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کتاب: ماتیلدا / فصل 5

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Arithmetic

Matilda longed for her parents to be good and loving and

understanding and honourable and intelligent. The fact that they were none of these things was something she had to put up with. It was not easy to do so. But the new game she had invented of punishing one or both of them each time they were beastly to her made her life more or less bearable.

Being very small and very young, the only power Matilda had over anyone in her family was brainpower. For sheer cleverness she could run rings around them all. But the fact remained that any five-year-old girl in any family was always obliged to do as she was told, however asinine the orders might be. Thus she was always forced to eat her evening meals out of TV-dinner-trays in front of the dreaded box. She always had to stay alone on weekday afternoons, and whenever she was told to shut up, she had to shut up.

Her safety-valve, the thing that prevented her from going round the bend, was the fun of devising and dishing out these splendid punishments, and the lovely thing was that they seemed to work, at any rate for short periods. The father in particular became less cocky and unbearable for several days after receiving a dose of Matilda’s magic medicine.

The parrot-in-the-chimney affair quite definitely cooled both parents down a lot and for over a week they were comparatively civil to their small daughter. But alas, this couldn’t last. The next flare-up came one evening in the sitting-room. Mr Wormwood had just returned from work. Matilda and her brother were sitting quietly on the sofa waiting for their mother to bring in the TV dinners on a tray. The television had not yet been switched on.

In came Mr Wormwood in a loud check suit and a yellow tie. The appalling broad orange-and-green check of the jacket and trousers almost blinded the onlooker. He looked like a low-grade bookmaker dressed up for his daughter’s wedding, and he was clearly very pleased with himself this evening. He sat down in an armchair and rubbed his hands together and addressed his son in a loud voice. “Well, my boy,” he said, “your father’s had a most successful day. He is a lot richer tonight than he was this morning. He has sold no less than five cars, each one at a tidy profit. Sawdust in the gear-boxes, the electric-drill on the speedometer cables, a splash of paint here and there and a few other clever little tricks and the idiots were all falling over themselves to buy.”

He fished a bit of paper from his pocket and studied it. “Listen boy,” he said, addressing the son and ignoring Matilda, “seeing as you’ll be going into this business with me one day, you’ve got to know how to add up the profits you make at the end of each day. Go and get yourself a pad and a pencil and let’s see how clever you are.”

The son obediently left the room and returned with the writing materials.

“Write down these figures,” the father said, reading from his bit of paper. “Car number one was bought by me for two hundred and seventy-eight pounds and sold for one thousand four hundred and twenty-five. Got that?”

The ten-year-old boy wrote the two separate amounts down slowly and carefully.

“Car number two”, the father went on, “cost me one hundred and eighteen pounds and sold for seven hundred and sixty. Got it?”

“Yes, dad,” the son said. “I’ve got that.”

'’Car number three cost one hundred and eleven pounds and sold for nine hundred and ninety-nine pounds and fifty pence.”

“Say that again,” the son said. “How much did it sell for?”

“Nine hundred and ninety-nine pounds and fifty pence,” the father said. “And that, by the way, is another of my nifty little tricks to diddle the customer. Never ask for a big round figure. Always go just below it. Never say one thousand pounds. Always say nine hundred and ninety-nine fifty. It sounds much less but it isn’t. Clever, isn’t it?”

“Very,” the son said. “You’re brilliant, dad.”

“Car number four cost eighty-six pounds — a real wreck that was — and sold for six hundred and ninety-nine pounds fifty.”

“Not too fast,” the son said, writing the numbers down. “Right. I’ve got it.”

“Car number five cost six hundred and thirty-seven pounds and sold for sixteen hundred and forty-nine fifty. You got all those figures written down, son?”

“Yes, daddy,” the boy said, crouching over his pad and carefully writing.

“Very well,” the father said. “Now work out the profit I made on each of the five cars and add up the total. Then you’ll be able to tell me how much money your rather brilliant father made altogether today.”

“That’s a lot of sums,” the boy said.

“Of course it’s a lot of sums,” the father answered. “But when you’re in big business like I am, you’ve got to be hot stuff at arithmetic. I’ve practically got a computer inside my head. It took me less than ten minutes to work the whole thing out.”

“You mean you did it in your head, dad?” the son asked, goggling.

“Well, not exactly,” the father said. “Nobody could do that. But it didn’t take me long. When you’re finished, tell me what you think my profit was for the day. I’ve got the final total written down here and I’ll tell you if you’re right.”

Matilda said quietly, “Dad, you made exactly four thousand three hundred and three pounds and fifty pence altogether.”

“Don’t butt in,” the father said. “Your brother and I are busy with high finance.”

“But dad . . .”

“Shut up,” the father said. “Stop guessing and trying to be clever.”

“Look at your answer, dad,” Matilda said gently. “If you’ve done it right it ought to be four thousand three hundred and three pounds and fifty pence. Is that what you’ve got, dad?”

The father glanced down at the paper in his hand. He seemed to stiffen. He became very quiet. There was a silence. Then he said, “Say that again.”

“Four thousand three hundred and three pounds fifty,” Matilda said.

There was another silence. The father’s face was beginning to go dark red.

“I’m sure it’s right,” Matilda said.

“You . . . you little cheat!” the father suddenly shouted, pointing at her with his finger. “You looked at my bit of paper! You read it off from what I’ve got written here!”

“Daddy, I’m the other side of the room,” Matilda said. “How could I possibly see it?”

“Don’t give me that rubbish!” the father shouted. “Of course you looked! You must have looked! No one in the world could give the right answer just like that, especially a girl! You’re a little cheat, madam, that’s what you are! A cheat and a liar!”

At that point, the mother came in carrying a large tray on which were the four suppers. This time it was fish and chips which Mrs Wormwood had picked up in the fish and chip shop on her way home from bingo. It seemed that bingo afternoons left her so exhausted both physically and emotionally that she never had enough energy left to cook an evening meal. So if it wasn’t TV dinners it had to be fish and chips. “What are you looking so red in the face about, Harry?” she said as she put the tray down on the coffee-table.

“Your daughter’s a cheat and a liar,” the father said, taking his plate of fish and placing it on his knees. “Turn the telly on and let’s not have any more talk.”

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