May Contain Nuts
A Novel of Extreme Parentingby John O’Farrell
In the tradition of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children and Nick Hornby comes a hilarious look at the perils of parenthood, from one of
Hailed as “one of the funniest things in
It seems no amount of gluten rationing or herbal teas can improve their children’s intellectual development, and as
With a comic eye for detail that has sent his books to the top of the British best-seller lists, May Contain Nuts is a funny, compelling, and provocative satire of the manic world of today’s overcompetitive, overprotective families.
“Hilarious . . . Some riotously funny situations result, with
“[He has an] unerring eye for the classism, racism and monstrous egoism propelling these middle-class mini-dictators. . . . When this satire bites, it hurts.” –Kirkus Reviews
Praise for This Is Your Life:
“[A] delightful comedy . . . [the ending] supplies a genuinely stunning climactic twist.” –People (3 stars out of 4)
“You might annoy the family down the beach with your regular bursts of laughter.” –Entertainment Weekly
“An intelligent sideways look at the way being famous is the new religion . . . Bursting with gags.” –Daily Express
– 1 –
I used to be such a cautious woman. David said I was the only person he knew who read the Microsoft License Agreement all the way through before clicking on “I accept”. And yet there I was about to make a bold stand on behalf of mothers everywhere. For ten minutes I had been crouching behind a parked white van, waiting for the right moment to shove a little boy out into the path of a speeding car. It had to be done; you have to teach them a lesson. Obviously it wasn’t a real child, I’m not some kind of nutcase. It was a model boy on the end of a long stick.
We lived on a long straight road in south London, and young men in throbbing cars regularly tore past at two hundred and fifty miles an hour. At least, I presumed they were young men. It was hard to tell through those tinted windows; maybe when I screamed ‘slow down!” that was an elderly nun who always stuck a single digit out of the car window.
I had fantasized about pulling a chain of tyre-piercing steel spikes across the road, or having David dress as a policeman to stop them, confiscate their car keys and ask them if they felt the need to drive that fast because they had a microscopic penis. I had written to the council demanding road humps and speed cameras and all sorts of other traffic-calming measures, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I had come up with my own solution. I would construct a life-size model of a child and attach it to an old broom handle. When that BMW raced past I could thrust the pretend child out between the parked cars and he’d have to brake suddenly and then I would calmly step out and explain: ‘see? See what might happen if you carry on driving like that?” and he’d be so relieved that it hadn’t been a real child, so grateful, that he would humbly agree never to drive so fast down our road again.
“What are you doing?” David had asked as he came down into the kitchen to find me stuffing scrunched-up newspaper into a pair of Molly’s old tights to make the legs.
“Oh, nothing. Just, um, making a pretend child.”
“Right. I’m not even going to ask.”
“It’s like a scarecrow. Except this is a ‘scare-car”. If speeding motorists spot a child about to cross the road, they’ll automatically slow down.”
“I’m going to position it peeking out between parked cars and then motorists will slow right down as they go past.”
I pulled an old pair of Jamie’s school trousers over the tights and began attaching them to the stuffed torso. I could feel my husband’s eyes boring into the back of my head, but I didn’t look round.
“What, you’re just going to leave him out on the streets on his own, are you?” He made it sound as if this would be wildly irresponsible parenting; as if the model child might be abducted by a model kidnapper.
“No – I’ll be nearby “” I said, failing to include the detail that I’d be holding the child on the end of a pole.
I inserted a bamboo spine to prevent him repeatedly flopping at the waist like a pre-school children’s TV presenter and gave him one of Jamie’s old school caps, a pair of gloves and some old Start-rite shoes that swung about on the end of his bendy boneless legs. The face was a problem. Among the masks at the joke shop there was a choice between Mickey Mouse, a witch, the devil, Frankenstein and Tony Blair. None of them looked particularly like a startled child.
So at ten o’clock I had taken up position beside a builder’s van parked right outside our house. I crouched in front of the bonnet, waiting for an approaching maniac. A net curtain twitched over the road. Ten minutes on, I was starting to get dizzy from crouching so long between the cars. People were driving too sensibly; it was quite infuriating.
The model looked unnerving in Jamie’s old clothes. It occurred to me that if I’d had this idea a few years earlier I could have taken a model child on a stick in place of little Jamie on his first day at nursery. At least then he wouldn’t have nearly been knocked over in the playground like that. I’d wanted to say to those big scary four-year-old boys, ‘stop running around – can’t you see you’re frightening him?” In fact, I did say that to them, but they didn’t take very much notice.
Finally the car approached, the black BMW with the tinted windows and an exhaust pipe so inconsiderate and deafening that you could barely hear the jumbo jets roaring overhead. I felt my adrenalin surge as this arrogant idiot tore down the road towards me. How dare he show such contempt, I thought to myself. How dare he risk the life of my children, I raged as the macho roar of his approaching engine reached a crescendo. As two tons of steel drew level with me, I dramatically thrust the model child out into his path to force him to slam on his brakes.
A lot of things seemed to happen simultaneously, although I perceived each of them separately like the distinctive notes that make up a musical chord. There was a dangerous-sounding screech of tyre-rubber on tarmac accompanied by a startlingly loud car horn and then almost immediately the loud thud of metal on metal, repeated twice very quickly and accompanied by the leitmotif percussion of breaking glass. Another vehicle’s car alarm was set off, which incidentally kept exact time with the electrical bass drum that continued to throb from inside the BMW. Oh, and then I burst into tears. And all the blood had gone from my legs from crouching down for so long, so that I tried to shout at the driver while sort of half squatting at the side of the road.
David picked me up from the police station four hours later. I was charged with being reckless under section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act (1971), told I’d have to go to court and might even face a prison sentence. Our neighbour’s car was an insurance write-off; another would cost over a thousand pounds in repairs to the bodywork. The offending driver didn’t even get charged with speeding, so it shows you how much justice there is in the world. David later joked about how the driver’s police statement made quite entertaining reading. He managed to get a copy of it, which is now framed in our downstairs loo.
Statement of Frank Penn, driver of black BMW reg. X418 NGN regarding incident in Oaken Avenue, London SW4. At around ten a.m. on 27th March, I was driving down Oaken Avenue in a southerly direction at approximately thirty miles an hour. Suddenly right in front of me on the end of a long pole appeared a four-foot-high model of Tony Blair dressed as a public schoolboy. I instinctively swerved, striking a parked car, though still hitting the figure with my nearside wing, which decapitated the dwarf Prime Minister model, sending his head up over the windscreen. I struck a second car before coming to a halt, which was when I saw Mrs Alice Chaplin holding the now headless torso on the end of a wooden pole. She was crying and crouching at the kerbside and began shouting at me, ‘see? See what happens!” I realized that I had caused significant damage to two parked motor vehicles and I immediately called the police.
In the end I got off with a fine, and we had to pay for the damage to his BMW and the two vehicles in our road plus the cost of hire cars during repairs. David never told me the total amount, though he did float the idea that I might sell one of my kidneys on eBay. The young man, who had been very aggressive and rude to me immediately after the accident, swearing and shouting and calling me a ‘mentalist”, got himself another black car, a Lexus I think David said it was. But he never cut through our road again. And I bet he doesn’t go quite so fast any more. Who knows – there might be a little child out there somewhere who is only alive today because my model four-foot-high Tony Blair laid down his life on his or her behalf. That’s got to be worth it, hasn’t it? One of the policemen had been convinced that I’d been making some sort of anarchist political statement and kept asking if I had ever been on any anti-capitalist demonstrations. I said no, I vote Liberal Democrat and my children go to Spencer House Preparatory School.
The court case seemed to make me something of a heroine with all the other parents at school, for which I was very grateful because I’d always felt a little bit of an outsider. “Weren’t you scared?” asked my friend Sarah as the framed statement was passed around my living room one Saturday morning.
“To be honest, I never really thought about what might happen afterwards. Anyway, it’s no big deal, any normal mother would have done the same “” I shrugged, putting down a tray of coffee and biscuits.
“No, any normal mother would not have done the same – I think that’s the point,” said my husband.
“Well, I say bravo that woman!” declared Ffion. “The roads have got so dangerous now that it’s impossible to let the kids out of the front door. And then we’re made to feel guilty for driving them everywhere.”
“What happened to the headless model boy?” asked Sarah.
“He went to Battersea Comprehensive,” said Philip. “He’s top of the class, apparently “”
Ffion’s husband Philip was never able to fully participate in any social gathering as his desperate need for a cigarette generally banished him to the other side of the French doors. From there he would do his best to lean in and offer the occasional comment between puffs.
‘don’t talk into the room, darling, you’re letting smoke in,” said Ffion as the laughter died down.
I passed cups of coffee one way while the statement was passed the other and the assembled parents attempted polite conversation while remaining totally focused on the activities of their own children. Sarah warned her youngest to be careful with the wax crayons, while my little boy Alfie was quietly occupying himself with some Lego. Each of us watched our children play in the same way that a bit-part actor watches a film in which he features, seeing only one person in the scene. David commented that Alfie’s confidence with the plastic building bricks might suggest that he’d become an architect when he grew up.
“Or a brickie,” said William. Sarah’s husband had a habit of standing and surveying my bookshelves, making me worry that he’d notice there were no cracks in the spines of the highbrow classics that nestled between all the chick-lit novels and self-help books. David was putting a CD in the stereo.
“Not Peter and the Wolf again, darling,” I groaned.
“It’s not my choice, it’s Alfie’s.”
“What, our four-year-old requested Prokofiev, did he?”
“No, when you were making the coffee I suggested the wolf music and he said yes.”
“Anyway,” continued Ffion, “at the moment we’re just letting Gwilym do as much painting and drawing as he wants, but there’ll come a point when we’ll have to impose a limit on it otherwise we might find we’d pushed him towards art college rather than university.”
“He is only four, darling.”
‘shut the door, your smoke’s blowing in.”
‘shh! Shh! Shh, everyone,” interjected David. “This is the string section. What does the string section represent, Alfie?”
“Peter!” volunteered Alfie obediently, and there was an impressed murmur among the assembled parents before they resumed their conversation. Sarah agreed that it was difficult to know when to start structuring their play towards achieving specific goals when David interrupted again.
‘shhh, this is the flute – which character is the flute, Alfie?”
“Oh, that’s very good, Alfie,” said Ffion. “Yes, you can’t start them on music too early. When I was pregnant with Bronwyn, I opened out a pair of headphones wide enough to fit over my bare bump and then whenever I was having a lie-down I played Shostakovich to her.”
“Aaah, that’s lovely. And does she like Shostakovich now?”
“Um ” well, about the same as any other classical music. I had been planning to play her all fifteen symphonies in order and then move on to the concertos but she was a month premature.”
“I’m not surprised – I bet she couldn’t get out of there quick enough,” said William, and Ffion’s laugh didn’t even attempt to be convincing.
I had been struggling to keep up with Ffion and Sarah ever since I’d volunteered to go into my daughter’s classroom to listen to the kids read. I remember feeling slightly indignant when they had given me someone else’s child to sit with. And while this child was obligingly reading away to me, I was craning my neck round the corner trying to see how Molly was getting on with this other mum who’d also volunteered that morning. In fact, there were so many mothers who had come in to spy on the teachers that there wasn’t very much room left for the children.
“G ” good. D ” dog. Said. Dad,” stammered Molly. “Good. Dog. Said. M ” M ” M “”
‘mum! It’s Mum, Molly darling,” I called across. “You know that word, don’t you?”
The other helper looked a little annoyed by the interruption but I could hardly stand by and do nothing. Molly did know ‘mum”. I mean, it was the first word she ever said; she just needed a bit of prompting, that’s all. Unfortunately I discovered that being at school with Molly didn’t stop me worrying about her. My daughter tortuously spelled out “good” and ‘dog” while the child I was sitting with seemed to whizz through her chosen book effortlessly: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of “” Well, it felt like it at the time.
“Yes, all right, Bronwyn,” I snapped, “that’s enough reading. Go and play in the home corner. Or the second-home corner in your case. Hello! I’m finished over here so would you like me to take over with Molly?”
Five years later those other mothers and their husbands had become our best friends, and, like mine, their eldest children would soon be taking their entrance exams for big school. While our daughters were having extra tuition on Saturday mornings, we would meet up like this in my kitchen and debate the major issues of the day. How many secondary schools are you applying to? Is it true that you can only get in to Chelsea College if you can speak fluent Latin? “We looked at a lovely secondary school in Calais. The only downside is that Bronwyn would have to get up at 4.30 every morning to catch the Eurostar.” The regular Saturday morning gathering also gave us a bit of quality time with our younger children, ones who were stimulated and encouraged as they learnt the basic skills of life: writing, drawing and identifying all the characters in Peter and the Wolf.
“Listen, everyone. This is the oboe now. Whose theme is the oboe, Alfie?” continued David.
“The duck!” he shouted and our friends murmured their appreciation.
‘my Cameron likes to clap along to nursery rhymes,” said Sarah bravely but nobody bothered to respond to that.
“Hang on, hang on, here it comes. This is the clarinet. Who does the clarinet represent, Alfie?”
“Clever boy, Alfie! That’s one of the wind instruments, isn’t it? What other wind instruments are there?”
“Bassoon, that’s right! And who does the bassoon represent?”
“He’s very musical, isn’t he,” said Sarah, rather perceptively I thought.
“The grandfather is a baboon!” Alfie repeated delightedly. “That’s right, the grandfather is the bassoon,” said David firmly.
“He is a clever boy, isn’t he? Have you had him professionally assessed?” asked Ffion. I thought I’d already told her about how Alfie had scored at the institute but she must have forgotten.
“Er, yes, we got the report back a couple of weeks ago; the institute said he was “approaching gifted”,” said David.
“”Approaching gifted.” That’s wonderful news.” Ffion smiled faintly.
“Well, it’s fine, yes, but I think they’ve underestimated him. Actually I think he’s just straightforward “gifted”. Ideally I’d like him to be aspiring to “exceptionally gifted”.”
“He’s only four years old, darling,” I said, noticing that William was looking slightly incredulous.
At that moment there was a panic as Sarah leapt across the room like a presidential bodyguard and snatched a biscuit from her child’s hand. “It’s OK, everyone – I’ve got it. He didn’t ingest any, he’s OK “”
‘sorry – is he not allowed biscuits, then?”
Sarah read solemnly from the side of the packet. “‘may contain nuts.” Yes, I thought so.”
“I didn’t know Cameron was allergic to nuts.”
“Well, we don’t know whether he is or not, we’ve never exposed him to them. It’s just not worth taking the risk, is it?”
“Er ” no, well, it is a worry I suppose “”
“Oh dear. ‘may contain nuts.” He can’t have these either,” she said, reading the warning on another packet from the sideboard.
“Well, no, but then that is actually a packet of nuts.”
“Oh yes, so it is. I suppose they can’t be too careful.”
With the intellectual credentials of our “approaching gifted” son clearly established, Philip took his chance to counterattack by demonstrating the nascent genius of his own four-year-old who was bashing a plastic tyrannosaurus rex against a stegosaurus that had dared stray onto the wrong part of the coffee table.
“That’s very good, Gwilym,” said Philip, leaning in through the open French windows, holding his smouldering cigarette at arm’s length outside. “The tyrannosaurus rex is the carnivore, isn’t he?”
Gwilym made an exploding noise as the two dinosaurs collided.
“And what is the stegosaurus?”
“A herbivore!” lisped little Gwilym proudly and there was a light ripple of applause from the assembled adults.
“And what is an oviraptor, Gwilym?” prompted Philip.
“That’s right. An omnivore. Good boy.”
“He certainly has a very good vocabulary for a four-year-old,” said Sarah.
“Well, Gwilym’s report from the institute singled out his particular aptitude for dinosaur-based play, so we are taking the opportunity to teach him about predators and the food chain.”
“Yes, well, why not?”
“Careful, darling. You blew some smoke in just then–”
“No, Gwilym, the herbivore can’t eat the carnivore, can he?”
interjected Philip. “Play properly, darling!”
“No, exhale outside, and then talk into the room,” ordered Ffion.
Gwilym ignored his father, and, turning the food chain on its head, he granted the plant-eater the power to savage the normally unassailable tyrannosaurus rex. “Grarrr! Grarrrr!” roared the veggy, who’d finally cracked after millions of years of never eating meat, not even at Christmas. Ffion tried to deflect attention away from the slightly strained atmosphere that had developed due to two differing male interpretations of prehistory.
“Yes, well, of course, we’re very lucky our children are “exceptionally gifted”. But you can’t guarantee good news from the institute. The Johnsons had their five-year-old assessed and they were told that she was, er, “able”.” She whispered this word in case the children overheard.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” said Sarah.
A shudder went round the assembled adults at the thought of such a heartbreaking misfortune befalling any parent. We all knew there was a statistical risk when we decided to have children; we all knew there was an outside chance of having a child that might only be “able” rather than “gifted” or “approaching gifted”, but you just pray it’s never going to happen to you. David glanced at me, but I quickly looked away. For five years we had kept the secret of our eldest child’s assessment result. It wasn’t fair, Molly was actually very bright – she just didn’t do well in exams.
“I’m just grateful that the institute said that Gwilym was “exceptionally gifted”,” said Ffion, forging on and finding an opportunity to slip in the detail that her youngest had scored higher than ours. There was an embarrassed pause filled by an embarrassing husband.
“Oooh, here it comes, the French horn! Who does the French horn represent, Alfie?”
“I think that Alfie is probably “gifted” really,” said David. “He had a cold on the morning of the assessment and so he only scored “approaching gifted”. I’m thinking of going back and having him reassessed.”
“It’s two hundred and fifty pounds, darling,” I pleaded.
“Yes, but I think it’s worth it, just so that we know where he is in his development and what sort of school and tutors we should be thinking of.”
Sarah glanced anxiously at her husband, who failed to make any reassuring eye contact. ‘so what is this institute exactly?”
“Have you not had Cameron assessed yet?” said Ffion, frowning.
“It’s the Cambridge Institute for Child Development – I can give you the number,” I said.
“Is it in Cambridge?”
“No, that’s just the name. It’s in Balham. The lady who runs it specializes in testing brighter children,” I explained. ‘she talks to the child, watches him play and looks at his drawings and then sends you a comprehensive report and grading.”
“It’s just a posh woman in a house taking lots of money off gullible parents to tell them that their children are clever,” William sneered.
“Well, I think it’s vital that parents know how their children are progressing,” said David. “Even if she did get it a bit wrong first time.”
‘she assessed you as “approaching gullible”. If you go back again, she re-grades you as “exceptionally gullible”.”
‘shut up, William,” said his wife. She turned back to me. “He’s only joking. Don’t let me go without getting the number off you.”
“And here’s the timpani drum – who’s the big drum, Alfie?”
Alfie didn’t respond.
“Alfie!” said David slightly too crossly.
“Who does the timpani drum represent?”
“The hunter,” he said sulkily.
“Er, Philip?” called William, a little mischievously. “I think the herbivores are forgetting their place in the food chain again” – and he gave a mock-concerned nod in the direction of the prehistoric landscape of our coffee table, where a Roman centurion came swooping in from the arm of the sofa and attacked with a sword.
“It doesn’t matter, Philip, stay outside.” Ffion bristled.
“Of course, one shouldn’t stifle their imagination too much,” shrugged Philip, stamping on his cigarette and returning indoors. “He does, of course, know that the dinosaurs were extinct by the time of the Romans ” What happened to the dinosaurs, Gwilym?”
“Their eggs stink!”
“You see?” said his father with a proud smile.
“Would anyone like to listen to Peter and the Wolf again?” offered David.
I had met David when we both worked in the City; I was a PA and he worked in banking. By the time we were married he had given up trying to explain exactly what he did. People who had never worked in international finance always struggled to understand how it was possible to “buy and sell money”. Perhaps David didn’t understand it either; maybe that’s why he got the sack. After that he set himself up as a freelance financial consultant, which he said was the best thing that could ever have happened because working for himself would give him more time to be at home with the children. And he said this as if it was a good thing. Now my husband managed to pull off a scam in which he advised people what to do with their money while taking a large chunk of it off them. We remained sufficiently prosperous for me not to understand all the extra lines of numbers on the National Lottery draw.
I still worked full time as a PA, but now to three children called Molly, Jamie and Alfie. (No one had told us that the-ie/-y suffix wasn’t actually compulsory.) I organized their diaries, made sure they had the correct soft toy for sleepovers, arranged their meals and transport; like any good personal assistant, I knew they would never be able to manage without me. Jamie had to be cheered from the touchline at tag rugby club, and Alfie had to be applauded for splashing his legs at Little Ducklings Water Confidence classes, and Molly still needed me to sit with her while she practised her violin or she would say she couldn’t do it and it was too hard. “No, it’s not too hard, darling, you’re doing really splendidly. I think that’s the most beautiful bit of violin I’ve ever heard. I really do think you’re doing marvellously.” Praise inflation had spiralled out of control in our home.
When I was pregnant with our first baby, David and I had bought this nice house near Clapham Common, where we could watch the sailing boats on the pond, drink coffee by the bandstand or have gay sex with strangers in the woods at night. It’s funny how when you live somewhere you never use the facilities for which it’s most famous. But as the children grew older it became a struggle to shield them from the dark underside of urban life. The expensive kids’ school was separate, of course, and our friends came from a similarly protected minority. Our children played outside, but only in our back garden; they went to swimming lessons, but only at the private health club. Apparently you get a much better class of verruca. On the occasions when we did walk out of the house and down the high street, I wanted to shield their eyes from the drunks and beggars and smashed car windows and the big yellow police signs calling for witnesses to a recent stabbing.
“”Appeal for witnesses. Serious assault.” Mummy, what does that mean?”
“It’s just a sign, darling. Ooh, look at that funny pigeon in the road. What’s he found there?” At which point I would realize that the pigeon was pecking at a dead fellow pigeon that had been squashed by a passing truck. “Oh, and look over there, what pretty flowers in the shop window!”
“And look, Mummy, there’s more pretty flowers over there, tied to that lamppost.”
“Oh yes, so there are.”
“Why are all those flowers tied to the lamppost? And there are cards – can we read the cards?”
“No, come on, darling, let’s get to the bookshop before they run out of books. Look at that funny bicycle locked to the railings – it’s got no wheels. I wonder why it’s got no wheels?”
“Because someone stole them,” Molly would explain tersely.
Their school reading books hadn’t prepared them for any of this. Not that it would necessarily be a good idea if they had.
Biff and Chip have found some dirty needles in the gutter. “Let’s have a sword fight!” says Chip. ‘stop!” says Dad. ‘stop!” says Mum. “Those old needles have been left there by smackheads. They are probably infected with the AIDS virus,” says Dad. “Which is also why your father and I never have unprotected sex with total strangers,” adds Mum. Everyone laughs.
I could cross the road three times to avoid them, but Alfie would still spot the spaced-out beggars slumped beside the cashpoint machines. ‘mummy, can we give that man some money?”
“No, Alfie dear, you’re not supposed to.”
“But his sign says he’s hungry. If we give him some money, he could buy some rice cakes and hummus.”
“You can put some money in the pretend dog outside the chemist’s.”
“But he’s got a real dog. Why’s his dog got lots of big bosoms?”
‘she must have had puppies recently, dear.”
“Where are the puppies? Can we get one of the puppies?”
“Oh yeah, right, if you want to fish them out from the bottom of the Thames.” Obviously I only thought this; I managed to prevent myself actually saying it.
In the end I found it preferable to avoid taking the children down the high street altogether and would drive them up to the King’s Road for their shoes and books and Harry Potter stationery kits. Ideally I’d have liked to keep them inside a giant version of the rain cover that used to unfold over their pushchair: a big protective bubble that would shield them from breathing in the lorry fumes and stop them from witnessing the dirt and the sleaze of the inner city outside their front door. Instead I strapped them into the back of the 4×4 and whisked them off to their preparatory school on the other side of the common.
A four-wheel drive is vital in this sort of terrain. When you are transporting children across a remote mountain region such as Clapham and Battersea, the extra purchase you get with a four-wheel drive is absolutely essential. Ordinary vehicles would have to be abandoned at Base Camp at the bottom of Lavender Hill, while only hardy Sherpas with mules and four-wheel drives could cope with the sort of incline you face as you pull away from the KFC towards the Wandsworth one-way system. Of course, the traffic on the way to school is terrible, forcing us to leave so early in the morning that sometimes the children have to eat their breakfast while strapped in the back of the car.
“What’s six times nine, Molly?” I would chirp on the day of her test as I swerved down a back street to try to beat the gridlock.
“Fifty-four,” she would splutter, spitting out bits of Marmite toast onto the upholstery as her brother shouted, ‘mummy, Molly talked with her mouth full!”
On one occasion a child stepped out on the road in front of us and I had to do an emergency stop. How could a mother just let her child walk to school on his own like that? Thank God it was me, I thought. Imagine if it had been one of those speeding drivers who tear down Oaken Avenue. Obviously I am aware that I’m contributing to the traffic by driving the children to school, but there’s simply no choice; there are too many cars on the road to let my children out of the car. I do my bit for the environment in other ways. When I do my supermarket shop on the internet, I always try to click on the little green van symbol so that I have a delivery from a driver who’s already in my area.
I suppose I liked my 4×4 because I felt safe in it. I could climb in, lock the doors and ferry my children through the dangerous traffic out there without feeling vulnerable to the big wide world. It helped me feel separate from everyone else. Except all the other mothers at Spencer House, of course. Ffion had a huge Japanese one: a ‘subaru Big Bastard” I think William said it was called. Even that mother with an only child drove a people carrier – or “person carrier” in her case. Every morning at half past eight there was chaos outside the school as all the middle-class trucker-mums executed three-point turns to get round the mini-roundabout.
This world of school fees and purple blazers and children who shook their teacher’s hand at the end of the day was not something I had started out with. Growing up in a leafy suburb in Middlesex, I had been among the last few children in the country to take the eleven-plus exam. This was a universal test once taken by every eleven-year-old in the country, which would determine whether you went to the nice traditional grammar school, whence you would progress to university, or the scruffy secondary modern, which you left at sixteen to get a job sweeping up in the hairdresser’s. Basically it was a fairly crude test designed to establish whether you were middle class or working class. The questions themselves rather gave this away. Question one: What is a motor-car? Is it a) A smart vehicle for driving Daddy to his job at the bank, or b) That rusty thing stacked up on bricks in your front yard? Question two: What is a pony? Is it a) That lovely little horsey at the bottom of your garden, or b) Twenty-five nicker and a lot less than a monkey. You even got a head start for putting the right sort of name at the top of your sheet. “Timothy” or “Arabella” got full marks, but if you were called “Wayne” or “Rita” you were losing points already.
But occasionally the social sorting hat got it wrong, as I discovered on the afternoon that the results were announced to the class. It never took me as long to walk home as it did that day. In the end my parents cobbled together enough cash to send me to a third-division private school, which for generations had supplied the British Empire with its estate agents and PR girls. Soon after that they abolished the eleven-plus in Middlesex. In fact, they abolished the whole county as well, just to make sure. And all these years later, the only thing that my third-rate education had taught me was that my children were going to have better. They would know the capital of Canada and that a quaver wasn’t just a type of crisp. They would naturally understand all those frightening dilemmas of modern etiquette, like is it rude not to reply to a humorous email that’s been forwarded to every name on the sender’s address book? That is why we were paying all that money to Spencer House and why Alfie had started at the best private nursery, where young teachers were already steering his limp four-year-old hand into making barely recognizable letter shapes, so my children wouldn’t spend the rest of their life feeling that everyone else knew more than they did. By the way, it’s Ottawa. I just looked it up.
Having failed the first big test of my life made me determined that I’d do everything possible to help Molly pass hers. When she was nine, we realized her friends’ parents were already paying for extra coaching to get their children into Chelsea College two years later. And so the recommended private tutor was contacted and diaries were compared. Obviously when somebody is incredibly busy they can’t always find the time to fit in another lesson. But Molly had an hour’s window on Wednesdays between violin and ballet and so was able to squeeze her new tutor in there. Our children were like Olympic athletes: years and years seemed to be spent preparing for a single event, this one far-off academic high jump on which everything depended. If Molly was off-colour on the day, if her approach was wrong or her timing was out and she crashed through the bar, it would all have been for nothing.
Obviously we tried not to make a big deal of it in front of her, though I feared she was picking up our tension.
“Lots of kids bite their nails,” said David.
“Yes, but not on their toes as well.”
So I tried not to appear too worried about it. It was just that if she continued to let herself down in exams and failed the entrance test to Chelsea College, then she’d probably end up becoming a drug addict and selling her violin to pay for her next hit of crack cocaine. I’d always promised that I’d support my children in whatever they wanted to do, so if Molly ended up working as a prostitute under the derelict railway arches of King’s Cross to pay for her drug addiction, then obviously I would try to back her decision.
‘mum, Dad – this is my pimp, Sergei.”
“Hello, Sergei, delighted to meet you at last.”
‘sergei’s offered to handle all my finances for me and just pay me in low-grade heroin.”
“Whatever you think best, dear. I’m sure Sergei has only your interests at heart.”
It seemed a harsh punishment for failing a school’s entrance exam back when she was eleven. And so we were determined to tutor her, test her, encourage her and bribe her. Oh, and there was one other thing we decided we had better do, just to give our precious eldest child the best possible chance. We would cheat.The Herbal Homework Helper
How Ancient Herbal Therapies Can Unlock Your Child’s
By David Zinkin
Published by Sunrise Books “6.99
Did you know that the long-forgotten Manoai Indians of the Amazon basin possessed a highly developed understanding of the powers of natural and herbal remedies, which they believed gave them immunity from all diseases? Sadly many of these secrets were lost when the Manoai were wiped out by chicken pox and influenza following their first contact with European explorers. But in among the data that survives is a fascinating window into the various ways in which wholly natural stimulants can also assist in specific areas of brain activity.
We already know that the chemistry of the brain depends upon complex proteins, vitamins and minerals to help the synapses process all those billions of little signals that are handled every day. So it’s a small step to realizing that nature’s medicine cabinet can help us improve our own mental agility and intellectual performance. Now using this book as your guide, and with the help of the organic herbs which may be ordered by using our credit card hotline, you can prescribe the precise herbal restorative for whichever academic discipline is confronting your child.
Echinacea is a natural facilitator for the part of the brain which deals with logic and analysis. Ideal for assisting in the study of mathematics, particularly logarithms, equations and binary code. For algebra take equal parts echinacea and belladonna.
Calendula assists the synapses that process language and speech. Take two drops dissolved in filtered water an hour before approaching novels, poetry or drama. Three drops if your child is attempting to study Beowulf.
St John’s Wort For thousands of years recognized as being a synergic aid to the study of geography. For human and social geography, hypericum may be used as an alternative.
Nettle assists the mental processes required for sustained periods of concentration, such as examinations. NB Do not attempt to give your child nettle in its natural form, as its ingestion may hinder rather than enhance exam performance.
There is as yet no known herbal facilitator for metalwork.