Clare Mackintosh: Bully for you

Oscar Wilde proclaimed that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about.

Oscar Wilde proclaimed that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about. I wonder how often he did the school run - Credit: Archant

‘Hello’ appears to be the hardest word when it comes to the sensitivities of the school run

It’s taken 39 years, but it’s finally happened: I’ve been bullied. As attempts go, it was rather a poor one, but nevertheless it hit me like a punch to the kidneys, because – as is so often the way in these cases – I had done nothing to deserve it.

I escaped my childhood with little more than a gentle joshing about the colour of my hair (strawberry blond; never red, and definitely never ginger) and the elongated nature of my vowels in words like ‘plastic’ and ‘elastic’. I never fell in with one particular ‘set’, yet neither was I kept out of one, and so I wandered through school and university making friends and moving on from them without any drama.

Motherhood! I was told, that’s when the cliques really form. The stay-at-home mums versus the work-full-timers; the co-sleepers versus the let-them-cries; the feed-on-demands versus the Gina Fords: such are the divides that define us. I didn’t find it so. My peers were curious about each other’s parenting styles, not judgemental. Whatever works for you, they said; everyone’s different, they said.

As the children grew I wondered about the myth of the school gate mafia, and felt almost disappointed by its absence. I braced myself for cliques and comparisons, but found instead tolerant parents who celebrated each other’s successes. Where was the bitchiness? Where were the whispers in corners, the pointed looks, and the damning sartorial stares I’d been promised by the Guardian Family section?

I moved from Reception to Key Stage One and beyond without incident; crept towards the end of the first term… and then – WHAM. “Hello”, I said, as I passed a fellow parent at pick-up time. Silence. I shrugged it off. Preoccupied, perhaps, with another note from school; the demands of yet another after-school club. A hearing problem, previously undisclosed. A myriad of reasons. That it had been intentional never crossed my mind, until Facebook – the cause of so much angst it should really come with a health warning – informed me that such was the case.

Some people are so fake! I read. I rolled my eyes at the dog. Who was today’s target of her passive aggression, I wondered? I read on. Someone said hello but it was obvious they didn’t mean it. Ah. Not preoccupied, then. Not a hearing problem. Just rude. I contemplated her accusation, trying to establish exactly what part of hello I hadn’t meant. I thought of the numerous pub fights I’d been to in my police days, allegedly started because someone looked at someone else ‘funny’. At least my own adversary was unlikely to break a bottle over my head.

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An online conversation ensued, in which a dozen anxious women sought to establish whether their own hellos had been sufficiently sincere, and were reassured that yes indeed, whatever authenticity was required in those two syllables, had indeed been delivered. I double-checked to make sure I was actually reading an adult’s Facebook updates, and hadn’t stumbled inadvertently into a toddler’s playground. And then it came; the invisible punch to the stomach.

You probably know who I mean! she wrote, prompting a series of LOLs and winking faces. I’m not ashamed to admit that it made me cry. Never one to run away I jumped into the discussion: hey, what’s going on? I said hello, you ignored me – have I offended you somehow? She blocked me. End of conversation. The last word.

Oscar Wilde proclaimed that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about. I wonder how often he did the school run. I wonder if he’d want to do it now, in the knowledge that the pack can round so quickly against one woman. A woman who said hello with the wrong sort of emphasis. A woman minding her own business; a head full of books to write, articles to file, P.E. kits to find, dentist appointments to book, suppers to make; who gives no more thought to the way she says hello than she does to tying her shoelaces or taking a breath.

I didn’t do the school run the next day. I didn’t want to. Who else thought I said hello without the necessary sincerity? Who else would I find talking about me on Facebook, deliberately baiting me from behind the safety net of a screen? Paranoia quickly turned to anger, and from anger the sweetest of all reactions: laughter. How absurd! How ridiculous! I sang as I drove the children to school, chirruping my ‘hello’ loudly enough for the whole playground to hear.

Slowly and deliberately she turned her back on me. ‘Have a wonderful day!’ I cried through the car window as I drove away. She didn’t respond. Neither did she appear to appreciate the jazz hands that accompanied the following day’s hello, or my husband’s booming greeting when it was his turn for the school run.

Sincere hellos are clearly hard to pull off. I could continue my efforts, but life is too short. For every one person who wants to pick an imaginary fight, there are dozens more who don’t. I’ll save my hellos, in all their insincere, distracted glory, for them. Let me know if you’d like one.

Follow Clare on Twitter: @claremackint0sh