words: Aimee-lee Abraham
When I was small and relentless, my mother would occasionally threaten to call up Agatha Trunchbull, enquiring about vacancies at The Chokey. Sometimes, she’d get as far as punching the “special number” into our landline – slowly and deliberately, for added suspense. It never proceeded beyond that, though, because I’d melt into a teary, hot heap of sorry on the floor by the time she hit the third digit, hysterical at the mere mention of her name. In case you have never read Matilda (also known as The Gospel for Bookish Girls Everywhere), let me explain. Trunchbull is the fictional headmistress of Crunchem Hall Primary School, where Our Saviour Matilda is imprisoned. A fine educator, Agatha is also a heavyweight athlete, and likely a psychopath. In 1972, she competed in three separate Olympic events – Shot Put, Javelin, and Hammer Throw – skills she is still perfecting decades later, swinging innocents by their pigtails, chucking them into “Chokeys” of nails and smoke – a child’s incarnation of Dante’s inferno, hand-built with care.
What makes Trunchbull so enduring and terrifying is the maelstrom of pain she embodies, representing every childhood injustice we have collectively experienced distilled into a single dictator. She represents mushy vegetables piled high, and is probably to blame for the existence of frogspawn tapioca. She stands for every premature bedtime – for the loneliness of being banished to a single bed, listening to grown-ups laugh and live beyond the forbidden glow of the hallway. She’s in every sibling squabble that was somehow your fault, even though they started it. She’s in every toy ripped from your helpless grasp, in every summer holiday cursed with rain, in every privilege inexplicably removed.
To revisit Trunchbull is to remember how it feels to exist in a world so impenetrable and vast it makes your head hurt, where adults insist they know best, but behave in ways that seem spiteful, nonsensical, or both. Trunchbull is big and you are small, Trunchbull is right and you are wrong. There is nothing you can do about it. In that sense, she is a lot like the US President, but even more sartorially challenged. To this day, I occasionally dream of her, directly or indirectly. Sometimes she appears as a phantom, bearing coffee breath and spinach wedged between teeth. Sometimes she manifests in enclosed spaces and closed minds, in visions of stunted growth, shards of ruined potential cutting my feet. Her power is timeless and strange. It clings to ambitious girls like tar.
Pick up a copy of issue 35 to discover three more books with strong characters that have stuck with us – for better or worse.