When it comes to four-year-old Max’s intellectual welfare Laura Etheridge doesn’t know the meaning of the word “boundary”. There is nothing she won’t do to ensure that her son has the best start in life. She played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 5 to him in the womb to stimulate alpha brain waves and breast-fed him to the cerebral interlocution of Melvyn Bragg on Radio 4. Consequently, Laura knew from the moment she sniffed the hallowed, lightly antiseptic air of St Aloysius’s assembly hall that one day this would be Max’s alma mater. Its position at the apex of every league table and distinguished list of alumni only cemented her determination.
No sooner had Max popped his bald little head into the world than his name was “down”. Infuriatingly though, as he was born in August, Max fell shy of making the cut, which was how he came to be on the waiting list in his last term of nursery, instead of in Peter Jones trying on school caps. It was a huge oversight on Laura’s part and she’ll never forgive herself for getting pregnant with such wanton disregard for the academic calendar. (In her own defence, she had just lost her partner status at her law firm and her mind was on the tribunal.)
Of course, there are other schools that Max could attend without too severely denting his vowels or having to befriend children who fly commercial. Indeed, Laura’s husband, Toby, had been all for seeking an alternative to St Aloysius. In his view, it was an educational sausage-factory that spewed out depressed over-achievers with a propensity to substance abuse and emotional frigidity. Similarly toxic are the parents who drive cars larger than the Etheridges’ house and issue play-date invitations based on income bracket.
In truth, though, Toby hasn’t dared to weigh in to the debate since the day he jauntily pointed out that the local church school sounded just fine and all they’d have to do to gain admission was polish a bit of silver. It would certainly be preferable to the termly haemorrhage of school fees and extras. But after a month in the doghouse Toby rolled over and became Laura’s campaign sidekick, as he refers to his role as stalker of all members of the St Aloysius staff, including dinner ladies. He is also chief whipping boy whenever Laura hears of a child other than Max being offered a place.
Laura’s proactive approach to admissions means that Mr Bernard, the headmaster of St Aloysius, has received updates on Max’s Mathletics score, a full report from his Suzuki piano teacher and video footage of his prowess at Gymboree. But as the summer holidays loom and no place is forthcoming, Laura steps up a gear. Toby is shocked to find his wife in a fluorescent overall at 7am and Max being carted off by a surly au pair. Apparently, Laura had hacked the PTA email list and discovered that Mr Bernard is concerned about road-traffic safety at the school gates. In a cunning move, Laura appointed herself volunteer lollipop lady. She feels it’s a safer gambit than last year’s attempts to befriend the local Oscar-winning actor in order to facilitate an introduction to Mr Bernard, who had been rumoured to be very keen for the thesp to open the summer fête. She still prays nightly that news of the resulting restraining order never reaches the headmaster’s ears.
This morning, as Laura and the lollipop she bought on eBay negotiate the front doorway, a white envelope flutters to the mat. Ironically, it’s the first time in months that she hasn’t been waiting agitatedly for the postman. She whisks up the letter and her heart lurches as she spies the St Aloysius coat of arms in smudged red ink. Shaking, she rips it open. The admissions board is delighted to offer Max a place for the coming academic year. Laura weeps for joy. She hugs her husband for the first time in 18 months.
But when her tears dry she notices that Toby hasn’t gone to work yet. If she’s not very much mistaken he’s wearing his weekend cycling clothes. Laura interrogates him as he clambers on board his bike muttering something about gardening leave. And although she can’t quite be sure because he’s adjusting his helmet and heading down the road as he says it, she could swear she hears, “New job means being relocated to Abu Dhabi for three years,” amid the clamour of rush-hour traffic.