Matilda carried a twin-entry accounting system in her brain. It was a tally of favours and gifts that people had presented to her and the ones that she had given in return. If the former exceeded the latter, Matilda was happy. If it didn’t, she felt angry and cheated; and, when Matilda felt angry and cheated, she became abusive and destructive.
The main problem with Matilda’s cerebral twinlock system was that it was not an exact science and Matilda liked things to be in black and white; she did not believe in the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, by expending a virtuous amount of energy, she could line up her figures more or less exactly. For example, although the brilliant green silk scarf that she had given her work colleague Joyce for Christmas appeared to be more generous than Joyce’s gift to her of some cologne and a desk diary (and, if Joyce checked, she would think that Matilda had spent almost three pounds more than she had), Matilda knew that she had in fact bought the scarf in a sale at a reduction of five pounds.
But what if Joyce had also bought her presents in a sale? Matilda might have been cheated, after all.
Favours were even more of a headache. What price should she put on looking after Blackie Daff, the tomcat next door, while his family was on holiday for the week? Was it worth more than having free access to the contents of Mr. Daff’s greenhouse for the period of the favour – of which offer Matilda had taken full advantage – and the “true friend” china dish that Mrs. Daff had produced upon her return? Looked at one way, feeding the cat and giving his bowls a rudimentary rinse out had barely taken fifteen minutes of Matilda’s time each day, so she was the undisputed gainer; looked at another way, if the Daffs had put Blackie into a cattery, it would have cost them twenty – possibly thirty – pounds. If that was the going rate for cat-minding, had she taken enough cucumbers and tomatoes to be able to compute with certainty that the produce together with the dish were fitting recompense? Questions like this were very vexing.
From infancy, Matilda had been used to getting her own way. The late only child of a woman who was widowed shortly after her birth, she had been brought up at the Hall, where her mother had secured the position of housekeeper to Samuel Jessop and his wife Kitty, then in their seventies. Pampered by three adults and at the same time resentful that she shared in the Jessop heritage only by proximity, she had come to think that it was her right to be in the right. She would brook no contradiction and, while still a very small child, she could, if thwarted, summon up a magnificent tantrum, all the while observing that it was having the desired effect from one keen eye that pierced through the tears. Although she was too young at the time to put the concept into words, it was then that she devised the tally system.
When her own children were born (of course, she was married first, but the husband was a detail), she saw before her a two-decade opportunity to build up capital on the balance-sheet. She had a son and a daughter and both, as she had intended, worshipped her. Over time, they came to scorn their father.
Footnote: I am away at a conference (day-job!) for five days from Saturday April 6th. I am continuing with the blog-posts, however. Regular readers of the blog may remember that one of the early posts was about how I trained for In the Family by writing a series of short stories, at Chris Hamilton-Emery’s suggestion. There are ten stories altogether, belonging to the theme of ‘The Village’. I’ve been revising them recently and may try to publish them. For each of these five days, I am posting on the blog the opening paragraphs of the first five. If you’d like to make any comments, they’d be extremely welcome; I’ll respond to them on my return.