The children at St Anne’s did not swing bags at each other’s heads, or bundle up in huddles by the corner of the playground, backing someone against the wall to tax their lunch money. There were no weary-sounding teachers trying to herd the teenagers into classrooms. The girls had not rolled their skirts six times over at the waistband or backcombed their hair. Not a single person was smoking. A lot of them wore glasses. Her mother gave her hand a little squeeze. Tanzie wanted her to stop looking so nervous. ‘It’s nice, isn’t it, Mum?’
She nodded. ‘Yes.’ It came out as a squeak.
‘Mr Tsvangarai told me that every single one of their sixth-formers who did maths got A or A starred. That’s good, isn’t it?’
Tanzie pulled a bit at Mum’s hand so that they could get to the head’s office faster. ‘Do you think Norman will miss me when I’m doing the long days?’
‘The long days.’
‘St Anne’s doesn’t finish till six. And there’s maths club on Tuesdays and Thursdays so I’d definitely want to do that.’
‘Tanze,’ she said, and stopped.
‘Mum. Look.’ There was a girl walking along reading a book. Actually reading a book. Nicky said if you walked across the playground reading a book at McArthur’s you got battered. You had to hide them, like cigarettes.
Her mother glanced at her. She looked really tired. She was always tired, these days. She put on one of those smiles that wasn’t really a smile at all, and they went in.
‘Hello, Mrs Thomas. Hello, Costanza. It’s very good to meet you. Do sit down.’
The headmaster’s study had a high ceiling, as white and perfectly decorated as a wedding cake. Little white plaster rosettes sat every twenty centimetres, and tiny rosebuds exactly halfway between them. The room was stuffed with old furniture and through a large bay window a man on a roller could be seen travelling up and down a cricket pitch. On a small table somebody had laid out a tray of coffee and hand-made biscuits. It took Tanzie a few minutes to realize they were for them. ‘Can I have one?’ she said, and the headmaster pushed them towards her.
‘Mouth closed,’ Mum murmured.
They were so good. You could tell they were homemade. Mum used to make biscuits before Dad left and they were just like these. She sat down on the edge of the sofa and gazed at the two men opposite. The one with the moustache smiled like the nurse did before she gave you an injection. Mum had pulled her bag onto her lap and Tanzie could see her holding her hand over the corner where Norman had chewed it. Her leg was jiggling.
‘This is Mr Cruikshank. He’s the head of maths. And I’m Mr Daly. I’ve been head here for the past two years.’
She shook their hands and smiled back. Tanzie should have shaken their hands, but all she could hear were the words ‘head of maths’. She looked up from her biscuit.
‘Do you do chords?’
Mr Cruikshank leant forward. ‘We’ve been looking at your test results. And we think, Costanza, that you should sit your GCSE in maths next year and get it out of the way. Because I think you’d rather enjoy the A-level problems.’
She looked at him. ‘Have you got actual papers?’
‘I’ve got some next door. Would you like to see them?’
She couldn’t believe he was asking. She thought briefly of saying, ‘Well, DUH’, like Nicky did. But she just nodded.
Mr Daly handed Mum a coffee. ‘I won’t beat around the bush, Mrs Thomas. You are well aware that your daughter has an exceptional ability. We have only seen scores like hers once before and that was from a pupil who went on to be a fellow at Trinity.’
Tanzie nodded, although she was pretty sure she didn’t want to be a fellow. Everyone knew girls were better at maths.
He went on and on then. She tuned out a bit because she was trying to see how many biscuits she could eat so what she heard was ‘… for a very select group of pupils who have a demonstrably unusual ability we have created a new equal-access scholarship.’ Blah, blah, blah. ‘It would offer a child who might not otherwise get the advantages of a school like this the chance to fulfil their potential in …’ Blah, blah. ‘While we are very keen to see how far Costanza could go in the field of maths, we would also want to make sure that she was well rounded in other parts of her student life. We have a full sporting and musical curriculum.’ Blah, blah, blah … ‘Numerate children are often also able in languages …’ blah, blah ‘… and drama – that’s often very popular with girls of her age.’
‘I only really like maths,’ she told him. ‘And dogs.’
‘Well, we don’t have much in the way of dogs, but we’d certainly offer you lots of opportunities to stretch yourself mathematically. But I think you might be surprised by what else you enjoy. Do you play any instruments?’
She shook her head.
The room went a bit quiet.
‘We go swimming on Fridays,’ Mum said.
‘We haven’t been swimming since Dad left.’
Mum smiled, but it went a bit wonky. ‘We have, Tanzie.’
‘Once. May the thirteenth. But now you work on Fridays.’
Her smile went really strange then, like she couldn’t hold the corners of her mouth up properly.