The Willoughbys

Page 5

"Complicated," said Barnaby A.

"Diabolical," said Barnaby B.

"Scary," said Jane.

"Despicable," said Tim. "Absolutely despicable."

9. Clever Camouflage

The woman at the door handed Tim a card that said her name and explained that she was a real estate agent. "I'll be by in an hour with a prospective buyer," she told him, "and I know your parents have explained that you children must remain out of sight while I show the house.

"Remember that," she said sternly, shaking her finger. "One hour from now. Out of sight."

"Oh dear," wailed Jane when he told them, "does that mean the coal bin? I just can't bear the coal bin!"

Tim thought it over. "She only said 'out of sight.' She didn't say 'coal bin' specifically."

"If only we could make ourselves invisible," Barnaby A remarked.

"Yes, we have a comic called Invisible Man!" his twin reminded him. "If we could just do that!"

"I have a better idea, actually," Tim announced. "We will camouflage ourselves."

"What's that?" asked Jane. "Does it hurt?"

"No, dodo. It means we make ourselves blend in so that no one will notice us."

"We have toy soldiers in camouflage outfits!" Barnaby A remembered. "The cat chewed them, so they're ruined now," he added sadly.

"Quiet. We don't have much time. Five minutes have already passed." Tim looked at the other children carefully. "A?" he said. "You're easy because you're wearing the sweater today."

"Yes, it's Wednesday. I always wear the sweater on Wednesdays."

"Hold up your arms," Tim instructed him. "Like this."

Tim demonstrated, holding each arm out and bent, as if someone were aiming a gun at him. Barnaby A imitated him. The overly long sweater sleeves flopped over his hands.

"Good," said Tim, examining his pose. "Now pull the neck of the sweater up over your head," Tim said, and Barnaby A did so.

"Excellent. Relax for a minute now. Then get that largish wastebasket from Father's study and stand in it, in your pose."

Barnaby A did so. They all looked at him, and Tim said, "Perfect. You are camouflaged as a cactus. Place yourself in a corner of the dining room, and when the doorbell rings, announcing the prospective buyer, assume your pose. Choose a place by a sunny window. Cacti prefer sun."

"What if someone tries to water me or test my prickers?" Barnaby A asked in a muffled voice.

"They won't," replied Tim. "I am setting up a notice that says: STAY AWAY. THIS HIGHLY POISONOUS CACTUS EMITS TOXIC FUMES."

"Might I be a cactus, too?" Jane asked, watching as Barnaby A, sweater sleeves dangling, went off to the dining room with his wastebasket.

"No, dodo. You will be a lamp. Here. Let me just look in this closet..." Tim went to the hall closet and stood on tiptoe to find something on a high shelf. "Good. She left it behind. Here you are, Jane." He opened a large hatbox and handed Jane their mother's going-to-church hat, which was dark brown straw in the shape of a bowl.

"Kneel on that table there, beside the sofa," Tim directed his sister. She climbed up and knelt on the table.

"It hurts my knees," Jane whimpered.

Tim thought it over. "All right," he said. "Squat. And hunch."

Jane squatted and hunched.

"Good. Here's your lampshade," Tim said. He lowered the large hat onto her head. It covered her face.

"I can't see!" Jane said in a worried voice.

"Lamps don't need to see," Tim replied. "When the doorbell rings, assume that pose and hold very still while the prospective buyer comes through."

Jane lifted her shade slightly and peered out. "What if someone tries to turn me on?" she asked nervously.

"Good thought, Jane!"Tim said.'I'm going to give you ten points today, for thinking of that possibility!

"And I give myself twenty points," he added, "for finding the solution." He went to his father's desk, used a pen and paper, and returned to the table where Jane was still kneeling, with a note in his hand.

THE ELECTRICITY IN THIS HOUSE IS DEFECTIVE AND MAY ELECTROCUTE YOU IF YOU TURN ON A LAMP, said the note that Tim had printed. He placed it by Jane's feet. "When they come through," he told her, "hold very still. Don't let that shade wobble. And make yourself as thin as possible."

"How much time do we have?" Barnaby B asked uneasily. "I don't have a camouflage yet. I wish it had been my day for the sweater."

"Don't be a worrywart, B," Tim said. "Come out here to the hall. Stand there by the door and hold your arms up."

Barnaby B did so, and Tim hung overcoats, taken from the hall closet, over his arms. "There," he said. "You are a coat tree."

"Will people fling coats over me? I might sneeze—or suffocate," Barnaby B said.

"No one will. I will prepare a notice that says: THE FURNACE IN THIS HOUSE IS DEFECTIVE. WEAR YOUR COAT. DO NOT HANG UP YOUR COAT OR YOU WILL FREEZE."

"But my face shows," Barnaby B complained.

Tim took his father's felt hat, the one he wore to the bank each day, and hung it over Barnaby B's face. "There," he said.

"It doesn't smell nice," Barnaby B said in a muffled voice.

"That's because of the sweatband," Tim explained. "All men's hats have sweatbands inside. They smell nasty. Just hold your breath and you won't notice. Now: practice being motionless, all of you," he called, so that they could hear him in the other rooms.

It was silent as the children remained motionless in their poses. Tim went to the closet again.

"Tim?" called a voice from the dining room. It was the cactus.

"Tim?" called the coat tree from the hall.

"Tim?" the lamp called from its table.

"What?" Tim's voice was muffled.

"What are you going to be?" asked the cactus.

"Where will you be, Tim?" asked the lamp.

"What is your camouflage, Tim?" asked the coat tree.

From the floor in front of the living room fireplace, Tim replied. "I am wrapped in Mother's mink coat!" he called, his voice still muffled by the fur. "I am camouflaged as a fur rug!"

"What if someone steps on you, Tim?" the lamp asked in a worried voice.

"I would be very brave and very silent and completely immobile no matter how bad the pain," he replied. "However, it is unlikely. I have set up a notice that says: THE FLOOR UNDER THIS RUG IS ROTTEN. IF YOU STEP ON THIS RUG YOU WILL FALL INTO THE BASEMENT AND BE DESPERATELY INJURED. Now hush. I hear someone on the front steps."

The camouflaged Willoughbys all fell silent. They heard the front door open and the voice of the woman Tim had met an hour before. She was speaking now to the prospective buyer.

"This is a beautifully decorated home," she said. "Such good taste. Please come in and hang up your coat. I'll show you around"

10. An Alabaster Aphrodite

"I'm amazed that you children don't emerge dirtier from the coal bin," Nanny said. "I expected I'd have to bathe you all and launder your clothes after prospective buyers were here. But each time you reappear quite clean"

They were seated at the supper table, eating succulent pot roast; nearby, on the counter, was the still warm pie they would have for dessert. Nanny, it had turned out, was an outstanding cook. Even her morning oatmeal, now that she added raisins and brown sugar, was delicious.

Four prospective buyers had been through the house by now, but no one had shown an interest in buying it. Each one left looking puzzled, murmuring comments about the odd plants and rugs and lamps and furniture and expressing concern over toxic air, bad wiring, a broken furnace, and rotten floorboards.

"We're very careful," Tim explained. "We have found ways to stay out of sight and remain clean."

"I'm a lamp," Jane said.

"You are indeed, dear," said Nanny, leaning over to wipe a bit of gravy from Jane's chin. "A real little lamb."

"I'm a cactus," Barnaby A said.

Nanny had gone to the counter to get the pie. She turned and said fondly, "Practice? I didn't know you played an instrument, dear. Where do you practice? You're very quiet."

"I'm a coat tree," Barnaby B said with a frown.

Nanny sliced the pie neatly into triangular-shaped pieces. She slid each one onto a small plate. "Poetry?" she said with a smile. "You are poetry? Well, I wouldn't say that, exactly, but it's a lovely thought, isn't it?" She took the children's empty dinner plates away and began to pass the pie around.

"Where do you go, Nanny, when prospective buyers come?" asked Barnaby A. "You reappear quite clean as well."

Nanny blushed. "Oh, I don't want to say, really."

"Tell," Tim commanded, "or we won't eat your pie. Do you camouflage yourself?"

"I guess you could say that," Nanny replied. "The pie is raspberry, by the way."

"Are you a rug? Or a coat tree?" asked Barnaby B. "A lamp? Or maybe a cactus?"

Nanny took a bite of raspberry pie and chewed, with a satisfied look. Then she announced in a prim, educational voice, "I'm a statue. I do this." After setting her fork down on the plate, she got up from her chair and stood beside the stove, where she created a pose with both arms behind her head and one hip jutting forward. "I stand in the upstairs hall, next to the linen closet."

"But you don't look one bit like a statue, Nanny!" Tim pointed out. "You're wearing a flowered apron, elastic stockings, and lace-up shoes."

"Now who's being a dodo!" Nanny told Tim. "Of course I don't wear these things. We have plenty of warning before prospective buyers come. As soon as we are notified, I rush to my room and remove my shoes, stockings, apron, and all the rest. I powder myself with talc to look like alabaster."

"What's alabaster?" asked Jane.

"White," Tim told her. "Like marble."

"When I'm posing," Nanny went on, "I believe I look very much like Aphrodite."

"Who's Aphrodite?" asked Jane.

"Daughter of Zeus. Also known as Venus. But the most famous statue of Venus has no arms. I have arms." She held them up. "So I think of myself as Aphrodite when I am posing as a statue."

"You mean you're naked, Nanny?" Barnaby A asked in amazement.

"Statues are never naked," Nanny said in a somewhat shocked voice. "They are nude. Anyway, I drape myself. I use a sheet."

"So," Barnaby B said, poking his fork into a piece of raspberry pie, "you stand there nude, except for the sheet, and all powdered, and in a pose, and perfectly still?"

"Well," Nanny admitted, "sometimes I wink."

"The other day, that prospective buyer who ran downstairs screaming?" Tim asked. "Was that because you winked?"

"Possibly," Nanny replied very primly.

They were all silent for a moment, picturing the scene. The prospective buyer had looked truly horrified and had run shrieking through the front door and not been seen since.

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