Dust and Stars
ONE OF MY good thoughts is that there are no big things in this world, only lots of little things joined together, that there are other worlds in which we are as small as the smallest person in the Land of Decoration, that the band of the Milky Way people thought was everything is itself just one of billions of other galaxies and beyond that a cosmos at least a billion, billion, billion times larger than even the farthest part of the universe scientists can see with the biggest telescopes, and beyond that other cosmos that reach into infinity.
I like to think about how it could all go on still farther, that we only know about things like space and time because of light, so there is no way we can know what happens where it is dark, that other worlds could be out there, other dimensions, other Big Bangs, which is only another way of saying God. I like to think that all that has happened is the universe has taken a breath and bounced up and we have appeared for a moment before the ball falls back and the breath is withdrawn again. I like to think that from a certain point all things are the same, and the whole of our story is no more than the paint on the knob on the top of the Eiffel Tower, and we are the layer of pigeon poop on top of the paint on top of the knob.
I tell myself that small things are big and big things are small, that veins run like rivers and hairs grow like grass and a hummock of moss to a beetle looks like a forest, and the shapes of the countries and clouds of the earth look like the colors in marbles from space. I think how the shell of a nebula of oxygen and hydrogen looks like the splash made by a droplet of milk, when the sides rise up in a crown. I think about the pictures of rocks and of dust and of galaxies in space and they look no more than snowflakes in a blizzard, and black holes look like pearls in deep cases, superclusters like bath bubbles–like honeycombs, like cells in a leaf, the grid of a bumblebee’s nose. That the whorls of a nebula and the caverns of a fire glow with the same light and your eyes get warm and filled up looking at both.
I tell myself that wildebeest scurry like ants, the earth is a blue bubble floating in darkness, a cell is a spaceship. The pieces of comet shaped rock, which are light years across and thrust out of a nebula when it explodes, are heads of corn in a blue sky, if you are lying in a field in summer when the sky is cornflower blue, and the corn is reaching into it. I say to myself there are palaces in clouds, mountains in rock pools, highways in the dust at my feet, and cities on the underside of leaves; there is a face in the moon and a galaxy in my eye and a whirlpool at the crown of my head.
And then I know that I am enormous and I am small, I go on forever and am gone in a moment, I am as young as a baby mouse and as old as the Himalayas. I am still and I am spinning. And if I am dust, then I am also the dust of stars.
I LEARNED YOU can do things you didn’t know you could the night I went down to the street to clean up the mess the boys had left. I learned that nothing is impossible and the only reason it seems to be is that it just hasn’t happened yet. These are useful things to know.
On Monday, Neil didn’t say anything about us coming to his house. Perhaps it was because his father had told him not to have anything to do with me, but it could have been because Mrs. Pierce didn’t take her eyes off him. She picked on his spelling, on his grammar, on the dirt beneath his fingernails, and on how far behind he was. He didn’t say anything, but more than once I caught him watching me. I wanted to shout: “I’m not doing anything to you! I’m never going to do anything to you again!” but I just had to sit there.
That evening I said to God: “I’m not doing anything to him, but Neil is still angry.”
“There’s nothing you can do,” God said. “You set the wheel in motion. It’s easy to do things, not as easy to undo them.”
“Well, I’m not making anything else happen,” I said. “I’ll never make anything happen again!”
“We’ll see,” said God.
That week I didn’t make anything new in the Land of Decoration; I just told stories. I told a story about a red balloon that wanted to go higher and kept on going until it reached outer space but after a while couldn’t be sure which way was up anymore, or which way was in or out, or which way was the future and which way was the past and in the end it couldn’t be sure it was going anywhere at all.
I told a story about an Eskimo who caught an enormous fish and they became friends and the fish didn’t want to go back to sea. But it couldn’t live on land with the Eskimo, because it kept breaking the ice the Eskimo was standing on, so they made a boat from a whalebone and the fish towed the Eskimo away with him and neither was seen again.
I told a story of a fiddler who played so beautifully that even the birds in the trees began singing his songs back to him night and day. The only time they would be quiet was when he played to them, but he couldn’t play at night, and he couldn’t sleep, and he couldn’t eat, and finally he broke up the fiddle and ran away.
I told a story about a cornfield. The corn was green and called out to the sun to warm it. The sun warmed the corn and the corn became yellow. The corn thrust itself into the sky. It blossomed, it jostled, it fingered the blue. “Warm us some more,” it said. The sun licked the corn heads. The corn became darker. It chattered and rustled. A little smoke appeared at the edge of the field. A little flame too. “Warm us some more,” said the corn. The flames were made of a sports drink wrapper. They spread as the wind carried them. The corn began to crackle. Someone rode to the nearest town and rang the bell in the square. People came from all around with buckets and hoses and kettles and tanks full of water. But though they worked all afternoon and though the corn cried out to the sun that it was burning, the sun did not stop; soon there was nothing left but a space where a field used to be.
* * *
THE LAND OF Decoration seemed to me to be getting uglier. I couldn’t remember why I ever began making it. The streets looked jumbled, the fields brown, the rivers dull, the sun just a bulb, the mirror sea a stupid idea. Perhaps it was always like this, I thought. I wondered what other things I had not been seeing clearly.
It occurred to me that I had been worrying about Neil Lewis when all along I should have been worrying about Father. On Wednesday I went to the corner shop after school to buy sweets, and a newspaper said: VIOLENT CLASH BETWEEN PICKETERS AND WORKERS LEADS TO THREE ARRESTS. It had a picture in it of a man lying in front of a lorry, which was driving through the gates at the factory, and there were police with shields and helmets and horses fighting men with baseball bats and dustbin lids. A man with blood coming down his face was being held by the back of his sweater. I was so surprised I just stood there. Father hadn’t told me about any of that.
I went to the top of the road and looked down the hill to the factory and I saw how strange it was really, like a sleeping beast, a black thing with funnels and towers and ladders and pipes and above it these huge clouds of smoke like clouds of breath. And somewhere inside it was Father.
* * *
THE BOYS KNOCKED every night, but Father no longer went outside. There were more boys than I had seen before, the big boys, about four or five of them, and there was Neil in the midst of them, spitting and swearing and riding on the others’ backs. Father phoned the police, but by the time they arrived the boys had ridden away. It became a game with them to scarper down the backstreets as soon as they heard the cars. The police found nobody, we went to bed, the boys came back, and it all began again.
On Thursday night something different happened. There wasn’t any knocking, just a flip of the letter box. Father waited a minute, then went into the hall. He was standing by the door with a piece of paper in his hands.
“What’s that?” I said.
Father’s face was blank. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing.”
“Is it a note from the boys?” I said.
Then Father said: “Judith. Please.” As if he was hurt, as if I was hurting him. He had never spoken to me like that before, and I went back to the kitchen.
“I’d like you to send up a car,” I heard him say. “They are still here…. Yes … I can’t say over the phone.” He was silent for a minute. When he spoke again it was quieter. He said: “Let me tell you, you are making a big mistake…. Yes … I certainly will. I’ll bring it down first thing.”
“You’re taking that note to the police station?” I said when he came back into the kitchen.
“Judith, I would prefer it if you didn’t listen when I’m talking on the phone.” He threw some more coal in the Rayburn, then shut the door firmly and said: “From now on I don’t want you walking to school the back way anymore; go along the main road, all right? And don’t go out of the playground at lunchtime.”
“OK,” I said.
“And keep out of that boy’s way. He’s not a nice individual. I’m going to speak to the school tomorrow; if the police can’t do anything, maybe they can.”
“Really?” I said. I began to feel sick.
“Yes,” he said. “This has to stop.”
We were sitting by the Rayburn a few minutes later when something hit the front door hard. There were shouts. The voices sounded older than Neil and Lee’s, and there was laughter. There was another blow to the door and we heard the bushes crash in the front garden. Father cleared his throat once, sharply, and it sounded to me as if he couldn’t get his breath.
We were both very still as the noises went on and the air around us seemed to be getting thinner and more difficult to breathe. It went on, and on. And on. I didn’t understand how noises could paralyze you, but that’s what they were doing. I wanted to move more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life, but I couldn’t. Father’s skin looked as if someone was tightening it at the sides of his head. Suddenly he jumped up and went to the dresser. He took down the Bible, opened it, and handed it to me. “Read it,” he said.
When I still looked at him, he said: “Go on!”
“Therefore thus saith the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor bare a shield before it, nor erect a rampart against it. By the way that he came, the same way he shall return, he shall not come into this city, saith the Lord.”
“Louder,” Father said.
“For I will defend this city, and save it, for my sake, and for the sake of my servant David. And it came to pass that night that the angel of the Lord went out and smote in the Assyrian camp a hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, look, there was not one living.”
But my throat ached as if it was in a vice. Father snatched the Bible and began reading himself. He held the book away from him and read in a clear voice with his chin raised. He read till the hall clock chimed nine, through the laughter and voices outside, and I kept my head bowed.
A police car arrived again just after nine, but Father hadn’t called it this time. I wondered who had and thought perhaps it was Mrs. Pew or Mr. Neasdon.
Father told me to sleep in the middle bedroom and I didn’t ask why. He took a long time coming up, and when he did I heard him slide the bolt home on the front door and drag something heavy across it.
The Sixth Miracle
I DON’T KNOW if Father phoned the school or not, but in the middle of our math lesson on Friday Mr. Williams came to talk to Mrs. Pierce and they went out of the classroom; after a minute they came back in and Mrs. Pierce said: “Neil, Mr. Williams wants to talk to you.” Neil flushed dark red, and followed Mr. Williams out of the room. After ten minutes Gareth and Lee were called out too. Neil didn’t come back to class, but Gareth and Lee did, and they were pale and quiet.
I asked Mrs. Pierce if I could go to the toilet, and she looked at me sharply and said: “Are you all right?” I nodded. In the toilet I thought I was going to be sick, but in the end I wasn’t. I just sat on the floor by the bowl, leaning my head against the tiles.
I could feel Mrs. Pierce watching me for the rest of the day, and at home time she said: “I know things are difficult right now, Judith. We are going to support you and your father. I want you to know that. We are going to see that this sort of thing stops.”
* * *
LATE THAT NIGHT a voice woke me. Father was pulling back the blankets and saying: “Get up quickly, Judith.”
“Is it Armageddon?” I said.
“No, it’s a fire.”
“The Land of Decoration!” I said. And though a few days ago I had thought it was stupid, I realized I wanted it very much indeed.
“Just put your dressing gown on.”
Father took my hand and we ran along the landing and down the stairs. “The Land of Decoration!” I said again. “Let me get it! Please! Let me put part of it in a bag!” I was afraid I was going to cry, though I knew how much Father hated it.
He said: “The fire won’t get to your room, Judith; the firemen are on their way.”
We held our sleeves over our faces at the bottom of the stairs, because smoke was coming from underneath the front room door, then went through the hall into the kitchen and the back garden.
Mrs. Pew was standing by her back door in dressing gown and hairnet. She didn’t have her lipstick on or the white stuff on her face, and she looked almost normal except for the wobbling. She was fiddling with her hearing aid calling: “Are you all right?”
Father said: “We’re fine. But could Judith stay with you for the time being?”
Mrs. Pew said: “Of course!” and held out her hand, and he told me to go with her.
Mrs. Pew made me hot chocolate and I sat at her breakfast bar and tried to see through the window into our back garden while Oscar sat on the windowsill, grumpy at being woken and flicking his tail. “A dreadful business,” Mrs. Pew said. “Truly dreadful. I’m always worried that a fire will start in this house. So far, thank the Lord, I haven’t had one.”
I heard a big engine pull up out front and doors slam. In the sky there were blue flashing lights. I heard men’s voices in our house. The back door was open and I heard shouting and a steady sound and every now and then a heavy noise as though they were dragging something heavy.
Not long after I had finished my second hot chocolate, Father came back and said it was all over. The damage was mainly by the front room window.
Mrs. Pew said: “How on earth did it start?”
Father said a brick had been put through the living room window. He said there was a rag tied around a brick. The rag was soaked with petrol. A match had probably been thrown in afterward. He said it all very calmly.
Mrs. Pew blinked and blinked and touched her throat. I thought she was going to faint. She said: “You must stay here tonight! You can’t go back.”
Father said: “I think Judith had better, but I want to keep an eye on the house, so I’m going to sleep in the front room.”
“But the window is smashed!” said Mrs. Pew.
“The firemen are going to board it up,” said Father. “I’ll come and get Judith in the morning.”
I went to the door with him. “Can’t I come home with you?”
“No. You’re better off with Mrs. Pew tonight.”
“Please,” I said.
“It’s one night, Judith.”
* * *
I SLEPT IN a room at the back of Mrs. Pew’s house in a soft feather bed that smelled of potpourri. The smell made me feel sick. The softness of the bed made me feel I was falling. I wanted to race back to my room, where there were floorboards and blankets and it didn’t smell of anything at all. I began to rock back and forth.
“God,” I said, “how could You let this happen?”
“If I were you, I would be asking Myself the same question.”
“What?” I said. “What do You mean, I should–Hello? Hello? ” But there was no answer.
That night I dreamed of a house made from a shoe box. A Lego brick had been pushed through the window. There were flames of orange paper, and when they moved, they crackled. The flames reminded me of something, but I couldn’t think what. The fabric doll was asleep in the front bedroom and I shouted to her to wake up. The doll ran along the landing and woke the pipe cleaner doll. Flames were climbing the stairs. They beat at them, but they faded then glowed into new life again.
When I woke, it was like coming up through water, the opposite of drowning, though it felt just as bad. And then I remembered what the flames reminded me of: the cellophane wrapper from a bottle of sports drink.
* * *
THE NEXT MORNING, while it was still early, Father came to take me home. I looked at him as we went through Mrs. Pew’s gate into our back garden, but his face didn’t tell me anything; there was no expression on it at all.
Inside the house, everything smelled of smoke. The front room tiles were black and the walls were black around the window and there were pools of black water on the floor. The armchairs were black and eaten down to the stuffing. The paint on Mother’s sewing machine was bubbly and flaking. Where the window used to be there was now a board.
The front garden was like one of the pictures in the leaflet showing what it would be like after Armageddon. The golden cane around the front room window was burned to the ground and so were the Christmas roses. The cherry tree was charred and the ground full of cinders. A rug, armchair, and table were piled up by the gate, and they were black too.
My room was as I left it: the bedclothes thrown back, the Land of Decoration just the same, the two little dolls I dreamed about safe and sound.
I got down on my knees. I said: “Thank you!” over and over, and clasped my hands. Then I opened my eyes. And I stared.
Because in the middle of the Land of Decoration was the cornfield, the one that caught fire, and one half of it was covered with the wrapper from a bottle of sports drink.
Master and Servant
I SAT ON the side of the bath and said: “I don’t understand, I don’t understand, I don’t understand.” I wiped my mouth and flushed the toilet.
Then I went back to my room and I screwed up the drink wrapper and rolled up the field. I stamped on the earth and threw away the grass heads. I put the people and the containers of water back where they were. I said: “I don’t understand. I didn’t want to make a fire. I was playing.”
“Didn’t you realize that whatever you make can become real?” said the voice.
“No!” I said. “I thought I had to make something on purpose.”
“When you made the field, you were frightened,” God said. “Fear can make things happen. It’s like praying for disaster.”
“But that would mean something could happen at any time,” I said, “that things come from nothing–out of thin air!”
God said: “It’s worth considering that that model world has got a life of its own.”
“Then I’ll throw it away!” I said. “I won’t keep it! Anyway it isn’t me! It’s You! It’s not me who makes things happen! You made the fire! I said I wouldn’t make anything else happen and I meant it. I don’t want the power! I don’t want anything to do with it!”
“Power can be a difficult creature to tame,” God said. “Sometimes it’s not certain who the master is and who the servant. Anyway, I’m afraid you can’t just hand it back.”
“Why not?” I said. “No one said anything about having to keep it.”
“Well you’re becoming very useful to me. And anyway, you can’t switch the power on and off, you know.”
“Then it’s simple,” I said. “I won’t do a thing–ever again.”
“Easier said than done.”
“The power won’t leave,” said God.
“Please take it,” I said and I bit down hard on my lip so that I wouldn’t cry. “Nothing happens the way I think it will. Something always goes wrong.”
“That’s because Something and Nothing are more closely related than people think,” God said.
FATHER TOLD ME that there is a lot of Something in the universe and we can see it and measure it and it takes up space and things bounce off it and go on their way again. But for all of the Something there is just as much Nothing which can’t be seen and can’t be measured and people only stumble upon it by accident.
I have wondered if God made the Nothing or it came about by itself. Perhaps there could be no Something without Nothing. Just because the Nothing is invisible doesn’t mean it isn’t strong. It’s more dangerous than Something, because you can’t see where it is and it makes things disappear. In some places the Nothing is so strong that everything we know vanishes altogether. This is called Dark Matter.
Father said Dark Matter was what God used to create the universe. It drew things into itself, and those things were never seen again or came out the other end so misshapen they didn’t look like themselves anymore. He explained Dark Matter as the outside surface of a box and matter as the inside surface. We are inside the box so we see only the Something. But if you took the same piece of cardboard and unfolded it, you would see that both are simply different sides of the same thing. In fact, if you folded the box back up again the wrong way, you wouldn’t know the difference. This shows how close Something and Nothing really are.
How can you tell if you are dealing with Nothing or Something? How can you be sure if you’re inside the box or outside it? You can’t. And this is the problem: The inside and the outside, depending on where you’re standing, look just the same.