Alice never imagined she would end up like this, so anxious after hearing about the dangers of meteorites that she makes her children wear bike helmets in the wading pool. Her husband, David, has taught their four-year-old to list every animal represented in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. But the more they push their children, the more things there are to worry about. It seems no amount of gluten rationing or herbal teas can improve their children’s intellectual development, and as Alice’s eldest child looks set to fail her entrance exam for the exclusive private school on which her parents have pinned all their hopes, Alice decides to take matters into her own hands. With a baseball cap pulled low over her face, Alice shuffles into a hall of two hundred kids and takes the test in place of her daughter, her first examination in twenty years. 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.
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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 preschool 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 towhizz 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?' 'The grandfather!'
'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.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "May Contain Nuts"
Copyright © 2005 John O'Farrell.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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