“Ping!” “Ping!” Adam remembered what his meditation coach had told him and drew a long breath in through his nose, held it for five and exhaled steadily through his mouth. He did not allow his exhalation to falter when another “Ping!” interrupted it. Then, and only then, did he pull his phone out of his pocket and open WhatsApp. As he’d thought: nothing from the office, and 19 – 19! – new messages from 3AK Parents.
Sandra had signed them both up to the class parents’ group when they’d first put Florence into St Jude’s. It would help them know what was going on, she said. It would help them befriend the other parents, she said. What she did not say was that it would cause him to be plagued day and bloody night by oneupmanship, inanity, bitching and banality. What, he wondered, in the daily routines of a seven-year-old – even in the most expensive private school in west London – could warrant this weight of correspondence.
Anything could set the damn thing off. “Anyone got the maths homework? Flora forgot to bring it home. LOL!” someone would say, and then there’d be eight replies – mostly shruggies and eye-roll emojis – before someone posted a photo of the worksheet; this would in turn spark a torrent of thank-you hands and kisses and “OMG lifesavah!”. A lost glove could easily set off a 48-message thread. And then there were the PTA meetings, the “drinks in the pub for the gang”, the bake sales – the bloody bake sales! – the petitions, the public semi-flirtations, the accidental overshares (“Haven’t had IT with DH for two months! Eyeing up that sexy gym teacher. LOL! Naughty me.” “You sure you meant to send this to the whole group, hun??? LOL!”) and the rest… Not long after they’d joined, there was a terrible to-do after one parent’s photo of a playdate in their new iceberg basement had been used as evidence by another who lived in the same street in a legal challenge over planning permission. That, at least, had made Adam laugh.
But – and this was what really galled him – it all seemed to make Sandra laugh. She sat there endlessly, pinging with the best of them. Was she having an affair? If she was, you’d think she’d be discreet or kind enough not to feel she had to inflict half the messages on the damn app on him. She read them out like good bits from the newspaper. “Hahaha! Bernie’s flirting with Margo again! Listen…” Or: “Whoo: bitch alert! Susie’s getting a bit competitive with Ella over who’s going to be running the candyfloss stall!”
The latest thing that amused her, it seemed, was even more tedious than that. Apparently Dreary Clare – her husband was a fund manager and her kid, Dorian, was the one who smelt of hamsters – had got involved in some ornithological oneupmanship with Lantern-Jaw Binky. Every day they’d post some drivel about which birds they’d seen on their bird table. “Binky claims to have had an osprey!” Sandra would laugh over the breakfast table. Or, solemnly: “Blue tit, four starlings and a feral pigeon for Clare. Binky’s claiming the cat scared off a parakeet.”
It was only after this had gone on for a good couple of months – Adam had nearly learnt to tune it out – that something occurred to him. He’d delivered the funny‑smelling kid back after a playdate once, hadn’t he? And didn’t Dreary Clare live in that penthouse with the double-height sealed windows? Where the hell was this bird table anyway? And what was it Mr Binky did again? Later that evening he found himself Googling the migratory range of ospreys.
A fortnight later, the WhatsApp group was abuzz. “It’s amazing,” said Sandra, eyes wide. “You’ll never believe this. The SFO have raided Binky’s husband’s consultancy firm. Apparently, apparently, he and another parent were doing insider trading using the – remember those messages about the bird tables?”
“Vaguely,” said Adam.
“Well, they weren’t really talking about birds! It was all a secret code,” she hissed excitedly, “and somehow the SFO got hold of it – Lord knows how; aren’t these things encrypted? – and they checked all the trading history and then suddenly BOOM!”
“You could say they swooped,” said Adam. “You know. Like a bird.” But Sandra wasn’t listening by then. Something urgent about the tombola.