The Willoughbys

Page 3


Their father glared at them. "You can read, can't you?" he asked.

"Yes, of course we can read," the twins replied.

"Even I can read," Jane said, "and I'm a complete dodo."

"Well, then, you should feel very fortunate. There are many less fortunate people in the world. I have heard of people in underdeveloped countries who do not know how to read.

"Here," he said, and he took the brochure from his wife and handed it to Barnaby B. "This is a test. Read this or you'll have no dessert."

Barnaby B looked with interest at the first glossy page of the brochure. "'Visit exotic locations,'" he read aloud.

"Now your brother," said Mr. Willoughby, and grabbed the brochure. He handed it to Barnaby A, who read aloud: "'Erupting volcanoes. Ferocious wild animals. Floods, famine, and—'"

"And finally the girl." Mr. Willoughby grabbed the brochure again and handed it to Jane. She sounded out the words very carefully. "'Earthquakes. Civil strife. War zones.'"

"Good. You can all read. Dessert for everyone, and no college. You don't need college." Mr. Willoughby put his fork down. "Dearest?" He looked inquiringly at his wife. "Shall we tell them about our plans?"

"Please do," she said.

"We've decided, as a result of this glossy brochure from the Reprehensible Travel Agency, to take a vacation," Mr. Willoughby announced.

"Yes, you said that already," Jane pointed out.

"Don't interrupt."

"Sorry," said Jane, looking at her lap.

"Therefore," he continued, "since it is against the law for us to leave you alone—"

"It is?" asked Barnaby A with interest.

"We don't mind staying alone," Tim said. "We prefer it, actually."

Mr. Willoughby glared at the children. "May I continue?" he asked pointedly.

The children nodded politely. "Sorry," they all murmured, and Tim, feeling thwarted, kicked the cat under the table.

"Therefore," his father continued, "we have decided to hire a nanny."

5. The Arrival of the Odious Nanny

"Here comes another one," Barnaby A announced, looking down from the window after the doorbell had sounded below.

The Willoughby children were on the fourth floor of the tall, thin house, the floor where a musty, cobwebbed attic had been converted into a musty, cobwebbed playroom.

"What does this one look like?" Barnaby B asked, glancing over from the table, where he was drawing a picture of a skyscraper on a long piece of paper that he had laid out. "Eighty-nine, ninety," he murmured as he drew two more windows. Barnaby B was meticulous, and he had decided that his skyscraper would have three hundred and thirty-six windows, twelve per floor, and that each one must be identical to the others. He measured them with a ruler, drew them with faint pencil lines, then went over each line with ink.

"Heavyset," his twin described, "and wearing a hat."

"I'm deducting four points from your daily total, A," Tim said, "because you did not include any helpful details." He put down his book, went to the window with a pair of binoculars, and looked down through them to the front steps. "Large feet wearing suede lace-up shoes," he announced, "a faux alligator purse, no gloves, a man's watch on the left wrist, the hat has a faded pink flower on its left side, and she is holding a torn piece of newspaper, probably the ad for a nanny."

Jane, who had been laboriously writing a note that she planned to pin to the sweater worn by an old doll, went to the window. "May I look?" she asked Tim.

"No," he said. "And a two-point deduction for asking. Now she is about to ring the bell a second time. She has aimed her right index finger."

The bell sounded again.

"I get forty points for a correct prediction," Tim said.

"Do you think she looks villainous, like the one who came yesterday?" Barnaby B asked. "Ninety-two," he murmured, inking in another window.

"No. The one yesterday had some weaponry in her satchel," Tim said. "I was quite certain about that. No wonder Father ordered her to leave before he even interviewed her. Father dislikes weaponry of any sort."

"Yes, he's even suspicious of Mother's knitting scissors," Barnaby B pointed out. "He feels all warfare should be conducted with taunts and gibes and vicious rumors."

"What about the one the day before?" asked Jane, still thinking about the nanny. "The one who was wearing glasses and sniffed into a hanky?"

"Lugubrious," Tim said. "She sniffed all through the interview and wept at the end, when she told about her previous post."

"Whatever made her cry?" Jane asked.

"The child died of malnutrition," Tim explained. "She was describing its thinness and began to weep."

"Why didn't she feed it?"

"She forgot."

"How sad," Jane said.

"Father almost hired her. But then she told about the child's funeral. She spoke very reverently. Father is repulsed by reverence. Also, she dabbed her eyes. He dislikes dabbing."

"Look again if you would, Tim, and see if they've let this one in after that second ring," Barnaby A suggested.

Tim glanced down through the window. "Yes," he said. "She has entered. I'll go down into my spying place." He looked around the playroom. "Jane," he said, "you may continue your imaginative play with the doll."

Jane dutifully picked up her pencil and continued the note she was writing. I CANNOT CARE FOR MY POOR UGLY BABY, it said.

"A, read my book while I'm gone and be prepared to report on it to me. Chapter eleven," Tim said.

Barnaby A sighed. "But it's about thermodynamics," he said. "It's too hard."

Tim glared. "Is that a whine?" he asked. "Six-point deduction for whining." He turned to the other twin.

"You keep at those skyscraper windows, B," he said. "Ink them in. When you get to one hundred and twelve, we'll examine them carefully and determine whether the measurements are exact. If not, of course—"

Barnaby B nodded. "Yes, I know. We'll have to crumple." He glanced down at the nearby corner, where several previous skyscrapers—one had been very close to finished—lay crumpled.

"I'll report back shortly," Tim said, and left the playroom.

He returned five minutes later and the other Willoughby children all looked up in surprise. "You were very quick," Barnaby A commented, looking up from the book. "I have barely had time to learn anything about thermodynamics."

"And I was only up to the ninety-seventh window," Barnaby B said. "When you came back so suddenly, it startled me and I made a scribble."

"Crumple," ordered Tim, and Barnaby B crumpled his skyscraper sadly.

"He has hired her," Tim announced. "He did not conduct an interview. I think they were desperate. Father said, 'You're hired; there is your room,' and he pointed to the spare bedroom. She is already moving in. Her things will be sent by taxi."

"The spare bedroom is foul," Barnaby A pointed out.

"Yes, it has cockroaches," Barnaby B added.

"We don't care," Tim said. "We don't have to live in it."

"And Mother and Father?" asked Jane in a concerned tone. "When are they leaving?"

"They're gone. They had a cab waiting and they have left for the pier to board their ship."

"Without saying goodbye?" Jane asked, with a pitiful quaver in her voice.

"Jane," Tim told her, "I am taking all your points away. You have no points left because you had unrealistic expectations. Do you remember what happens to someone with no points?"

"Yes," Jane replied. "I have to stand in the corner with my hands neatly clasped." She went there and stood with her back to the room. The corner was a good place, actually, for thinking about how to become a more forceful and effective person.

"Now I will describe our new nanny," Tim said.

"May I listen?" asked the small voice from the corner.

"Yes, of course. In fact, you must listen. It's required. There might be a quiz"

The two Barnabys sat side by side, listening attentively. Jane shifted from one foot to the other as she stood in the corner.

"I do not know her name," Tim began. "I expect she has a name, but I do not know it, and in any case we will never call her by it. Understand?"

His brothers and sister all nodded.

"She is heavyset," Tim said.

"Yes, I could see that from the window," Barnaby A murmured. Tim glared at him.

"She has now removed her hat. She has largeish ears. And gray hair badly arranged in a disorderly way."

"Oh dear," murmured Jane from the corner. Tim glared at her.

"She wears lace-up shoes and a man's watch that seems to be three minutes fast. Her legs are rather lumpy and I believe she has varicose veins. This is good. She will likely be unable to move fast."

"Weapons?" asked Barnaby A.

"None. Of course, we don't know what will be in her bags when they arrive. But there was nothing in her large purse but a folded apron. She has donned the apron."

"What's an apron?"

"It's a thing one wears to prevent stains on one's clothing. Owning an apron probably indicates that she is sloppy. And perhaps a poor cook."

"Mother was a vile cook," Barnaby B pointed out.

"True. So we won't worry about cooking quality. Anything will be better than Mother's."

"What shall we worry about, then?" Jane asked, turning slightly toward the room.

"I need to think about that," Tim said. "I'm sure there is something."

"She's not villainous?" asked Barnaby A.

"No."

"Or lugubrious?" asked Barnaby B.

"No."

"What, then?" asked Jane.

"Odious," Tim said. "She is an odious nanny."

6. Nanny Prepares Porridge

"Your room smells horrid," Jane said at breakfast, stirring her bowl of oatmeal as she looked at the nanny. "I could smell it when I came down the stairs."

"I could, too," said Barnaby A. "I had to use my asthma inhaler."

"It smells toxic," Tim pointed out. "And by the way, what is this hideous porridge you are serving us? Didn't our parents tell you that they only fed us eggs Benedict for breakfast? Or blueberry pancakes with whipped cream."

"They did not, "Jane said, pleased at the forcefulness in her own voice. "They always gave us hard-boiled eggs for breakfast. Sometimes the yellow part had turned green."

Tim glared at Jane and she resumed stirring.

The nanny turned and looked at them. Wearing her flowered apron, she was standing at the stove, stirring the oatmeal with a wooden spoon.

"I have fumigated my room with insecticide," she told them. "On the count of three, pinch your noses. Like this." She demonstrated, pinching her own nose with her left hand while she continued to stir with her right. "One. Two. Three."

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