Crunchem Hall: A Story

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It moved Matilda to see the classroom so colorless. Despite the contempt she’d come to feel for her old primary school, her mental image of this particular room had remained stubbornly cheerful, cocooned and cordoned off in some rose-tinted corner of her subconscious. Even in the face of its poisonous associations it was incorruptible. Now though, standing in the doorway and staring into that rank gloom, she saw her childhood sanctuary for what it had become: just one more dilapidated husk among the many rooms that made up Crunchem Hall.

A couple of quaint wooden desks, moldy and warped by the damp, and some bent chairs stacked in the corner were all that was left to suggest it had ever have been a place of learning. There was nothing at all to show of the joy that had been experienced in this room, the happiness and security and warmth they’d all felt in Jenny’s loving care. The only sign of any recent use was a soiled, grubby mattress lying on the floor in the same spot where Jenny’s desk once stood. As her eyes adjusted to the dimness, aided by the slivers of autumn sunlight that crept daringly through pock-marked broken chipboard, Matilda noticed other details: beer cans, cigarette butts, bits of filthy clothing, and a torn up box of children’s felt tip pens, used most recently to scrawl crude sexual images onto the concrete floor.

She inspected these for a moment with casual disgust before setting out on a ceremonial lap of the old classroom, stopping briefly at the spot where her own desk used to be, and just behind that was her best friend Lavender’s. Finally, she came to stand at the front of the room. She imagined she was Jenny, standing there before the old blackboard—one of the few mementos she managed to save, now stashed in the attic of Magnus’s house—looking down at those bright young faces.

“Good morning, children,” Matilda whispered into the dead, fetid air.

“Good morning, Miss Honey,” she heard back.

She remained there for a moment lost in melancholy, until the pungent stink of urine emanating from the mattress choked her thoughts.

She would start it here, she decided, setting down the jerry cans atop the dust and grit before setting off to continue her brief and final tour of the building.

***

It was immediately after her great triumph over Miss Trunchbull that Matilda’s time at Crunchem Hall began its sad turn for the worse. Freed from the tyranny of Trunchbull’s medieval approach to primary education, Jenny could finally fulfil her wish that Matilda be skipped forward several academic years. But as soon as she crossed the threshold into Miss Plimsoll’s advanced sixth-form classroom the resentment from her fellow sixth formers was palpable: who was this insolent tadpole, barely half their age, accentuating their own dull ordinariness with her extraordinary academic prowess? For the first time since leaving the Wormwood household Matilda was reminded of just how isolated and lonely her brilliant mind could make her. There was no bridging the age gap between her and her new classmates. There was no faking the solidarity that five-and-a-half years spent suffering Trunchbull’s cruel wrath had created among the sixth formers.

Would their attitude have changed had they been wise to Matilda’s miraculous hand in their liberation? To reveal the full extent of her “abilities” was out of the question; the attention she’d endured from local half-wits and regional press hacks concerning her academic precociousness had been bad enough. Life would have become truly unbearable if they knew of her telekinetic powers.

It was just as well that her powers had left her, or, at least, left her conscious control. Nowadays they manifested only during bouts of anger or frustration; a smashed pint glass here, a broken windscreen there.

***

She was in the dining hall now, the scene, she recalled with nostalgic fondness, of Bruce’s great and grotesque triumph. If she concentrated hard she could still hear the crash of that huge plate, as wide as a hubcap, slamming onto Bruce’s cake-addled dome. Emptied of chairs and dining tables, the hall seemed massive and cathedral-like. The darkness, almost total in here, mingled with the heavy silence and settled threateningly around her. She rummaged in her rucksack for her flashlight, flicked it on, and swept the light across the room. The dust particles caught in the beam glowed like ocean phosphorous. The hall was utterly bare, save for a couple of noticeboards where the weeks’ lunch menus once hung and a poster celebrating the nutritional advantages of some anthropomorphic fruit and vegetables.

***

Those months in Miss Plimsoll’s company were Matilda’s last in the state school system. After less than a year of formal schooling she found herself, aged seven, preparing for and then taking her GCSEs. The work was elementary. Most of it was simple hoop jumping; feeding examiners what they wanted like some Cliffs Notes automaton. She took the exams alone in the assembly hall of a nearby private school, the pupils pressing their faces against the window, journalists scrimmaging and scuffling outside the entrance. She never indulged their hurried questions, but ran to Jenny’s car and jumped in the passenger seat, where Jenny would beam proudly all the way home, interrogating her about the details of the latest piece-of-piss exam she’d just aced.

Since the moment they’d met, this had been Jenny’s dream for Matilda: that she might truly fulfil her unquantifiable academic potential. Matilda loved her too much to tell her the truth; that with every exam, every correctly squared equation, every reminder of her mental brilliance, she felt less and less like a real person, and more and more like the one dimensional, emotionally alienated aberration strangers and outsiders must surely have seen her as. “Matilda Wormwood: Child Prodigy” was fast eclipsing Matilda Wormwood, the human being who still picked her nose, still occasionally ate herself sick on strawberry bootlaces with Lavender, and who longed for the blissful ignorance of an ordinary childhood. Those first few months living with Jenny—following her parents’ whirlwind flight to Spain—had been wonderful. Eventually, though, her former teacher’s delight for her adopted daughter became irksome, and Matilda took to avoiding Jenny; easily done in Magnus’s huge mansion house.

But, for Jenny, she persisted, completing her A Levels over a leisurely three years, during which time she decided she should think about how best to apply her astonishing talents in the pursuit of a better world.

This proved more difficult than anything she’d ever done in her life—harder than Ulysses, harder than Russian, harder than levitating chalk with the power of her mind. Her fairytale exiling of Miss Trunchbull had, she later hypothesised, instilled deep within her subconscious a base sense of justice that she had never properly matured out of: an assumption that evil was always fallible just as long as there was someone there who had the required wits to outmaneuver and destroy it. But, the more she learned about how the world worked, the less confident she became that intelligence alone could resolve its base problems. She realized that evil could exist without malice; that it could be borne from sincere and good intentions; that it could not be reasoned or scared out of existence and that wickedness did not always manifest itself as tangibly as hammer-throwing a young girl over the school walls by her pigtails, or forcing a boy to eat a whole chocolate cake in one sitting—it could not simply be “taught a lesson” like she had with Trunchbull.

There was no equation to end poverty, no essay that would inspire world peace. Whichever life path she contemplated, she’d inevitably dwell on the things that particular field couldn’t fix, its shortcomings and limitations. Doctoring, at first, seemed an obvious choice. What was more profound than preserving life? But then what about the rainforests or the inherent inequalities in the global food system? Could she be the one to broker peace in the Middle East, to cure AIDS, or beat cancer? An obligation to honor her intellect made her feel that anything less than a life of messianic, Nobel prize-worthy achievement would be to waste her gift. Over the course of several years she’d enrolled in four different university degrees and completed none of them, until eventually, inevitably, she buckled under the weight of her own expectation.

She gave up, deciding instead to actively poison the intelligence out of herself. A crash course in wilful ignorance and cerebral self-sabotage followed, facilitated by a heady mix of drugs, booze, a slew of forgettable boyfriends, and as much trash pop as her frontal lobe could stand. She resisted the temptation to read anything other than celebrity magazines, spending more time in hospitals than libraries, more time in psych wards than in pensive thought.

For three years it went on, until one morning, prodded awake by Jenny in the doorway of Mrs. Phelps’ old library, she looked into the disappointed face of the only person who’d ever loved her and decided that slow poisoning probably wasn’t the answer. She walked home, went to her room, and didn’t come out until she’d self-medicated and read herself back to physical and mental sobriety. A month later, she emerged to find herself gainfully employed at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Amesbury, Jenny having filled out forms and pulled strings on her behalf.

It was supposed to be temporary, a gentle transition back into the world, but she’d been there ever since, stagnating in ignominy, twenty years old and seemingly spent. She often wondered whether Jenny had ever really forgiven her for the hurt she put her through, for wasting her gift in such bloody-minded fashion. Previously, her love seemed as unconditional as a mother’s, but there were times in the years that followed when Matilda would catch Jenny looking at her in a particular way, as if seeing Matilda for the first time, and she couldn’t help but wonder if things had changed forever.

***

Chrunchem Hall closed as a state primary school in 2003, the council citing catchment areas and commuting times among various other flimsy and questionable pretexts. Jenny acquired it a year later, using her rescued inheritance and a hefty grant from a then flush Labour government to open an independent school for children with learning difficulties. The school flourished for several years, until the bottom fell out of the economy, the vital funding was cut and the school, like so much else—like the whole country—appeared doomed.

Matilda, the children’s parents, and various other local factions of a then-fledgling anti-austerity movement began an exhausting campaign to keep Crunchem open. For Matilda, it provided a rejuvenating focal point for her intellect. Together, she and Jenny busied themselves with the economic, social, and moral case for the school, presenting their findings and arguments at numerous council meetings and writing reams of blog posts, pamphlets, and press releases. It was also an opportunity, Matilda hoped, to redeem herself for past follies and sooth Jenny’s disappointment in her. If she could just save Crunchem from the pyre, she might just salvage what used to be.

But this was an age when politics and agenda superseded truth. They had won the argument—of this Matilda had no doubts—but they were on the losing side of a bigger, national battle. The school closed six years to the day it had opened. It was another cruel lesson in the mechanisms of a world where reasoned intelligence seemed continually drowned out by cynical ideologues and the virility of misinformation.

“It’s like Trunchbull’s still in there, haunting it,” said Jenny, a couple of weeks before the council’s final decision, “like it’s cursed or something.”

If only it was just her, Matilda thought, just one horrible bully she could scare off with a chalk board and a bit of simple magic. Instead, it was smiling men in suits and right wing think tanks. Blame was oblique and thinly spread across a multitude of variously sized injustices. It was not one caricature of wickedness they were fighting, but an era, a way of thinking that permeated everything.

Jenny had become increasingly maudlin as the fight went on, and in the final, desperate days of sit-ins and civil disobedience, she was conspicuous only by her absence. When the doors of Crunchem finally closed, Jenny’s sadness deepened. Two weeks after the closure, the man who ran the betting shop that used to be Mrs. Phelps library told them a brand management company bought the building. Whenever they drove or walked past it, any conversation they might have been having ceased, the silence that ensued lasting all the way home, whereupon Jenny would retreat to the kitchen and sit in somber silence nursing a bottomless cup of tea.

***

And now here Matilda was—slightly tipsy, mildly high, feeling no shame for her relapse—with two jerry cans and a box of matches, preparing her final gesture.

She shook the first can over the mattress and the felt tips, and then walked round the classroom pouring out a liquid trail behind her. The second, she took more pleasure in, standing in the middle of the room and pirouetting, letting the petrol fly out of the can and enjoying its heady smell. It was too dark to see, but she could hear the liquid splish-splosh against the walls and ceilings in great gulps. Then she walked out of the room, down the corridor, past the coat pegs still stuck to the walls and out of the large crow-barred front doors, letting the last fingers of petrol slop out of the can as she went. The speed of the flame thrilled her, shooting off down the corridor and round the corner like a sprinter out of the blocks, the match a silent starting pistol.

From a hidden position in a corner of the playground, she watched the fire grow, groping and fondling its way outwards and upwards. As sirens blared in the distance, she wondered for the first time how she might explain her actions should the need arise. Self-indulgent catharsis played its part—there was no denying the primal pleasure garnered from destruction—but there was also a desire to cleanse, to exorcise a grievance. She did it for Jenny too, of course, but she doubted she’d ever be able to explain in what sense exactly. Mostly, though, she did it because it was something to do, something that could be done: an action—a re-action to the disappointment of everything.

**

I’d like to start with some apologies: Firstly to you, the reader, for desecrating what may well have been and continues to be a cherished childhood memory, and, secondly, to Roald Dahl himself for appropriating and defiling his creation, Matilda, upon which the above text was based.

I can’t remember exactly what it was like to read Dahl’s story’s as a child, but I imagine a lot of his appeal lies in his ability to create relatable child protagonists that, through a combination of canny wit and mental strength, manage to defeat and banish their sadistic, often stupid adult antagonists. If Dahl had a purpose beyond mere entertainment I believe that’s what it was; to empower the apparently powerless and invoke hope in the face of cruel injustice (Matilda, George’s Marvellous Medicine and The Twits all bear testament to this). These stories are optimistic and exist in contained worlds of binary moral absolutes that kids can relate to.

Adulthood doesn’t, though. Adulthood is the opposite; various moral complexities and unending dilemmas mean Dahl’s worlds lose their potency. They may still offer comfort through familiarity, but they also invoke nostalgia and/or a sense of tragedy, magnified or dulled depending on knowledge, politics, and life experience. I think that’s what I wanted to illustrate here by taking Matilda out of her microcosm and placing her in a wider, grown-up context, where enemies aren’t just nasty people, but ideologies and cultures, and where intellect can be alienating and not necessarily conducive to success or victory.

I’m not saying Dahl was a dreamer or a liar or a naive fantasist; a childhood without Dahl is an incomplete one. What I am saying—aside from  the fact that knowledge is a burden and that this UK Coalition government are a callous bunch of fucking shit-dick —is that growing up is an inherently corrupting and disillusioning experience, and this is why we are constantly trying to escape it.

Thanks,
John

John Miskelly continues to use up perfectly good oxygen in Bristol like the selfish bastard that he is. As well as bi-monthly short stories for Razorcake, John writes a blog at www.protagonistcomplex.blogspot.com. He is also on twitter: @johnmisk