* * *
God was silent as I walked home. It was like being in a room with someone you weren’t talking to, but I couldn’t go out of the room because it was my own head. In the end I couldn’t bear it. I said: “Why were You acting so strangely? Mrs. Pierce is our friend.”
“I’m your friend,” said God.
“She was just being kind,” I said. “She wants to help us.”
“If you carry on blurting things out, there won’t be any ‘us,’” said God. “You’ll be on your own. Don’t you know how dangerous it is telling people everything like that? They’ll try to separate us. They’ll tell you you’re not talking to anyone at all. They’ll tell you you’re imagining it and send you to some sort of doctor.”
“I wouldn’t listen if they did,” I said. “I know what’s real. I didn’t tell Mrs. Pierce anything anyway.”
“You told her far too much,” said God. “Listen, young lady: Your power depends on you doing exactly what I tell you. That’s the deal. You won’t get far without Me.”
“I’m sorry!” I said. “I’ll try to be more careful. But I don’t understand: You weren’t like this when I talked to Father or Uncle Stan.”
“That was different,” said God. “I didn’t foresee any problems with them.”
“Father didn’t believe me at all!”
“Precisely,” said God. “I mean–more fool him.” He coughed. “Listen,” He said. “If that teacher tries to talk to you again–”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t say a word.”
Then I remembered something. “Oh, and God,” I said, “please don’t ever use that strange voice again.”
“WHAT, THIS ONE?” said God, and it was like being wiped out in a flash of light.
“STOP IT!” I shouted out loud, and I put my hands over my ears.
“Sorry,” said God in His normal voice. “Better?”
I leaned up against the railings. A woman on the opposite side of the road was staring at me. I felt like crying. “Was that really You?”
“Who did it sound like?” said God.
I shuddered. “The Devil,” I said.
Trouble Begets Trouble
FATHER CAME HOME late from work that evening. I knew he was going to, but it seemed an awfully long time anyway. I peeled the vegetables for dinner and put them in the saucepan. I set the table and I watered my mustard seeds. Though I didn’t know why I was bothering, as there was still nothing to be seen. Then I wrote in my journal and I told a story in the Land of Decoration about a dragon who loved roses and whenever he passed a rose tree would have to stop and sniff it but his breath charred the flowers. I couldn’t finish it. In the end I just sat on the stairs and waited.
At five to six I heard the bus and ran to the front door. Through the stained glass picture I could see the bus. It had grates on the windows, and some were slipping off. A tomato was caught in one and what looked like egg was smeared on the window. There were six men on board. Father came down the steps, and even through the colored glass I could see how pale he looked under the streetlight. He waved to Mike, then came through the gate and I ran into the kitchen; I didn’t think he would have wanted me to see.
Father switched the kettle on. He said: “How was school?” He didn’t look at me but began lighting the fire in the Rayburn. I knew then that I mustn’t ask about work. I said: “Mrs. Pierce got cross with Neil Lewis because he tried to put my head down the toilet. But I don’t think I’ll have any more trouble with him.”
Then Father did look at me. He said: “Are you all right?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “It was nothing.”
Father frowned. He said: “Is Neil Doug’s son?”
I tried to think quickly. “I don’t know,” I said.
“Were you having trouble with him?”
“Sort of–but not anymore.”
Father said suddenly: “That’s not the kid who knocks on the door, is it?”
I looked at him and then at the fridge. “I don’t know,” I said.
Father straightened up. “Judith, you haven’t been aggravating him in any way, have you?”
“No,” I said, and my heart beat once, very hard.
“Are you sure?” Father said.
“Good,” Father said; he turned back to the fire, “because trouble only begets trouble.” He stood up and closed the Rayburn door to a crack to let the air in. “And there’s more than enough of it to go round now lately.”
* * *
WE READ THE Bible while we had tea instead of clearing the table first. The study was about God being jealous. It wasn’t the way we thought of the word, Father said. It meant that God wanted people to serve only Him, that He exacted Exclusive Devotion.
My head was all tangled. I didn’t know if I was being stupid or asking a proper question, but I said: “Why must God have Exclusive Devotion?”
“Because He knows what’s best for us,” said Father.
I thought again, but for some reason what Father said still didn’t make much sense. I said: “Why?”
Father didn’t get angry as he usually does if I say “why” too much. In fact, it looked as though he was thinking about something else. He was frowning and holding his breath. And then suddenly the frown went away and he blinked and said: “What?”
Then I, too, had to think to remember what we were talking about. “Why does God know best?” I said.
“Because He knows everything,” Father said. And then he said quickly: “And He made us”–as if I should know this–as if he should know this–as if he should have thought of it before. Then he said: “Hang on,” and got up and went into the hall. When he came back, I said: “What is it?”
I looked at him, but he didn’t say any more, and he began to read again.
* * *
WHEN I WENT to bed, Father was sitting by the Rayburn in his overalls. After I had been in bed a little while, I crept back downstairs. But the kitchen light wasn’t on, the middle room one was, and through the keyhole I saw Father at his desk, sifting through bills he kept there. I was pleased he wasn’t staring at nothing like he used to and went back to bed.
But later, quite a lot later, when I was just dropping off to sleep, I heard the front door open, and when I peeped through the curtains he was standing on the pavement, the wisps of his hair catching the light. He stood there for a long time, though the street was empty.
FATHER IS NOT the person he used to be. I know this because of four photographs. The first is in the album in the cupboard in the middle room. In the cupboard photo, Father is standing against a sign that says JOHN O’GROATS. He has jeans on and a belt that says LEVI’S and a T shirt. He is smiling and his whole face seems to be shining. I have never seen Father’s face like that. This was taken on Mother and Father’s honeymoon, and Mother was taking the photo.
The second photo is in a silver frame and is a photograph of Mother and Father lying in grass. Mother is wearing blue dungarees and has long, curly brown hair, and the sun is in her eyes and all around her so that her hair looks like a halo. She is laughing so hard, all her teeth are showing. Father is holding the camera above them at arm’s length and making a funny face.
The third photo is in the album again, and they got someone to take the picture for them and are standing on a pier against some railings. Mother’s tummy is stretching her T shirt; she has her arms around Father’s waist and her head on his shoulder, and he has his arm around her neck, and both are smiling and look as if they have caught the sun, and their hair looks like it has been blown all day long in the wind.
I don’t look at these photos often, because it feels so bad. It isn’t just knowing Mother isn’t here now but knowing she isn’t here because of me.
The last photo is the worst of all. It’s in another album and is quite different. Father is holding me in a white blanket. I am bound up like a little grub and all you can see is my face, which is crumpled and red because I am screaming. In the bed behind us is my mother. Her face is white and her eyes look very small and she seems to be in another place altogether, looking back at us. Father’s face is dark and his eyes are blazing. And this is the Father I know.
The Snowball Effect
THAT WEEK FATHER came home at six o’clock on the bus every day. It was strange being in the house on my own. I didn’t think it would be much different from when Father was there, because I am in my room and he is in his, but it was. May and Elsie offered to come and sit with me, but I asked Father not to let them, because it would be Bible stories all the way, and in the end he agreed, on the condition I didn’t touch the cooker, the matches, or the kettle.
Father was gray when he got in. Sometimes he didn’t cook the vegetables I had prepared but ate things like sausages and beans. Sometimes he didn’t even light the fire in the Rayburn but sat by the oven with the range on till bedtime. But no matter how tired he was, he always made sure we read the Bible portion.
I wished Mike could have stopped by. “Why doesn’t he?” I asked.
“He has to get home,” Father said.
I didn’t like to ask about the factory. Father didn’t say much except that there were lines of people called picketers at the gates and they shouted and never went away. “It’ll be over soon,” he said. “I’ll give them another week.”
But the strike people seemed to think it would last. On Tuesday after school, Mrs. Pew invited me round for tea. While we were eating corned beef sandwiches and macaroons at her foldaway table, some people knocked at the door. I heard Mrs. Pew open it and a man say they were calling on everyone, warning against failure to support the union and contact with something called “scabs.” He told Mrs. Pew to hang up if a scab tried to call, not to talk to them.
Mrs. Pew waited till he stopped talking, which was quite a while, then said: “I’m sorry?”
There was a pause, then the man said everything again and asked Mrs. Pew if she would like to make a donation for hungry strikers.
Mrs. Pew said: “Country bikers?”
“Yes, I thought that’s what you said,” said Mrs. Pew. “I’ll get some money right away.”
She got some change from the jar on the sideboard. I heard her give the man some money and close the door. “A biking event,” she said as she came back into the sitting room. “I do like to give to a good cause. My husband, the late Mr. Pew, God rest his soul, was an ardent cyclist.”
* * *
“WHAT’S A ‘SCAB’?” I said to Father when I got home.
“Where did you hear that?”
“Someone knocked on Mrs. Pew’s door, wanting money for the strikers, and told her not to talk to scabs.”
“A scab is someone who’s not supporting the strike.”
“Then you’re a scab,” I said. “Why do they call them that? It’s a funny name.”
Later that evening, I was coming down the stairs when the letter box crashed and a water balloon fell through the slot and burst on the floor. I heard the squealing of bikes. I picked up the balloon. It wasn’t colored like a balloon I’d ever seen but clear. It was a different shape than a balloon too, longer, like a tube and the hole was too big to blow through. Father came into the hall from the bathroom, without his shirt on and with a towel round his neck.
He said: “Drop that!”
I stared at him.
“Drop it!” he said. “Go and wash your hands!”
On Wednesday someone tipped the dustbin up and strewed rubbish all over the garden. On Thursday, Neil and his brother snapped some branches off Mother’s cherry tree, and Father sat up till after midnight. On Friday night when the knocking began, he phoned the police. I heard him say: “Can’t you just send a car up or something? It’s getting beyond a joke. I’ll be had up for assault if I go out there and do anything…. No, I don’t know what started it.”
Later, when I was in bed, a police car came down the street. I heard it stop outside and the policeman talk to the boys. After that it was quiet, and when I looked they had gone away.
“God,” I said, “what’s happening? Why won’t Neil Lewis leave us alone?”
“Something to do with the fact that he has been getting into trouble in school every day because of you?” said God.
“Not because of me,” I said. “Because of what he does to me.”
“Swings and roundabouts,” said God.
“It’s not fair!” I said. “I didn’t know any of this would happen. How could I know he would start coming to the house?”
“Not easy, is it?” said God.
“No. I’ve solved one problem and found another one.”
“That’s life,” said God. “Things disappear and reappear somewhere else. You stamp on them here and they come up over there. Like molehills. Now you know what it feels like.”
“I thought I could say just what I wanted to happen.”
“Yes, but can you stop things happening?” said God. “Did you think about that?” God laughed. “Thinking is a dangerous thing at the best of times.”
“But what’s going to happen?” I said. “With Neil and everything?”
“I don’t think it would be helpful for you to know at the moment,” said God. “In any case, it depends on you.”
* * *
IT WAS STRANGE that Neil kept coming to the house, because he didn’t come near me in school. He didn’t tell me he would kill me and he didn’t draw his finger across his throat and he didn’t hit me or put my head down the toilet or pull away my chair. He wasn’t doing a lot of the things he used to do. Mrs. Pierce made him move to Kevin and Stacey and Luke’s table so he didn’t sit with Lee and Gareth anymore, but so often when I looked up, his blue eyes were fixed on me, and they were strange, as if he wasn’t seeing me at all but something on the other side of me.
Mrs. Pierce kept him in detention four times that week. At home time, when he’d hoist his bag onto his shoulder, she would say: “Neil, where are you going?”
“I thought you and I had an appointment.”
“My dad’ll kill me if I’m late again.”
Mrs. Pierce would say: “It’s no fun for me either, you know, so the sooner you learn how to behave, the better for both of us. Sit down and get your books out.”
Neil didn’t follow me home once that week, but some of the other boys rode their bikes past me very fast and yelled swear words. On the following Wednesday, when I came out of school, I had seen a man with a shaved head and denim jacket waiting by the school gates. He was covered in tattoos. His arms were folded and his chin jutted out and his mouth was set in a tight line. As I went by, he opened the side of his mouth and a jet of saliva landed on the pavement.
“Sue,” I said, as Sue Lollipop crossed me over the road, “who’s that man with the shaved head?”
“That’s Doug Lewis,” she said in a low voice. “He’s on the warpath about something.”
So now I had a face to put to the “bad lot.”
On Thursday Doug was there again, huddled up against the wind. This time he was smoking. And as I went by, I noticed something I had missed before: On the backs of his hands, writhing to and fro and over and under one another, were lots of green snakes.
What Happened in the Co op
ON SATURDAY WE went preaching in town with the new leaflets. We stood in the main street opposite the Baptist church and Margaret held a placard that said: CAN YOU READ THE SIGNS? on one side and CHRIST DIED FOR YOU on the other. Uncle Stan had a loudspeaker, and Father and Alf wore boards over their jackets with THE END OF ALL THINGS HAS DRAWN CLOSE on them. Nel insisted on having a placard too, so we propped it up against her wheelchair, even though you couldn’t see her over the top of it. The rest of us gave out leaflets.
It was very cold. Sun winked in each of the shop windows. A market seller said: “Go and proclaim the gospel somewhere else,” but Uncle Stan said we had as much right to be there as anyone else, and after that it was a contest between us and the market seller as to who could shout the loudest.
Twice someone shouted: “Scab!” and a few spat on the ground as they passed us. Uncle Stan flushed but carried on shouting, and Margaret thrust her chest out and held the placard higher. Gordon’s neck was deep in his collar, his eyes were half closed, and he was chewing hard.
Only two people took a leaflet, even though I held them as Father said to and didn’t obscure them with my hand, and even though we employed thought provoking questions. On the cover of the leaflet, happy people were walking through a garden. Inside, there were lightning and hailstones, buildings falling, and cars disappearing. People were shaking their fists at the sky. Some had their hands raised to protect themselves. The men wore headbands and tattoos and lots of denim. Some had transistor radios. The women had miniskirts and lots of makeup and high heels. It made me confused to look at the picture because all the Brothers looked like the happy people, and not everyone in the World carried a transistor or wore a miniskirt; Auntie Jo, Father’s sister, for instance, wore jeans and Dr. Martens in the photos she had posted to us, and Mrs. Pierce didn’t wear makeup.
At midday Uncle Stan said: “A good effort.” He didn’t seem to notice we had as many boxes of leaflets as before. We carried them back to his car near the dumpsters behind the Co op, then Father and I said goodbye to the group and we went into the Station Café for a cup of tea.
We divided an ice slice between us. I licked the icing off my fingers and said: “Do you really think Armageddon’s coming soon?”
“Yes,” said Father.
“D’you think Mike will be saved?”
“Only God knows the answer to that.”
“What about Mrs. Pew?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“What about Joe and Mrs. Browning and Sue Lollipop?”
“Judith, it’s useless speculating about these things. Only God can read hearts.”
“What about Auntie Jo?” I said, and I didn’t look at him.
Father brought his hand down on the table. Then he said: “Judith, you’ve asked this before–how do I know? Everyone will have had a fair chance.”
“How do we know?” I said.
“Because God has promised He will save everyone who deserves to be saved.”
“I’m glad I’m not God,” I said, and I smiled at Father to show him I didn’t want to annoy him and wanted to be friends.
“So am I,” said Father.
I laughed. “I wouldn’t know who to save and who not to.”
He smiled, but the smile was watery and tired. I thought it was better not to smile at someone than to smile like that. We finished and went to the Co op.
We were pushing our cart to the checkout a few minutes later when two men appeared. They looked like they had just stepped out of the picture in the leaflet–it would have been quite funny if I hadn’t been so scared. One had long hair and a headband, though he wasn’t carrying a transistor. The other man was Doug Lewis.
The men’s eyes gleamed like marbles. They reminded me of the eyes of the dog from number 29 when he sees Oscar on a wall. Doug jutted his chin. He seemed to be nodding. He put his hands on the front of the cart and said: “Scabs eat, I see.”
Father’s eyes were black, but when he spoke his voice was steady. He said: “Go and wait for me at the checkout, Judith,” but my feet wouldn’t move.
Father said: “Let me get on with my shopping, Doug. I’m not hurting you.”
But Doug didn’t take his hands off the cart. His face was red. He and Father looked at each other, and they kept on and on looking at each other until I wanted to scream. Then suddenly Doug shoved our cart sideways. It bounced, but Father didn’t let go. Doug’s chest rose and fell. The man with the long hair put his fist into his hand. Then he said to Doug: “Come on.” Doug’s nostrils flared. After a minute he slammed the cart sideways and followed his friend.
We walked to the till. My heart felt as if it had been plunged into hot lead, and my arms and legs were falling away from me. Father didn’t seem to realize what had just happened. He began putting things onto the conveyor belt. Then he looked up and said: “All right, everyone, the show’s over,” and I saw that he did, and that the whole shop was watching us. To me he said: “Go and start packing,” and I was glad, because I couldn’t think what to do. Then he looked at me and smiled, a proper smile, but this time I couldn’t smile back.