Matilda Wormwood at 30
Updated: Oct 30, 2018
This year was the 30th anniversary of the famous children's book "Matilda" by Roald Dahl. Here, Matilda Curtis imagines the character at the age of 30.
It was the night of Matilda’s 30th birthday. She was going on a date.
No one said any words to suggest that her life or place in the world would change as she turned 30. She knew, in a distant, abstract kind of way that turning 30, for many, was a fearful thing. Those two numbers symbolised a level of maturity and appropriateness that everyone was expected to adopt. People were meant to be sensible, they were meant to be rich, they were meant to be married. But Matilda knew, compared with the Earth making its turns around the sun, or the stars shining 4.24 light years away, that turning 30 wasn’t anything at all. Yet. Something niggled at Matilda, and she could not ignore it.
Matilda, overall, had a very quiet, unshowy life. She did very little to upset or annoy anyone. She went to her job every day and she came home again, she updated her profile on GoodReads, she ate casseroles and soup, she drank enough water, she recycled and paid her council tax and gave gifts to her neighbours at Christmastime. She lived in a lovely house with her lovely mother on a lovely road. Adult life had posed nothing to especially challenge or scare her. She was clever. This was a thing people recognised about her and, for that reason, mostly left her alone, marking their distance with an awed kind of respect.
The thing about Matilda was that she had special powers. Not, like, the power to be herself or to change the world, but actual magical powers. She could make objects move with her mind. She could lift things up on the other end of the room and drop them down again. She could open doors and make things fly and spin around from twelve feet away. Matilda knew her magic was a unique and extraordinary thing. But the idea of it, now, made her sad and embarrassed. When she was a child, she could control her powers at will, reaping revenge on the bad and rewarding the good. Now, magic spilled out of her, at wild and unwelcome intervals. Matilda was intelligent enough to know that revealing herself would not be a good thing. Dollar signs would appear above her head. She would lose her anonymity, her safety, her self. She would be burned as a witch, or some terrible 2018 equivalent. So she didn’t tell a soul. She hid her gifts under layers of niceness and knit.
After such an explosive start to her life, Matilda had grown into an adult keen to stay within the lines, to be nothing that anyone would notice or remark upon. She wanted to be normal and do what normal people did. So she downloaded Tinder.
Matilda and Elliot, her first Tinder match, decided to meet outside of Piccadilly Circus train station. He would be the one wearing round glasses and carrying a brown leather satchel. She would be the one with a red bow around her hair.
They walked and chatted for a while. Elliot was a financial advisor. He didn’t like the job but he liked the salary. He didn’t like cold soup. He liked Louis Theroux documentaries, foreign travel, people who were not judgemental, and apricots.
Matilda enjoyed Elliot’s company. He had the kind of face that expressed everything in a cartoonish intensity, so it was easy to tell what he was thinking. He laughed at the right times. He listened to Matilda, and made her feel nice and clever and kind. He was friendly and wiry with dirty blonde hair and long limbs. He had arrived in a suit that seemed too formal and serious for him, as though an attempt to seem older and more substantial.
As they crossed the road, Matilda and Elliot learned that they both liked nature documentaries. As they reached the pub, they talked about boats and seaside holidays. Afraid of silence, and eager to keep up the established momentum, they pin-balled from one subject to the next.
“What’s your favourite book?” he offered, all innocence and curiosity, his eyes shining.
Matilda stared at him blankly, her mind fudge. It was a simple question but one she could not answer.
Matilda didn’t often like to talk about books with other people, except her mother Jenny. Books, to Matilda, were a private universe of joy, a wide expanse that took the frame off her life. Matilda had always used books as a means of protection. They were a life raft in the oceanic chaos of her early childhood, spending each day dismissed and belittled by abusive birth parents and a headmistress so terrible the school was shut down by Ofsted. Books were too important. Discussing them made her vulnerable. It was too much too soon. But for some reason, today, the day she turned 30, was different. She wanted to take off her skin and show this strange suited person what lay beneath.
Once Matilda answered his question (‘I Capture the Castle’ by Dodie Smith), the floodgates opened in earnest. As Elliot and Matilda walked to the restaurant, Elliot’s favourite Vietnamese, they talked about Dickens and Wordsworth and Marukami and Atwood, the different colours and feelings and worlds flying between their tongues. Elliot stopped in his tracks and laughed when Matilda mentioned, offhand, she’d read Moby Dick at five years old.
“That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard”, he said.
As they reached the turn, Elliot whipped around with a flourish and looked at Matilda very seriously.
“Right. So we’re about to go down a bit of a dodgy passageway now”, he said, “are you ready Matilda?”
Matilda nodded and giggled, bracing herself.
“I don’t believe you!” Elliot teased. “It’s pretty scary through there. I don’t know if you have the cajones”.
“I’m ready!” Matilda squealed. “I promise”.
“Okay. Okay. I believe you. But you have to listen to me. You have to take my hand”.
She reached over for his hand and he took it, oh-so-softly. Matilda felt strong, protected by the force field that surrounded them.
As they walked down the dark alleyway, Matilda’s eyes gazed up to the slither of sky, just visible above their heads.
“I wish I lived somewhere where you could see the stars”, she said. “Somewhere far away from a city”.
“Oh. Me too. I swear I think about that every day”, he said. “I’ve always been obsessed with stars. I sometimes think I would have liked to study Physics properly, like really gone for it”, said George wistfully. “I just liked it so much at school -”
“I’m an astrophysicist”, Matilda blurted out.
“Oh wow,” said Elliot. “I’d been meaning to - That’s amazing. Must have taken you a long time”.
Matilda wanted to tell Elliot that she wasn’t just an astrophysicist. She was the youngest ever Director of the International Astrophysics Institute. But something about the way he was looking at her now - or not looking at her - made her stop herself.
“I - I love numbers so much”, she said. “I want to talk about numbers more than anything. Sometimes, when I feel angry or like I want to scream, I close my eyes and think about prime numbers like 7879 or 23, 081. I just like how - you can control numbers, if you want. You can make them do anything you like.”
There was a pause.
“I’m boring you”, said Matilda.
“Don’t be silly”, said Elliot.
The restaurant was fancier than Matilda was used to. Someone, somewhere, had put a great deal of thought into the lighting. The furniture and light fixtures were artfully battered, the wood floors artfully distressed. Matilda was conscious of the stupid bow around her hair, her unvarnished nails. But as Elliot guided Matilda to their table, she was proud to follow him, the force field protecting her from the judgement or laughter of strangers.
There was a small pause as they looked at their menus.
“I could genuinely eat everything”, said Elliot.
“Me too”, replied Matilda, “I could eat every single thing.”
“Do you know what? Let’s order it all”, said Elliot.
“That would be silly”, she said.
“I want them to roll me out of this place in seven hours”, said Elliot. “They pay me too much money. I want to get rid of it”.
As the wine began to dwindle, Matilda told Elliot all about her job. She told him about programming, about how late she worked, about the pressures of being in charge, about the crushing responsibility of being the only woman in the room. She told him how much she liked to know things, how much she liked the feeling of going to bed tired, after a day of her brain buzzing and working inside her skull.
As Matilda spoke about her life, she could feel Elliot floating away. His eyes began to glaze over. He was biting his lip more, glancing down at his phone every couple of seconds. She began talking more and more to get his attention, to fill the silence, her topics increasingly irrelevant and disjointed.
Suddenly, Matilda began to notice a single fork, flying over the head of an elderly Chinese man in the opposite corner. The fork rose up and spun around. Matilda, frozen, watched it, trying not to show anything in her face.
“What are you looking at?” Elliot said sharply, looking at Matilda very directly and seriously, conscious of a goings-on that did not include him.
“Nothing”, she said.
“You’re staring over there. It’s a bit intense”.
“I’m not. I didn’t mean to. Sorry”.
A waitress, carrying a jug of water, passed by the table. Suddenly, the jug flew out of her hands. It began to turn, about 170 degrees, and pour onto Elliot. Matilda knew that she was doing it but not how or why. It was some strange reflex she could not control.
Elliot stared down at his lap.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry - God, I’m so sorry, one of those days”, said the waitress. “I’ll get some towels”.
“How did that happen?” said Elliot, looking at Matilda. “She wasn’t even near enough to touch it”.
“I don’t know”, said Matilda, wanting to cry.
Matilda tried to start up the conversation again but Elliot was looking at her with suspicion. He was there in body, but in spirit he was distracted, chewing over the events of the previous five minutes in his mind, trying to understand it.
Elliot and Matilda politely continued their conversation for the rest of the meal. But Elliot was less interested now. He treated her like a colleague, or a neighbour, someone for whom he showed a polite gesture of affection, but not real interest or love. Matilda tried to continue her conversation, upbeat and intrigued, but couldn’t shake the feeling that she had lost a thing of great potential value. She had shown too much. She had blown it.
“Can I say something?" he said.
Yes. Say anything you like, thought Matilda, but he did not wait for her to speak.
"I feel like you poured that water on me. I know that sounds crazy but I feel like you did it”, he said.
Matilda looked at him.
“What do you mean? Of course I didn’t.”
“Okay”, Elliot replied, his voice muted, “I believe you, I guess”.
To most of Matilda’s stories, Elliot nodded in all the right places but didn’t really respond. When Elliot told a story, he would cut to the chase, as though not enjoying the act of telling and cutting out crucial detail to get from A to B. When the meal approached its end, he asked for the bill. He looked at his watch. He paid in full.
“I should probably head. I’ll miss the last train.”
Matilda knew that the last Northern line train would not leave for another 47 minutes and it was only a 6 and a half minute walk to the station. But this did not seem like a good thing for her to say.
Don’t go, Matilda wanted to stay, it’s my birthday. I’m 30 today. You can’t leave on someone’s birthday.
But she didn’t say this. Instead, she said “yes. You definitely shouldn’t miss your train”.
“It was lovely to meet you”, he said.
“Yes, so nice”.
“We should do it again”, he said, not meaning it.
And, with that, Elliot walked out towards the door, slinging his work bag over his shoulder, not looking back. Matilda thought of all the things she would have to explain for him to understand. She thought of how big the gulf was between the two of them now, how hard she would have to work to explain herself.
Trying not to watch him, Matilda looked at an orchid on an empty table to her right. She willed it to move. Slowly, it began to rise out of its vase and towards the ceiling. She watched it meander this way and that, before floating, ever-so-swiftly, into Elliot’s back pocket. She smiled. She'd done that. She looked around, wondering if anyone had seen. But they hadn’t. The bustle continued. The magic went unnoticed.
Written by Matilda Curtis
Illustrated by Helen Walker