May contain nuts, p.9
May Contain Nuts, page 9
Obviously David could not spend all day as my maths tutor because, as the only breadwinner, he had more important things to concentrate on, namely our son’s school history project on World War Two. I tried to picture the reaction we would get at drinks parties when people said, ‘And what do you do?’ and he replied, ‘I’m writing my nine-year-old son’s school project on World War Two.’
‘Oh right, does that pay well?’
‘Not huge amounts, but we’re hoping for a gold star at the end of term …’
David’s professional focus seemed to have blurred somewhat in the weeks since he’d volunteered to help Jamie with his project. There were still intricate diagrams and spreadsheets neatly pinned above his desk, but now instead of referring to revenue forecasts versus capital outlay, they tracked the encirclement of Von Paulus’s German Sixth Army to the west of Stalingrad.
‘Good day in the office, darling?’
‘Excellent … found some wonderful archive material on the Volga offensive for Jamie.’
I tentatively suggested that he might possibly be going into a little too much detail for a nine-year-old’s school project. He was quite defensive about such an idea. ‘But the Battle of Rostov was vital to regaining the oilfields of the Caucasus; leave that out and all of Operation Uranus becomes illogical.’
‘Look, I know we want Jamie to get a good mark for his project and everything, but don’t you think it rather defeats the object if you do it all for him?’
‘I’m just following his lead … and then sort of guiding him towards locating the stuff he’s interested in …’
‘What, so our nine-year-old son chose to chronicle the German annexation of, of … Estonia, did he?’
‘The Germans didn’t annex Estonia …’ He laughed condescendingly. ‘The Baltic states were seized by Russia as part of the Nazi–Soviet non-aggression treaty.’
‘I knew that. 1941 …’
Secretly I rather resented the way this project seemed to have taken Jamie away from me. It felt as if I had lost two of the men in my home to the war. It seemed to drag on for ever: not knowing when my brave boys might be coming home on leave from the Imperial War Museum; keeping the home fires burning for the lads out there battling away on the school assignment front. David had declared martial law – this military commission became something exclusively for the boys; there were mines and barbed wire and signs all around it saying, ‘Achtung! Frau Verboten!’ If I dared to stray over into David’s territory, I immediately came under intensive fire. Just because I happened to comment on the nice colours Jamie had chosen for colouring in his map of Hiroshima. ‘That’s why there’ll never be a female minister of defence,’ laughed David. ‘“Which tank do you want to buy, minister?” “Well, I rather like the green one.”’
I wished I had known lots of stuff about World War Two so that I could have spent a bit of time with my son talking about war and armies and history. I had helped him a little when his class had had to write a piece imagining they were evacuees. Though by the time his mother had checked out which was the best village to evacuate him to, the war would have been over. Maybe I should find out a bit more about it, I thought; maybe the Waffen SS could bring me and my son closer together.
‘So this Nazi–Soviet non-aggression treaty? When did you say that was?’ I asked David.
‘August 1939. Just before the war broke out.’
‘But Russia was on our side in the war?’
‘Yes?’ said David patiently.
‘So what happened to stop them having a non-aggression treaty?’
David looked at me with almost pitiful disbelief. ‘Well, I think Adolf Hitler invading Russia may have been a technical breach of one of the sub-clauses in the non-aggression treaty.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘Yes, I think sending in hundreds of panzer divisions, occupying thousands of square miles of Soviet territory and killing twenty million Russians was deemed by some eagle-eyed legal pedant in the Kremlin to be in technical breach of sub-section three, paragraph two of a treaty based around the concept of non-aggression …’
‘All right, all right …’ David’s blitzkrieg sarcasm had all the subtlety of his favourite warlords.
‘I mean, maybe the Russians were being a bit oversensitive; maybe Stalin was a bit prickly that morning and just misread the signals. Maybe when Hitler set out to totally annihilate the Bolshevik Untermenschen, he didn’t mean it in an aggressive way …’
‘You know your trouble,’ I said to him. ‘You’re too interested in the subject.’
‘You’re unhealthily interested in the Nazis.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You! You’re worse than the History Channel. I think there’s something vaguely suspect about being that fascinated by the Third Reich … Next you’ll be going to medal fairs and collecting Nazi insignia.’
‘Look, just because there’s something I can teach the children that you can’t …’
‘Well, that’s the trouble, isn’t it? You’re just doing it all for him, not letting him find out for himself.’
‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this! From the woman who’s going to disguise herself as an eleven-year-old girl so that she can take her daughter’s exam for her!’
‘Yeah, which leaves me stuck in the study trying to do nonverbal bloody reasoning while you have all the time with the kids! I thought men were supposed to balance work and home. But not you, oh no, it’s just family, family, family the whole time! You never think once about coming home late because you were out drinking with some important clients, do you? Not one weekend where I’m abandoned with the children because you’ve taken off on some vital work crisis that came up at the last minute. I mean, other husbands leave it to their wives to sit down with the children and go through all the homework, but you’re so selfish you have to do it all, don’t you?’
David never took criticism well. One bit of negative feedback on eBay and he was in a bad mood all weekend. But I did come home a couple of days after our row to notice Jamie sitting at the kitchen table enthusiastically drawing a big exploding battleship rather than taking dictation from his father on geopolitical fall-out from the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, so perhaps the message had got through. Jamie was being allowed to finish his project on his own.
The more I heard about it, the more incredibly complicated World War Two sounded. World War Three, on the other hand, was far more straightforward. World War Three was simply ‘My Family versus Rest of The World’. Whereas the 1940s had been ‘all pull together’, ‘everyone in the same boat’, now it was me and my children pitted against everyone else: Alice, Molly, Jamie and Alfie versus Britain, France, United States, Germany, Japan, Russia and Ffion. (I hadn’t decided which side David was on; he seemed to keep switching sides – he was Italy.) Of course, various superficial alliances were made along the way. If our embassy had to issue a sleepover invitation or present a birthday gift, then diplomatic channels could generally be found. But it was all part of the overriding objective: my children über alles, the permanent geopolitical battle for full-spectrum dominance for my precious offspring.
And now my mission was to go undercover, as a secret agent on behalf of my daughter, and so we set off for the King’s Road to try on suitable children’s outfits. Inevitably David was keen to be involved and scurried about Gap Kids finding glittery pink sweat-tops which he held up against me. He seemed oblivious to the fact that we had started to attract the attention of the staff; it never occurred to him that it might strike some onlookers as a little bit suspect to see a man trying to persuade his wife to try on various items of young girls’ clothing. I came out of the changing room in a pre-teen T-shirt and his voice boomed across the shop, ‘No, your bosoms look too well established. We should get you a training bra so your breasts look like they’re just budding …’ I had to send him home in the end before he was put on some sort of nati
I stood alone in the changing room, facing the full-length mirror dressed in ‘aged 10–12’ spangly jeans and a pink sk8er gal sweatshirt and feeling like some sort of zany fancy-dress nut. These clothes so clearly did not match the maturity of my face or the grey-streaked haystack on my head. I tried everything: baggy tracksuits, long flowery dresses, and a green skirt and tights that made me look like I was playing principal boy in some provincial pantomime. I stayed locked in there getting crosser and crosser as each item looked more ridiculous on me. Despite what the T-shirt claimed, I did not look like one of the Koool Kidz. Why did I have to have these crow’s feet and these great big bags under my eyes and this little hammock chin and liver spots on my forehead? I couldn’t remember any point at which I’d been happy with my age. I seemed to have spent my entire childhood wishing I was older and my entire adult life wishing I was younger. I’m not sure when the crossover happened but there must have been a period when I thought: This is just the right age, I’m happy being exactly the age I am now. I think it was one weekend back in the 1980s.
There must be a way of covering up this ageing face, I thought. David and I had toyed for a while with the idea of making me a devout Muslim girl. For a moment this had seemed like the perfect solution. I could walk into the examination hall at Chelsea College with just my eyes visible through the narrow slit in the yashmak and dark make-up around my eyes and on my hands. Who would have the courage to tell me to take a Muslim headdress off ? Who would dare appear racist and say, ‘You can’t wear that in here, young lady, you might not be who you say you are.’ And then I realized that I would have to say who I was in order to register for the exam, and that the name ‘Molly Chaplin’ didn’t sound particularly Saudi Arabian.
I had hung the last of the girly tops on the back of the changing-room door and was studying my face close up in the mirror, checking that my tongue didn’t have any wrinkles—
‘No, darling, you don’t want clothes with words all over the front, do you, darling, hmm, it’s not very cool to be a walking advert for Gap, is it, darling, I mean they’re not paying you, darling, are they, so you don’t want that one, darling, do you, darling, do you?’
I recognized the oppressively persuasive voice immediately.
‘That’s a nice top, isn’t it, Bronwyn, darling, try that one on, you like that sort of thing, don’t you, that’s your favourite colour, isn’t it, no, not that one, the one underneath, you like that, don’t you?’
What was Ffion doing in Gap? I thought she got all her children’s clothes hand-made in Milan. I couldn’t come out of the changing room now with piles of children’s clothes but no child. She’d start asking herself all sorts of questions.
I resolved to sit it out in there until they had wandered off. That way I’d be completely safe. Suddenly the handle of my cubicle rattled.
‘Oh, there’s someone in there, darling, don’t you have any other changing rooms for goodness’ sake …’
‘There’s more downstairs,’ said the assistant, coming to my rescue.
‘It’s all right, we can wait. Just stand here with me, Bronwyn, so that no one else jumps in front of us.’
I lifted my feet off the ground, thinking that if my shoes were visible it might give me away. I was trapped. Ffion was going to wait outside and I couldn’t possibly come out – it was an impossible situation. Then I heard some tourists outside the door and I thought maybe the path was clear.
‘Il fait beau aujourd’hui, n’est-ce pas?’
‘Oui, il fait très beau.’
No, they weren’t tourists. It was Ffion taking this opportunity to practise talking to her daughter in French.
‘Quelle heure est-il?’
‘Il est onze heures et demie.’
My Molly barely knew any French. She did know the French for ‘yes’, but only in the context of a joke that ended ‘Oui?’ ‘No, poo!’
The oral exam continued outside: ‘Qu’est-ce que tu as mangé pour petit déjeuner ce matin?’
‘Don’t say “what?”, darling, say “comment?”. We’re speaking French, aren’t we?’
‘Well, I’m not now, because you started speaking English.’
‘Il fait beau aujourd’hui, n’est-ce pas?’
‘All right, that’s enough now. Anyway, I already said that.’
The handle was rattled again, and I realized that there was no way that Ffion and Bronwyn were giving up and that I had no choice but to brave it. I had a plan to front it out. It might work, it might not, but there was nothing else for it. I unlocked the door and marched straight out.
‘At last …’ I heard Ffion say to me. ‘Oh! I think you’ve got that on the wrong way round, dear,’ she added, seeing me stride out of the cubicle wearing a top back to front with the hood pulled up covering my face. ‘She’s wearing that back to front,’ she reiterated to the assistant. But the strange child wearing the hood over her face completely ignored her, carried on walking and crashed into a pillar a few yards further on.
‘Cool,’ said Bronwyn. ‘Can I try on one of those?’
In the end I selected a couple of dresses, a glittery light blue sweatshirt and some trainers that lit up when you ran along. But the experience made me realize that the clothes weren’t the main issue. It was the head that stuck out of the top that counted against me. I had my teeth polished and then shelled out the most money I had ever spent on myself to have my hair coloured blonde at the best hairdresser in the West End. In the salon the stereo was playing ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ and I tried to feel like a film star in the transformation scene where they stick in a song to liven up the pace a bit.
I got home and shouted to David to stay in his office. I put on the most appropriate outfit and stood in front of the mirror. I thought I looked years younger: no grey hair, my waist slim, I looked at myself from every angle in the mirror and attempted an immature giggle.
‘OK, cover your eyes …’ I said at the doorway to David’s office. ‘Ta da!’
‘Wow. You look beautiful …’ said David as he gazed upon his child bride.
‘Thank you,’ I said, spinning round and pretending to take a swig from my Simpsons water bottle.
‘It’s amazing. You look slim, young, healthy – just gorgeous. It’s an incredible achievement, really.’
‘Well, I’ve worked pretty hard at it …’
‘Yeah, and well done. You look fantastic. Except …’
‘Except I fancy you.’
‘I’m really sorry but I fancy you. And seeing as there is no way I could fancy you if you looked eleven, it simply can’t be working. You’re obviously a woman. A gorgeous, slim, healthy young woman, but there is just no way that you could ever pass for eleven. It’s just not going to work. I’m sorry.’
I felt totally deflated. Either our plan for my daughter’s future was fatally flawed or I was married to a paedophile. From where I stood both possibilities looked pretty grim.
The Ape-Man in Your Kitchen
By Simon and Sally Marrable
Sunrise Books £6.99
In the 1930s the British anthropologist Dr Walter ‘Wattie’ White did a groundbreaking study of the behaviour of African mountain gorillas. He discovered that male gorillas that were robbed of their food and all their possessions displayed significant levels of RESENTMENT towards their human tormentors, but, interestingly, male gorillas who were given lots of fruit and chocolate showed less antipathy towards the research team. Tragically Dr White was killed when he was attacked by an incensed 400-pound male gorilla, but his work remains valuable today.
When your ‘ape-man’ returns from ‘the jungle’, respect his need to grab hold of food, drink and his status symbols. For some primates this DOMAIN ASSERTION might involve clinging to a big stick to bash against the ground, for others it might be the TV remote control. Most female prima
— 5 —
David and I had argued at length about another school for Molly. I was already angry because he’d said I looked old; he kept saying, ‘I didn’t say you looked “old”, I said you didn’t look eleven.’
‘So you’re saying I’m just a wrinkly old pensioner and I should only wear knitted bedjackets and fluffy slippers, is that it?’
‘No, for God’s sake. I’m just saying we need a back-up plan if you get turfed out of the examination hall for impersonating an eleven-year-old.’
‘You know what this is, don’t you?’ I said. ‘It’s called Domain Assertion. I’ve read about it; you get this with all the male primates. If a female has a plan, the male has to take control of it in order to feel that he is still the dominant partner.’
‘I am her father …’
‘It’s like the TV remote control is the same as a stick.’
‘Gorillas have to have the TV remote control, no, hang on, they have sticks, but they use them for the same purpose.’
‘What, changing channel?’
David was so ignorant sometimes – it was hard to understand how he ever managed to win the school quiz night that evening he kept disappearing to the toilets with his mobile phone. But he remained so unconvinced by my plan to disguise myself as a child, he eventually persuaded me to at least consider the boarding school option. It was either that or we start knocking on doors trying to sell copies of Watchtower in the hope of getting Molly into that new Jehovah’s Witness convent. But even though I offered to accompany David and Molly on a tour of St Jude’s, I was determined not to abandon her to some faraway institution, to leave her loveless and alone and forced to develop a crush on the captain of the lacrosse team, only to turn bulimic when her hourly text messages went unreturned.
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes