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Matilda, Page 2

Roald Dahl

  From then on, Matilda would visit the library only once a week in order to take out new books and return the old ones. Her own small bedroom now became her reading-room and there she would sit and read most afternoons, often with a mug of hot chocolate beside her. She was not quite tall enough to reach things around the kitchen, but she kept a small box in the outhouse which she brought in and stood on in order to get whatever she wanted. Mostly it was hot chocolate she made, warming the milk in a saucepan on the stove before mixing it. Occasionally she made Bovril or Ovaltine. It was pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons. The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an i English village.

  Mr Wormwood, the Great Car Dealer

  Matilda's parents owned quite a nice house with three bedrooms upstairs, while on the ground floor there was a dining-room and a living-room and a kitchen. Her father was a dealer in second-hand cars and it seemed he did pretty well at it.

  'Sawdust,' he would say proudly, 'is one of the great secrets of my success. And it costs me nothing. I get it free from the sawmill.'

  'What do you use it for?' Matilda asked him.

  'Ha!' the father said. 'Wouldn't you like to know.'

  'I don't see how sawdust can help you to sell second-hand cars, Daddy.'

  'That's because you're an ignorant little twit,' the father said. His speech was never very delicate but Matilda was used to it. She also knew that he liked to boast and she would egg him on shamelessly.

  'You must be very clever to find a use for something that costs nothing,' she said. 'I wish I could do it.'

  'You couldn't,' the father said. 'You're too stupid. But I don't mind telling young Mike here about it seeing he'll be joining me in the business one day.' Ignoring Matilda, he turned to his son and said, 'I'm always glad to buy a car when some fool has been crashing the gears so badly they're all worn out and rattle like mad. I get it cheap. Then all I do is mix a lot of sawdust with the oil in the gear-box and it runs as sweet as a nut.'

  'How long will it run like that before it starts rattling again?' Matilda asked him.

  'Long enough for the buyer to get a good distance away,' the father said, grinning. 'About a hundred miles.'

  'But that's dishonest, Daddy,' Matilda said. 'It's cheating.'

  'No one ever got rich being honest,' the father said. 'Customers are there to be diddled.'

  Mr Wormwood was a small ratty-looking man whose front teeth stuck out underneath a thin ratty moustache. He liked to wear jackets with large brightly coloured checks and he sported ties that were usually yellow or pale green. 'Now take mileage for instance,' he went on. 'Anyone who's buying a second-hand car, the first thing he wants to know is how many miles it's done. Right?'

  'Right,' the son said.

  'So I buy an old dump that's got about a hundred and fifty thousand miles on the clock. I get it cheap. But no one's going to buy it with a mileage like that, are they? And these days you can't just take the speedometer out and fiddle the numbers back like you used to ten years ago. They've fixed it so it's impossible to tamper with it unless you're a ruddy watchmaker or something. So what do I do? I use my brains, laddie, that's what I do.'

  'How?' young Michael asked, fascinated. He seemed to have inherited his father's love of crookery.

  'I sit down and say to myself, how can I convert a mileage reading of one hundred and fifty thousand into only ten thousand without taking the speedometer to pieces? Well, if I were to run the car backwards for long enough then obviously that would do it. The numbers would click backwards, wouldn't they? But who's going to drive a flaming car in reverse for thousands and thousands of miles? You couldn't do it!'

  'Of course you couldn't,' young Michael said.

  'So I scratch my head,' the father said. 'I use my brains. When you've been given a fine brain like I have, you've got to use it. And all of a sudden, the answer hits me. I tell you, I felt exactly like that other brilliant fellow must have felt when he discovered penicillin. "Eureka!" I cried. "I've got it!"'

  'What did you do, Dad?' the son asked him.

  'The speedometer,' Mr Wormwood said, 'is run off a cable that is coupled up to one of the front wheels. So first I disconnect the cable where it joins the front wheel. Next, I get one of those high-speed electric drills and I couple that up to the end of the cable in such a way that when the drill turns, it turns the cable backwards. You got me so far? You following me?'

  'Yes, Daddy,' young Michael said.

  'These drills run at a tremendous speed,' the father said, 'so when I switch on the drill the mileage numbers on the speedo spin backwards at a fantastic rate. I can knock fifty thousand miles off the clock in a few minutes with my high-speed electric drill. And by the time I've finished, the car's only done ten thousand and it's ready for sale. "She's almost new," I say to the customer. "She's hardly done ten thou. Belonged to an old lady who only used it once a week for shopping."'

  'Can you really turn the mileage back with an electric drill?' young Michael asked.

  'I'm telling you trade secrets,' the father said. 'So don't you go talking about this to anyone else. You don't want me put in jug, do you?'

  'I won't tell a soul,' the boy said. 'Do you do this to many cars, Dad?'

  'Every single car that comes through my hands gets the treatment,' the father said. 'They all have their mileage cut to under ten thou before they're offered for sale. And to think I invented that all by myself,' he added proudly. 'It's made me a mint.'

  Matilda, who had been listening closely, said, 'But Daddy, that's even more dishonest than the sawdust. It's disgusting. You're cheating people who trust you.'

  'If you don't like it then don't eat the food in this house,' the father said. 'It's bought with the profits.'

  'It's dirty money,' Matilda said. 'I hate it.'

  Two red spots appeared on the father's cheeks. 'Who the heck do you think you are,' he shouted, 'the Archbishop of Canterbury or something, preaching to me about honesty? You're just an ignorant little squirt who hasn't the foggiest idea what you're talking about!'

  'Quite right, Harry,' the mother said. And to Matilda she said, 'You've got a nerve talking to your father like that. Now keep your nasty mouth shut so we can all watch this programme in peace.'

  They were in the living-room eating their suppers on their knees in front of the telly. The suppers were TV dinners in floppy aluminium containers with separate compartments for the stewed meat, the boiled potatoes and the peas. Mrs Wormwood sat munching her meal with her eyes glued to the American soap-opera on the screen. She was a large woman whose hair was dyed platinum blonde except where you could see the mousy-brown bits growing out from the roots. She wore heavy make-up and she had one of those unfortunate bulging figures where the flesh appears to be strapped in all around the body to prevent it from falling out.

  'Mummy,' Matilda said, 'would you mind if I ate my supper in the dining-room so I could read my book?'

  The father glanced up sharply. 'I would mind!' he snapped. 'Supper is a family gathering and no one leaves the table till it's over!'

  'But we're not at the table,' Matilda said. 'We never are. We're always eating off our knees and watching the telly.'

  'What's wrong with watching the telly, may I ask?' the father said. His voice had suddenly become soft and dangerous.

  Matilda didn't trust herself to answer him, so she kept quiet. She could feel the anger boiling up inside her. She knew it was wrong to hate her parents like this, but she was finding it very hard not to do so. All the reading she had done had given her a view of life that they had never seen. If only they would read a little Dickens or Kipling they would soon discover there was more to life than
cheating people and watching television.

  Another thing. She resented being told constantly that she was ignorant and stupid when she knew she wasn't. The anger inside her went on boiling and boiling, and as she lay in bed that night she made a decision. She decided that every time her father or her mother was beastly to her, she would get her own back in some way or another. A small victory or two would help her to tolerate their idiocies and would stop her from going crazy. You must remember that she was still hardly five years old and it is not easy for somebody as small as that to score points against an all-powerful grownup. Even so, she was determined to have a go. Her father, after what had happened in front of the telly that evening, was first on her list.

  The Hat and the Superglue

  The following morning, just before the father left for his beastly second-hand car garage, Matilda slipped into the cloakroom and got hold of the hat he wore each day to work. She had to stand on her toes and reach up as high as she could with a walking-stick in order to hook the hat off the peg, and even then she only just made it. The hat itself was one of those flat-topped pork-pie jobs with a jay's feather stuck in the hatband and Mr Wormwood was very proud of it. He thought it gave him a rakish daring look, especially when he wore it at an angle with his loud checked jacket and green tie.

  Matilda, holding the hat in one hand and a thin tube of Superglue in the other, proceeded to squeeze a line of glue very neatly all round the inside rim of the hat. Then she carefully hooked the hat back on to the peg with the walking-stick. She timed this operation very carefully, applying the glue just as her father was getting up from the breakfast table.

  Mr Wormwood didn't notice anything when he put the hat on, but when he arrived at the garage he couldn't get it off. Superglue is very powerful stuff, so powerful it will take your skin off if you pull too hard. Mr Wormwood didn't want to be scalped so he had to keep the hat on his head the whole day long, even when putting sawdust in gear-boxes and fiddling the mileages of cars with his electric drill. In an effort to save face, he adopted a casual attitude hoping that his staff would think that he actually meant to keep his hat on all day long just for the heck of it, like gangsters do in the films.

  When he got home that evening he still couldn't get the hat off. 'Don't be silly,' his wife said. 'Come here. I'll take it off for you.'

  She gave the hat a sharp yank. Mr Wormwood let out a yell that rattled the window-panes. 'Ow-w-w!' he screamed. 'Don't do that! Let go! You'll take half the skin off my forehead!'

  Matilda, nestling in her usual chair, was watching this performance over the rim of her book with some interest.

  'What's the matter, Daddy?' she said. 'Has your head suddenly swollen or something?'

  The father glared at his daughter with deep suspicion, but said nothing. How could he? Mrs Wormwood said to him, 'It must be Superglue. It couldn't be anything else. That'll teach you to go playing round with nasty stuff like that. I expect you were trying to stick another feather in your hat.'

  'I haven't touched the flaming stuff!' Mr Wormwood shouted. He turned and looked again at Matilda, who looked back at him with large innocent brown eyes.

  Mrs Wormwood said to him, 'You should read the label on the tube before you start messing with dangerous products. Always follow the instructions on the label.'

  'What in heaven's name are you talking about, you stupid witch?' Mr Wormwood shouted, clutching the brim of his hat to stop anyone trying to pull it off again. 'D'you think I'm so stupid I'd glue this thing to my head on purpose?'

  Matilda said, 'There's a boy down the road who got some Superglue on his finger without knowing it and then he put his finger to his nose.'

  Mr Wormwood jumped. 'What happened to him?' he spluttered.

  'The finger got stuck inside his nose,' Matilda said, 'and he had to go around like that for a week. People kept saying to him, "Stop picking your nose," and he couldn't do anything about it. He looked an awful fool.'

  'Serve him right,' Mrs Wormwood said. 'He shouldn't have put his finger up there in the first place. It's a nasty habit. If all children had Superglue put on their fingers they'd soon stop doing it.'

  Matilda said, 'Grown-ups do it too, Mummy. I saw you doing it yesterday in the kitchen.'

  'That's quite enough from you,' Mrs Wormwood said, turning pink.

  Mr Wormwood had to keep his hat on all through supper in front of the television. He looked ridiculous and he stayed very silent.

  When he went up to bed he tried again to get the thing off, and so did his wife, but it wouldn't budge. 'How am I going to have my shower?' he demanded.

  'You'll just have to do without it, won't you,' his wife told him. And later on, as she watched her skinny little husband skulking around the bedroom in his purple-striped pyjamas with a pork-pie hat on his head, she thought how stupid he looked. Hardly the kind of man a wife dreams about, she told herself.

  Mr Wormwood discovered that the worst thing about having a permanent hat on his head was having to sleep in it. It was impossible to lie comfortably on the pillow. 'Now do stop fussing around,' his wife said to him after he had been tossing and turning for about an hour. 'I expect it will be loose by the morning and then it'll slip off easily.'

  But it wasn't loose by the morning and it wouldn't slip off. So Mrs Wormwood took a pair of scissors and cut the thing off his head, bit by bit, first the top and then the brim. Where the inner band had stuck to the hair all around the sides and back, she had to chop the hair off right to the skin so that he finished up with a bald white ring round his head, like some sort of a monk. And in the front, where the band had stuck directly to the bare skin, there remained a whole lot of small patches of brown leathery stuff that no amount of washing would get off.

  At breakfast Matilda said to him, 'You must try to get those bits off your forehead, Daddy. It looks as though you've got little brown insects crawling about all over you. People will think you've got lice.'

  'Be quiet!' the father snapped. 'Just keep your nasty mouth shut, will you!'

  All in all it was a most satisfactory exercise. But it was surely too much to hope that it had taught the father a permanent lesson.

  The Ghost

  There was comparative calm in the Wormwood household for about a week after the Superglue episode. The experience had clearly chastened Mr Wormwood and he seemed temporarily to have lost his taste for boasting and bullying.

  Then suddenly he struck again. Perhaps he had had a bad day at the garage and had not sold enough crummy second-hand cars. There are many things that make a man irritable when he arrives home from work in the evening and a sensible wife will usually notice the storm-signals and will leave him alone until he simmers down.

  When Mr Wormwood arrived back from the garage that evening his face was as dark as a thunder-cloud and somebody was clearly for the high-jump pretty soon. His wife recognized the signs immediately and made herself scarce. He then strode into the living-room. Matilda happened to be curled up in an armchair in the corner, totally absorbed in a book. Mr Wormwood switched on the television. The screen lit up. The programme blared. Mr Wormwood glared at Matilda. She hadn't moved. She had somehow trained herself by now to block her ears to the ghastly sound of the dreaded box. She kept right on reading, and for some reason this infuriated the father. Perhaps his anger was intensified because he saw her getting pleasure from something that was beyond his reach.

  'Don't you ever stop reading?' he snapped at her.

  'Oh, hello, Daddy,' she said pleasantly. 'Did you have a good day?'

  'What is this trash?' he said, snatching the book from her hands.

  'It isn't trash, Daddy, it's lovely. It's called The Red Pony. It's by John Steinbeck, an American writer. Why don't you try it? You'll love it.'

  'Filth,' Mr Wormwood said. 'If it's by an American it's certain to be filth. That's all they write about.'

  'No, Daddy, it's beautiful, honestly it is. It's about...'

  'I don't want to know what it's about
,' Mr Wormwood barked. 'I'm fed up with your reading anyway. Go and find yourself something useful to do,' With frightening suddenness he now began ripping the pages out of the book in handfuls and throwing them in the waste-paper basket.

  Matilda froze in horror. The father kept going. There seemed little doubt that the man felt some kind of jealousy. How dare she, he seemed to be saying with each rip of a page, how dare she enjoy reading books when he couldn't? How dare she?

  'That's a library book!' Matilda cried. 'It doesn't belong to me! I have to return it to Mrs Phelps!'

  'Then you'll have to buy another one, won't you?' the father said, still tearing out pages. 'You'll have to save your pocketmoney until there's enough in the kitty to buy a new one for your precious Mrs Phelps, won't you?' With that he dropped the now empty covers of the book into the basket and marched out of the room, leaving the telly blaring.

  Most children in Matilda's place would have burst into floods of tears. She didn't do this. She sat there very still and white and thoughtful. She seemed to know that neither crying nor sulking ever got anyone anywhere. The only sensible thing to do when you are attacked is, as Napoleon once said, to counter-attack. Matilda's wonderfully subtle mind was already at work devising yet another suitable punishment for the poisonous parent. The plan that was now beginning to hatch in her mind depended, however, upon whether or not Fred's parrot was really as good a talker as Fred made out.

  Fred was a friend of Matilda's. He was a small boy of six who lived just around the corner from her, and for days he had been going on about this great talking parrot his father had given him.

  So the following afternoon, as soon as Mrs Wormwood had departed in her car for another session of bingo, Matilda set out for Fred's house to investigate. She knocked on his door and asked if he would be kind enough to show her the famous bird. Fred was delighted and led her up to his bedroom where a truly magnificent blue and yellow parrot sat in a tall cage.