if I got David to tutor me and studied full time and kept practising, then surely I should be able to get full marks in an exam designed for eleven-year-olds, and that Molly would take a test at home and that way she’d think she got in on her own merit but we should also continue to tutor her anyway because she mustn’t fall behind, oh, and we mustn’t take our eyes off Jamie’s education at the same time, and Alfie would be starting at the infants in September. Meanwhile, David was probably thinking: I wonder if there’s any chance of us having sex.

  I reached for the bedside cabinet, sensing David’s irritation when the small sheet of polythene in my hand produced the first tiny pop.

  ‘Do you have to do that?’ he sighed.

  Pop!

  ‘It helps me get to sleep,’ I countered, running the bubble wrap through my fingers in search of the few remaining air blisters.

  Pop!

  ‘Why can’ you get some worry beads or maybe listen to the shipping forecast on the radio or something?’

  ‘I tried that. But it keeps me awake. I lie there waiting to see if there is going to be a hurricane in Clapham.’

  Pop!

  Each little controlled explosion felt like another knot of anxiety had been kneaded away – each tiny release of trapped air was a problem solved. But there always seemed so many bubbles to get through; whenever one sheet was completed I’d have to find another one. Nearby a car alarm had gone off while a low-flying jet roared overhead.

  ‘Do you think maybe we should move to Lundy?’ I said into the darkness.

  ‘Lundy?’

  ‘It’s a little island in the middle of the Bristol Channel.’

  ‘I know where Lundy is. Why on earth would we want to go and live in bloody Lundy?’

  ‘I read it has the lowest crime rate in Britain. And if we sold up here I bet we could get somewhere with a really big garden in Lundy.’

  ‘Alice, I’m a financial consultant. Lundy’s all cliffs and wildlife. What am I going to do – set up an investment portfolio for a load of seals? Advise them to buy shares in fish?’

  ‘But think of the freedom the children would have. They could go to the local school with the children of the nature warden and the lighthouse keeper, and get lots of fresh air bird-watching.’

  ‘And do you think you wouldn’t find new things to worry about on Lundy? You wouldn’t lie awake worrying about the children being dive-bombed by a killer puffin?’

  David started to drift off to sleep, leaving me trying to shake off the image of my children being pecked to death by a vicious little seabird with a stripy beak. ‘Can puffins fly then?’ I said into the darkness five minutes later.

  ‘Yes, puffins can fly …’ mumbled his voice into the pillow. ‘Go to sleep.’

  ‘Oh, I thought they were a sort of penguin.’

  ‘No.’ He laughed patronizingly. ‘You only get penguins in the southern hemisphere,’ and he covered his head to block out the noise of the popping bubble wrap.

  As if he sensed my anxiety, little Alfie suddenly came galloping into our room. He was frightened. It was the same fear as usual: he was afraid that there might be a bear in his toy cupboard.

  ‘Darling, there are no bears in England,’ David said, spotting the opportunity for a lesson in natural history even though it was half past one in the morning. ‘The last European bear in the British Isles was hunted to extinction in the thirteenth century, remember? And even a small bear, like the Himalayan black bear, needs a range of at least twenty square miles of woodland, so no bear could ever live in your toy cupboard, could it? So come on, let’s go back to bed.’

  ‘No …’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘I’m scared of the bear in my toy cupboard.’

  ‘Look, don’t be ridiculous!’ snapped David. ‘I just explained to you that that’s impossible. What’s it going to live on? Lego?’

  David always got upset about the wrong things. For example, he was furious about 9/11. ‘9/11 is an Americanism,’ he would rage. ‘In Britain it should be 11/9!’ However, on this occasion I have to say I was with my husband. The chances of a colony of bears having continued to live in southern England undetected by naturalists for seven hundred years before finally settling just off London’s South Circular seemed pretty remote. And then for one of these urban bears to successfully pick all the locks to our front door, type in the correct alarm code on the keypad with its great big claws and sneak up to hide in Alfie’s toy cupboard, well, this was beyond a long shot.

  I pulled back the duvet to allow him to climb in and I felt his arms lock round the back of my neck.

  ‘You know you’ll never get any sleep if you let him stay next to you …’ groaned David.

  ‘Hmm, you smell nice,’ I told him, inhaling the scent of my son’s scalp like an addicted ex-smoker hovering near a stranger’s cigarette. I wanted this moment to last for ever, and I held him close, letting him drift off to sleep, pretending to myself that in six hours’ time I wouldn’t be snapping at him to hurry up and brush his teeth and put on his shoes: paying the debt of the previous night’s intimacy with exhausted short-tempered tension.

  Right now my children were as safe as they could possibly be. But tomorrow I would have to let them go back off to school, to face all sorts of perils and make all kinds of decisions that might be the wrong ones. I read somewhere that it was now possible to buy an electronic tag for your child so that if they were abducted they could be instantly located using a satellite tracking system. Imagine what it would be like when every kid had one: you’d have to have some sort of playground traffic control with stressed-out radar supervisors shouting desperate warnings that the slide was not clear for take-off yet, little Timothy was still sitting at the bottom. I wondered if soon it might be possible to fit a tiny camera to the top of your child’s head, so that you could then sit at home watching what they were doing all day while they were away from you. You’d need one of those wireless talkback facilities that newsreaders have as well, in order that you could warn your child to hold on to the banister when they hurried down the stairs, or to guide them towards the grated carrot at school dinners.

  Or maybe all the CCTV cameras in the country could be linked up to a central network so that we could tune in and watch our children wherever they were. Crossing the road in view of the traffic monitor by the pedestrian lights, then passing the security camera in the high street and now into range of the web-cam in the window of Dixons – wherever they happened to wander they would always be in their parents’ sight, as long as Mum and Dad paid the £49.95 monthly rental on the personalized child-watch cable channel. Maybe I could sell that thought to Philip as the next big computer idea he was searching for.

  Molly had recently announced that she wanted to go unaccompanied to the newsagent’s at the bottom of the road to buy a comic, and David
said he thought it would be good for her, so I tried to appear as relaxed as possible in the face of this mad adventure. I talked through with her step by step exactly what she had to do, on her own, without her mother. And then she went out and did it. She walked out of our front gate, turned left along the pavement, walked a hundred yards down to the corner, went in and chose her comic, handed over the money (exact change already arranged) and then headed back towards home. And then she said, ‘Mum, I can see you hiding behind that hedge.’

  With Alfie’s head tucked under my arm and the red digits on the alarm clock glowing a blurred 3:something, I began to drift off, when suddenly I was jolted awake by an unfamiliar noise. This wasn’t a child on a landing, this was coming from outside. Someone had climbed the fence and was in our back garden. My heart was beating so fast it had sucked the energy from all my other muscles and I was completely frozen. They may well be trying to force open the back door at this very moment; they might have stun guns like those burglars on Crimewatch last week – it might be the same gang now on their way upstairs to rob us and then shoot me and the children so that we wouldn’t be able to describe them to Nick Ross. I pictured the yellow police sign in our road. ‘Appeal for Witnesses; Multiple Murder.’ Some blurry photo of me and the kids being repeatedly shown on the news. Oh God, I hope David wouldn’t give them that one of me looking hideous in a saggy bikini at Center Parcs.

  Then I forced myself to fight such irrational thoughts, to be sensible about this. I’d heard noises before and David had always stomped back to bed to report that there was nothing out there. I’d been half asleep – maybe I’d dreamt it. Calmness, I thought to myself. Tranquillity. Composure. I am not afraid of anything in the back garden. I am in my own home, the doors are all locked, there are bars on the windows, there is no danger, there is nothing to fear.

  And then I let out a small scream. The security spotlight had come on in the garden. Something was definitely out there. I’d only just had the light fitted for this very eventuality and already a burglar had set off the sensors.

  ‘David! David, wake up! There’s a burglar in the back garden.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘The light’s come on … the security light – there’s someone out there.’

  He sat up. ‘It’s just a cat again.’

  ‘Shall I phone the police? I’ll phone the police,’ I gabbled.

  ‘No, let me just have a look,’ he said as his pasty bottom disappeared out of the bedroom. Whenever David went to check that we were not being burgled, he never even bothered to put his dressing gown on. If I was a man going into battle with a gang of drug-crazed armed robbers, I wouldn’t have thought that the most protective armour possible was a baggy old T-shirt with your willy swinging about underneath.

  I held the phone in my hand all ready to ring the police, trying to remember whether it was still 999 or if they’d changed it to 118-something. But then he just waddled back upstairs and into the bedroom with a world-weary expression and threw me a sheet of polythene. ‘It was the bear from the cupboard,’ he sighed. ‘I brought you up some more bubble wrap …’

  The Zodiac Diet Book

  Eat The Right Foods For Your Star Sign And Watch The Pounds Drop Off!

  By David Zinkin

  Sunrise Books £6.99

  Are you a munching goat or a picky crab? Do you weigh out every calorie with your Libran scales or demand the lion’s share of dinner like a typical Leo? Just as the position of the stars and planets affects our personalities, so our metabolisms and appetite vary enormously according to our star sign. Whether you are a Virgo who prefers pure, fresh food, or you are an Aquarian who often drinks water at meal times, by using the planetary charts in this book you will learn the astrological slimming secrets for your sign as practised by the Ancient Egyptians.

  For example, I’m Gemini the twins and just one chocolate never felt like enough; my star sign had been urging me to eat them in pairs. But for Geminis like me, the solution to weight loss also demands what astrological dieticians call a ‘Twin Approach’: namely, 1) eating less and 2) exercising more. This has worked for every Gemini I know …

  — 4 —

  David was always completely contemptuous of anything to do with astrology and, rather annoyingly, that’s not typical Aries. He never liked it when I knew more about something than he did. In any case, they got him exactly right: ‘As one of the fire signs, you don’t like your meals to be left to go cold. You also like your vegetables properly cooked and prefer not to eat cheap processed foods.’ That was so true it was uncanny. The only bit of the book where I did wonder if they were stretching it a bit was when they suggested that you should try to select precise ingredients according to your astrological symbol. I’m Cancer the crab and I didn’t really fancy snacking on a load of decaying seagull heads.

  I lost quite a few pounds in the first weeks of my diet as I strove to make myself look more like an eleven-year-old. Former weight-loss regimes had failed when I’d thought it reasonable not to count rejected chicken goujons off the children’s plates that I ate while standing up. But now I found that I had self-discipline. It’s the new Alice Chaplin diet! All you need is your child’s entire future to depend on it and you’d be amazed at your own willpower! That’s why we can’t lose weight after we have babies – because we are more focused on our children’s lives than we are on our own. But now I’d found the secret: ‘Lose half a stone or your children will get it.’ If I put that in a book, I’d make a million, no question. Though David rather unhelpfully suggested that if I really wanted to look like a modern child, I should be stuffing my face with burgers till I was clinically obese.

  In fact, even Molly had developed a bit of puppy fat in the last year or so. Well, quite a lot of puppy fat actually; we’re talking about a St Bernard or Bull Mastiff puppy here. She didn’t like sport because she hated losing, and anything that required sustained effort or vigorous movement, such as chopping up her sausages, I tended to do for her. Apart from music, the only pastime in which she really excelled was literacy: every day she’d seem to come back from school another fifty pages further on. ‘We just did reading our books in English today.’

  ‘Marvellous that you’re reading so much, darling …’ I would say, while I privately wondered why we were paying £3000 a term for someone to sit in the room with our children while they read a book. But it was good for Molly to be good at something, and doubly satisfying that it was an interest she’d inherited from me. It’s very important for your children to see you reading proper books; I read that in Your Child Is a Journey, You Are the Compass.

  So when one Saturday morning Ffion suggested our eleven-year-olds form their own junior book group to meet up and discuss whichever children’s classic they had elected to read that month, I jumped at the idea. They were all reading the same books and we were all eager for our children to develop their literacy skills, so I thought it was a wonderful suggestion.

  ‘That would be great fun, wouldn’t it, Molly?’ said Ffion, before I’d got the chance to talk to my daughter about it. ‘You’d like that, wouldn’t you, to have all your friends round and discuss books, you’d love that, wouldn’t you, hmmm, hmm dear, you’d like your own book club, that’d be fun wouldn’t it, dear, because you love reading and you’d love to discuss it with all your friends, wouldn’t you, dear, wouldn’t you, wouldn’t you?’

  Molly’s mental cursor must have briefly scanned the choices that Ffion’s enthusiastic onslaught had left her and quickly realized that ‘yes’ was the only available response.

  ‘I thought we might choose The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as their first book,’ Ffion announced.

  ‘Oh, that’s a super idea. I loved that book when I was a little girl,’ concurred Sarah.

  ‘All right, so that’s agreed. Why don’t I pop into the bookshop and buy five copies of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and we can arrange a date in a month’s time for them all to meet up and discuss it?’<
br />
  Clearly this book must have been on some sort of ‘three for the price of two’ offer and Ffion was planning to collect the money from each of us and get a free copy herself.

  ‘Shouldn’t we maybe give them the chance to choose which book they do?’ I ventured.

  Her cheery smile twitched slightly as she processed this suggestion, but instead of being thrown off balance, she rolled with my mutinous proposal, incorporating its weight to help force through her prearranged plan. She was a black belt in the art of aikido conversation.

  ‘You’re quite right, Alice, we ought to ask them, they’re the ones who are going to be reading it after all. Molly, you’d like to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, wouldn’t you, you’d like that, wouldn’t you, it’s all about a secret magical land and there’re lions and there’s a witch and there’s a wardrobe and oh and children away from the grown-ups, that sounds fun, doesn’t it, you’d like to read about that, wouldn’t you, Molly, shall I buy you a copy of that, hmm? Because you love books like that, don’t you, dear, you’d love to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, wouldn’t you?’

  My poor Molly looked slightly terrified and I could just about hear her whisper, ‘Yes, please, thank you,’ as she looked at me for approval. If she hadn’t agreed I think Ffion might have turned her into a statue.

  The thinking behind a kids’ book club had been that it might increase awareness of children’s classics and on one level this plan was certainly successful. With two nights to go before the first meeting, both David and I were sitting up in bed reading separate copies of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was gone midnight, and David made another pencil note in the margin.

 
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