Grace McCleen The Land of Decoration



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* * *
WE DIDN’T TALK about what happened for the rest of the day, and for the rest of the day my heart felt sick and my legs and arms didn’t belong to me.
A Broken Window
UNCLE STAN,” I said at the meeting next morning, “have you got Brother Michaels’s address?”

Oh darn,” said Stan. “Sorry, pet, I forgot. Keep reminding me.”

OK.”

He said: “Are you all right?”

Yes,” I said. “I just really need to write to him.”

Look.” Uncle Stan smiled. “I’ll make a note.” He took out a little piece of paper, wrote on it, then folded it up and put it under his wedding ring. “How’s that?”

Great,” I said.



Uncle Stan frowned. “Are you sure you’re all right, pet? How’s everything at home?”

Fine,” I said. I couldn’t tell him about what Doug Lewis had done yesterday. Father wouldn’t want me to. In any case, what had happened felt like it was stuck in the middle of my chest and would hurt too much to pull out.



When we got home, I asked Father for a piece of his writing paper. “What for?” he said.

To write to Brother Michaels.”

Who?”

The Brother who came and gave the talk about moving mountains.”

Why on earth are you writing to him?”

I liked him.”



Father shook his head and went into the middle room. He took a piece of paper from his desk. “That’s all you’re having,” he said. “So don’t waste it.”

I went upstairs. I thought I may as well begin the letter now, even if I didn’t have an address yet. I wanted to talk to someone a lot. I wrote:
Dear Brother Michaels,
This is Judith McPherson, the girl you talked to after giving your talk about the mustard seed. You gave some to me, do you remember? I hope you are well.
I thought for a minute.
I am writing to thank you for coming to our congregation. Your talk changed my life. When I came home I made a miracle happen, and lots after that, but the first one was that night after you told us about faith. I made it snow by making snow for my model world. There is a world in my room made of rubbish. I made snow for it and then it really did snow, do you remember?

After that I made it snow again and then I made it stop snowing. Then I brought back our neighbor’s cat and then I punished a boy at school. But now he is knocking at our house all the time and yesterday his dad threatened Father in the Co op and called him a “scab.”
I chewed the end of the pencil.
The police are not helping. Nobody believes I have done any miracles. I should say also that I have heard God’s voice on numerous occasions.
Cross that out,” said God.

I don’t want to.”

It’s dangerous,” said God.

But I’ve only got one piece of paper.”

Cross it out!”

I crossed the sentence out.
The thing is, now I don’t know whether to try and make more miracles or not. Having power is not as easy as it looks.

You said that all we needed to do was take the first step, but now I don’t know what to do next, and it doesn’t look like I can go back to where I began.
Then Father shouted: “Dinner!” and I folded the letter up and put it inside my journal, put them both under the floorboard, and went downstairs.
* * *
A BIT LATER we were pondering the Fall of Man, which happened six thousand years ago–two thousand years from us to Jesus, Father said, and four thousand years from Jesus to Adam–and I was pondering the reason I had to eat bitter greens again and not saying anything at all. My face must have though, because Father said: “There are thousands of African children who would be only too glad of that dinner.” I was about to say: “Then I wish we could send it to them,” when we heard the sound of smashing in the hall.

Father said: “Stay here,” and went out.

I didn’t hear anything for so long that in the end I got up and went into the hall. The first thing that hit me was a gust of wind and rain. The second thing was that Father was standing with his back to me, and at his feet there were pieces of stained glass, in the midst of the glass was a brick, and where the stained glass picture had been in the front door, there was a large hole. Beyond the hole was the night.

Father cleared his throat. He said: “Go back into the kitchen please.”

I sat by the Rayburn and drew my knees up and put my chin on them. I said to God: “Please help Father.”

In the hall I heard Father say: “I’d like to report a smashed window…. Yes … my front door … About five minutes ago … No, not now.”

I peered into the Rayburn. The coals flickered and glimmered, but in the heart of them, where they were palest, they were perfectly still.

I want someone here now,” Father was saying. “I’ve reported other incidents and nothing’s been done…. No, you listen. I’ve got a ten year old daughter–”



There were caverns in the fire. There were gullies and canyons and ravines. I imagined I was journeying to the center of the earth. Heat lapped at my cheeks. Heat sealed up my lips. I closed my eyes and heat bathed them.

Father went on talking. I went further into the fire. It was like being beautifully dead or asleep. My face began to sting, but I didn’t move away. This was how a star felt, I thought, and what were stars but furnaces eating themselves up, then falling inward, getting redder and redder and cooler and cooler until nothing was left but a heap of gray ash?

A click told me Father had put the phone down. I pulled my chair back. When he came into the kitchen, you wouldn’t have been able to tell from his voice that anything had happened. He said he was going to clean up this mess and then we would continue with our Bible reading.

He wouldn’t let me help. I watched from the kitchen doorway as he pushed the glass into a dustpan. I watched him wrap it so the garbagemen wouldn’t cut themselves. I watched him sweep the floor, then run his hand over it to see if there were any pieces he had missed. “Don’t walk around in socks for a few weeks,” he said.

OK,” I said. And then I looked up and screamed.



A face was peering through the hole in the front door, a wobbling white face with red lips and black hair and a plastic rain cap. Father jumped too. He said: “Mrs. Pew!”

Oh, John! I saw it all!” Mrs. Pew said. She appeared to be dissolving. Small black snakes were making their way down her forehead, and her head was wobbling fantastically. “Three boys on bikes!”

I know,” said my Father. “I’ve spoken to the police. Everything’s taken care of.”

One of them had a brick,” she said. “How terrible! Why would they do such a thing?”



Father said: “I don’t know, but don’t worry now. You go back inside. It’s too wet for you to be out here.”

Will you and Judith be all right?” she said as he took her arm.



When Father came back, he went to the garage and came in with pieces of plywood. One by one he nailed them to the front door. I couldn’t bear to look, to see what he was doing to Mother’s door. But I heard the wood splinter and squeak and the rain whip and the wind batter. Then finally the hole was boarded up and the hall was quiet again.

A policeman arrived as Father was drying the floor. He stood in our hallway and wrote in a notepad. Father waited for him to finish, his eyes glittering like two lumps of coal beneath the light.

The policeman said: “And you didn’t see who did it?”

No.”

All you found was the brick?”

Yes.”

At approximately nineteen hundred hours?”

Approximately.”



The walkie talkie on the policeman’s shoulder burst into life and he said back to the crackling: “Yeah, all right, tell him to hang on…. No, just a domestic.”

Father waited. The crackling petered out. He said: “So what are you going to do to them?”

The policeman said: “Who, Mr. McPherson?”

The thugs who did this.”

You don’t know who did it,” said the policeman.

Father shut his eyes, then opened them. It seemed to me he was saying something without moving his lips. He said: “It’s the same boys I’ve been making complaints about for the past month.”

But you didn’t see them.”

On this occasion, no. I was in the kitchen with my daughter. We heard the crash, and when we got here they were gone.”

There you go,” said the policeman. He put his notepad away.

But our neighbor did see them.”

The policeman said: “Could she identify them?”

A vein pulsed in Father’s temple. “I don’t know; why don’t you ask her?”

The policeman said: “I’m trying to help you, Mr. McPherson. If I were you, I’d think about getting some cameras installed. A visual holds up well in court.”

Cameras?” Father gave a strange laugh.



The policeman said: “There’s nothing we can do tonight. We’ll keep this on file with the other complaints you’ve made. If anything else happens, you know where we are.”

Father half shook his head. He looked as though he was trying to get something out of it that had got loose. He said: “What–that’s it?”

All we can do is patrol the area now and then,” said the policeman. “Good night, Mr. McPherson,” and he went out, pulling our new door shut behind him.


* * *
I BIT MY lip. I could see the little hairs on the top of Father’s head shining in the light. His arms hung by his sides. He scratched his eyebrow, then they went back to his sides again. He said: “Your mother loved that door.”

I suddenly wanted to touch him.

I’m sorry,” I said. I was scared; Father never mentioned Mother.



He blinked as if he was waking. “Why are you sorry?”

Then he frowned and all the darkness came flooding back into his face. “It’s nothing to do with you!” But the way he said it made it sound as if it had everything to do with me. He put the mop in the bucket, locked the door, picked up the bag of glass, and we went back into the kitchen.

And I ate all my bitter greens, every scrap, though they were cold now and slimy, so that Father would carry on pondering the Fall of Man that happened six thousand years ago and not the thing that happened forty five minutes ago in our hall.
A Story
ONCE THERE WAS a man and a woman. When they met, sparks flew, meteors collided, asteroids turned cartwheels, and atoms split. He loved her from here to eternity, she loved him to the moon and back. They were two peas in a pod, heads and tails and noughts and crosses.

Something about her made him walk toward her. Something about him made her say hello. They got married in the town where they had grown up, and their families were so happy. Then someone knocked on their door and told them the world was ending. The man didn’t know what to think to begin with, but the woman saw the light straightaway.

Believing meant giving things up; their families didn’t want to know them anymore; they moved away, to another town where the need for preachers was great. They bought a small brick house. The man took work in a factory. The woman made dresses. The neighbors didn’t like them. They didn’t mind. They had each other.

They filled the house with things no one wanted: a door with a picture of a tree, a clock with no pendulum, a chaise longue with no springs, an old fur rug; a threadbare tapestry of creepers and snakes, a picture of angels; broken tiles of birds of paradise.

The woman took the paint off the door and cleaned the glass so that the tree could be seen and the light glinted in its fruit. They repaired the tapestry. They made a border for the fire with the broken tiles. The woman made curtains and covers from scraps of materials. The man dug up the concrete around the house and planted Christmas roses and golden cane and a cherry tree.

Sometimes I see them, her sitting opposite him in the evening in the armchair, her long hair on her shoulder, embroidering lupines and hollyhocks, wrapping silk around the needle and drawing it clean through the middle. Then I think they would be side by side and she would be mending something. Then I think, no, she would be at his feet while he read the Bible aloud. The woman is pregnant. The man is young. Every so often they smile at each other.

Then I stop imagining, because I don’t want to see what comes next. But often, because I don’t want to, I see precisely that.
A Bad Lot
ON MONDAY AFTERNOON, Mrs. Pierce was reading Charlotte’s Web to us when the classroom door burst open and Doug Lewis appeared. A smell came into the room with him like rotten fruit, like the smell of Father’s old wine bottles he keeps, for the bottle recycling bank. Mrs. Pierce lowered her glasses. She said: “Can I help you?”

Doug said: “You can do more than that. I want my son! You kept him here every afternoon last fucking week!”

Everyone sat back as if they had been doused in cold water.

Mrs. Pierce said: “Would you like to come outside?”

Doug said: “No, I would not!” His voice was loud, and it was blurred as if his tongue or his lips weren’t working properly.

Mrs. Pierce said: “I don’t know how you got into the school in this state, Mr. Lewis, but no doubt someone is on their way to escort you out again.” She went to the door and tried to take his elbow, but he shrugged her off.

I looked at Neil. Something strange seemed to have happened to him. The Neil I knew had vanished and in his place was a boy who seemed to be smaller, his face white and shut up, as if it had been wiped out. It was like one of those octopuses that change color even as you watch them so you can never be sure where they are.

You’re persecuting my son!” Doug shouted.



Mrs. Pierce said: “Two things, Mr. Lewis: Firstly, it is your son who has been persecuting other children in this school for God knows how long. Secondly, I don’t like being threatened. I never have and I don’t intend to get used to it now. Now, if you don’t mind, you’re disturbing my class, of which there’s still another fifteen minutes; if you want your son, feel free to take him. I’d be only too happy for you to. He’s nothing but a nuisance.”

Doug Lewis came close to Mrs. Pierce. He said: “You stuck up little bitch. I’ll have you up before the authorities. You won’t get a job anywhere!” Mrs. Pierce turned her face away. Doug seemed to consider something–we could hear him panting–then he decided whatever it was wasn’t worth it and lunged at Neil. The chair fell over. Doug pushed him toward the door and Neil stumbled forward, pulling his sweater straight. His face was still very white.

Doug Lewis glared around as if he was looking for someone, then turned back to Mrs. Pierce, but she wouldn’t look at him. Doug pushed Neil into the corridor, then followed, slamming the door so hard that the windows rattled.

Mrs. Pierce’s shoulders drooped a little. After a moment she said: “Get on with your work quietly, class eight. I’ll be right back.” Then she went out too, and we were left in silence.
* * *
I THOUGHT ABOUT Doug Lewis the rest of the day and how Neil had changed before my eyes. I thought how strange the classroom felt after they had gone, as if some shameful thing had happened to all of us, as if we had seen ourselves with no clothes on and couldn’t look at one another. The strangest thing of all was that I had wanted this to happen but now that it had I didn’t feel how I expected to. In fact, I felt quite the opposite.
Rising Above
THAT EVENING AFTER we had finished dinner, Father said: “I want to have a talk with you, Judith.”

Oh,” I said. Suddenly I needed to go to the toilet.



Father folded his hands on the table and looked at me sternly. “I expect you’re worried about what’s been happening at the house. Well, don’t be. Sometimes God’s servants become subjects of attack through no fault of our own. We shouldn’t think that God has stopped helping us. It’s a test of our faith, d’you see?” I nodded.

It’s never very pleasant being tested, but it’s part of being a Christian. The harder the test, the more worthwhile it is.” He frowned. “The point is, faith helps us to rise above these things. They don’t seem so big anymore; we see them for what they really are. Only then can we see them as they really are: stepping stones bringing us closer to God. Of course, it also helps to know the real reason behind the recent events.”



My stomach felt as if I had gone over a humpbacked bridge. I said: “The real reason…”

Father said: “The real reason for things isn’t always obvious; those boys aren’t acting independently, although they think that they are; the unrest in the town isn’t really caused by the factory; they are all pawns of larger forces. Someone is behind all of this.”

Oh,” I said. The room had become terribly still.

These things are signs of the end,” Father said. “And we know who is roving about, like a lion seeking to devour someone.”

Oh,” I said, and the room came back to life again. “You mean the Devil.”

He’s our real enemy,” Father said. “He’s every Christian’s real enemy.”

But don’t you think those boys are bad, then?”

Do bad people exist, or are there just bad actions?”

I thought. “Bad people,” I said.

That’s not what Jesus said,” said Father, and I could see he was pleased to correct me. “Jesus said it was the evil that proceeded out of a person that condemned them.”



And then I saw what Father meant, because I couldn’t have imagined feeling sorry for Neil before, but since I’d found out what Doug was like I wasn’t sure what I felt about Neil; now I felt angry with Doug . But what if Doug had a bad father? Would I feel sorry for him too? And what about Doug’s father–what about his mother ? A long line of figures suddenly appeared, like paper cutouts. I said: “Then who’s to blame?”

For what?”

Everything.”

The Devil.”

What if he was a cutout too?” I said quickly: “I mean–what if something made him that way too?”

No,” Father said. “The Devil had the same chance to be good as all the other angels.”

So we are supposed to feel angry with the Devil?”

Father said: “There’s no need to feel angry with anyone. Jesus didn’t feel angry. He said: ‘Forgive them; they know not what they do.’”

But God said: ‘An eye for an eye,’” I said. “‘A life for a life.’” I sat up straighter. “It’s the Fundamental Law.”



Father said: “Which would you prefer was applied to you?”

I didn’t say anything.
* * *
LATER THAT NIGHT, after Father had gone to bed, I woke and heard voices below my window. Neil Lewis and Gareth and Lee and the other boys were underneath the streetlight on bikes and leaning up against the railings. Neil was riding on another boy’s back. They were drinking from cans and crushing them and sticking them on the branches of Mother’s cherry tree. The sound of their laughing was like donkeys braying and pigs snorting. Two of the boys came against our garden fence and undid their trousers. I saw two bright arcs of water catch the light, and a cold wave passed through my body. I sat down on the bed. I said: “We must rise above.”

I said: “They know not what they do.”

I said: “I forgive you.”

It wasn’t working.
Little Witch
ON SATURDAY WE went preaching to Hilltop. Hilltop is the poor neighborhood at the top of the town. There are no trees there. Wind whistles between the fences and pebble dash houses, and beyond the houses there is nothing but mountain.

Strange people lived in Hilltop. There was Crazy Jane, who hugged children and cried; Jungle June, who invited strange men into her flat; Dodgy Phil, who wore a mackintosh belted around the middle and had a three legged dog; and Caerion, who thought the government was spying on him, kept the orange and brown curtains of his house closed, and disguised himself when he went shopping. We’d talked to them all at one time or another. Father even started a Bible study with Caerion, but it was difficult because he kept getting up to look through the curtains.

Someone else lived in Hilltop. Neil Lewis. We’d never called on the Lewises, so I didn’t know which house he lived in, but I was pretty sure it was one of the houses on Moorland Road, right at the top. I’d seen him riding his bike there. I didn’t know what would happen if we called on Neil today. Now that he was knocking at our house. Now that there was the strike and Doug wasn’t working. Now that Doug was angry because of what was happening to Neil at school. I didn’t know what would happen and I didn’t want to know.

We met in Stan’s house. We sat on his red settee and the room smelled of aftershave because Gordon was there and of dog because the dog was there and of toast because Stan’s house always smells of toast, and we read the day’s text. Stan said the prayer, Margaret said we must all come back for pancakes when we had finished, then we went out. Stan worked alone, Father and I worked together, Gordon worked with Alf, Brian worked with Josie, and Elsie and May worked together.

Josie prodded me. “You’re not wearing your poncho.”

It’s too good for preaching,” I said.



She seemed to think about this. “I suppose it is.”

It was so cold I began to wish I had worn it. There was frost on the ground and small pieces of hail in the wind. The looks we got weren’t much warmer. Banners hung from windows. They said: SUPPORT OUR STRIKE and A FAIR DAY’S WORK FOR A FAIR DAY’S PAY. But I was thinking about Neil.

There was a little hope: The hope was that if enough people invited us in, we might never reach Moorland Road at all. It might really be possible too because, unlike other places, for some reason Hilltop was full of people who deployed no Tactics of Evasion at all but on the contrary invited us into their houses. In fact, sometimes the trouble was getting out.

We got off to a good start with the first person we called on. He was a fat man in a shirt more yellow than white, with oily hair that rose up at the front. There were pictures on the living room walls of a man in a white suit with his knees turned in and paintings of Hawaiian girls whose skin was strange shades of orange and green. The man pointed to the picture of the man in the white suit and said: “The King is alive!” Father told him another King was alive too and showed him the scripture from Revelation about Jesus on a white horse. He gave the man a magazine and said: “This will explain things more.”

The man took the magazine but didn’t look at it. He grinned at me in a sickly way and made snapping movements at my face with his hand, like a crocodile. He said he had a daughter about my age but he never got to see her. Father said: “Did you know that there is a time coming when families won’t be divided anymore?”

Then the man began to cry. He said his wife wouldn’t let him near his daughter. Father turned to another scripture but the man didn’t look at it, he wiped his eyes on the back of his hand. He said he wasn’t the one who had been drinking. It was her, that bitch, though she told the court it was the other way round. It was her, that whore, she’d been having it off with some man up the road. Many was the time he’d thought of taking the ax and putting it through the two of them. And now she’d taken his angel. She had it coming, he said, she had it coming and one of these days–but I never found out what she had coming, because around about then Father said it was time to go.

After that we had a lot of houses where people shut the door straightaway and then even more where no one was in and Father said we would call back later, and I began to think perhaps we would get to Moorland Road before twelve o’clock after all. Finally we got to a house where a girl came to the door. She was wearing pajamas and had bare feet. The house was warm and I could hear people talking and a door banging. It was my turn, so I said: “Hello. We are talking about the good news of the kingdom. Did you know that soon the whole earth will be a paradise?”

The girl stared at me, she stared at Father, then she stared at the Bible.

I said: “Would you like to live in a world where there won’t be bad things anymore?”

The girl moved her feet back and forth in the carpet. The carpet was pink and fluffy. Her feet looked snug there. I said: “I’m sure you would. Can I share a paragraph with you from this book?”

The girl put her finger inside her left nostril and turned it.

I said: “This verse is talking about the future,” and I read the scripture from Isaiah about how the lion will lie down with the lamb.

The girl took her finger out of her nostril and put it into her mouth.

I said: “This is God’s promise, that the whole earth will be turned into a paradise. There are signs all around us that tell us it will happen very soon. Would you like to find out more about this?”

The girl took her finger out of her mouth and put it into her other nostril.

I began to feel hot. If she didn’t say something soon, we would have to go. I wanted to take her head and make her read the words. I wanted to make her say something so that I could say something back.

Then a woman appeared. She had three gold hoops in each ear, a necklace with what looked like a gold tadpole on it, and gold rings on each of her fingers. She held a cigarette in her hand. She opened the door wider and said: “What d’you want?”

I opened my mouth but Father said: “Good morning. My daughter was just telling your little girl about a hope for the future. We’ve been asking your neighbors an important question: Do you believe God will step in and do something about the world?”

The woman said to the girl: “Get in the house.” To Father, she said: “We’re not interested, love.”

Father said: “Did you know God has plans for this earth? Do you want to find out about a better future for yourself and your family?”

The woman waved and shouted to someone on the other side of the street: “All right, Sian! Aye! Don’t forget it’s bingo tonight!”

Father said: “Do you wonder what the world is coming to?”

The woman sucked on the cigarette, and her eyes half closed and her bosoms swelled. “Not really,” she said, and she blew smoke in Father’s face.

God said He would step in and bring an end to the wickedness we see,” Father said. “Can I show you that?”

You’re wasting your time,” the woman said.

All right, well, thank you, we’ll see you again,” Father said, and we walked back down the garden path.



A few houses later we came to Moorland Road.
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