At the end of the fairy tales, at the end of the Dickens stories, at the end of every tale of a child going through hardship and heartbreak at the hands of family, Matilda knew they found a new one and were instantly overjoyed, alive and fulfilled. They all lived happily ever after, even if things didn’t start that way. Matilda knew her story, in many ways, was along the same line. Miss Honey had the house, she had her freedom. They both did. And they had each other.
But things were…well, even for Matilda, hard to describe.
The day her parents left her behind, legally in Ms. Honey’s care, she was overjoyed. It was all a dream, just a big happy dream. They hugged each other, cried and cried, and after what felt like years had passed by, went inside and sat down on the staircase in silence, almost in awe.
Two little girls, who finally had a home…and each other.
But for days and weeks after, Matilda knew there was something wrong. Not with the house, and certainly not with Ms. Honey. She was the perfect mother, if a little new to the situation. Happy, smiling, kind, always willing to listen, asking her how she was feeling and if she needed anything. But Matilda at times still felt afraid to even come downstairs when she knew Ms. Honey was in the kitchen – not afraid, exactly, but something would stop her. Not exactly a voice, but an impulse. Instinct.
You’re not meant to be free, it told her. This happiness will fade or be destroyed, like everything else. Don’t get comfortable. Don’t sit, stand, touch, breathe, blink until you’re told. Or can hide. If you don’t ask permission, or even if you do…then the yelling starts. And the flying pots and pans, hair curlers, bottles of gin, and fists. It’ll all happen again if you mess this up. Don’t do anything.
Not Ms. Honey, she’d always tell it, to get that little snitch to shut its trap. Not Ms. Honey, she’s perfect. Never again, that’s never happening again. I won’t let anyone ever do it to me again. Never.
It wasn’t as though she missed any of it. Far from it. But being normal…almost seemed too perfect. But would Ms. Honey even know what she was going through? How could she even describe what she was feeling? A fear of nothing, essentially, since that life didn’t exist anymore. Why couldn’t she just be happy, like every other child in her stories, once she’d got her happy ending?
She knew she was different from other children, but this was almost inhuman. To go from fear at the worst times to just not feeling anything some days. Not fear, not joy, just vague confusion. Like she was living the life of another little girl named Matilda, who wasn’t her. She wasn’t meant to be here, that’s why it all felt so strange. To just sit down…have dinner…talk about your day. Who does that?
Was she in another world? Given everything that had happened to her before, it wasn’t impossible. But over-analyzing this wasn’t going to help. If Matilda was going to be a normal child, she had to think like a normal child. One early morning, awake after another vivid nightmare, the idea came.
It was certainly childish, and definitely perfect.
Jennifer Honey had had insomnia, on-again, off-again, for as long as she could remember. Many vague but sharply emotional memories of hiding away in bed, watching the stairs in the darkness, listening to the creaks on the steps to tell whether someone was angry or not as they came up. Even now, they kept her awake, and she shrugged them off as childish nightmares.
The only thing that could ever get her to sleep was her father's voice. He'd sing songs from those Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Fred Astaire films to calm her down and get her to feel safe enough to rest. And he was no Sinatra, but still. His voice always mattered more.
So she sang occasionally to herself, under her breath, once it got to be four or five in the morning and she still hadn't closed an eye. "It's very clear...our love is here to stay. Not for a year...but forever and a day." At least it wasn't terribly out of tune at this pitch. And Paris, like her father, always made her smile and dream of better days.
She thought she'd be sleeping comfortably once she had the house back. When she had him, or what remained of him. And Matilda - Matilda was wonderful, and she'd thought she was dreaming when she realized she could finally have a child she loved as her own. She hadn't thought it through, in some respects. She had no memories of her mother, or any training in how to be a mother herself. A teacher, yes, and she'd always hoped she was good at it...but was it the same thing?
Either way, she knew Matilda was making an even bigger transition than herself. She needed closeness, but also space, and Jennifer had tried to keep that balance. She made her breakfast every morning at the same time, went for a quick walk around the neighborhood if Matilda decided to head out to the library (which she usually did, unless she was particularly tired). Then she went by the grocery store or the post office if she needed it, came home, and the days usually unfolded by themselves from there. Matilda was quiet, calm, supportive. She always ended every request she made with "...if it's all right with you, Miss Honey." and it only made Jennifer want to hug her more, but she stopped herself each time. Matilda needed time. And even though she was kind, she still kept her distance.
So it surprised her very much when, one early morning before 6:00, a small knock came at the door. "Mm...Matilda?" Jennifer asked, opening the door to see the small girl standing there. She had, as usual, a large book under one arm. And in the other hand - a rabbit?
"Miss Honey?" she addressed, smiling warmly. "I'm sorry to wake you up so early, but this is important."
"It's all right, Matilda." Jennifer yawned, shutting her eyes tightly and opening them wide again to will the sleep out of them. "Is everything okay?"
"Better." she said, giving the first wide gap-toothed grin she'd seen in a long time. "I hope you don't mind, but I made you breakfast this morning."
"Matilda, sweetheart, that's so nice..."
Jennifer blinked again, rubbing one eye. Matilda never usually requested tea, and it was an odd thing to specify.
"Oh, that's...that's very nice. So this is a special occasion, then?"
"Very special." Matilda seemed to bound away from the door down the hallway, calling to her as she ran downstairs. "I also made tea cakes!" Jennifer didn't know what about today was so special, or what had suddenly cheered Matilda up, but after 'shaking the snoozles', as her father had called it, out of her head a couple times, she slumped and yawned down the hallway and followed Matilda downstairs.
Instantaneously, it was as if she was transported back in time. Clean white tablecloths and floral decorations, potted plants and tiny bears and rabbits in colorful Southern style dresses, all awaited her at the kitchen table. The rest of the room had a smell of lilacs and cut-out pictures of beautiful flowers all over the curtains and walls. On the table were six cups of tea, four at the animals' places, and a tray of tea cakes in the middle that gave off no particular smell, but seemed warm. Matilda stood at the side of the table, watching her silently.
"Matilda...did you make all this overnight?" she asked.
"No. I woke up this morning around 3:00, made tea dresses for the animals using a sewing book, cut out some flowers that I drew in the sketchbook that I bought last week, and I found the curtain and perfume in an old closet. The rest of the plants I took from around the house. I can put them all back once...well, I thought I should set the mood. For a tea party."
"Matilda, it's beautiful." said Jennifer, holding a hand to her chest as she looked around. 3 hours? Jennifer knew couldn't prepare a party this pretty if she'd had all week. Most interior decorators probably couldn't. "Already it's the best tea party I've ever been to." She looked back at Matilda, who smiled back at her with a bit more of a surprised reaction.
"I've never had a tea party before, Miss Honey. I'm glad to hear you say that you like it."
"Well, of course, it's wonderful." Going to the end of the table, Jennifer looked around at the other guests. "And who are your new friends?"
"Well, I would have had it be just the two of us, and it is realistically. But the way things are done dictates, there has to be stuffed animals. I found them around the house as well." She walked over to a brown bear with a yellow sunhat and red dress. "This is Augustina. Lady Augustina the 14th. She thinks she's a character from a Jane Austen novel." As an aside to Jennifer, away from the cotton-stuffed ears of the bear, she added "You have to give them names, so it's authentic."
Jennifer giggled. "Of course. What a lovely dress, Lady Augustina. Did Matilda make it for you? It's very nice."
Matilda walked one place over, to an off-white rabbit with a tiny crown of flowers. "And this is Beverly Hopscotch, from the band Echo and the Bunnymen."
Jennifer genuinely laughed out loud. "I'm surprised you heard of them, Matilda. But that's very clever."
Matilda laughed herself, then went on. "She's a real flower child. She loves the Beatles and thinks Stevie Nicks is really neat." Bounding once again across the table to the other side, she held up a bear in a menswear suit with one eye missing. "This is Miss Isabelle Charles."
"Isabelle Charles? That's a very good name. I knew a girl in my year at school named Isabelle Charles. Is she wearing a suit?"
"Mm-hm. She's always really dapper." Matilda put her down gently, adjusting her coat. "Women can wear suits too, can't they, Miss Honey?"
"Of course, it's only-" Miss Honey walked over to the bear, and bent down to examine the tiny suit further. "Matilda, this is very elaborate. It usually takes people years to learn these techniques. Have you been sewing a long time?"
"A very long time." Matilda answered, yawning softly. "Hours."
Before Miss Honey could respond, she moved around her to the final tea guest, another off-white rabbit. "And this is Miss Petunia Charles, Isabelle's adopted sister. She plays the piano at the speed of light."
"Her concerts must be very short." Jennifer replied, smiling.
"They have to be. Right after she plays the piano, she has to go to the International Space Station and prepare for takeoff. Where coincidentally, she also goes at the speed of light." As Jennifer laughed again, Matilda went back over to her own cup of tea. "She's glad to get a break every once in a while."
"We all are. You're very funny, Matilda." Jennifer chuckled. "I think this is the first time I've really seen you this happy since you came here."
Slowly, Matilda's smile faded. Jennifer's did, too. Had she said something wrong?
"Oh." said Matilda, surprised. "I didn't know I had looked unhappy to be here. I'm sorry, Miss Honey."
"No, no, Matilda, I didn't mean it that way." Jennifer said. "I just mean it's been...well, it's been a very new couple of weeks, for the both of us. There's been a lot to take in. I haven't really seen you get this excited for anything in a while, and it's wonderful to see you happy. Thank you, Matilda."
Smiling softly once again, Matilda gestured to the tea. "Would you like to have tea, Miss Honey? I made your favorite, for everyone."
Jennifer moved to the other end of the table, to the only place left with a cup of tea. Matilda sat as well. She raised her glass.
"To Miss Honey." she said.
Jennifer raised hers. "To Matilda." she added. Then, looking around, she almost dropped her tea. Four other cups of tea were floating high up in the air, tilted in toast. She looked at Matilda, who shrugged her shoulders.
"It's a formality." she stated. Jennifer nodded her head, looking all the cups of tea over with a nervous smile. She reached across the long table to clink her glass with one of the floating ones, which thankfully didn't shatter. It instead passed the message along, until the last one clinked with Matilda's and they all floated gently back down. Matilda set down her own tea and rubbed her forehead with the back of her hand.
"Are you all right?" Jennifer asked, concerned.
Matilda nodded. "It's a little early for me to start doing that. But I'll be fine." Picking up her tea again, she sipped it slowly. "Tea helps headaches, doesn't it?"
"Hopefully this tea does." Jennifer agreed, cautiously sipping hers. It was perfect, honey and lemon with some hint of lavender. There was definitely something Matilda wasn't telling her about this event, but she wasn't going to press on it. So instead, she smiled and asked gently "So, this is your first tea party?"
"Mm-hm. I've made tea before, but never had anything on this scale. I figured it would be a nice change of pace, and trying something new to symbolize a new beginning in a new environment. A new home." She looked around the room, lost in thought. "It's very interesting to be here."
"In what way, Matilda?" Jennifer prompted. One of the bears' cups of tea raised up to her face. "Matilda, don't...they don't really drink. Don't injure yourself."
"Right, you're right." Matilda agreed, letting the cup float back down. "I'm sorry. I think it's interesting to be here because...well, you were a child here. And it must be more interesting for you, being an adult here now. So I'm thinking about what you were like as a child here. Is it different now?"
Jennifer hadn't expected such a direct question, but it wasn't one she was opposed to answering. It had been on her mind a lot, in fact.
"It is different, Matilda." she said, taking a slow sip. "Being an adult is very different. But in some ways, you're still a child. You meaning me."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, as you grow up, you get bigger and get older. But your mind's still in the same place it was back then, in a lot of ways. You can learn as you grow, and learn new things, but you're still the same person. My memories about this place are always very strong. I can still feel the way I felt back then very vividly."
"Both good and bad?"
Again, very direct. Jennifer looked at Matilda a little startled, and she could see some confusion on the young girl's face, searching for answers. Maybe this was the way to get her to open up. "Yes," Jennifer answered her, "both good and bad. I ran away from this place thinking I'd never come back. Part of me didn't want to. But another part of me desperately did."
Jennifer set her tea down, looking around the space with a sigh. "This was my father's home. It was all I had left of him." Looking back to Matilda, she added "I was very close to my father. He was the one good thing I had in my life growing up. I was very lucky to have him."
Matilda nodded. "I didn't have good parents. But I'm very lucky to have you."
Now Jennifer really was about to cry. "Sweetie," she said, reaching across the table, "I'm very lucky to have you, too." Despite the distance, Matilda was able to reach across and hold her hand. Jennifer sniffled. "Don't make me cry, sweetheart. I get all red and splotchy." she joked.
Matilda smiled. "Sorry." she said, letting go. Jennifer grabbed the napkin underneath her tea cup and quickly dabbed her eyes.
"It means a lot to me, having you here." Jennifer said. "I've never been a mother before. I was hoping you'd like it here."
"I do. I haven't been quite myself since I left home, but I do like it-no. Not home. Not that place. This is home now." she corrected. She looked across at Jennifer. "I was feeling very confused for a long time about that."
"A long time?"
"Mm-hm. Weeks. I kept thinking that this would all go away, somehow. I haven't had many good things, other than books. And you. And not for very long. So I never let myself feel too happy about anything nice. Or even a little bit happy."
Jennifer nodded. This was a big breakthrough, and she smiled kindly at Matilda. "I'm very glad you're okay with telling me this. You know you can tell me anything. And nothing is ever going to hurt you again, I promise."
Matilda nodded, looking down at the floor, going somewhat quiet again. "I know." she mumbled softly, still evading.
Jennifer hadn't even expected her own tone of voice to sound so urgent as she said it, but once she had, Matilda looked up suddenly. She hadn't meant to startle her, but this was important to get through. "Matilda," she emphasized, "no one is ever going to hurt you that way again. I promise."
She said it slowly, and hoped Matilda would remember. "You are always safe with me and I will always love you, no matter what. Do you understand?"
She could barely keep track of what happened next. In a flash, as Matilda leapt up from the chair and ran to her, all the tea cups floating in the air above the tiny animals shattered around her. Matilda buried her head into her side, crying and crying, muffled into her bathrobe. Jennifer held her tight.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
"Ssh-" Jennifer rocked her back and forth. "It's okay, ssh. They're only cups. It's no big deal, ssh. You're okay now-" Matilda was still crying. Obviously this has been a lot to take in, and Matilda had been holding it all back until now. It was a breakthrough. Jennifer instinctively made her father's trademark ocean sounds from deep within her throat, hissing them out and trying to soothe Matilda out of the hysteria.
"It's okay, sweetheart, it's all right. Ssssshh." she said, over and over. After a while, her cries got more faint, then turned into dry heaves and stopped. Jennifer loosened her grip on Matilda and she looked up, eyes brimming with tears but not as tightly clenched. She sniffled.
"No, no. Don't ever feel sorry for feeling, Matilda. It's important to feel." Moving apart from Matilda and putting her hands on her arms, she looked her in the eyes very straightforwardly. "You are allowed to feel everything that happened to you. It's healthy, and it's important. Your feelings matter."
"I-" Matilda coughed, then sniffled, trying to overcome the dry spasms in her throat. "I think-I'll be okay. I just-need-to breathe."
"Okay." Jennifer let go of her shoulders, and watched her carefully. Matilda breathed in deeply, eyes closed, rubbing her face. Jennifer noticed various objects around the room starting to vibrate, like an earthquake was about to hit, but she said nothing. Then, eventually, Matilda breathed calmly again. Everything stopped.
"I think...I'm all right." she said, opening her eyes. With another cough, she smiled and stood up straighter. "Well, that was certainly interesting. And not so fun." Looking back across the table at the drenched bears and rabbits, she said "I don't think they'll want to come back for tea a second time after that fiasco."
"I'm sure they understand." Jennifer brushed some stuck hairs off of Matilda's forehead. "I know you needed to get some things off your chest."
"Yes. Well...that's it, then." Matilda said. Pausing, Jennifer looked at her quizzically.
"That's...what? What's it, Matilda?"
"That's it, then. I'm home. I could never cry anywhere else." She smiled at Jennifer. "And I never cried in front of anyone else before. I...well, I'm not sorry. I needed to."
"Good." Jennifer assured her, with a smile. She pulled her in for a quick hug, which Matilda returned. "It's time to stop feeling sorry."
"And start feeling happy." Matilda finished, breaking apart. "Or, well, feeling, like you said. Feeling anything."
"That's right. And whatever or however you feel, I'll always be there for you."
"Yes?" Now Matilda was looking at the floor again. Something else? "What it is?"
"I want to change my name."
Jennifer was shocked. "Oh, no, sweetheart. Matilda is such a lovely name."
"Not that. I wanted to change my other name. My last name." Matilda looked up at her. "To Matilda Honey."
Oh, great, Jennifer thought, as she felt the tears immediately begin to flow. Now guess who's the grown up? She reached for her teacup napkin, but Matilda had her first, pulling her in for a quick hug as Jennifer cried much more softly into her shoulder, with the occasional sob.
"Guess the family resemblance is already showing." Matilda joked once she had finished, making her laugh again as she pulled herself up. Reaching for the napkin, she blew her nose. Looking at Matilda, she saw a very bemused expression, trying to hold back a very big laugh.
"What is it?" she asked, smiling.
"You...you really are red in the face when you cry. I get that way, too." Matilda finally laughed. "You really are my mother!"
It was the first time it had ever been said. Mother. Not Miss Honey. Officially. Jennifer was so shocked, all she could do was laugh as well. The house finally rang and shook with a family's laughter again, after twenty years, and with that in mind, she knew everything would be all right.
Two little girls, a mother and a daughter, who finally had a home...and each other.