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(1) - Petrova (1990)

 

Miss Honey hadn't quite known whether slipping the little paperback into Matilda's satchel was the right thing or not. It was so different from the advanced fare the child had been devouring practically since infancy. But then, that was the point. And, well, her previous lunchtime reading had been Schindler's List, which just seemed an odd choice for an eight-year-old. Even one who'd read all the Russians.

She found Matilda on the porch that afternoon, wearing a woolly jumper up to her chin and so engrossed in the book that it was mere inches from her nose.

"Can we make Dr Jakes's ginger drink?" she asked without looking up, as Miss Honey came onto the porch.

"I suppose it tells you the recipe?" Miss Honey asked. "I read that book too long ago to remember."

"Not really," said Matilda. "But someone else must know what it is. Did you ever go to dancing school?"

"No," said Miss Honey, who was never surprised by the turns of Matilda's mind when she was reading. "Would you like to?"

"I don't think so." Matilda frowned. "Unless it's something one ought to."

"Fortunately, one is not living in a Jane Austen novel." Miss Honey craned her neck until she could just see into the parlour. She'd left Matilda one chore for the afternoon, and the girl was usually responsible, but - "Did you put all your clean laundry away already?"

"Yes."

Matilda's attention still didn't waver from her book. Her comfort was a happy thing, though. She had always been quite happy to live with Miss Honey, obviously, happy to be adopted and not to be whisked off to a life of (presumably) crime and dodging the authorities on the Continent. But it had taken her quite a long time to stop behaving as though she were in someone else's house all the time. Miss Honey didn't want her to be rude, or ill-mannered, or cross or whiny, or to leave her clothes on the floor and her homework scattered about the parlour, of course; not exactly. But a child who is always polite is a child who doesn't feel at home.

As if she could read Miss Honey's mind, however, now she blinked and looked up. "Thank you for the book," she said. "I love it."

A children's book, for a child who ordinarily read Melville and Joyce and Dostoevsky. Of course this was still a book that would be rather advanced for many eight-year-olds, but all the same.

When Matilda had first been placed in her class, Miss Honey had been struck by how unspoiled she was, how unself-conscious. This was as true as it had seemed to her then, but what Matilda did not have a great deal of experience with was being a child. And her voracious reading meant that her mind was honed by the classics, yes, but also that her head was full of all the worst things people could do to each other. Things that, well, that required a person to write a thing like Schindler's List.

Pauline, Petrova, and Posy had their difficulties of course. They were children required to think like adults; children with jobs. Who took on great responsibility.

"Do you have a favourite?" Miss Honey asked. "Most girls do."

"Petrova," Matilda answered immediately, surprising Miss Honey not at all. "She knows she has to work and she tries hard, but she doesn't pretend to fit in. I like that."

Matilda remained much happier, much more fulfilled and challenged, in the upper school than she had been in Miss Honey's class. But still there were times when she couldn't have her lunch with Lavender and Nigel, when she had to socialise or do games or take a class trip with a rowdy bunch of fourteen-year-olds, and that was not an easy thing. Most of them were kind, of course, and they were used to Matilda by now. Several of the girls had quite predictably made a pet of her. Still, sometimes they wanted to talk about makeup and Leonardo Di Caprio, or they needed another person for football and neither side wanted a child hardly bigger than the ball.

"Can we go to a panto this year?" Matilda asked, interrupting Miss Honey's reverie.

"Of course."

"I don't really think it will be my taste, but I'd like to see what Pauline and Petrova were in."

"Quite wise. We should always experience things before we make up our minds about them. Other than death and dismemberment, of course."

"Those too, I should think," Matilda said. "I don't intend to make up my mind fully about death in advance."

They knew very little about Leonardo Di Caprio, but eight-year-old girls were often frightfully wise.

 

(2) - Bridget (1996)

 

Matilda's delighted giggle echoed all the way down the hall.

As this was an increasingly rare thing in a young life filled with tutorials and research (however much she might enjoy both), Miss Honey crept rather cautiously toward the girl's bedroom.

Matilda looked up as she entered, grinning over the top of a paperback. "It's not literature," she said, "but it's terribly funny."

"Bridget Jones's Diary," Miss Honey read off the cover. "You know, Miss Potts and Mrs Stuart were talking about that in the staffroom the other day."

"A girl in my tutorial gave it to me. It's about a woman who keeps a diary of all the ways she's trying to improve herself, and how many drinks and cigarettes she's had each day and everything. And she has very funny friends, and parents. But listen -" Matilda pushed herself up on her bed so that she was sitting rather than reclining against the pillows as she read aloud. "'It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It's like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting "Cathy" and banging your head against a tree.' - see? It's very clever actually, there's lots about proper literature in it, even if it is just mostly funny."

"Nothing wrong with just mostly funny," Miss Honey said, taking a seat in Matilda's armchair.

"It's a bit profane of course. Some of her favourite words are things I can't say aloud." Matilda grinned again. "But I like that she doesn't hide things. Maybe that's silly because it's her own diary and of course why would she try to make her life sound better to herself? But it's fun reading about someone who admits all her flaws and all her mistakes, and when things don't turn out the way she wanted them to. She's very optimistic, Bridget, she keeps trying, but she doesn't pretend she's happy all the time. And sometimes she's quite down and wants to give up on everything. It's . . ." Matilda paused thoughtfully. "It's nice to have both."

Miss Honey nodded, taking - as she always did - Matilda's assessment quite seriously. "Yes, it is. And quite like real life. Happy, optimistic people can feel sad sometimes, when things don't work out or when bad things happen. It doesn't mean you aren't grateful for the good things."

Matilda's nod was rather solemn for someone in the midst of a fictional tarts and vicars party.

But later, while Miss Honey was in the kitchen mixing sauce for a bolognese, she heard Matilda's resounding shout of "oh!" and her young charge came running into the kitchen with the book clutched in her hand.

"It actually is Pride and Prejudice!" Matilda crowed. "Mr Darcy is Mr Darcy! I can't believe it took me this long to work it out!"

"Sorry?" Miss Honey asked in the middle of tearing some basil.

"The story, it's Pride and Prejudice really." Matilda sat down at the kitchen table, eyes fixed on the book. "If she'd had sisters or something I would have spotted it much sooner, but it's more subtle than that - and she actually mentions Pride and Prejudice, to throw us off the scent." She looked up with a satisfied smile. "This is much cleverer than I thought. And I want to reread Pride and Prejudice."

"We can rent the film if you like," Miss Honey said absently. "The BBC series I mean, I think you can get the tapes."

"Oh, Bridget talks about that one in the book! Yes, let's watch it."

"We could invite some of your friends, and make popcorn. Or . . . fancy biscuits. Whichever."

"And some of yours even. Bridget and her friends all watched it."

"Yes, it was supposed to be very romantic." Miss Honey gave the sauce a stir with a raised eyebrow. "Lots of girls all over England looking for their Mr Darcy. Would you get me that pinot grigio from the cupboard, please?"

Matilda summoned a bookmark from somewhere to mark her place before doing as she was asked. "Are you?"

"Looking for my Mr Darcy?" The eyebrow went higher. "I've never favoured the distant and standoffish ones, really. Corkscrew please."

"I'll do it." With deep concentration Matilda set herself to opening the wine bottle.

"Bear that in mind," Miss Honey continued. "The unapproachable man who seems like a challenge but turns out to be the perfect gentleman can be found far more often in fiction than in real life. I'm sure Jane Austen knew that well enough."

"I will remember," Matilda promised as she proudly drew the cork from the bottle.

 

(3) - Hermione (1997)

 

Matilda was fifteen - and an old fifteen, seeing as she was well on her way to a master's degree - but her guardian taught primary school and therefore felt herself always entitled to read and recommend children's books. And this one so excited Miss Honey that she had actually hurried home from the bookshop with it clutched in her hands.

"Look," she said as soon as she entered the kitchen, where Matilda had covered the table in notes for a paper on Keats. "Everyone's reading it - the first form are reading it, or their parents are reading it to them. The book reviews all say it's simply magical - well, pun not intended."

"The Philosopher's Stone?" Matilda read off the book cover. "The thing that turned metal into gold?"

"It's about a boy who goes to wizard school," said Miss Honey.

"Oh, like Earthsea. I liked that," Matilda said, but she said it with a slight wrinkle of her nose that suggested it maybe hadn't been her absolute favourite. "A bit as if Mr Tolkien had written down Gandalf's wizarding manuals."

"I think it's sort of different from that," Miss Honey said, already gazing longingly at the book's cover. Anything that made Anthony Scrout of all people wax rhapsodic about a book had to be magic indeed. Not to mention all the children in her class suddenly waving imaginary sticks at each other during break. "Well, it's for children, so I think it's a bit more focused on the fun side of magic, maybe. Atmosphere. I thought we might read it together."

As Miss Honey had hoped she might, Matilda perked up and dropped the index card she was holding (on which was written "'the truth of the imagination' Bailey authenticity of"). "We haven't done that in ages," she said. "We could make an evening of it."

"Instead of cooking we could get in a pizza, and start now," Miss Honey said. Cooking was one of those things on which she usually insisted because it was responsible, like being a proper parent, but if they were both honest neither of them cared about it much. An excuse would be welcome.

By the time Miss Honey had to meet the delivery boy at the door, a confused and obviously bright little Harry had been whisked off to a damp hut on a rocky island by his insensitive, unimaginative, and stupid relatives, and a giant called Hagrid was asking him if he'd ever done things he couldn't explain. Soon enough he was even making friends, a gangly boy struggling to find his own place in the world and a bright, curious girl called Hermione who'd read all the books before school even started.

Matilda was wide-eyed and absorbed. Although it was never discussed between them, certainly neither of them had ever forgotten that a six-year-old Matilda had been able to move things with her eyes, that before her enormous brainpower was properly channelled into Chaucer and calculus and Latin declensions she had used her mysterious powers to free her teacher from the grasp of a wicked, very Dursleyish relative. To, in fact (though obviously she hadn't known this at the time) regain for Miss Honey the very house in which Matilda would grow up, the one in which they now sat in front of a comfortable fire, getting ready to eat pizza.

It was a magical world even without wizards, really.

 

(4) - Lisbeth (2008)

 

The village had had a flood.

Not a minor one, but days and days of steady rain, puddles turning to small lakes, overflowing gutters, mud colouring the entire village brown except for the few remaining autumn leaves pasted by the rain to the sides of houses. And finally, just when the rain was slowing and it seemed that at least things could not get any wetter - a small landslide on the south side of the village, parked cars and mailboxes and a garden shed sliding down the muddy waterfall that had replaced a formerly solid hillside. Two houses backed up perilously close to the edge and were now at risk for collapse; as soon as the ground was dry enough, their foundations would have to be inspected. In the meantime both families had evacuated and were staying with friends.

The landslide happened at night with, initially, only a sort of loud whooshing followed by the bang of falling cars to alert the village to the situation. But then a car with two people still in it began to slide, and their screams had brought real help to add to the small crowd of curious onlookers.

Miss Honey had been sitting up late finishing a book called, ironically enough, After Dark, and had stepped barefoot onto the porch to investigate when she heard the initial crashing sounds. The screaming sent her running back indoors for shoes and a hastily pulled on jumper before she followed the neighbours she saw running down the street.

There was already an ambulance parked a safe distance from the edge of the landslide - the hospital being close by - and the firemen and police were clustered in one place, just pulling a muddy and terrified man out of his precariously balanced car. The rest of the village was springing into unfocused but energetic action along the line of the slide. Both the doctor and the local vet were there, along with the new vicar, and the three of them seemed to be in charge.

"If we had sandbags or something, we could shore up this retaining wall and that might keep any more from falling," the vicar was saying as Miss Honey came close. He was a big man of about forty with a Northern accent who looked more suited to be a soldier or a policeman than a priest. She thought his name was Sam.

"We do have sandbags; they're in the basement of the village hall." The vet clapped a hand thoughtfully onto the top of his head. "Oi, Ben, Roland - take that lot and get the sandbags for the rev here. Cops might have the keys."

"Break in if you have to," the vicar supplied. "If this wall goes we'll lose half the street."

"I don't want to be in the way at all but can I help?" Miss Honey asked.

The vicar took half a second to size her up, but before Miss Honey had even fully formed the expectation of what he would say (send her to help with the frightened children, probably) he asked, "You're light, can you get down on that bit of rock there?"

Miss Honey looked down. The bit he was talking about was nearly five feet below (what was left of) street level. "Yes, I think so."

"Good, go down carefully and see if you can lift up the end of that tree."

There was a small fallen tree across the slope just above the rock. Presumably he hoped to use it to bolster the retaining wall from underneath. Nodding, Miss Honey climbed and mostly slid her way down onto the rock -

"Is it steady?" the vicar asked, sounding just a bit worried for the first time.

"Steady," she called back. The tree was stuck in the mud a bit but she managed to dig her fingers under the smaller end and wrench it out. She might look light, but fortunately it had been a lifetime of first hard housework and then a great deal of DIY (and yoga) with Matilda, and she was strong underneath. With gritty, wet hands she passed the top of the tree high enough for the vicar to grasp it.

"Sandbags coming!" she heard from somewhere above in the darkness.

"Better get teacher Jenny outta there before we start," the vet said.

"Can you feed it higher - higher, like that - can you reach it up into that space?" the vicar asked as Miss Honey tried to follow his instructions. "Good - any higher?"

Miss Honey jumped cautiously, pushing the tree trunk as high as she could get it. It wedged in under a bit of the retaining wall, but her rock slid down a few inches when she landed.

"I saw that," the vicar said calmly. "Can you reach my hand, I'm going to pull you up now."

The rock wobbled a bit more, but Miss Honey managed not to panic as she reached for his extended hand. As she grasped it he offered the other one, too, and with him pulling and her digging her toes as well as she could into the sodden, crumbly slope, they managed to get her back up onto the street.

There was rather less praying than she would have expected, at least out loud.

"Sandbags!" Roland the postman called cheerfully.

"Jen, if we pass 'em to you can you start wedging these underneath that bit of tree?"

Miss Honey blinked up at the vicar, who she wouldn't have thought would know her name. "Yes."

"Good girl," he replied, as over her head the pizza delivery boy called, "Reverend Sam, more sandbags comin' on the Millers' truck!"

There were more sandbags, and more sandbags, and more sandbags, and it was nearly two in the morning when the slope was declared stable for the time being and all life and limb was safe. The last stalwart remnants - which somehow included Miss Honey; the doctor, the vet, and the vicar; two firemen, most of the police, the assistant librarian, and the leader of the local Girl Guides - all followed each other without conscious thought or planning to the pub, which the landlord kept open with a fire in the fireplace. Miss Honey didn't think she'd ever been so dirty in her life, but of course none of the others were any better. In fact Doctor Morris had somehow gotten a black eye, and DI Sharma had a long tear in her sleeve that looked a bit bloody underneath; so really Miss Honey was in rather good shape.

"I don't think I've ever wanted a Glenfiddich quite this much in my life," the vicar said as he made his way toward the bar, wiping his muddy forehead with his equally muddy shirtsleeve. "What's yours, Jen?"

Miss Honey blinked again at the vicar - who, contrary to most of the rest of the world when confronted with a woman (let alone a single one, even at her age), had spent the entire night treating her as a completely rational and capable human being - and said, "Same."

"What on earth happened?" Matilda asked, when she arrived for a visit the following afternoon and was met with muddy footprints, a pile of extremely grungy and damp clothing on the floor in the entry, and her former guardian reading on the sofa with a heating pad draped across her shoulders.

"We stopped a street collapse," Miss Honey said, dropping Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament to her side. "It was quite thrilling, although now I feel as if I've been run over."

"Have you been to the doctor?"

"Does having a scotch with him at two this morning count?"

"No," said Matilda sternly. "And - honestly?"

"It was a mad night." Miss Honey smiled at her. "But the engineers will be in charge now, and I want to hear about your new research."

"Well, first I brought you this," Matilda said, pulling a book from her shoulder bag. "Though you may have had enough excitement already. I suppose you can read it while you rest and recover."

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Miss Honey read.

"Parts of it are fairly horrible - not badly written, you understand what I mean - but I think you'll like it. Especially if you're going to go playing heroine in the middle of the night."

"I'll look forward to it."

"When you've finished . . ." Matilda craned her neck at the book on Miss Honey's other side. "Are you repenting of something?"

"Just thought it might come up. Will you make us a pot of tea before you tell me about your Shelley breakthrough?"

"All right," Matilda said, with a side-eye that suggested the conversation was not over.

 

(5) - Hermione again (2015)

 

Christmas holidays couldn't come fast enough this year. The last term had been a complete chaos, what with students protesting over the refugee crisis, the department chair quitting on Remembrance Day, and the computer servers going haywire right in the middle of exams. Matilda had actually fallen asleep over her grading (by hand) in the department lounge late one night, and had been awakened around three in the morning by a gentle touch on the back of her head and the worried face of the very pretty and put-together Spenser lecturer. After that she was anxious to finish up and get away from campus until the humiliation had passed. Or until Kate accepted a position at another university, preferably in Wales.

The first thing Matilda heard upon opening the door of her childhood home was a muffled swear word. Her first sight was a parlour spread over with brightly painted bits of metal, two wheels, a toolbox, and a man half-buried in slightly crumpled paper.

"Merry Christmas?" she called.

Sam extracted himself from the pile of paper and threw her a half-smile. "Happy Christmas Eve, Mat. Don't suppose you know how to put a bike together?"

"Sorry, we had all ours assembled at the shop." Matilda dropped her satchel in the doorway and sank down into the middle of the mess on the floor. "There are instructions?"

"Sure, if you can read hieroglyphics. As far as I can tell, it's meant to have a periscope and a pair of kidneys."

Matilda squinted at the schematic he'd handed her, which did indeed resemble an anatomical drawing crossed with a map of the Underground. "I think the periscope is a socket wrench."

"Oh, I've two of those," Sam said brightly, rummaging in the toolbox. ". . . can you tell what I'm meant to do with them? Jen," he called toward the kitchen, "better bring Matilda a glass of wine, I think. A big one."

Miss Honey (as Matilda would persist in thinking of her until they were both old and grey) stuck her head into the parlour, beaming. "Happy Christmas, Matilda. Sorry about the mess."

"It seems very complicated," Matilda said.

"I'm sure Maggie'll love it," Sam said, turning a bit of paper over as if he thought he might have been looking at it upside down. "Assuming it doesn't fall apart and kill her, of course."

On cue a small, high voice called from the top of the stairs, "Is Auntie Matilda here?"

"You're meant to be in bed," Sam called in reply.

"But it's Christmas Eve! It's too exciting to sleep."

Coming back into the room with a full wine glass in each hand, Miss Honey handed one to Matilda and called, "If you go back to bed this instant, Auntie Matilda will come up and read with you."

"Of course I will," Matilda said after a swallow of her wine. "What are we reading these days?"

"Some old friends," Miss Honey said with a smile.

Matilda climbed the stairs and paused in the doorway of what had once been a guest room, but was now painted in blues and greens and decorated to look as much as possible as if the occupant were sleeping outdoors. A string of fairy lights shaped like fireflies cast a warm glow on the small girl sitting patiently on the bed.

"Merry Christmas, Magnolia," Matilda said. "What are we reading?"

"I'm already on chapter twelve!" The little girl bounced across her bed and retrieved a hardback book from the nightstand. It was obviously new, a replacement for the much-read and now fairly battered original copy Matilda and Miss Honey had read.

"Shall I read to you?" Matilda asked, settling against the headboard and waiting for the child to sit in next to her and stop wriggling. "Or would you like to keep reading yourself."

"I like the way you do it." Her movements particular and deliberate, Maggie opened the book across Matilda's lap and pointed to the bottom of one paragraph. "There."

"All right." Matilda tilted the book closer and began. "'So Malfoy' - there?"

"Yes."

"'So Malfoy, jealous and angry, had gone back to taunting Harry about having no proper family. It was true that Harry wasn't going back to Privet Drive for Christmas. Professor McGonagall had come around the week before, making a list of students who would be staying for the holidays, and Harry had signed up at once. He didn't feel sorry for himself at all; this would probably be the best Christmas he'd ever had. Ron and his brothers were staying, too, because Mr and Mrs Weasley were going to Romania to visit Charlie -'"

"I want to go to Hogwarts at Christmas," Maggie interrupted with a sigh.

"Me too."

"I wish Hermione was going to be there though, she's my favourite." With a little slump, the girl said, "All right, go on."

With the occasional interruption they made it through a fight with Malfoy and a great deal of discussion about Nicholas Flamel (who Maggie, not being a prodigy although she was quite an early reader, knew nothing about). George Weasley was just telling his brother Percy that he was not allowed to eat Christmas dinner at the prefects' table - "Christmas is a time for family" - when there were light footsteps on the stairs. Matilda continued reading, "They frog-marched Percy from the room, his arms pinned to his side by his jumper," and Maggie was giggling as her mother came into the room.

"It's almost ten," she said gently. "Even for Christmas Eve that's quite late enough for little girls."

"But I want to keep going until Hermione comes back," Maggie protested.

"Tomorrow," Matilda promised, getting up off the bed and casually taking the book with her. Maggie was fairly obedient, but she did have a flashlight.

"When Auntie Matilda and I first read these books together, Hermione was our favourite, too," Miss Honey added as she lifted up the bed covers. "In, now."

"Is daddy coming up?" Maggie asked.

"He's off to the late service already. You'll see him in the morning." To Matilda, Miss Honey added, "He said he'd welcome your nitpicking of his sermon, if you want to go over."

The Christmas Eve service was always pretty, with candlelight and music and everyone bundled together in a spirit of general good cheer, even if you weren't related to the vicar. Matilda nodded. "I'll walk over."

"Give Auntie a good night kiss now," Miss Honey said, and Maggie held out both her arms and said, "Merry Christmas!" as Matilda bent to kiss her forehead.

As they were descending the stairs together, Miss Honey whispered, "He was almost through with the bike, but when you get home we'll have a drink and some cake and look it over."

"I hope you got her a helmet," Matilda whispered back.

"Sam did it up to look like a Gryffindor Quidditch helmet, that way maybe she'll actually wear it."

The street was quiet when Matilda slipped out for the walk to the church. Christmas lights glimmered on most of the houses and she passed a whole herd of lit-up reindeer on the lawn outside the Millers' house. A car drove by in silence (since the unlamented demise of Wormwood Motors, cars in the village no longer belched the aroma of burnt petrol as they lurched up the road), and otherwise she was alone. She would be recognised in the church though, and then tonight there would be egg nog, probably, and the cat lounging in front of the fire while Sam tried to ensure the pedals on Maggie's new bike would actually turn; and tomorrow she'd walk back over to church for the Christmas Day service with her family.

Even without special powers, it was a pretty magical world.