‘Now children, let’s count on our fingers, one, two, three…’
‘Ten’ chorused the little group of nursery children on the mat.
‘Twelve’ called a small voice a moment later.
Ivy, or was it Holly? Three days into the new intake I was still trying to grasp all the names; traditional, unspellable, unpronounceable, invented and reclaimed names from the nearly departed generation.
A boy at the front was still gazing in puzzlement at his hands. I knelt beside him and showed him how to bunch his fists.
‘Shall we count again?’
I uncurled one finger at a time and he got the idea, though his lips still did not move.
‘Nine, ten!’ The other children raised their open hands in the air.
‘Eleven, twelve’ came Ivy’s voice from the back.
I walked round the mat to where she was seated. She was gazing at her spread fingers, then glancing at the other hands held aloft. I felt my stomach lurch. Ivy was a sturdy child, just losing that toddler plumpness in her face and hands, she had settled in easily and not attracted any attention so far.
Ivy could count well, she could count to twelve because she had six fingers on each hand or to be precise, one thumb and five fingers on each perfectly formed hand.
We were always having seminars on celebrating difference; our nursery had children of every colour. I had a wheelchair and a cerebral palsy in my group, Gill had two skin conditions and a missing leg in her group next door. But I hadn’t been prepared for extra fingers, why hadn’t the parents told us? Ivy seemed as surprised as I was to discover she was different, perhaps it had never been mentioned at home.
When we went outside to play I watched Ivy. She adroitly did all her coat buttons up while other children were being helped, then she put on a pair of red gloves, not mittens, hand knitted gloves with six fingers. My mother is a manic knitter and we always get gloves for Christmas, but never have I heard her mention patterns for extra fingers.
At home time I was button holed by the usual anxious parents while the assistants made sure every one was collected by the right adults. I did not see Ivy leave. At home that evening I Googled hands and saw a rolling gallery of every possible variation of Polydactyly. I rang my mother who was intrigued and couldn’t wait to tell her Knit and Knatter group.
The next day I surreptitiously observed Ivy as she drew, played and washed her hands for her turn at the baking table. Her deft hands rubbed the butter into the flour with ease, a dozen fairy cakes, how appropriate. There was no doubt that all the fingers were real functioning digits with bones and joints, not mere protuberances that would have been snipped off at birth. The other children had noticed nothing different about Ivy, but Davinder pulled his floury hands out of the bowl and looked at them with concern.
‘Ivy said my finger felled off in the cake.’
I decided I must speak to her parents when they came to collect her. No nanny, granny or au pair was registered as a responsible adult, so I was sure to meet one of them. A good looking young couple aprroached me enthusiastically.
‘Ivy loves nursery, thank you for helping her settle in so well.’
The mother held out her cool, elegant, manicured hand to shake mine, I forced myself to look at her face. Ivy’s father then grasped my hand firmly with his large hand.
‘How is she getting on?’ he asked.
I was distracted by the ornate cygnet ring on his sixth finger, I averted my eyes from the twelve glossy red nails of his wife and smiled.
‘She is a delight to have, very bright, her speech is good and… she has excellent dexterity.’