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May contain nuts, p.8

May Contain Nuts, page 8


May Contain Nuts

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  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘Edmund eating the Turkish delight. I must explain “allegory” to Molly in the morning.’

  ‘But the whole book is an allegory, isn’t it? Aslan is Christ, the children are disciples, Edmund is Judas … It says so in the notes I got off the internet.’

  ‘Yes, but if Molly says all that it’ll look obvious that we briefed her … But she might plausibly say that she thought the Turkish delight maybe represented all sorts of temptation, like drugs and things like that …’

  ‘I think she should say that after the stuff on characterization …’

  ‘Well, it depends – how much have you got so far?’

  ‘I was concentrating on Lucy and Tumnus at the moment,’ I said flicking through my notes, ‘and then I was going to do the Snow Queen and Edmund.’

  ‘Four characters is probably as much as we want to focus on if she’s going to say anything about narrative style as well …’

  ‘Yes, but we can’t just tell Molly exactly what she’s going to say, it has to come from her. This is just to help prompt her into discovering all these things for herself, isn’t it?’

  ‘Yes, of course it is. I’ll sit down with her again tomorrow and ask her what the Turkish delight bit made her think about, you know, if she felt it had any wider meaning …’

  ‘And if she still doesn’t get the right answer?’

  ‘Well, then I’ll tell her what to say.’

  My house had been volunteered for the first meeting of the junior book club, though not necessarily by anyone who lived there. I had realized earlier that day that I would have to provide appropriate refreshments and so there were bowls of organic kettle chips arranged around the room and a jug of iced elderflower cordial and five glasses placed on the table. The four other children arrived with their books under their arm, a parent or two excitedly ushering them in. My daughter, reader-in-residence of the South-west London Literary Society, welcomed her fellow academics with the usual enthusiasm.

  ‘Say hello to Bronwyn, Molly,’ I prompted.


  ‘Say hello to Molly, Bronwyn.’


  It was going very well so far. The children hovered in the hallway, a little unsure as to what they should do next, till they were manoeuvred into position under the persuasive guidance of Ffion. ‘Well, this does all look lovely, doesn’t it, hmmm, doesn’t it? Why don’t you all sit yourselves down, and look, Molly’s mummy has even provided some crisps, that is kind, so get yourselves a drink and some crisps, not you, Bronwyn, you don’t eat crisps, go on, that’s it, everyone sit down, there you are, this is nice, and then when you’re all sorted just sit yourselves down, that’s it, you’ve all brought your books, haven’t you, well, we won’t interfere, and why don’t you find your favourite bits or anything that you wanted to read out, hmmm? And we’ll just be right here so you don’t have to worry about anything.’

  I had been just about to head through into the kitchen when I realized that every other parent was planning to stay in the room and watch. Well, everyone except Philip, who watched from outside the French doors where he stood puffing away in the light drizzle. William was there but wasn’t there; he took a book of poetry from the shelves and attempted to escape from the book club with a book. The scholars sat on the chairs, their legs still not quite reaching the ground, while the remaining parents stood round the edge of the room in eager anticipation.

  ‘Off you go then!’ said David.


  Molly looked at me and I smiled and tried to give her an encouraging nod to say something to the group. Every child was looking at its mother or father, unsure what they were supposed to do. They looked as if they’d done something wrong.

  ‘Well, somebody say something,’ said Ffion.

  ‘These crisps taste old,’ said Kirsty.

  ‘No, that’s just posh crisps,’ explained Molly. ‘They’re organic.’

  ‘Somebody say something about the book. Bronwyn, why don’t you start?’ said her mother.

  Bronwyn glared at her mother and furiously whispered, ‘Mum! Don’t!’

  ‘Did you like the book? Why don’t you start by saying whether you liked the book or not, darling?’

  ‘I liked the book,’ mumbled Bronwyn.

  ‘Not to me, darling, don’t look at me when you’re saying it, say it to the rest of your book club.’

  Bronwyn turned her head and, addressing the floor in front of her, announced, ‘I liked the book.’

  This inspirational literary insight failed to break the ice and another period of silence ensued, while various adult observers remained frozen round the edge of the room exchanging expressions of upbeat bravery. Someone coughed quietly. The children waited for the purgatory to be over.

  ‘Maybe we should leave them to it,’ I suggested.

  ‘You had a thought about what it was all about, didn’t you, Bronwyn?’ her mother cut in. ‘About why C.S. Lewis wrote it, didn’t you, darling? What was it you thought about the book, an idea about what it all meant or something, why don’t you say that now, Bronwyn, hmmm, darling, hmmm?’ prompted Ffion, nodding expectantly at her daughter.

  Bronwyn went a little red in the face and then said, ‘I think the whole story is an allegory for the Christian story with Aslan representing Christ, the children as the disciples and Edmund as Judas.’

  David shot me a furious look.

  ‘Oh, Bronwyn is such a clever girl, Ffion,’ whispered Sarah. ‘She really is extremely bright for her age,’ and Ffion felt forced to agree.

  David smiled and half nodded agreement but clearly his thoughts were elsewhere. ‘What was it you wanted to say about the Turkish delight, Molly?’ he interjected. Mortified at being put on the spot like this, our eldest mumbled ‘Nothing’ and glared furiously at her father.

  ‘Come on, darling, didn’t you think that it had some kind of wider meaning?’

  Molly sighed and was forced resentfully to proclaim, ‘I think that the Turkish delight that Edmund eats represents all sorts of temptation.’

  ‘Oh I say, that’s very sharp!’ exclaimed Sarah. ‘Well done!’ And there was a murmur of impressed agreement round the room while David and I tried not to beam with pride too obviously. The evidence was there for all to see: our daughter was a highly literate, perceptive and intelligent eleven-year-old, even if she didn’t do very well in exams.

  ‘He told me to say that,’ declared Molly, looking at her father. And all adult heads turned accusingly to the cheat in our midst.

  ‘Well, I guided her towards it …’ mumbled David.

  ‘No, you wrote it down on a piece of paper for me to learn,’ said Molly, grinning mischievously, though her smile fell away when she saw the thunderous expression on her father’s red face.

  ‘I think it’s best if children can learn to discover the books for themselves,’ commented Ffion sadly as her daughter discreetly turned her notepad face down. ‘Shall we go through into the kitchen and leave them to it?’ she said, leading the way.

  ‘I liked the little drawings,’ offered Kirsty as we headed out of the room, and her mother smiled at her but didn’t comment on this insight, hoping that we hadn’t heard.

  I took orders for drinks – three teas, two coffees – and an ashtray for Philip.

  ‘I guided her towards it and then we made notes,’ David muttered to Sarah. He turned to William. ‘I guided her towards it …’

  Ffion glanced at Jamie’s music sheet propped open on the piano. ‘Ah, that brings back memories. Look, Philip, do you remember Gwilym doing this one?’

  ‘Ah yes,’ he said, craning his neck through the kitchen window, where his face had popped up so as not to be antisocial.

  ‘Careful, darling, you’re letting smoke in again …’

  Inside I was still seething that Bronwyn had won the battle of the book club. I knew that I was perhaps a bit too competitive sometimes. But I was beginning to despair at the level of
unrelenting competitiveness Ffion possessed. The level that always won, damn her. When Bronwyn had had to do a little song and dance presentation for the Spencer House talent night, Ffion asked a professional theatre director who lived in their road if he could just watch her practise it and give her any advice. She had him round there four times in the end, which is ridiculous. I mean, Molly could have won first prize if we’d got a professional theatre director. But he said no, he was already helping Bronwyn.

  I went to fill the kettle but found that the water filter was empty, so we would have to wait for that first. ‘I guided her towards it,’ said David to William. As if my husband’s humiliation was not already sufficient, his youngest son chose this moment to wander down from his playroom modelling a Disney fairy dress, his high heels clacking noisily and attracting attention. ‘Oh, that’s a pretty dress, Alfie – who are you?’ asked Ffion.


  ‘Oh yes, the fairy …’

  I told myself it was sweet that Alfie enjoyed dressing up so much, it was just David who struggled with the fact that his four-year-old son was a transvestite.

  ‘Ooh, why don’t you go and see what else you have got in your dressing-up box, Alfie?’ said his father. ‘There’s that Bob the Builder outfit, isn’t there? And your cowboy costume? Why don’t you put one of those on?’

  ‘My Esmerelda dress!’ he announced excitedly.

  ‘Er, I think Molly’ s old Esmerelda costume is getting a bit worn out now, isn’t it? What about that soldier’s helmet I bought you?’

  ‘Sleeping Beauty!’ he announced, and ran off to get changed.

  ‘Sweet. So have you thought about what you are going to do if Molly doesn’t get into Chelsea?’ probed Ffion.

  ‘Oh, I’m pretty confident that she’ll pass the exam,’ I said casually.

  Ffion’s silent smile seemed to suggest otherwise. ‘Might be worth having one or two options up your sleeve though,’ she continued. ‘I mean, Chelsea College is a very academic school, it may not be the right place for a girl like Molly. That’s not a criticism – she’s a very cheerful, funny girl, and when it comes to music lessons I’m sure she’ll really excel.’

  David’s glare implored me not to be provoked into saying too much.

  ‘Actually, Ffion, Chelsea College is the only school we’re going for. I’ve been doing quite a bit of work, I mean with Molly, obviously, and I’m pretty confident she’ll get in …’

  Out of the corner of my eye I noticed David placing a cookery book on a pile of Letts’ secondary selection practice papers, which were filled with my handwriting.

  ‘Goodness, well, that’s very, umm … brave. I’m sure you’re right, it was probably just a one-off that she came bottom in the league table.’

  I went quiet for a moment and then steeled myself to say something. ‘Yes, well, you can’t make a league table from just one result. I mean, what about all the other things that should be taken into account? I mean, I could do a league table based on how good the children were at violin and Molly would come top, or what about playing Top Trumps or PlayStation Dancemat scores, or who was the first to finish Harry Potter and the whatever the big fat fourth book was – you can’t do a league table on just one thing, it’s not fair.’

  ‘What about a league table on who can remember the most things that their parents told them about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?’ suggested William unhelpfully.

  ‘I guided her towards it …’

  Sarah sensed that it might be time to change the subject. ‘What about Bronwyn – have you got any back-ups in mind for her?’

  ‘Well, we’ve got her down for a few other schools just in case. So she’ll be sitting the exams for Alleyn’s, JAG’s, City of London, St Paul’s, Streatham Hill and Clapham High, Godolphin and Latimer, Emanuel, Putney High, Francis Holland, oh and there’s a boarding school in Massachusetts we’re looking into …’

  I was still seething inside, though part of me was wondering whether I should be writing all these names down to make sure I had twenty-seven reserve options for my own daughter.

  ‘But her personal tutors are all pretty sure she’ll get into Chelsea, aren’t they, darling?’

  Philip nodded through the window, but I don’t think he could hear her. It was raining quite heavily now. Tutors in the plural. That was a slip. I thought Bronwyn was just having the one tutor that she shared with Molly.

  That evening, David slumped on the sofa with a long cold glass of beer and I whisked it out of his hands and placed it in the fridge.

  ‘What are you doing?’

  ‘Come on, there’s work to do. I am going to get Molly that place if it’s the only thing I ever achieve in my life. I need you to explain multiplying fractions and long division again. Only the top 40 per cent of applicants get into Chelsea College, which out of nine hundred children is only … um … actually, could you go over percentages with me again as well?’

  ‘Do we have to do this now?’

  ‘This isn’t for me, it’s for our daughter,’ I admonished. ‘So she can get the best possible education, so that she has the best start in life we can give her. And so we can see the expression on Ffion’s face when she learns that Molly beat Bronwyn in the entrance exam …’

  The level of David’s grasp of modern mathematics proved problematic. He knew everything. Having my husband tutor me in something in which he was so unarguably superior precipitated an unacceptable shift in the fragile balance of power that allowed our marriage to function. I was forced to admit I had no idea how to calculate the volume of a cube or what happened when you multiplied negative numbers, so later I’d feel compelled to introduce a conversation on something I knew more about, such as Jane Austen novels or putting the salt in the dishwasher. My literary knowledge was superior to David’s; the only fiction he ever read involved scenarios in which Hitler developed the atom bomb after his invasion of Cornwall.

  ‘What is minus nine times minus five?’ David asked, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.

  I looked at him extra earnestly to show that I was listening. He had white hairs growing out of his nostrils.

  ‘Sorry, can you repeat the question?’

  ‘Minus nine multiplied by minus five?’

  My husband really did have the hairiest nostrils I’d ever seen – which reminded me that I’d booked Jamie in for a haircut after school next day; I wondered if they could just give Alfie a quick trim as well. Except Alfie always made such a fuss, it might be better to do it myself when he was asleep, though last time I tried that I’d done it in the dark so as not to wake him up, which had the opposite effect when the scissors stabbed into his ear lobe.

  ‘Are you just thinking or don’t you know?’

  ‘Don’t know what?’

  ‘The sum I just asked you.’

  ‘No, I’m thinking. What was the sum again?’

  I thought teachers were supposed to be positive and encouraging, not say things like, ‘Please, please, in God’s name listen to what I’m saying before my brain explodes from frustration.’ The truth was that this project was making me feel even more stupid than I felt already.

  I’d never had the intellectual self-confidence of David or our friends. We were sitting round in our favourite Italian restaurant and Ffion said, ‘Of course, Granada is a wonderful mix of Islam and Old Spain,’ and all I could think of was Granada services on the M4. But David could always summon up an appropriate response. ‘Yes, well it is only five hundred years since the Ottoman Empire was driven out of the Iberian peninsula …’ and I sat there wondering if my holiday in Malaga was worth mentioning here. My husband seemed better educated than me, my friends all seemed better educated than me, and sometimes I just felt like a stupid little girl.

  ‘So, er, why were you in Granada, Philip?’ I called across to where Ffion’s husband was sitting on his own in the smoking section of the restaurant.

  ‘Computing conference. We’re still trying to de
velop these recreational software ideas but it’s got a bit bogged down.’

  ‘What’s recreational software?’

  ‘Well, you have a home computer, right? You might shop on it, look up your star signs on it and write letters on it, but you’d never play any games on it, would you?’ he said, craning to make eye contact over the plants.

  ‘Maybe with the children. But that’s because Jamie’s not very good at computer games. The last time he played Desert Storm, the Americans actually lost.’

  ‘Well, there’s no end of programs that ordinary adults can use during their leisure time: Family Tree Maker, 3-D Garden Designer or whatever, but none of these has been a runaway bestseller. That’s the idea I’m determined to find …’

  Philip worked on the creative side of software development. He claimed that his most lucrative idea had been sending random email addresses the following message: ‘Dear Pervert, your computer has been recorded accessing hardcore pornography sites. We have a complete record of all your email addresses; if you do not wish us to contact all your friends and work colleagues with details of the obscene websites you have visited, please send fifty pounds to the following bank account in the Cayman Islands …’ He said he made nearly a million pounds from that one and I was never quite sure if he was joking or not.

  ‘What about a computer game in which the object is to get your children to stop playing computer games?’ suggested William. Philip couldn’t hear him. ‘Or, if everyone’s doing internet shopping, then how about internet shoplifting? You order what you fancy on the website and they go round and nick it for you?’

  ‘I’ve got an idea for a computer program!’ announced David excitedly. ‘A historical flow-chart challenge! Yes, yes, you start at, say, the Battle of Zama, right? And making various choices along the way you follow the course that history might have taken if the Carthaginians hadn’t been defeated by Scipio in the Second Punic War so that Rome wasn’t the dominant Mediterranean power! Now that would be massively popular!’

  There was the sound of someone breaking a breadstick. ‘I think it may need a speedy hedgehog in there somewhere …’ said William.

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