By ten o’clock I’m ready for her. The house is prepared, and I’m prepared, and even Minnie is all dressed up in her most innocent-looking Marie Chantal pinafore.
I’ve done my research. First of all, I looked up Nanny Sue’s website and read every page. (Unfortunately, there’s nothing about the boot camp on there yet, just a message saying: My new series of behavior-management programs for children and adults will be launched soon — check for details. Huh. I’m not surprised she’s being cagey.) Then I bought all her DVDs and watched them back-to-back. And it’s always the same pattern. What happens is, there’s a family with kids haring about and parents arguing and usually an old abandoned fridge in the garden or dangerous electrical sockets or something. Then Nanny Sue comes in and watches carefully on the side and says, “I want to see who the Ellises really are,” which means, “You’re doing loads of stuff wrong, but I’m not going to tell you what yet.”
The parents always end up having a screaming match and then sobbing on Nanny Sue’s shoulder and telling her their life history. And every week she gets out her little box of tissues and says gravely, “I think there’s more to this than child behavior, isn’t there?” and they nod and spill all about their sex life or job troubles or family tragedy and they play sad music and you end up crying too.
I mean, it’s a total formula, and only complete suckers would end up falling for her tricks. And now, presumably, she’s going to crank up the drama and take all the children away to boot camp, somewhere really tough like Utah or Arizona, and it’ll make even better telly when they’re reunited.
Well, not here. No way.
I look around the kitchen, checking that everything is in place. I’ve put up a massive gold star chart on the fridge, and I’ve labeled the bottom step of the stairs the Naughty Step, and there’s a stack of educational toys on the table. But with any luck my first salvo will work and she won’t even get this far.
What you can’t do with Nanny Sue is say, “My child doesn’t have any problems,” because then she catches you out and finds some. So I’m going to be even cleverer than that.
The doorbell rings and I stiffen.
“Come on, Min,” I murmur. “Let’s go and get rid of the nasty child expert.”
I open the door — and there she is. Nanny Sue herself, with her trademark blond bob and neat little features and pink lipstick. She looks smaller in real life and is wearing jeans, a striped shirt, and a padded jacket like horse riders wear. I thought she’d be in her blue uniform and hat, like she is on the telly. In fact, I’m half-expecting the theme music to begin and a voice-over to say: “Today, Nanny Sue has been called to the house of the Brandons . . .”
“Rebecca? I’m Nanny Sue,” she says in her familiar West Country burr.
“Nanny Sue! Thank God! I’m so glad to see you!” I say dramatically. “We’re at our wits’ end! You have to help us, right here, right now!”
“Really?” Nanny Sue looks taken aback.
“Yes! Didn’t my husband explain how desperate we are? This is our two-year-old, Minnie.”
“Hello, Minnie. How are you?” Nanny Sue crouches down to chat to Minnie and I wait impatiently till she rises again.
“You won’t believe the problems we’ve had with her. It’s shameful. It’s mortifying. I can hardly admit it.”
I let my voice wobble slightly. “She refuses to learn how to tie up her shoelaces. I’ve tried . . . my husband’s tried . . . everyone’s tried. But she won’t!”
There’s a pause, during which I keep my anxious-mother look perfectly intact. Nanny Sue looks a little perplexed. Ha.
“Rebecca,” she says. “Minnie’s still very young. I wouldn’t expect any child of two to be able to tie her own laces.”
“Oh!” I instantly brighten. “Oh, I see. Well, that’s all right, then! We don’t have any other problems with her. Thank you so much, Nanny Sue, please do invoice my husband. I mustn’t keep you any longer — good-bye.”
And I slam the front door before she can reply.
Result! I high-five Minnie and am about to head to the kitchen for a celebratory Kit Kat when the doorbell rings again.
Hasn’t she gone?
I peep through the spy hole and there she is, waiting patiently on the doorstep.
What does she want? She’s solved our problems. She can go.
“Rebecca?” Her voice comes through the door. “Are you there?”
“Hello!” calls Minnie.
“Shhh!” I hiss. “Be quiet!”
“Rebecca, your husband asked if I could assess your daughter and report my findings to both of you. I can hardly do that on a one-minute acquaintance.”
“She doesn’t need assessing!” I call back through the door.
Nanny Sue doesn’t react, just waits with the same patient smile. Doesn’t she want a day off?
I’m feeling a bit thrown, to be honest. I thought she’d hoof off. What if she tells Luke I wouldn’t let her in? What if we end up having another big row?
Oh God. Maybe it’ll be simpler if I just let her in, let her do her so-called “assessing,” and get rid of her.
“Fine.” I throw open the door. “Come in. But my daughter doesn’t have any problems. And I know exactly what you’re going to do and what you’re going to say. And we already have a Naughty Step.”
“Goodness.” Nanny Sue’s eyes spark a little. “Well, you’re ahead of the game, aren’t you?” She steps in and beams at Minnie, then at me. “Please don’t be apprehensive or worried. All I’d really like to observe is a normal day for both of you. Act naturally and do what you would usually do. I want to see who the Brandons really are.”
I knew it! She’s set us our first trap. On telly, either the family hasn’t got a plan for the day or their child refuses to turn off the TV, and they all start fighting. But I am so ahead of her. I prepared for this moment, just in case — in fact, I’ve even rehearsed it with Minnie.
“Gosh, I don’t know,” I say in musing tones. “What do you think, Minnie? Some home-baking?” I click my tongue. “But I’ve just remembered, we’re out of organic stone-ground flour.
“Maybe we could make houses out of cardboard boxes, and you could paint them with non-leaded paint.”
I look meaningfully at Minnie. This is her cue. She’s supposed to say, “Walk! Nature!” I coached her and everything. But, instead, she’s gazing longingly at the TV in the sitting room.
“Peppa Pig,” she begins. “Mine Peppa Pig —”
“We can’t see a real pig, darling!” I interrupt hastily. “But let’s go on a nature walk and discuss the environment!”
I’m quite proud of the nature walk idea. It counts as good parenting and it’s really easy. You only have to walk along and say, “There’s an acorn! There’s a squirrel!” every so often. And Nanny Sue will have to admit defeat. She’ll have to give us ten out of ten and say she can’t improve on a perfect family, and Luke will be totally sussed.
When Minnie’s dressed in her coat and boots (tiny pink Uggs — so sweet), I reach in my bag and produce four dark-gray velvet ribbons, sewn in a bow and backed with Velcro. I did them last night, and they look really good.
“We’d better take the Naughty Ribbons,” I say ostentatiously.
“Naughty Ribbons?” inquires Nanny Sue politely.
“Yes, I noticed from your TV show that you don’t use the Naughty Step while you’re out and about. So I’ve created a ‘Naughty Ribbon.’ They’re very simple but effective. You just Velcro them
onto the child’s coat when they’re naughty.”
“I see.” Nanny Sue doesn’t venture an opinion, but that’s obviously because she’s seething with jealousy and wishes she’d thought of it first.
Honestly, I think I might become a child expert. I have far more ideas than Nanny Sue does, and I could give fashion advice too.
I usher her out of the house and we start heading down the drive. “Look, Minnie, a bird!” I point at some creature flapping out of a tree. “Maybe it’s endangered,” I add solemnly. “We have to protect our wildlife.”
“A pigeon?” says Nanny Sue mildly. “Is that likely to be endangered?”
“I’m being green.” I give her a reproving look. Doesn’t she know anything about the environment?
We walk along for a while and I point out a few squirrels. Now we’re approaching the parade of shops at the end of Mum’s road, and I can’t help glancing right, just to see what they have in the antiques shop.
“Shop!” says Minnie, tugging on my hand.
“No, we’re not going shopping, Minnie.” I give her an indulgent smile. “We’re going on a nature walk, remember? Looking at nature.”
“Shop! Taxi!” She sticks her hand confidently out into the road and yells even louder, “Taxi! Taxeeee!” After a moment, the taxi at the head of the rank rumbles toward us.
“Minnie! We’re not getting a taxi! I don’t know why she’s done that,” I add quickly to Nanny Sue. “It’s not like we take taxis all the time —”
“Tax-eee!” Minnie is getting that red-cheeked, angry bull look. Oh God. I can’t risk a tantrum in front of Nanny Sue. Maybe we could take a taxi somewhere.
“Minnie!” comes a cheerful, booming voice. “How’s my best little customer?”
Damn. It’s Pete, who usually drives us to Kingston when we go shopping.
I mean, not that we go that often.
“Pete sometimes drives us to the . . . the . . . educational soft-play center,” I say to Nanny Sue.
“So,” Pete leans out of his window. “Where is it today, my beauties?”
“Star-bucks,” enunciates Minnie carefully before I can speak.
“Starbucks — shops.”
“Your usual, then?” Pete says cheerfully. “Hop in!”
I feel my face flood with color.
“We’re not going to Starbucks, Minnie!” I say shrilly. “What a . . . a crazy idea! Could you take us to the educational soft-play center, please, Pete? That one in Leatherhead that we go to all the time?”
My eyes are fixed desperately on his, willing him not to say, “What are you talking about?”
“Muffin?” Minnie turns hopeful eyes on me. “Muffin Starbucks?”
“No, Minnie!” I snap. “Now, you be a good girl or you’ll get a Naughty Ribbon.” I take the Naughty Ribbon out of my bag and brandish it ominously at her. Instantly Minnie holds her hands out.
She wasn’t supposed to want the Naughty Ribbon.“Maybe later,” I say, flustered, and shove it back in my bag. This is all Nanny Sue’s fault. She’s putting me off.
We get in and I buckle Minnie up, and Pete pulls away from the curb.
“Rebecca,” says Nanny Sue pleasantly, “if you do have errands to do, please don’t feel constrained by me. I’m very happy to go to the shops or do whatever you would normally do.”
“This is it!” I try to sound natural. “This is our normal routine! Educational play! Have a snack, darling,” I add to Minnie, and produce a spelt biscuit which I got from the health-food shop. She looks at it dubiously, licks it, then chucks it on the floor and yells, “Muffin! Muffin Starbucks!”
My face flames red.
“Starbucks is . . . the name of our friend’s cat,”
I improvise desperately. “And Muffin is the other cat. Minnie’s such an animal lover, aren’t you, darling?”
“Have you seen the great white elephant?” Pete’s voice comes cheerily from the front. “They’ve opened it at last!”
We’ve arrived at the junction where the road joins the dual carriageway and are sitting in a line of traffic. Suddenly I see what Pete’s pointing at. It’s a massive black-and-white billboard, reading:
Wow. They’ve been talking about opening that place for ages. My eyes slide further down the billboard:
HEATHFIELD VILLAGE! NEW LUXURY OUTLET MALL OPENS TODAY!
Wow. They’ve been talking about opening that place for ages. My eyes slide further down the billboard.
Special introductory offers today! Free gift for each customer! NEXT EXIT!
Free gift for each customer? I mean, it’s probably nothing to get excited about. It’ll be a tiny scented candle or one single chocolate or something. And the place is probably nothing much either. Anyway, I’m not even interested in some new shopping mall, because we haven’t come out to go shopping, have we? We’ve come out to do educational, bonding things.
“Look at the clouds,” I say to Minnie, and point out the opposite window self-consciously. “Do you know how clouds are made, darling? It’s with . . . er . . . water.”
Do I mean water vapor? Or steam?
“Burberry,” says Pete with interest. “Now, that’s good quality stuff. My son-in-law, he gets all the fakes from Hong Kong, and he says—”
Burberry? My head jerks round and I see another massive billboard — this time listing all the designers in the outlet.
Burberry. Matthew Williamson. Dolce & Gabbana. Oh my God.
Anya Hindmarch. Temperley. Vivienne Westwood? All at discount prices? Yards away?
The taxi edges forward again, and I feel a pull of alarm. We’ll be past the exit in a minute. It’ll be too late.
OK, let’s think this through properly. Let’s be rational. I know we’re supposed to be going to Leatherhead and bouncing around a ball pit. But the thing is . . . Nanny Sue said she didn’t mind if we went shopping. She actually said it.
Not that I’d buy anything for myself. Obviously. I’m keeping my promise. But this is a brand-new, state-of-the-art discount shopping center with free gifts. We can’t just drive past. It’s . . .it’s . . . wrong. It’s ungrateful. It’s against the laws of nature. And I’m allowed to buy things for Minnie, aren’t I? It’s part of the duties of a mother to keep her child clothed.
I glance at the list again. Petit Bateau. Ralph Lauren Girls and Boys. Funky Kid. Baby in Urbe. I feel a bit breathless. This is a no-brainer.
“You know, I do need to get Minnie some new socks.” I try to sound offhand. “So we could pop into this new mall instead of the soft-play. Just an idea. What do you think?”
“It’s up to you.” Nanny Sue lifts her hands. “Entirely.”
“So, um, Pete, could you take us to the outlet mall instead?” I raise my voice. “Thanks so much!”
“Better clear my boot, then, hadn’t I?” He turns and flashes a grin at me. “Ready for all the bags.”
I smile weakly back. I’ll tell Nanny Sue later that he has a really quirky sense of humor.
“Are you fond of shopping, then, Rebecca?” says Nanny Sue pleasantly.
I pause as though trying to think this over.
“Not fond,” I say eventually. “I wouldn’t say fond. I mean, it’s got to be done, hasn’t it? Keeping the store cupboard full.” I shrug ruefully. “It’s a necessary chore for any responsible mother.”
We pull up at the main entrance, which has massive glass doors leading into a huge airy atrium. There are palm trees and a water feature crashing down a steel wall and as we enter I can already see Valentino and Jimmy Choo glinting at me in the distance. The air is filled with the smell of cinnamon pastries and cappuccino machines firing up, mingled with expensive leather and designer scents and . . . newness.
“So where do you need to go?” says Nanny Sue, looking around. “It was socks, wasn’t it?”
“I . . . um . . .”
I can’t quite think straight. Mulberry is straight ahead and I’ve just seen the most amazing bag in the window. “Um . . .” I force myself to focus. “Yes. Socks.”
Children’s socks. Not Valentino. Not Jimmy Choo. Not Mulberry. Oh God, I wonder how much that bag is . . .
Stop it. Don’t look. I’m not buying anything for myself. I’m not even thinking about it.
“Mine! Miiiiiine dolly!” Minnie’s voice jerks me back to the present. She’s standing outside Gucci, pointing to a mannequin.
“It’s not a dolly, darling, it’s a mannequin! Come on.” Firmly, I take her hand and lead her toward the mall guide. “We’re going to get you some socks.”
We head toward the Kids’ Zone, which is where all the children’s stores are clustered. There’s a clown greeting customers, and stalls laden with toys, and the whole area feels like a fairground.
“Book!” Minnie has immediately made a beeline for one of the stalls and grabbed a big pink book with fairies on the front. “Mine book.”
Ha! I glance smugly at Nanny Sue. My daughter went for the educational book, not the trashy plastic!
“Of course you can buy a book, Minnie,” I say loudly. “We’ll take it out of your pocket money. I’m teaching Minnie financial planning,” I add to Nanny Sue. “I write down all her pocket-money expenditures.”
I take out my little pink Smythson notebook with Minnie’s Pocket Money on the front. (I had it printed specially. It was quite expensive, but then, it’s an investment in my daughter’s financial responsibility.)
“Man!” Minnie has grabbed a puppet in addition to the book. “Mine man! Miiiine!”
“Er . . .” I look doubtfully at the puppet. It is quite sweet, and we don’t have any puppets. “Well, OK. As long as you get it out of your pocket money. Do you understand, darling?” I speak super-clearly. “It has to come out of your pocket money.”
“Goodness!” says Nanny Sue as we head to the till. “How much pocket money does Minnie get?”