The Willoughbys

Page 1

1. The Old-Fashioned Family and the Beastly Baby

Once upon a time there was a family named Willoughby: an old-fashioned type of family, with four children.

The eldest was a boy named Timothy; he was twelve. Barnaby and Barnaby were ten-year-old twins. No one could tell them apart, and it was even more confusing because they had the same name; so they were known as Barnaby A and Barnaby B. Most people, including their parents, shortened this to A and B, and many were unaware that the twins even had names.

There was also a girl, a timid, pretty little thing with eyeglasses and bangs. She was the youngest, just six and a half, and her name was Jane.

They lived in a tall, thin house in an ordinary city and they did the kinds of things that children in old-fashioned stories do. They went to school and to the seashore. They had birthday parties. Occasionally they were taken to the circus or the zoo, although they did not care much for either, excepting the elephants.

Their father, an impatient and irascible man, went to work at a bank each day, carrying a briefcase and an umbrella even if it was not raining. Their mother, who was indolent and ill-tempered, did not go to work. Wearing a pearl necklace, she grudgingly prepared the meals. Once she read a book but found it distasteful because it contained adjectives. Occasionally she glanced at a magazine.

The Willoughby parents frequently forgot that they had children and became quite irritable when they were reminded of it.

Tim, the eldest, had a heart of gold, as many old-fashioned boys do, but he hid it behind a somewhat bossy exterior. It was Tim who decided what the children would do: what games they would play ("We'll have a game of chess now," he occasionally said, "and the rules are that only boys can play, and the girl will serve cookies each time a pawn is captured"); how they would behave in church ("Kneel nicely and keep a pleasant look on your face, but think only about elephants," he told them once); whether or not they would eat what their mother had cooked ("We do not like this," he might announce, and they would all put down their forks and refuse to open their mouths, even if they were very, very hungry).

Once, his sister whispered to him privately, after a dinner they had refused to eat, "I liked it."

But Tim glared at her and replied, "It was stuffed cabbage. You are not allowed to like stuffed cabbage."

"All right," Jane said with a sigh. She went to bed hungry and dreamed, as she often did, about becoming older and more self-assured so that someday she could play whatever game she liked or eat any food she chose.

Their lives proceeded in exactly the way lives proceeded in old-fashioned stories.

One day they even found a baby on their doorstep. This happens quite often in old-fashioned stories. The Bobbsey Twins, for example, found a baby on their doorstep once. But it had never happened to the Willoughbys before. The baby was in a wicker basket and wearing a pink sweater that had a note attached to it with a safety pin.

"I wonder why Father didn't notice it when he left for work," Barnaby A said, looking down at the basket, which was blocking the front steps to their house when the four children set out one morning to take a walk in the nearby park.

"Father is oblivious—you know that," Tim pointed out. "He steps over any obstructions. I expect he poked it aside." They all looked down at the basket and at the baby, which was sound asleep.

They pictured their father taking a high step over it after moving it slightly out of his way with his furled black umbrella.

"We could set it out for the trash collector," Barnaby B suggested. "If you take one handle, A, and I take the other, I believe we could get it down the stairs without much trouble. Are babies heavy?"

"Please, could we read the note?" asked Jane, trying to use the self-assured voice that she practiced in secret.

The note was folded over so that the writing could not be seen.

"I don't think it's necessary," Tim replied.

"I believe we should," Barnaby B said. "It could possibly say something important."

"Perhaps there is a reward for finding the baby," Barnaby A suggested. "Or it might be a ransom note."

"You dolt!" Tim said to him. "Ransom notes are sent by the ones who have the baby."

"Maybe we could send one, then," said Barnaby A.

"Perhaps it says the baby's name," said Jane. Jane was very interested in names because she had always felt she had an inadequate one, with too few syllables. "I would like to know its name."

The baby stirred and opened its eyes.

"I suppose the note might give instructions about babies," Tim said, peering down at it. "It might say where to put them if you find one."

The baby began to whimper and then very quickly the whimper changed to a yowl.

"Or," said Barnaby B, holding his ears, "how to keep them from screeching."

"If the note doesn't tell the name, may I name it?" Jane asked.

"What would you name it?" Barnaby A asked with interest.

Jane frowned. "Something with three syllables, I think," she said. "Babies deserve three syllables."

"Brittany?" Barnaby A asked.

"Possibly," Jane replied.

"Madonna?" Barnaby B suggested.

"No," Jane said. "Taffeta, I think."

By now the baby was waving its fists, kicking its chubby legs, and crying loudly. The Willoughbys' cat appeared at the front door, gazed briefly down at the basket, twitched its whiskers, and then dashed back inside as if it was made nervous by the sound. The baby did sound a bit like a yowling kitten; perhaps that was why.

Tim finally reached down past the flailing little fists and unpinned the note. He read it silently. "The usual," he said to the others. "Pathetic. Just what I expected."

He read it aloud to them. "'I chose this house because it looks as if a happy, loving family lives here, prosperous enough to feed another child. I am very poor, alas. I have fallen on hard times and cannot care for my dear baby. Please be good to her.'"

"Take that handle, twins," Tim said to his brothers. He took hold of the opposite handle. "Jane, you carry the note. We'll take the whole disgusting thing inside."

Jane took the folded note and followed behind her brothers, who picked up the basket, carried it into the front hall of the house, and set it there on an Oriental rug. The noise coming from the baby was not insignificant.

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