It was one of those aggressively sunny late Summer early Autumn mornings that ought to come with a trigger warning. Does anyone forget those days? I shudder at the memory of a prefab classroom already chilly in September: fat, stressed-out mums, grubby kids and half the class, including me, wearing clothes that were either stretched and faded from the previous year or oversized, obviously donated by older siblings.
In pleasing contrast, my Ella is attired in a mock 1930s, Mallory Towers type hat and blazer combo that cost more than the average weekly budget of pretty much any family at my old school. It’s what I always longed for. Yet here we sit, sad and silent at either end of the vast, artfully-distressed pine kitchen table. She fiddles nervously with the buckles on her satchel. I come around to her end and crouch down at her level.
“Is there something you’ve forgotten darling?”
She says nothing. Her obvious anxiety increases my own. Even with the raised dose of amitriptyline, my hands tremble as I refasten the buttons on her blazer. The long silence is broken by Mike, Lycra-clad and heading past the pond to collect his bike. It’s also his first day back and he is in a particularly grim mood. He turns towards us, walks towards the patio doors and strides back into the kitchen.
“What’s bothering her?” Mike snaps.
Neither of us answer.
“Is it those girls in her form? Why don’t their parents monitor their phone usage? The mothers are as bad as the girls.”
Ella keeps her head down and I do likewise.
“YOU need to speak to the teacher about it Debbie.”
Ella looks up at me with a searching expression. I’m wondering whether she can see the heavy concealant around my eyes,
“Yes, I will try… She is always very busy though.”
“But it’s our daughter’s wellbeing we are talking about here, Debbie, and God knows, I’m paying enough for it. If you don’t tell her, I’m going to bring it up at the governors meeting tomorrow.”
Mike is chair of the school governors. As in so many areas of life, he has shown commitment, drive and determination. He is admired by the dads and fancied by the mums. How often have I been told by one or other of them how lucky I am to have a husband who is so engaged with their daughter’s education? I say nothing but wonder whether I now have no choice but to get the police involved, or whether that would produce further aggression, and more worryingly, turn Ella into an object of curiosity or pity.
With a start, I remember one of the dads at the school is quite high up in the Met. Everyone at the school gate would soon know about it. I’m once again gripped by the queasy and vertiginous feeling that I’ve failed as a mother. I’ve failed to protect my child. The uncomfortable truth is that I’ve sacrificed so much to have this house, this garden and for my daughter to go to a posh school, to admit, after all that rich people can be far nastier than poor ones.
After a tense and silent drive to Mounthill College we reach the edge of the school’s extensive and well-tended grounds. The entrance is humming with the usual post- summer chatter. Kara waves and beckons me towards her.
“Did you go to Umbria again?” She inquires with slightly forced jollity. I nod. “Lucky you. It was only Cornwall for us this year,” but then clearly feels compelled to add “because of the extension.”
I feel a surge of gratitude for her low-key but reliable warmth. Although neither of us have ever acknowledged it, Kara’s faint Essex twang, cheap clothes and slightly garish make-up suggest she feels as ill at ease here as I do.
In amongst the huddled women I spot a couple of dads flirting with the more polished and yoga-toned mums. Still a rare specimen at the school gate, they revel in the guaranteed approval awarded to what are optimistically described as ‘hands-on’ fathers. Their interest in me lies only in my proximity to Mike. Although he wastes little time on them, they are eager to know if he will be joining them for ‘five a side footie’ this week. Even after two years of daily school runs, I still cannot fathom the purpose of the fake ‘laddishness’. The other mums are making the usual quips about their relief, that the long holiday is over. This is entirely genuine in my case, though for very different reasons. Ella is greeted by Tara and Sophie and they giggle, link arms and whisk her across the playground where I strain to hear their conversation. Ella looks across at me with an anxious expression. We both know I’m silently praying she won’t give me away. She won’t be tempted to blurt out the annual month in a sleepy corner of the Umbrian countryside was once again punctuated by Daddy calling Mummy a ‘fucking bitch’ and a ‘stupid chav’. That she witnessed Daddy pulling Mummy’s hair and dragging her across the villa’s expensively paved terrace; that she won’t tell anyone her Mummy is a fake and coward whose pathetic fear of poverty and social exclusion prevents her from protecting herself and her beloved child.