Grace McCleen The Land of Decoration

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I BEGAN FEELING sick as soon as we turned in to it. The wind off the mountain hit us like a wall, and there were little bits of hail in it. There was a burned out car in the road and a lot of boys on bikes and music thumping somewhere. I looked at the boys on bikes but I couldn’t see Neil.

I said: “Do you think those houses we left might be in now?”

We’ve only just called on them.”

So,” I said, “they might be in now. There were some we missed altogether, you know–where the road went into that cul de sac. We should do them before we forget.”

Father said: “I didn’t think we missed any houses.”

Yes,” I said. “And if we don’t go back, we might forget about them and Armageddon could come tomorrow and they will never have got the message.”

Father frowned. “Judith, why don’t you want to work this road?”

I do!” I said.

Then come on.”

At the first house we came to, the gate was hanging off. We knocked but we didn’t need to; a bull terrier chained up next to a mattress in the front garden began snarling and yanking the chain. A volley of bikes went by and boys called: “Bible thumpers!”

Father knocked again. I edged farther away from the terrier, who looked like he was choking himself to death.

Father,” I said.


Do we have to work this road?”

Father said: “Judith, these people deserve to hear the message as much as anyone else.”

We walked down the path and went up the next one. The front window of the house was taped over with packing tape, and the letter box was missing its flap. A door slammed upstairs and someone shouted: “Whoever it is, tell them to piss off!” This time an old man with eyes like a wild animal opened the door.

Father said: “Good morning, sir. We’ve been asking your neighbors a very important question: Do you believe God will step in and do anything about the situation in the world?”

The old man’s eyes flitted from Father to me. He swallowed and his lips rolled over and under each other as if he was chewing.

Father said: “I expect things have changed since you were a boy. I expect you could go out without locking your door then. Things are different now, aren’t they? It’s not surprising so few people believe in God. But look what the Bible says will happen.”

The old man’s jaw moved up and down but no words came out. His eyes darted inside the house, then back to us again.

Father read a scripture and gave the old man a leaflet. The man’s fingers were yellow and the paper rattled in his hand. Father said: “Look at that. That’s the way God has promised to make the earth. Would you like to live in a world like that?”

A woman shouted: “Tell them to piss off!” The old man’s Adam’s apple yo yoed in his throat. He backed away, closing the door.

Father said: “Perhaps this isn’t the best time. When we call again, I’d like to discuss this hope for the future with you. Have you got a Bible? If you do, have a look at some of those scriptures.”

We went out of the garden and Father wrote down the details. He said: “I think we may have found a sheep there, Judith. I think we may very well have found a sheep.”

It was now twenty to twelve. We might just do it, I thought. It wouldn’t take much; two or three more calls where we talked for a while.

At the next house, a man in a vest and trousers held up with string came to the door. The vest ended a bit above his waist and his trousers ended a bit below it. In between, his flesh was the color of the lard Father saves from the lamb on Sundays and there were lots of pale hairs. Father said: “Hello, Clive, how are you? I expect you know I’m a Christian. My daughter and I have been sharing a hope for the future with your neighbors.”

The man didn’t look at Father at all. He grunted and looked down the road. His chin stuck out.

Father said: “I don’t know about you, but this world seems to be in a pretty bad way to me.”

Clive looked down the road one way, then he looked down the road the other. He seemed to be holding his breath, because every now and then a little bit of air escaped. He put his arm on the doorpost above my head and his flesh juddered. In his armpit, pale hairs clustered like two little forests pointing in different directions.

Father said: “But the Bible promises we are living at a time when God will sweep this world away. Would you like to live in a world where there is job security and poverty is a thing of the past?”

Clive nodded to someone walking on the other side of the road. He let a little bit more air escape. But still he didn’t look at Father.

Father said: “Could I leave you with a leaflet that explains things a bit more?”

Clive didn’t do anything for a minute. Then he shook his head, very slowly, from side to side.

Father said: “Well, never mind. Perhaps we can talk again another time.”

Clive grunted, lifted his arm off the doorpost, and closed the door.

Satan has blinded their minds,” Father said as we walked away.

We reached the end of one side of the street and began on the other. It was ten minutes to twelve. I really felt like we might just do it. All we needed was one more conversation.

We came to a house with a car engine and a child’s pram in the garden. The front door was boarded up at the bottom, and the glass was taped across at the top. When Father knocked, a girl came to the door, holding a baby. She looked about fifteen. She also looked half asleep. She had black hairs growing on her arms and black hairs growing above her lip and black hairs growing between her eyebrows. I could see her nipples through her T shirt. She had bare feet. The baby was fussing and chewing his fist and had no nappy on.

Father said: “Good morning. We’ve been asking your neighbors a very important question: Do you believe God will do anything about the world?”

The girl’s eyelids seemed too heavy to lift. She said: “What?”

Father repeated the question.

She swayed a little. “Are you the Mormons?”

No,” said Father. “We’re sharing with your neighbors a hope from the Bible.” He handed the girl a leaflet.

She screwed up her eyes. “D’you want money?”

No.” Father smiled. “It’s yours to read if you want to. But I’d really like to tell you about the hope for the future, which–”

The girl opened the door. She said: “I can’t stand here with ’im, I’s too cold.”

Father said: “Oh. Well. That’s kind of you,” and we followed her into the house.

The house smelled of frying and gerbils’ cages and damp and something else, a sickly smell that made my stomach curl, that reminded me of someone. The girl led the way into a room at the back of the house.

I had never seen anything like that room. The floor and walls halfway up were covered in lino. There was no furniture except kitchen cabinets with no doors and a plastic table and molded benches that were fixed to the floor. A washing machine was going and had a broom jammed between it and the table.

We sat at the table. I put my hand on it and it was slippery and sticky. I took my hand off again and put it on my lap and hoped the girl hadn’t noticed. She raised her T shirt and began to breast feed the baby. Around the girl’s nipple there were little black hairs. I felt hot and looked at her feet. Between the girl’s toes there were little red marks. They looked like they had been bleeding.

Father read part of Matthew, Chapter 24, about the signs of the end. He said: “It’s not hard to see Jesus is talking about our day, is it?” He pointed to the verses but the girl seemed to be having trouble focusing. Father said: “Have you got a Bible? If you have, look up the scriptures in this magazine. I think you’ll find it very interesting.”

Then we heard what sounded like a truck pull up in front of the house and a door swing to. A rush of cold air came in from the hall as the front door slammed. Father stood up and smiled. He said: “Perhaps next time we call, we can discuss any questions you might have.”

We went to the kitchen door and Father put his hand out to open it, but as he did, it opened inward and standing there was Doug Lewis.

Doug looked at Father. He looked at me. He looked at the girl, and she rushed out of the room. I heard the baby begin to cry as Doug’s eyes slid back to Father.

Father said: “Hello, Doug. I didn’t know you lived here. We were just talking to your daughter about…”

Doug seemed to be as surprised as we were. Then he said, in a voice that was more like a growl: “She’s not my daughter.”

Father took my hand. “Well, I’m sorry if we’ve inconvenienced you. We didn’t know you lived here. We’ll be going now.”

We went through the kitchen door and my heart was beating so slowly it was hard to breathe. We walked through the hall and it was like being underwater.

Then Doug shouted: “Damn right you’ll go!” He seemed to have suddenly woken up. “Get out! Get out of my house! Don’t ever come back! Don’t ever step through the gate! Don’t set foot on the fucking pavement!” He kept shouting as we went through the front door and down the path. It was difficult to think and walk at the same time, though it was what I wanted to do more than anything, because my head felt like it was being battered from side to side and I was afraid I might faint.

We don’t want any of your satanic mumbo jumbo, McPherson! You come here spouting about goodwill and scab off and leave the rest of us to take the fucking flak!” There were people staring from windows now and from the other side of the road and from the next door garden. “Oh, and McPherson! Keep that little witch away from my son! Getting him into trouble all the time! Tell her to put the finger on someone else, d’you hear me? STAY AWAY FROM MY SON!”

We kept walking but I was in a dream, I had fallen through ice and I was sinking. The spot of light above my head was getting fainter and fainter. As long as I keep walking, I thought. As long as my legs keep moving. And then my legs felt like bits of string, because suddenly I saw Neil ahead of us, standing astride his bike with Gareth and some other boys. He must have come home with Doug in the truck.

Doug was still shouting as the boys began riding. They rode closer and closer. They stood up on the bikes and leaned from side to side. As they passed us, showers of stones spewed up from the wheels and the wheels made a tearing sound. The boys rode, in circles; the stones flew faster.

Father kept walking. He didn’t stop and he didn’t turn round and he didn’t let go of my hand. He walked right down the middle of the road. I didn’t see how the bikes kept missing us but they did. It seemed to me we were walking through the Red Sea and there were currents of electricity passing back and forth between Father and me and crackling in the air all around us.

We turned out of Moorland Road. The boys shouted. They threw a stone or two. Then they dropped back and it was just Father and me, the wind whipping around us and banks of cloud moving over the valley below.

Father held my hand for a few more moments and then he dropped it.
A Lie
FATHER DIDN’T SAY anything all the way home. I ran alongside him. Every so often I glanced up at his face, but it was set in a mask and I couldn’t read it. When we got home he went straight into the kitchen. He put his bag on the table, then turned round. He said: “What’s this about you and Neil Lewis?”

I haven’t done anything,” I said.

Then he shouted: “Don’t lie to me, Judith!” and it was like being winded.

All right!” I said. “I wanted to punish him! I wanted to punish him for what he does to me every day. I hate him!

Father’s face was dark. “What do you mean, ‘punish’ him?”

I tried to breathe slowly. “I made things,” I said. “In the Land of Decoration. I wanted bad things to happen to him. And they did.”

Father said: “I have told you, Judith, about this NONSENSE ! I warned you no good would come of it!”

It’s not nonsense!” I said. “I did make things happen!”

Father came close to me. “Do you have any idea what I’m dealing with?”

I tried to keep looking at him but couldn’t, so I looked at the floor.

Doug Lewis and I have never got on, but now things are a hundred times worse. Here I am trying to keep things together, trying to keep food on the table, trying to keep a roof over our heads–and you go around stirring things up with his son!”

I haven’t stirred anything up.”

You told him you could perform miracles!”

I didn’t!” I said.

Then what was Doug talking about?”

I looked at my shoes. “I wrote about the miracles in my news book; Neil read it out in class.”

Father banged the table hard with his hand. “But damn it , Judith–you can’t perform miracles!”

My body was full of shaking blood. “I CAN!” I shouted. “I’ve got special powers! Everything I’ve wanted has happened. Every single thing. But I didn’t mean to tell anyone–I wanted to tell you, but you didn’t believe me!

Then Father shouted: “YOU DO NOT HAVE, NOR HAVE YOU EVER HAD, SPECIAL POWERS!” and I stumbled backward and covered my face.

When I looked again, Father’s hands had dropped to his sides and his face was white. He said: “What do I have to say to get through to you? What do I have to do to make you grow up ?” He shook his head. “For the last time, Judith, have you threatened Neil Lewis or aggravated him in any way? Look at me!

I looked at him, and I said: “No.”
Giving It Back
I SAT IN my room and I looked at my knees. “You told a lie,” God said.

Father would have been more upset if I hadn’t.”

Another lie,” said God.

Oh, be quiet!” I said. “I should never have listened to You in the first place! I wish I had never found out about the miracles. If I’d listened to Father, none of this would have happened.

Well?” I said after a moment. “Haven’t You got anything to say?”

I stood up. “You know what I hate about You? The way You just disappear when You feel like it. I wish I could disappear!” I sat down and put my head in my hands. “It’s like talking to myself.”

God,” I said after a while, “I don’t want to be Your Instrument anymore.”

He couldn’t let that go. “What do you mean?” He said.

I don’t want the power,” I said. “I’m giving it back.”


Dark Matter
Through My Window
IT GOT DARK in the room. Shadows spilled over the floor and slipped down the walls. They skimmed the ceiling and the hot air balloon light shade and traveled like clouds over the Land of Decoration. They appeared and reappeared and went elsewhere.

I watched the streetlights go on and the moon come up. The moon was so bright that it had a halo. It looked like chalk dust and the moon like chalk and the sky looked like a blackboard and all over the blackboard there were pinpricks of stars. I remembered it was written that the sun would be darkened and the moon wouldn’t give its light, and I wondered if when the end of the world came it would be like a giant eraser had wiped the moon and stars out and rolled up the sky like a blackboard, with a snap. I thought how nice that would be.

I heard the hall clock strike eight. I heard it strike nine. I heard it strike ten. Then I must have closed my eyes, because when I looked out the window again, I had slipped down on the pillow and there was a wet patch where my mouth had been.

It was very still and very cold. I had the feeling it was quite late and I felt uncomfortable, as if I had dreamed something bad and it was still dragging behind me. I felt confused too, as you do when you wake and aren’t sure if it’s morning or evening or can’t remember where you are, which was strange, because I was in my own bedroom. I suddenly thought that I might not be real, or I was real and everything else was make believe: Either way it was a pretty lonely feeling.

A sound made me look down. Six boys were standing astride bikes under the streetlight. Neil Lewis was there and his brother and some other boys, older than I had seen before, about fifteen or sixteen. I edged closer to the window and sat so that only my face was in the light. I didn’t think they could see me, because the light was shining on the window.

They were doing wheelies and playing piggybacks and laughing and drinking from bottles and cans. Neil was sitting on top of another boy’s shoulders. He threw a can into our garden and it fell into the golden cane. Neil’s brother was drinking from a bottle. When he finished, he went right up to our garden wall.

What I saw next didn’t make sense. The boy pulled down his trousers and crouched down. There were cheers and whoops, but the noises made no sense to me now and sounded like the horns of cars or the honking of ships or some kind of animal. Another boy came forward and went to the wall, and he undid his trousers and there were cheers again. I let the curtain fall back, and for a minute I didn’t think anything at all.

I don’t know how long I sat there or if the noises went on below, because I didn’t hear a thing, but when I looked again, the street was empty.

After a minute I stood up. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do but I went to the door. I opened it and went along the landing. At the top of the stairs I stopped because my heart was beating so hard I felt ill. But it was as if my brain had switched off.

I could hear Father sleeping in the back bedroom. He was breathing hoarsely. I could hear the indrawn breaths. The spaces between the breaths were so long I thought he might stop breathing altogether, but the breath always came back again. It rose and rose, and stopped right at the top, and for a moment it was nowhere. Then it began all over again.

I wondered how people didn’t die every night, how their heart kept bringing them round without being asked to, perhaps without them even wanting it to, and I thought how amazing it was. I suddenly felt sorry for my heart. It was gripping me and letting me go and gripping me all over again, like a little man clutching his hands and saying: “Oh, oh, oh.” I said to my heart: “It’s all right.” But the little man went on clutching his hands, and I felt sadder than I ever had in my life and didn’t know why. After a minute I went on down the stairs.

I turned the key in the front door, and opened it and moonlight spilled across the hall. The street was silent. Cold was like smoke in my nostrils.

I went through the gate and looked at the pavement. I don’t know how long I looked at it. I didn’t even know it was a pavement anymore, there were blank spaces where there should have been words. After a while I went back into the garden and picked some leaves. Then I went through the gate, picked up what was on the pavement, and carried it and put it behind the golden cane.

I did it again and again. I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing. I was thinking about other things, and all the time my heart, my heart, was beating, beating.

I said: “What am I?”

Dust,” said a voice.

Is that all?” I said.

Yes,” said the voice.

What about my heart?”

Dust,” said the voice.

What about my mind?”

Dust,” said the voice.

My lungs?”


My legs?”


My arms?”


My eyes?”


I see,” I said.

Dust you are,” said the voice, “and to dust you will return.”

The more the voice talked, the heavier my arms became and the heavier my legs became and finally even breathing was difficult.

Then I looked down and saw that the pavement was clear, and I went back with water from the watering can and washed it. I scrubbed it with leaves and with grass. I scrubbed so that little white curls of skin appeared on my knuckles.

Dust,” said the voice, and I nodded.

I closed the gate and put the watering can back and washed my hands under the tap. The stars were so bright now that they seemed to be pulsing.

But stars are made of dust,” I said suddenly.

Everything is,” said the voice.

There was a glimmer for a moment, something I wanted to catch hold of. But it disappeared too quickly. I went inside, locked the front door, and went upstairs to bed.

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