DJ Taylor: For prodigy nurturer Melissa Fretwell it is a humbling experience to have charge of the intellectual development of a pre-teen 'genius'


Click to follow

'Now Toby," Melissa will say, when two or three adults are gathered around the family dinner table, "why don't you tell us the first eight numbers of the Fibonacci sequence?" But Toby, aged nine, is too old a hand to be fooled by this elementary enquiry. "Really, mum," he sighs. "One, one, two, three, five, eight, 13, 21." "Wonderful, darling. And how many wives did Henry VII have?" This is a trick question in its way, but Toby has the answer (one), together with the information that the author of Anna of the Five Towns is Arnold Bennett.

It is, as Melissa very often remarks, "a rather humbling experience" to have charge of the intellectual development of a pre-teen "genius" – the child psychologist's word – but one whose gravity she is keenly aware of. For a start, where is this Admirable Crichton to be educated? Three schools have been already charged with the awesome responsibility of ministering to Toby's needs, and all three have failed.

"Poor Toby," Melissa will explain. "He's just not like other children. I mean, at the first place they tried to get him to play musical chairs." Just at the moment, fortified by a double row of text books, Melissa is doing the job herself, although a philosophy-graduate friend stops by two evenings a week.

Then there is the question of how to nurture Toby's very singular abilities at the weekends. To this end, Melissa has devised a complex series of cultural recreations (art galleries, chess tournaments, and so on) at which Toby is encouraged to parade his skills. There was an idea that he might learn to play the flute, but in the end Melissa put her foot down. You see, he will obsess about things, and would be quite capable of practising for 12 hours a day.

Another part of her remit, naturally, is to fill a notebook with his bright remarks, such as the observation, made when told that if he squeezed up in the back of the car, there would be more space, "Not more space, surely, Mum? Just less of it occupied."

Neutral observers sometimes wonder how, despite this treatment, Toby could be such a remarkably well-balanced child, and display no hint of the neuroses to which the precociously brainy are so often prey. It was Melissa, alas, who, when he failed to reach the final of a Brilliant Kids competition on Channel 4, broke down in tears.