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The School Run Reject Club
“THOMAS HENRY CRAWFORD, it’s half past eight! Why aren’t you dressed?”
My grubby, freckled, unbrushed mess of a boy shoves a spoonful of Coco Pops into his mouth, then throws me a scowl that could wilt daisies. “Mama, please. I’m eating my second breakfast. Don’t be dis-dis-pect-ful.” A spurt of chocolatey milk trickles down his chin. He catches it with the sleeve of his Captain America pyjamas. “And don’t over-rat-ack.”
This kid will be the death of me. Although I’m definitely impressed with my five-year-old’s vocabulary. That’s my boy! All grown up and dropping four-syllabled out-of-context words into conversation. “It’s ‘disrespectful’ and ‘overreact’,” I say, as my frustration escalates. I hate being late. “Have you been talking about Mammy on the phone with Grandma again?”
“Nah-ha.” He shovels another spoonful of sugary soggy brown mush into his mouth. “Aunt Marian says you always over-rat-ack.”
What in the name of all things traitorous . . . ? I make a mental note to take my beloved aunt to task when she comes over for dinner later. Or on second thoughts, maybe I won’t. Since my parents transported their bodies, lives and babysitting services to Spain, Aunt Marian’s value has become infinite. She’s my only lifeline and I can’t afford to get on the wrong side of her. Not ever.
“I’ve been asking you to get dressed for nearly an hour, and I’m totally not overreacting. I have every reason to be cross with you, young man!”
He eats the last of the cereal, then tips the bowl back and slurps the milk. Gross. Where did he learn to do that? Life would be far simpler – and less messy – if I lived with a cat instead of a small human. If only I’d visited Pets at Home five years ago instead of going on an unintentionally eventful second date with an irresponsible arsehole who waits tables at Bella Italia and still lives with his mother.
“You’ve been shouting, not asking,” he says, hopping down from the kitchen chair.
Damn. Bang to rights. “Yes, and I’ve been shouting so loudly I wouldn’t be surprised if our entire street have leaped out of bed, brushed their teeth and got dressed, so why haven’t you?”
“I’ll do it now. Chill. Don’t over-rat-ack.”
“Will you stop saying that word?”
“Over-rat-ack. Over-rat-ack. Over-rat-ack.”
“Sorry, Mam. I just like how it sounds.”
“Well, find another favourite word.” I gently prod him in the direction of the staircase. “How about ‘quickly’? As in ‘go upstairs quickly, put your school uniform on quickly, and come back downstairs quickly’. We have to leave the house in two minutes.” He rolls his eyes, and all of a sudden he’s teenage me, I’m my mother, and karma is coming at me fast. “Just get your backside in gear, mister, because first days at school only come around once and you don’t want to be late.”
* * *
To his credit, Thomas gets ready very quickly. It takes me a few minutes to brush soggy cereal mush out of his hair, then a ridiculously frustrating amount of time to double- and triple-check I’ve got all the very official school-related things I need to pop in Thomas’s school bag. This includes a completed new pupil contact card for the school office, the “All About Me” questionnaire for his new teacher, and the health form declaring Thomas has no allergies.
Sadly, Thomas doesn’t agree that he has “no allergies”. Ever since he accidentally swallowed a stomachful of pool water during his Happy Little Fish swimming lessons and projectile-vomited down the entire length of the dolphin slide, he’s insisted he’s allergic to water. He has point-blank refused to go back into the swimming pool, and I can only get him to drink water if I tell him it’s transparent milk. I’m not at all proud of lying to him, but the kid is as stubborn as a mule with a master’s degree in pig-headedness. The last time Aunt Marian gave him a glass of water whilst calling it water, he cried and asked her why she was trying to kill him. God, I hope he doesn’t do this at school. Please let them give him milk with his lunch. Please.
I quadruple-check we have everything, then I close the front door and start the short walk to Ofsted-rated “Outstanding” Hawthorn Primary School, wondering if all the other first-time school mams are having the same hectic morning I’m having. And I soon get my answer – a big fat “no, they’re bloody not”. All I can see in front of me is a procession of smiling, skipping, immaculately dressed children in navy blue uniforms holding tightly onto their doting parents’ hands. Meanwhile, my darling son has stopped walking and is hovering menacingly over a drain rammed with rotten leaves.
“Thomas, what on earth are you doing?”
He pulls hard at a stick, wrenching it from the drain, and splashes sludge halfway up the legs of his new trousers. Typical. “I need this for my experiment.”
My heart leaps into my throat. He’d better not be planning to rebuild his spider research laboratory. I can’t go through that trauma again. Thomas wanted to find out where spiders keep their webs, so he laid a spider honeytrap consisting of a cage built from Lego, a partially nibbled Freddo bar, and a breadcrumb trail of strategically placed tomato ketchup splodges. When I walked into his bedroom and saw the ketchup mess on the floor, I naturally thought it was blood and I naturally screamed a lot.
I look over my shoulder and catch him carrying the muddy, sludgy stick as if it was a year’s worth of pocket money. His lips curl into a huge grin which makes his freckled cheeks dimple and his bright blue eyes sparkle.
“So, what do you need the stick for?”
His grin widens. “I’m building something.”
Oh no. This is not a good sign. “What are you building?”
“It’s a secret.”
“Can you remember the spider experiment you set up in your room at the start of the summer?”
“I remember you over-rat-ack-ing over the ketchup. Spiders love sticky food.”
“That wasn’t the point.” I glance at my watch. Crap, it’s almost eight forty-five. I pick up my pace. “No food in your bedroom is one of Mammy’s most important rules. Especially if the food looks like blood.”
“Okay, no food this time.” He shrugs as if I’m the mad scientist in this scenario. “The stick isn’t for spiders anyway. It’s for reaching at stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?”
He shrugs again. “Stuff I can’t reach with my hands.”
Okay, that sounds normal. And resourceful. And not even a little bit like he’s a medieval torturer. I feel the tension float out of my body just as we reach the lollipop lady. The school gates are in sight, and my beautiful, angelic, freckle-faced five-year-old is not planning to brutally dissect insects. Again. Maybe I’m acing this parenting business after all.
“Will you keep the stick safe for me?”
“Of course I will.”
“That means you can’t throw it in a bush on the way home.”
Damn it, he knows me too well. “Thomas, I would never do such a thing.”
He hands me his precious stick in exchange for his smart school satchel embroidered with his name and the school’s hawthorn-tree logo. I take his hand as we walk up the narrow path leading from the school gate to the infant yard. Then something I hoped wouldn’t happen happens – his grip tightens and a wave of apprehension sweeps over his face.
“You okay there, mate?”
“Uh-huh”, he replies with a huge, unconvincing gulp.
We enter the yard, and Thomas’s hold on my hand grows stronger. I was half expecting this, but as I look through the crowds of excited children to find dozens of groups of loud, chattering parents, I think I might be feeling similar fears.
Schools are not places of fond memories for me. Aside from the learning part, I always hated school. All of the other kids quickly found their tribe, grouping themselves together in neat, self-validating boxes: the sporty kids, the popular kids, the fashionable kids, the nerds, the geeks; even the bloody Westlife fans had their own special spot outside the sports hall where they’d spend every lunch break debating whether Nicky was hotter than Shane.
And then there was me. I learned somewhere between years seven and eight that there was no box for me. I couldn’t run, jump, or hit anything with a bat; my brain made maths impossible to enjoy; the X-Files didn’t interest me; I thought double denim was a great look; and I had no bloody clue which one was Nicky and which one was Shane. All these things made me decidedly not cool – however, the fact that I was far too into speaking my mind was my greatest sin. I was too loud, too opinionated, too political, too different . . . too much or too little of everything, which meant I was nothing at all. So, I got zero clique invites. I would tell myself that I didn’t fit in anywhere because I was born to stand out – yes, that old cliché – but I would have done anything to find a big group of like-minded friends to hang out with.
A few children Thomas’s age run up to each other and start playing tag. I feel my son’s cheek nudge against my hip, his eyes fixed on his shiny new Clarks school shoes. “Don’t worry,” I tell him as his gaze shifts tentatively to the group of energetic boys. “You’ll make friends soon enough.”
“They’re all friends already,” he says sadly. My heart folds in on itself. “What if there’s no room for me?”
“Of course there’ll be room.” I hope with everything I have that history doesn’t repeat. Please let him fit in somewhere. Please let there be an infant yard clique of kids that are obsessed with spider anatomy. “Most of the children were in nursery here while we were living in London, but there’ll be others who are having their first day today too.”
“Like who?” He looks around, desperate to find another pair of nervous eyes to connect with.
I hunker down. “Hey, remember what I told you about friends?”
“Uh-huh,” he says, his bright blue eyes flashing with a tiny glimmer of courage. “Kind friends make the best friends.”
“And what are you?”
A gigantic tear crawls down his cheek, and I feel woefully underprepared to handle the hurricane of emotions battering my own heart, let alone his. “You’re also funny and interesting and brave, and I bet there’s tons of boys and girls in your class who can’t wait to have you for a friend. You’re going to have so much fun today, I promise.” He nods, and his lips curl ever so slightly into a tiny smile. “Are you still holding Mammy’s kiss?” He thrusts his hand forward, displaying the tiny doodle of a heart that I penned on his palm first thing this morning. “If you feel sad or worried today, look at your hand and squeeze the kiss I gave you as tight as you can.”
“Will you feel me squeezing it?”
“You betcha! And I’ll be squeezing it right back.”
He sniffs and wipes the wetness from his face with the sleeve of his jumper. “I’m sorry, Mama.”
“For saying you over-rat-tack. That wasn’t kind.”
My heart melts. “That’s okay. I guess I do overreact sometimes. It’s a mammy thing.”
“Yeah, Aunt Marian says all mammies do it.”
“Aunt Marian is very smart.” I stand up, wobble on my boot heels and almost fall flat on my arse. Jeez, that would be a great look in the schoolyard, wouldn’t it? The bell rings, and suddenly all the children run back into the crowd of parents, swapping hugs for schoolbags and kisses for packed lunch boxes. “Okay, mister, are you ready?”
He nods. “Will you stand where I can see you and wave at me?”
I edge my way to the front of the crowd of parents, give Thomas the squeeziest of hugs, then watch with a swarm of anxious butterflies flapping in my belly as my baby walks himself over to the long queue of children lined up in front of their new teacher.
And I don’t take my eyes off him. He looks back at me for reassurance five times before his focus is consumed by Mr Patel’s lively welcome, complete with a high-five and a bucketload of giggles.
“You’ve crossed the line!”
I hear the shouty voice, but I don’t realise it’s directed at me until a tall woman with piercing blue eyes and impeccably styled platinum-blonde hair is standing rigid in front of me with her hands planted firmly on her slender hips. She looks like she’s dressed head-to-toe in last season’s finest designer clothes, and her make-up is immaculate.
“Did you hear me?” The woman’s voice has a hard edge and her smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes. And, ugh, all the rotten school feels from my days at Hobury Comprehensive come flooding back to me. I really bloody hate schools. “I said you’ve crossed the line.”
“What are you talking about?”
The woman spots Thomas’s sludgy stick in my hand, and one of her perfectly sculpted eyebrows almost meets her hairline. Should I know who this woman is? More to the point, should I know why she’s yelling at me?
“The line,” she says, her voice clipped and squawky. I follow her gaze to a wavy blue painted squiggle that stretches across the entire width of the schoolyard’s tarmac surface. The woman looks at me as if I’ve just crawled out from behind a mound of rhino shit, and I feel an urge to kick her in the shins. Could she be any ruder? “Parents aren’t allowed to cross the line.”
I give her a quick scan to see if a “yard monitor” badge is pinned on her somewhere. There isn’t one. Unless it’s stuck to her arse. I take two very tiny steps back until my feet are the other side of the chipped blue paint. “Sorry, I didn’t know.”
Sorry? Why am I apologising to her? If being on school grounds is going to render me this subservient, then I’ll have to beg Aunt Marian to do the school run for me every day.
“Parents aren’t allowed to cross the blue line. It’s to ensure children enter the school in an orderly fashion.” Her tone is softer, but the part of my brain that is rarely wrong about people decides it doesn’t like her. Her horrible attitude has crawled under my skin and produced so much red mist that I’m finding it very hard not to blow. God, I really do hate schools.
“I’ll make sure I don’t do it again.” I glance over at Thomas and wave. He smiles and waves back, and every single inch of my body sighs in relief. I think he’ll be okay.
“You’re new?” asks the irritating woman.
“Yes, I’ve been living in London for the past few years. On and off. But my family lives here.” I have no idea why she’s still lurking around me. She gives my slouchy jeans and comfy cardigan the once-over, and I wonder where she works. She seems too glam for Beasley – maybe she owns a designer boutique in Newcastle.
She makes a “hmm” sound from the back of her throat. “You lived in London ‘on and off’?”
“Thomas was born here, and I spent my maternity leave in Beasley. Then I returned to London for work, but now Thomas and I have settled back here for good.”
“Ah, you’re a single working parent!” She gasps as if that’s a rarity in Beasley. Does she need reminding she lives in the North East, not the eighteenth century? “Oh, I do admire you. Raising a child alone and holding down a job must be so challenging. I know I couldn’t do it. Even though both of my girls are in school now, my priorities are at home. Don’t you fret that you mightn’t be meeting all of your son’s needs? I know I do and I’m a committed full-time mummy.” She contorts her face into a fake smile that even Thomas could see through. And, Jesus Christ, if she doesn’t have a job to go to, that means she’s coutured herself up solely for the school run. How on earth could anyone be bothered?
“Me and Thomas manage just fine.”
“Oh, I’m sure you do,” she says in a tone so patronising I half expect her to give me a pat on the head. “I’m Jo Gibbs, by the way. I’m head of Hawthorn’s PTA. I’m everyone’s go-to for what’s happening inside the school.”
PTA head. Suddenly it all makes sense. Of course she is. “I’m Carrie.” I catch Thomas’s eye just as he disappears inside the school building and give him a quick wave. Damn this cursed woman for distracting me and spoiling my morning.
“Does your son have Mr Patel this year?”
“Yes. He seems lovely.” Please don’t let our kids be in the same class. To any god who is listening – please. I’ll do anything. I’ll vacuum underneath the sofa and make Thomas proper dinners with ingredients that don’t include reshaped frozen chicken, for a whole month.
“My Isabella is in his class too.”
Damn it. What do I need to do to get some divine intervention? Do I have to pick one god instead of hedging my bets and asking for help from all of them? Or do I need to go all-in and build a shrine in the spare room?
“Mr Patel only started working at Hawthorn last year,” says Jo, in an authoritative know-it-all tone. “Marianna, my older daughter, had Mrs Bird when she was in reception. I must admit, I was hoping for Mrs Bird for Isabella too, but Mr Patel will have to do, I suppose.”
I don’t respond because I have nothing to say.
“Will I see you at pick-up?” she asks. “The school has a pick-up routine too. It ensures children leave the yard in a swift, orderly fashion. I can take you under my wing if you like.”
Er, no, I don’t like. In fact, I’d rather eat a decomposed hedgehog marinated in dog shit. “Thanks, but I should be able to manage. No crossing the line, right?” I give her a little salute – childish, I know – and she responds with a death glare that would make Vlad the Impaler quake in his boots. Looks like my mouth has sealed my fate for the nine hundred and seventy-five billionth time in my life. She glides herself over to the welcoming arms of a cluster of women sporting Lycra activewear, and some whispering happens. Then some giggling. And as they leave the yard I realise Jo Gibbs might be the living embodiment of what happens when life peaks at fifteen. I bet she was the Queen Bee of her senior school and those were the best days of her life. If she’d been at Hobury Comp with me in the nineties, she’d have been giggling and whispering about my latest twinned denim ensemble and lack of Westlife knowledge. Am I being unkind? Probably. Maybe. Actually, I’m definitely being unkind, but I’m going to allow my inner bitch to have her say, because the woman is rude and she’s spoiled what should have been a happy morning for me.
As the crowd of parents all turn to leave the yard along the narrow path to the school gates, a bottleneck forms. I hang back, allowing my thoughts to be consumed by Thomas. I wonder what he’s doing now. I wonder if he’s squeezed the heart I drew on his little hand yet. And all of a sudden my brain conjures up images of snuggly baby Thomas and I have absolutely no idea how I went from night feeds, temper tantrums and potty training to having a fully grown schoolboy with a cracking little personality. A lump forms in my throat and, oh hell, I’m going to have to pull myself together. I’ve got a full day of work ahead of me, and I already know I’m going to be counting down every minute until three-thirty.
“Oh fu— I mean, oh zark, what . . . ? Did you just stab me?”
I get the fright of my life as I’m yanked from my daydream to find myself staring into the dark brown and extremely pained eyes of the most fabulous-looking Roman-god-like man I’ve ever seen. Tall, great shape, cute dimples, smouldering dark eyes, rugged square jaw . . . absolute perfection. Well, perfection, if it weren’t for the goatee. I’ve never liked goatees. They’re too goat-ish.
“Dad, did you just swear?” says a little girl with two long red plaits tied with plaid ribbons.
“No, I said ‘zark’. It’s Daddy’s special non-swear word.”
It takes me a few seconds to realise that I’m staring at the hot dad way too much, and another few seconds to notice he’s bent over in agony. He raises his head and – Jesus! He looks like he wants to kill me. Shit, this is bad. What the hell did I do? He groans a bit more as he clutches his stomach and . . . oh flip . . . I realise what I’ve done. I have stabbed him. I’ve stabbed him in the guts with Thomas’s muddy stick.
“I am so sorry,” I say, and then for god knows what reason, I attempt to wipe the dirt off his smart grey jumper. Which means I’m touching him. Softly. Or to be more accurate, I’m caressing him. A look composed of confusion, embarrassment and acute horror sweeps across his face. Why? Why do I do stuff like this? I whip my hand back. “Sorry. I wasn’t looking where, um . . . I wasn’t looking forward.”
“Dad, come on, I’m going to be late,” says the little girl.
The very angry, yet very hot, dad bends down and gives his daughter a kiss, which she abruptly ends with a high-pitched “See you at teatime” before running at breakneck speed into school.
“I don’t believe it,” says Hot Angry Dad, still rubbing at his stab wound. “She didn’t even look back.”
“You’re very lucky. My son had a bit of a wobble. It was touch and go there for a while.”
My eyes zoom in on Hot Angry Dad’s ringless left hand, then I remind myself we’re in a schoolyard as opposed to a city centre bar. This is absolutely not a pulling joint. Plus, ringless-ness doesn’t mean he isn’t married, or engaged, or living in unwedded bliss with the love of his life. Even more “plus”, I have a lifetime’s experience of making absolutely terrible man choices, which have resulted in very sensible policies ranging from “don’t fuck where you work” to “don’t fuck guys who still live with their mothers”. It is totally prudent to add “don’t fuck possibly single dads you’ve stabbed with a muddy stick” to that list.
But damn, he is hot though.
“So, what’s with the stick?” he asks. A speck of humour draws all the anger out of his gorgeous eyes, and my heart skips a beat. Could I be any more hopeless? Or inappropriate?
“My son found it on the way to school. He likes to build things. He’s very resourceful.” The guy smiles a womb-melting smile, and I want to ask him a thousand questions, starting with “Are you married?”, but instead I start apologising again. “I really am sorry about the stick. Thomas insisted I take it home and I forgot I had it in my hand. I do that sometimes . . . forget things.”
He raises one eyebrow, and I will myself to stop sounding like an utter dingbat. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure I’ll survive.”
We walk down the narrow path and reach the school gates just as I’ve thought of a hundred non-dingbat-ish things to say to him.
I open my mouth, ready to wow him with my scintillating wit, but he beats me to it. “Got to rush. I’ve got a ton of work to get through before I pick Daisy up this afternoon. See you later.”
I say “Oh, me too” to the back of his head as he half-jogs over the road to the school car park.
Ugh, typical. Clearly he has zero patter. Guys who look like they should be plastered on the front covers of glossy magazines rarely have a personality to match what nature has bestowed upon them. He probably has his daughter two days a week and lives with the co-worker he left her mother for. It’s a very good thing I have my no-shag policies, because my brain has always been five hundred miles behind my vagina when it comes to assessing the virtues of any hot guy that has ever stumbled into my life.
Case in point – Thomas’s feckless father.
I thought I’d learned my lesson.