The first chapter

Here you can read how my journey began. Take courage from the fact that I am an ordinary woman. There is nothing to stop you following in my footsteps. 

 

How I Seized Power

A Handbook for Leaders Everywhere

 

Chapter One: My Vision

So many people have asked me to write this. It’s the story of what it’s like to be an ordinary human being at the centre of very extraordinary events. It’s the story of having to make a thousand decisions every day. Sometimes you get it right. Sometimes you get it wrong. Sometimes the world is working with you. Sometimes it’s working against you. I don’t claim to be superwoman. I was just the spark that set the dry timber alight. I was in the right place at the right time. It’s true that I have a gift for making things happen. I have a gift for leadership. But, most importantly, I had a vision.

I want to inspire you to do the same. Don’t listen to the gloom merchants who say it’s impossible. I did it, and so can you. All you need is commitment, confidence and the passion to make a difference.

When Robin first started at St Jude’s, I had no idea of the scale of the task. From the outside, it seemed a very well-run school. It’s oversubscribed. The tension in April when parents find out whether their children have a place is so acute that you can taste it in the air, like salt. I have known people who have given up lovely four-bed houses in outlying villages and rented down-at-heel flats just to be in the catchment area. Church attendance swells throughout the autumn and reaches a peak in December when Mary, our vicar, decides which families are sufficiently Christian. The service on Christmas Day is a cacophony of small babies crying and little girls with Alice bands hiding in the pews clutching Barbie dolls. It’s a scandal, really, the number of families that find religion when their child is due to start reception. But I can’t find it in my heart to blame them. St Jude’s is high up in the league tables. And what parent doesn’t want the best for their child?

However, the school’s well-deserved popularity does mask a certain apathy. Everyone knows that a child’s education is enhanced by a strong partnership between school and parents. But when Robin started at St Jude’s, the parent body had no voice at all. There was a PTA in existence, but it was distinctly lacklustre. All it did was organise a May Fair once a year  –  as if setting up a few stalls selling spindly plants and pink fairy cakes amounted to a major organisational feat.

Clearly, someone had to take charge.

I have thought long and hard about where to begin this account. Leaders, they say, are born, not made. That may be true, but I cannot, in all honesty, trace any revolutionary fervour in my upbringing. My parents, in fact, brought me up to aspire to the status quo. We did what the neighbours did. If someone bought a new car, we did, too. If someone painted their front door blue, or planted a willow, or bought double-glazing, we all followed suit. Like a shoal of fish, the whole suburb could change direction with one iridescent flash.

But my parents  –  despite a rather alarming addiction to the sleep-inducing properties of G&T  –  did have a certain briskness about them. You never put off until tomorrow something you could do today. And that, I think, I have inherited. It doesn’t do to sit about moaning. If you want something to change, you roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.

I think, too, on a spiritual level, you could also say that truly great leaders are thrown up by events. Think of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. There’s a groundswell of discontent, a grassroots desire for change, and an inspirational spokesperson rises to the top to give voice to the protest. You are, if you like, anointed by fate.

But I will not dwell on the philosophy of revolution. You need a practical guide. You need to know how you, too, can be a catalyst for change.

Reflecting on the extraordinary events that unfolded in our village, it has been hard to isolate the exact moment when it all began.  But I think it all started on the June evening when St Jude’s invited new parents to come and meet their child’s reception teacher. We had all gathered in one of the classrooms. I looked around with interest. The Dads must have been on a three-line whip to leave work early, because the room was full of suits. (David, of course, couldn’t be there. He was in Stuttgart. But I was used to that. I am a single parent in all but name.)

Rachel Jensen, the headteacher, stood up to welcome us.  I was pleased to see that she’d done her hair. She’d achieved a rather rigid style with rollers and hairspray so that her head resembled a gold coin, but I thought it more appropriate than the fly-away blur of grey that sometimes arrived in church. You have to set standards as a head.

‘I know that some of you will be worried about your child’s first day,’ she said anxiously. She was wearing a navy blue jacket, shiny at the seams. I don’t wish to sound unduly harsh, but she’s one of those people who don’t dress for their size. It’s all very well holding on to something that’s been hanging in your wardrobe since your twenties, but the intervening years may have added a few stone. You can end up with a trussed-up look  –   rolls of flesh fighting to escape, like deboned pork tied up with string. ‘But I’d like to reassure you,’ she said, ‘that we have a lot of systems in place to ensure that your child will be happy and confident.’

Her eyes wandered round the room nervously, as if we were a bunch of unruly hyenas. I have to say that I have since seen her freeze a mob of ten-year-old boys into mute terror with just one glance, so her diffidence that day was not representative of her general ability to keep order. But I didn’t know that at the time. I really did begin to wonder whether we should have gone private.

A word, I think, before we go any further. I speak as I find. I think my ability to be direct enables me to cut through red tape. But I know that some people find me blunt. I make no apologies. You can’t be swayed by delicate sensibilities when you’re trying to get a job done. Otherwise you’d get absolutely nowhere. Modern leadership is about having the courage of your convictions.  We live in an age of rights rather than responsibilities.  It clogs up the machinery. I don’t mind the odd nod to deeply held beliefs. But someone has to cut a path through all the waving grass of feeling.

Ideology is all very well. But what you need is the ability to drive through structural change. It’s about project management and delivery.

However, on that balmy June evening, my focus was not on the gargantuan task to come but on the headteacher  –  and the fact that I was losing all feeling in my left thigh because I was sitting on a hard wooden chair designed for a four-year-old. Rachel Jensen went on to introduce us to Miss Black, who looked about twelve, with the red hair, porcelain skin and Cupid’s bow mouth of Ethel from Just William. Miss Black was in charge of Blue Class which took the first swathe of reception children and would, this year, include Robin. I thought Robin would probably like her. She’d make a change from Berta, our Polish au pair, who has a blonde and unfinished look, like a large iced bun.

Miss Black, in turn, introduced us to the book bag, which was, she said, the main source of communication between school and parents. Please, she said, look in the book bag every night. There will be vital bits of information about teaching and learning. And we do expect parents to read with their children every night  –  reading the words for them, to begin with, and then listening to the children as they make their first attempts to sound out the letters. I looked round with incredulity at the assembled group of parents cramped into tiny chairs or leaning nonchalantly against the octagonal formica tables. Do some of them have to be told, I thought, to read to their children? I have been reading to Robin since he was born. I think I have rather a good reading voice  –  somewhere between Penelope Wilton and Joanna Lumley.

After Miss Black’s rather charming speech, Rachel Jensen stood up again, breathlessly, and introduced us to the chair of governors  –  who was, of course, none other than Mary the vicar. I have a lot of time for Mary. She has to display all the relevant Christian values of humility and compassion, of course, but there’s a glint of steel behind her brown-rimmed glasses. I’ve heard she’s a force to be reckoned with on the PCC. She talked about how being on the board of governors was a real privilege, and hoped the parents would work with her to ensure the continuing success of this thriving school. Rumour has it that she’s something of an epicure. I found myself trying to square the public face  –  short, iron-grey hair and a complete lack of make-up  –  with boar’s pâté and Sauternes, but failed rather miserably. Dog collars make you think of cheese sandwiches and stewed tea.

But then, after Mary sat down, it was the turn of the PTA, and this is where my patience completely ran out. The chair then was Gillian Carless. She is not a bad woman. She lives on the modern estate just outside the village where the houses are squeezed together like skittles and all the front doors have fiddly little lintels like thick eyebrows. I think her husband works in local government. Anyway, Gillian stood up shaking with nerves, like a ghost in a high wind, and said that the PTA raised extra funds for the school and everyone was welcome to get involved. She drooped with terror. She’s pale at the best of times, and so thin you’d forgive her for disappearing through the cracks in the floorboards, but speaking out in public had made her almost translucent. I swear the late evening sunshine shone right through her. She said she had two children at the school, one in year three and one in year five, and the PTA met twice a term, and everyone had a lot of fun. Fun. That was the word she used. You don’t trust a woman who uses the word ‘fun’ when talking about fundraising. Fundraising is hard work. But it was her expression that made me impatient. She looked as if she’d just turned round and seen not a roomful of polite and attentive parents but a large container lorry bearing down on her at speed. I could not imagine anything less fun than being part of an organisation run by Gillian Carless.

I put up my hand.

No one had asked a question all evening, which was odd in these interactive times. There was a scared silence. Through the open window, I could hear a bird singing. They say, don’t they, that birds sing not because they’re full of joy but because they’re marking their territory. Get off my land.

‘You have a question?’ said Rachel Jensen, the buttons of her polyester jacket straining as she leant forward.

No  –  I just felt like giving my arm a bit of exercise. ‘Yes,’ I said.

‘For the PTA?’ said Rachel.

‘Yes,’ I said. I waited in case someone wanted to give me a bit of extra encouragement, but none was forthcoming. ‘I just wondered,’ I said, ‘how much was raised every year and what the money was for?’

Gillian shot a terrified glance at Rachel.

‘I think it was nearly £300 last year,’ said Rachel. ‘Is that right, Gillian?’

Gillian nodded, her face white.

‘Mostly from the May Fayre,’ said Rachel.

For goodness sake, I thought.

‘And what was the money used for?’ I said.

‘Books,’ said Rachel. ‘For the school library.’

‘Doesn’t the local authority give you money for books?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ said Rachel, brightly. ‘But anything we can do to provide the children with more choice is always greatly appreciated. Reading is so important. Now,’ she said, in a bit of a rush, because she could see my mouth opening to ask more questions, ‘I’d like to suggest that we break for refreshments. We’re all available now for a general chat or for any queries you might have, and I’d be very grateful if you could pick up your child’s new book bag and the introductory booklet. One last plea,’ she said, looking round rather hopelessly. ‘Please make sure over the summer holidays that you sew name tags into your child’s clothing and on to the book bag. We have so much lost property, which is such a shame. If your child’s possessions are named, we can get items back to you very quickly.’

She paused, as if she expected us to explode in collective fury. Someone  –  probably to break the tension  –  started to clap, and we all joined in; although why we were applauding the school’s inability to control lost property, I have no idea.

Over warm white wine and orange squash, I reviewed my options. Clearly the PTA needed a shake-up. This wasn’t a large school  –  fewer than 200 pupils. But it was failing to tap into the extra money that parents could provide. We had worried when we first looked round, David and I, about the rather shabby appearance of the school and the obvious lack of resources. But we’d decided on balance that it would be good for Robin to go to his local village school. It had, after all, scored ‘Outstanding’ in the Ofsted report of 2008. And we needed all the time we could get to save up for the dizzying fees of Marley Hall at secondary school stage.

My first job, clearly, was to gather information. Time spent in reconnaissance, as they say, is rarely wasted. This was, after all, the thrust of my professional life before I became a mother. I had given up a promising career in marketing in order to devote myself to Robin’s upbringing, but I hadn’t forgotten any of the hard-won skills. Start with the basics. What is the product? Who are your customers? How can you grow your customer base?

As luck would have it, I picked up one of the bright blue nylon book bags just as Rachel Jensen leant forward to grab a crisp from the same long trestle table.  She smiled with the guilty expression of an overweight woman about to eat forbidden foods, and said brightly, ‘Only thing I’ve had to eat all day!’, which I sincerely doubted.

I said, ‘Could I ask you a bit more about fundraising?’

She crunched nervously.

I said, because she was a little too involved in fat and salt to answer, ‘I wondered whether you felt the school could benefit from a higher level of fundraising than it has now?’

‘Mmm,’ she said, appreciating the crisp, or my question, or both. ‘Well, yes  – extra funds are always useful.’

‘What would you do,’ I said, ‘if you had a considerable amount of money to invest in the school?’

She smiled. ‘What wouldn’t I do,’ she said, closing the conversation as if there was no point in discussing wild fantasies.

‘Specifically,’ I said.

I have been told that I never give up. I am persistent. I hang on like a python wrapped round your wrist.

There was a split-second pause. I realised later that she was trying to frame an anodyne headteacher’s reply. But the temptation to be honest was too great. My question had pulled the cork from the bottle. She said, ‘Specifically? A purpose-built library rather than a corridor off the hall. An IT suite.  A proper kitchen so that we don’t have to buy in meals ready-made. New toilets. Playground equipment. Sports equipment. And new classrooms. We’ve had the Portakabins since 1972. They were meant to be up for six months.’

I must have looked shocked, because she said, ‘Of course, we manage perfectly well without all these things. But it’s because of the dedication of the teachers. They’re extremely resourceful, and they work long hours. I would like to make their jobs easier. And to provide more for the children.’

‘Aren’t there grants for these kinds of things?’ I said.

‘Not any more,’ she said. ‘It’s the recession, you see.’

I frowned. ‘So why not have a plan?’ I said.

‘A plan?’

‘To raise the money,’ I said.

She laughed. ‘It would cost millions.’

This made me cross. ‘We wouldn’t have to raise all of it all at once,’ I said. ‘That’s the point of a plan. Break it down into something manageable. If a new library is the most important thing, that would be the target. A five-year plan to build a new library.’

She blinked.

‘Excuse me,’ said an enormously tall man leaning forwards between us like the arm of a crane, ‘but could I interrupt? I’d like to talk about your anti-bullying policy.’

Rachel Jensen readjusted her expression to anxious concern, and I found myself staring at the tall man’s tan corduroy back. I was just wondering whether to finish my warm white wine or leave it on the table to get hotter when I became aware of a small flutter of indecision at my elbow.

‘I just wondered,’ said Gillian Carless, ‘whether you might like to join the PTA?’

I looked down at her ironed blue shirt, her clipboard and her trembling mouth. Someone, I thought, has to lick this organisation into shape.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’d like that very much indeed.’

 

 

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Clearly it would be ridiculous of me to suggest that you could mount a similarly successful campaign to revolutionise your school’s relationship with its parent body if your local community was wildly different to my own. But I don’t think that’s the case. The village of Fitton is not extraordinary. On the contrary, it’s very ordinary. Take the church. St Jude’s, I believe, is fairly typical  –  a rather gloomy Victorian construction with far too many twiddly decorative bits in the stonework and a huge brass eagle on the pulpit. It’s long and thin, as if it’s been compressed in a vice, and the stained glass windows above the altar are incongruously bright  –  all yellows, reds and blues. I always think churches should have a bit of decorum. I prefer the ancient ones where the statues have lost vital bits of their faces and there are dips in the stone floor from too many footsteps.

The church was built at the same time as all the roads round the station. You can get very lost in Fitton. There are at least two square miles of houses that look exactly the same. Victorian builders realised there was a killing to be made from persuading office workers to commute into the capital from villages that  –  because they were in the middle of the country  –  were ‘healthy’. Of course, once you built all over fertile farmland and added trains, cars, shops and factories, the concept of ‘fresh air’ became a bit strained. But it caused our little community to spring up out of the English soil, so I suppose I should be grateful.

Everyone still refers to Fitton as a ‘village’ but it is, of course, more of a ‘town’. No one really likes to admit that. We like to think we live a very rural existence.

At various points, in a piecemeal fashion, the gap between the rush of Victorian houses and the old high street were filled in with bursts of building, so that Fitton has just about any twentieth–century style of housing that takes your fancy. Ceilings got lower and lower as the decades passed, and there are some claustrophobic 1960s boxes just behind Tesco Metro that make me shudder whenever I pass them. The estate on the edge of the village, where Gillian Carless lives, is thankfully quite self-contained. (Because it’s a cramped cul-de-sac hidden behind tall hedges, you can forget it’s there most of the time.)  But building in the village continues even now. There is an enormous mansion being erected on Cox’s Lane, with white fluted pillars and neo-Georgian sash windows, but no one seems to know who’s moving in. I imagine it’s a banker.

St Jude’s primary school moved to a new site on the north edge of the village in the 1970s. It’s not a bad location  –  one of Fitton’s only hills with views across the bypass. There’s enough land around the squat buildings to allow for two playgrounds and a rounders pitch, and there’s a particularly fine oak on the boundary that might well have been there since the English civil war. Sometimes, in the summer, a teacher will take a class of children outside, and they sit in the shade of the tree listening to a story, their upturned faces open like buttercups.

The old Victorian building near the church, with ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ etched into the stone above two separate entrances, was sold off, and now houses the antique shop with flats above. (I can’t imagine the antique shop does a roaring trade. I wonder sometimes if it’s a front for money-laundering.) The connection between the school and the church is still strong, but it’s a twenty-minute walk between the two these days. You often see a little crocodile of children  –  walking in pairs, holding hands  –  wending its way down the high street for a carol service or harvest festival.

So I would say that the village of Fitton is fairly typical of many others in the prosperous south-east. I am sure you can find comparisons with the community in which you live. We have, for example, four charity shops on the high street, which sell everything from blue glass vases to big pants. This gives the village a slightly temporary air, as if it had accidentally got itself mixed up in a car boot sale, but I think you have to accept it as a sign of the times. Most of the independent retailers disappeared a long time ago, pushed out by high rents and the arrival of the supermarkets. I do sometimes daydream about what it would be like to have a butcher and a baker and a thriving shop selling crisp apples and muddy turnips, but the pound shop is quite entertaining and it’s very easy to buy battered secondhand books. The pharmacy, run by the Sharma family, does a brisk trade. Everyone needs painkillers.

(I have to say that Urmila has the most sympathetic brown eyes. I once staggered into Fitton Chemist with a tension headache wrapping itself round my temples like a tightly fitting sweatband, and she said, with great concern, ‘Oh, you young mothers. So busy all the time.’ It wasn’t until that moment that I realised I hadn’t stopped all morning, what with spraying super-concentrate moss-killer on the front path, bleaching the grouting in the bathroom and disinfecting the fridge. I left the shop with a chemical cosh packed with codeine and paracetemol, but it was Urmila’s eyes, in fact, that took away the pain. She made me realise how much I pack into every half hour. I had simply been overdoing it.)

David and I moved to Fitton when Robin was two. We’d been having long and intense conversations about decamping from the capital for at least eighteen months before we finally took the plunge. ‘Conversations’ is perhaps the wrong word, as I often had to fill David in on my research as he slumped, exhausted, in front of the TV. He often didn’t have the energy to respond. Two G&Ts and a meal hot from the microwave can finish a man off when he’s been up since six. David’s basic view was that I took decisions on the domestic front while he concentrated on earning the money.  But I didn’t like the idea of laying down the law without involving him in the process. I believe very strongly in consultation. So I sat on the edge of the sofa cushions trying to get him enthused about village communities and fresh air  –  that old Victorian lie   –  while he nodded, eyes glazed, until it was time for bed. I think he ended up getting a bit confused, because when I told him I’d found a really lovely house with original features in Fitton, he said, ‘But I thought we were moving to Guildford’ and I had to bite my lip quite hard to stop myself accusing him of inattention.

The ‘really lovely’ house was, in fact, in a shocking state of disrepair when we moved in. An old lady had lived there by herself for years, becoming increasingly infirm. (She went off to a home in the end, luckily. I would have felt uneasy if she’d actually died there.) Even after I’d whipped through the house with a scouring pad and numerous bottles of bleach, you could still detect a faint whiff of urine.  New carpet had been laid upon old, so the floors were composed of layer upon layer of nylon and rubber glued together into something resembling tarmac.  The walls were thick with generations of wallpaper and mould was growing round the toilet. We had to buy a new roof, rewire, redecorate, replace half the windows, and put in a new kitchen and bathroom. It was twelve months of building work. That’s when Berta joined us. It was absolutely impossible to look after a lively toddler while choosing door handles and studying paint charts, and I could just see Robin disappearing beneath the floorboards when my back was turned.

Overall, having an au pair has worked out well. Berta’s English doesn’t seem to have improved a great deal in the two years she’s lived with us  –  whenever I ask her to clean the toilet she always looks puzzled  –  and I do wonder sometimes at her distinct lack of ambition. Fitton is lovely, of course, but it’s hardly a bustling metropolitan hub, and I would have thought that she might have liked to spread her wings. But she seems perfectly content to while away her free time in the Oxfam shop or The Red Lion. I’ve stopped worrying about her. She’s nineteen. She can make her own decisions.

(Incidentally, if you ever find yourself in Fitton around lunchtime, I wouldn’t recommend the Red Lion. From the outside it looks quaintly charming with its Elizabethan beams, wrought-iron sign and thick oak door. But fall down the single step into the semi-gloom of the lounge bar, and it’s like stumbling into a casino. There are slot machines everywhere. The impression of vulgar commercialism is exacerbated by all the flashing lights shouting at you in the darkness: a fluorescent strip flickering above the bar, timed pulsing strings left over from Christmas, and a red neon sign over the back door saying EMERGENCY EXIT   –  which, frankly, is more a comfort than a command. Don’t, whatever you do, try the spicy fried chicken wings. It’s a good forty minutes to the nearest A&E.)

So, as you can see, the village of Fitton and its primary school are quite unremarkable. There were no special conditions to make a revolution more or less likely. We were ordinary people living ordinary lives. Our story could be your story.

Just as a footnote  –  to demonstrate, again, that anything is possible with hard work  –  I’d like to add that the house is really quite beautiful now. Sometimes, when David’s at work and Berta is out with Robin, I stand in the living room overlooking the garden and I completely understand the concept of ‘living in the moment’. I breathe in the smell of wax polish and Longiflorum lilies, secure in the knowledge that the carpets are clean and the windows sparkling, the clothes neatly folded and the fridge hygienic.  I am absolutely certain that I stand at the centre of a benign universe where all is ordered and serene.

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

Unbeknownst to me, there were others signing up for the PTA that night. It might have been my questions that spurred them on, of course. I can’t have been the only one to have been gobsmacked by the ridiculously small sum raised over a whole year. You could blow that amount in one weekly shop if you were taking advantage of several two-for-ones.

‘It’s laughable,’ I said to David on the phone later. He was, if you remember, in Stuttgart, staying in a hotel he particularly admired because of its rather fine wine list.

‘It sounds like they need you,’ he said.

I could hardly hear him over the clinking of glass, as if he’d suddenly walked into one of those absurd mobiles that hang in arty gardens.

‘What’s that noise?’ I said.

‘It’s the mini–bar,’ he said. ‘I’m looking for single malt.’

‘It sounds like you’re looking for several single malts,’ I said.

I try to keep it light-hearted, but I do worry sometimes about the amount he drinks.

The sudden interest in the PTA might also have blossomed because of a new critical mass at the school. St Jude’s has quite a mixed intake  –  everything from the children of single mothers on benefits to the offspring of those who regularly holiday in the Dordogne. But the articulate middle-class parents were becoming more numerous. Property in the capital is now so ridiculously expensive that the upwardly mobile are becoming indignant. More and more professional people are looking round their minuscule flats in London and wondering why they have to bang their elbows on the microwave each time they try to make a cup of tea. Of course you can live without a garage, a garden and a bedroom big enough for a wardrobe. But you get to a certain age and wonder, like an ageing Prince of Wales, why something you always assumed would be yours by right is still tantalisingly out of reach. Once you feel on a daily basis that the walls in your living room are constantly creeping inwards, reducing the space round the coffee table to a path so small that only a hamster could feel he was stretching his legs, you really have no choice but to take action. And the only action open to you is to move out of London.

Fitton ticks all the boxes. It’s on a good commuter network, with trains running every half hour. You get a lot of property for your money. But most importantly  –  for prospective buyers with children  –  it has St Jude’s. Of course, to people who have grown up in Fitton, St Jude’s seems incredibly normal  –  a happy, successful primary school. But to anxious city-dwelling parents looking in from the outside, it seems like a small piece of heaven: rural, highly rated, and completely free.

About the time David and I bought our lovely Victorian semi (six beds, two bathrooms and a conservatory), Fitton was experiencing a sudden upsurge in middle-class buyers. They winkled out the big Edwardian piles, the airy 1930s semis, the solid 1950s detached houses. They eased in the arrival on the high street of a rather delicious Italian deli and a bespoke dry cleaners.  They probably improved the stock in the charity shops, too. (Bye bye Ian Fleming, hello Stephen Fry.) It made a difference to the school. Lunchboxes had pitta bread and houmous rather than sliced white and cheese spread. Shoes were made of leather rather than vinyl. It took a discerning eye to see these changes, of course. Uniform  –  a bright blue sweatshirt with ‘St Jude’s’ in black lettering  –  is a great leveller.

So on that June evening when Rachel Jensen introduced us to Miss Black , Mary the vicar and Gillian Carless, there were a number of parents like me who had professional skills to offer and who wondered, with some justification, why fundraising had been so patently unsuccessful. A few seeds of thought were sown as we sat listening to Rachel Jensen in her tight suit, and they rooted successfully over the summer.

I must admit that I played my part in their germination. Up until that point, it had been Berta who took Robin to the nursery school in St Jude’s church hall. (He’d started on two half-days, but he now went every morning, returning, as a rule, covered in glue, paint and glitter and brandishing thick sheets of sugar paper which were gradually building into an impressive portfolio. The themes of his ‘paintings’ were remarkably similar  –   a strip of green grass at the bottom, a strip of blue sky at the top, a bright yellow sun, and two or three stick people with their arms outstretched in panic. I don’t think he’s much of an artist. But I had to admire his dedication.)

But the next day  –  and, as it turned out, for the remainder of the term  –   I left Berta to clean the toilets while Robin and I walked round the corner, past a long stretch of identical houses,  to the church hall. I was keen to meet the other parents whose children would join reception in September. I wasn’t that keen on meeting Robin’s fellow classmates. (Other people’s under-5s have an uncanny ability to shock and annoy. Especially boys, who make amateur weapons out of the most innocuous materials  –  sticks, umbrellas, the empty cardboard tubes from tin foil and even, on one occasion, a blown fluorescent light from underneath one of the kitchen cupboards. I don’t know if girls do this. I suspect not.) But I pinned on a bright smile. You have to make an effort. I wanted to make sure that Robin was fully integrated into the cohort poised to join ‘big school’.

The woman who runs St Jude’s nursery school is called Belinda. Or perhaps Brenda. She has buck teeth and a loud laugh and seems to find small children genuinely amusing. On that particular summer morning, after we’d negotiated the security gates manned by two nursery assistants, Robin ran straight up to her and threw his arms round her ample hips, burying his face in her pink fluffy jumper.

‘Oh!’ she said. ‘And good morning to you, Robin!’ She looked up and saw me and stopped in surprise. ‘And what a treat! You’ve brought your mum with you!’

I smiled and pretended to busy myself taking off Robin’s coat, but I was slightly annoyed. I don’t think it’s that strange that a busy mother will delegate the job of ferrying her child to nursery to a perfectly capable au pair.

‘Robin is doing very well with his letters,’ she said.  ‘You can almost write your name now, can’t you, Robin?’

Robin squirmed out of my grasp and disappeared into a crowd of small boys. It was my turn to be surprised. I didn’t think children learned to write until they started school. I hung his jacket on a vacant peg and said, as casually as I could, ‘His name?’

‘Yes,’ said Belinda. Or perhaps Brenda. ‘A little shaky, but we’re getting there.’

Just as I was settling my expression into one of perfect understanding  –  because, of course, a good mother should be perfectly up-to-date with her son’s academic progress  –  I was catapulted forwards into Brenda’s pink fluffy bosom, acutely aware, at the same time, of a piercing pain in my calf.

‘Harry!’ said an outraged voice.

I peeled myself out of Brenda’s jumper, feeling as if I’d swallowed a mouthful of mohair, and bent down to rub my leg. A small boy with wild black curls stared up at me.

‘Harry!’ said the same anguished voice. ‘Mind where you’re going!’

I looked beyond the irritating child and there she stood, the owner of the voice, her face a theatrical mask of horror. Of course I couldn’t have known  –  because this was the first time we’d met  –  that Amanda liked making an entrance, or that she had a wide range of dramatic expressions that she used to disguise the paucity of her intellect and, indeed, her moral understanding. Her current pose was very effective  –  eyes wide open, mouth agape, frozen to the spot as if too shocked to move.

‘It’s OK,’ I said, massaging my leg. That’s what we do, in England  –  rush to reassure the guilty party that we’re completely uninjured. I wondered, as the pain reached its peak, which part of the small boy had made contact with the soft tissue in my leg. His bones, I thought, must be made of iron.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, her face contorted with contrition. ‘He has this terrible habit of running into things. Harry, say sorry.’

‘Really,’ I said, straightening up. ‘I’m fine.’

It was lucky that I didn’t expect Harry to apologise, because he didn’t. He rushed off, still wearing his coat, and cannoned into the mass of small boys that was now a frenzied swirl of movement, like sperm in a petri dish.

‘We’ll have a little chat at circle time,’ said Brenda, smoothing down the damp patch on her jumper and looking anxiously from me to Amanda, ‘about looking where you’re going.’

Perhaps, with hindsight, I should have stayed at the nursery and joined in.

‘Are you going straight home?’ said Amanda. ‘Or could I buy you a coffee?’

She was wearing a ridiculous amount of black mascara. Her eyelashes were clumped together like the legs of a dead fly. It was Amanda’s eyes that always made the strongest impression  –  followed closely by her enormous bust.

‘Well  –  ’ I said.

‘Please?’ she said, her eyebrows rising into a poignant plea like one of those saucer-eyed Disney characters. ‘It’s the least I can do.’

I couldn’t have done it without Amanda. I am quite prepared to admit that. But there was a price to pay. She was my staunchest ally, my trusted co-conspirator, my most devious fellow campaigner  –  and caused me, in the end, considerable pain.

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

Because I had never been involved in the morning drop-off, I didn’t know that many of the mothers  –  the ones who didn’t have to skid straight off to work  –  often enjoyed a post-school-run cappuccino. Their café of choice was Sapori D’Italia, known affectionately as Franco’s, on the high street. Franco is the brother of Dino, who runs the deli. Both brothers have an amazing talent for flirtation, which ensures them a regular clientèle. Or perhaps flirtation just comes naturally to Italian men.

It took Amanda quite a long time to get two cups of coffee, because she was all teeth and smiles and sparkling repartee with just about everyone who was crammed round the wooden tables in Franco’s tiny café. I have never known a woman with such an enthusiasm for innuendo. Perhaps, if you have an enormous chest, you get so used to lewd glances and sly asides that you decide, in the end, to make a virtue of necessity and join in. What was uncomfortable was her assumption that every other woman was thinking exactly the same way. She thought that you, too, saw the world sharply divided between men and women, the hunters and the hunted.

I have never aspired to living at the level of Page 3 and I was initially both repelled and confused by her behaviour. But after a while I came to accept her nudge-nudge, wink-wink approach as integral to her personality, along with her passion for gossip, her need to be liked, and her inability to buy anything at all unless she could get it at an enormous discount. Amanda knew people. She knew the bloke at the garage who could get cheap parts. She knew builders who worked for cash. She knew barmen who would slip you free drinks, cashiers who’d take out-of-date vouchers, hairdressers who’d give you half-price colour and plumbers who didn’t charge VAT. She loved eBay. She never, ever bought anything from a shop if she could get it cheaper online.

All this was, of course, admirable. But I spent most of the initial weeks, as I got to know her, squirming with embarrassment and wishing I was back home with a cup of Earl Grey.

‘So!’ she said, sitting down and slopping milky froth into both saucers. ‘Here we are!’ She gave me the teeth-baring grin of a dental hygienist anxious to show that you, too, can have canines like hers.

‘I haven’t been here before,’ I said.

‘Really?’ she said, opening her eyes wide. ‘How long have you lived in Fitton?’

‘About two years,’ I said.

‘So where do you go for coffee?’ she said.

‘I don’t,’ I said.

‘You work,’ she said sympathetically.

‘We had a lot to do to the house,’ I said, ‘when we moved in.’

‘Ah,’ she said. ‘You’re one of those house-gutters.’

‘House-gutters?’ I said.

‘One of those women who gut a house completely. We’ve got a lot of them in Fitton.’

I thought that was mildly insulting. I had, after all, taken enormous care to preserve the original features.

She said, as if detecting a slight drop in temperature, ‘I bet it’s beautiful now.’

I think she was expecting me to issue an invitation to come round.

‘So where are you in Fitton?’ she said.

‘Brantwood Road,’ I said, reluctantly.

‘Oh,’ she said, opening her spiky-edged eyes wide. ‘We’re practically neighbours! We’re just the next road along.’

I am always suspicious of women who want to claim instant friendship. It’s a bit like making a trifle with packet custard and tinned peaches  –  throwing it all together without thinking about the quality of the ingredients.

I said, to change the subject, ‘So is your little boy starting in September, too?’

‘At St Jude’s? Yes, thank God,’ she said, settling her chest like a pigeon. ‘Not before time.’

I strongly disapprove of women who disparage motherhood.

‘My house,’ she said, ‘is like a zoo. I’ve got three of my own, plus Colin’s two at weekends. Sometimes I just want to grab a clean pair of knickers and walk out.’

‘Colin’s two?’

‘Teenagers,’ she said. She leant forwards and lowered her voice. ‘They weren’t impressed when he married me. Did everything they could to split us up. So I make sure we have very noisy sex every Saturday night.’

Oh, the embarrassment.

‘And what about you?’ she said.

I thought, for a minute, she was asking about my sex life.

‘Oh, Robin’s the only one,’ I said.

‘Lucky you,’ she said, taking a large gulp of coffee and leaving a faint white moustache on her upper lip. ‘I bet he’s very bright. Only children often are.’

That was clever, I have to admit. Instead of flaunting her fecundity, she was congratulating me on the careful concentration of my energies.

‘So you’ve got other children at the school?’ I said.

‘Two girls,’ she said. ‘Year 1 and Year 3.’

I wish people wouldn’t talk in years. I have to stop and work out the children’s ages.

‘And what do you think?’ I said. ‘Is it a good school?’

‘Oh, God yes,’ she said, airily. ‘We’re very lucky. Children love it and they get fantastic results. And then, of course, there’s the heavenly Miss Black. The children adore her. Maddy was in mourning for months when she had to move up.’ She frowned. ‘Talking of Miss Black,’ she said, ‘I was really shocked at that meeting on Tuesday.’

I waited, intrigued.

‘I had no idea,’ she said, ‘how pathetic we were at fundraising. I don’t think anyone’s asked the question before.’

This was, I think, another example of her ability to flatter.

‘I worry,’ I said, ‘that the PTA manages to raise so little when St Jude’s is so clearly in need of extra money.’

‘I think Rosie collected more for the RSPCA last summer by going round knocking on people’s doors,’ said Amanda. ‘And she’s only eight.’

‘I thought I might join the PTA, ‘I said casually, ‘to see if there’s any way I could help.’

‘There’s definitely money round here,’ said Amanda. ‘Fitton’s full of it. I don’t think it would be that hard to double the amount they raised last year. Treble it.’

‘I want to raise enough,’ I said, ‘for a new library.’

Amanda looked at me. She had quite a long face, like a horse. I had the distinct impression that she was weighing up her options  –  whether to trot off and leave me to my madness or swish back her hair and pretend it was her idea in the first place.

She said, ‘A new building? A whole new building?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Architects, planners, builders, surveyors?’ she said.

I nodded.

‘Do you think that’s a bit  –  ambitious?’ she said.

‘Ambition,’ I said tartly, ‘is the key.’

 

 

* * * * * * * * ** * * * * *

 

 

People said afterwards that it was the collision of our extraordinarily well-matched talents that got the whole campaign off the ground. If you had met us in any other context  –  in an office, for example  –  I’m not sure you would have imagined we could work as a team. There was, as I say, the whole issue of Amanda’s tartiness. It was as if she was at a permanent hen party, coming out with the kind of remarks you used to see on bawdy seaside postcards. But I have to admit, looking back, that a quick flash of cleavage may have  got us a good deal on lamb kebabs, and I have absolutely no doubt that her coy Princess Diana look from under clogged black mascara was the secret to securing the sterling support of Fitton’s top TV detective.

Our sons didn’t have anything in common. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Robin did all he could to give Harry a wide berth. On one level this was strange, as both of them were wildly destructive when they started school, and should have been able to settle on some kind of joint demolition project. But I often caught Robin watching Harry rather anxiously, his fists clenched, a pugnacious light in his eyes. I did wonder, sometimes, whether I looked at Amanda the same way.

I realised, over time, that Amanda hadn’t really had much of a career. It was probably down to schooling as she had, after all, been to an indifferent comprehensive. She started off in retail, she said  –  by which I imagined she meant she used to work in a shop. But then, one day, when she was sauntering past her local garage, she stopped to admire a pale blue Aston Martin shining in the sunlight. (Or perhaps the expensive-looking man who was filling its tank with petrol.) The car’s owner looked up  –  and I can imagine him standing there, taking in the Bambi eyes and the magnificent bust, the nozzle of his hose dripping petrol  –  and said, according to Amanda, ‘Like cars, do you?’ It was this rather unorthodox interview technique that secured her a job in his company, which sold classic cars, and eventually a rather prestigious position as his PA. I think that probably suited Amanda down to the ground  –  not a lot of work but a permanent sheen of glamour.

The job had introduced her to a world of incredibly wealthy men. She had discovered that the CEOs of giant multinational corporations appreciate a cheeky girl who knows all about pistons, gaskets and crankshafts. She had no deference. She was the sunny care assistant cajoling confused, elderly patients; she was the saleswoman who knows the best ointment for piles.

So Amanda was persuasive but not very clever. I, on the other hand, had all the brains, but was unable to talk to people I found annoying. So we did make quite a remarkable team. I was the strategist. Amanda, once she had her orders, was the sergeant who made it all happen. It helped that she had an enormous network of friends and acquaintances whom she roped in, quite shamelessly, whenever she needed to bulk up numbers. My supporters were a more select crew. We could never have managed, for example, without the support of our next-door neighbour Giles, who is an extremely successful barrister. Quantity, if you like, was Amanda’s specialisation. Quality was mine.

A word about Colin. Amanda’s husband was a tall, bony man with the most puerile sense of humour  –  mostly on the level of bottoms and bowels. Although Amanda sometimes hit the gutter, Colin spent most of his time in the sewers. She can only have married him for his money. I remember an evening at our house, in the off-white calm of our drawing room (many months later  –  David, unfortunately, had been detained at the last minute in Brussels), when Colin volunteered to give me a hand with the coffee. He followed me out to the kitchen and, as I filled the kettle, leant forwards and pinned me against the granite with what can only be described as an expectant leer. I said, very sharply, ‘Excuse me  –  I need to get the cups’, and felt a moment of rising panic before he stepped back, saying, ‘Oh, pardon me’, like an obsequious footman. It was all extremely embarrassing. Thereafter I tried very hard never to be alone with him. Things came to a head several months later, when he grabbed me at our PTA summer event  –  of which more later  –  and I deliberately ground my high heel into the arch of his foot, pretending to have lost my balance.  I was gratified to see that he had a slight limp for weeks afterwards.

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