I WAS WRITING in my journal when I looked up and saw Father standing in the doorway. I pushed the journal away and said: “Are we going preaching?”
“No.” His eyes were dark. “Put on some rough clothes and come downstairs.” I didn’t have time to ask any more, because he was gone. A minute later I heard the back door slam and some clattering. I put my journal underneath the floorboard and pulled on my dungarees and sweater and went downstairs. Father was hauling planks round to the front of the house. He thrust a bucket of nails into my hand and said: “Take these out the front,” so I went into the garden and waited.
The world was blue and yellow and glittering like diamonds, and the air was so cold it burned the inside of my nose. The outline of the mountain looked like it had been drawn with a pin. A robin perched in the branches of the cherry tree and began to sing, and the notes cooled like drops of lead as they fell around me.
Father appeared after a minute with a saw and planks and two milk crates. He set up the milk crates and laid the first plank across them. “Hold it tight,” he said to me and I held the end of the plank. Then he started sawing. His body shuddered with each stroke and the sound tore the air. His face was red. A plank fell to the ground and he reached for another. It was horrible holding the planks.
When the saw’s teeth stuck, the plank brought me up with it. When the saw bent, my own teeth jumped.
Father began ramming the cut planks against the garden wall. I didn’t know where he would put them, because there was already a wall around our garden and above the wall railings, like in all the front gardens, but I began handing him nails. He put the planks on either side of the railings and smashed the nails so far into the wood that it splintered, so far in that the heads disappeared. He hammered nails all over the place, at all sorts of angles; once he hammered his finger, and blood ran down his hand.
The planks were different sizes and different thicknesses. They began and ended in different places. If they weren’t long enough, Father hammered on another one. If there was a gap, he threw cement into it, and stones, or pieces of brick. I thought he would throw himself in too if he could.
He didn’t look at me and he didn’t speak to me. Around about ten o’clock he started making noises like an animal. The noises made me sick in my chest and my arms feel like liquid. He said: “What are you staring at?” and I turned my head so he couldn’t see that I was crying.
He worked all morning, not stopping to eat or drink, his breath filling the air in great clouds. I kept passing him things as fast as he shouted. He threw off his sweater; his shirt was wet with sweat.
A small group of people gathered on the opposite pavement. Mrs. Andrews was there and Mr. Evans and Mr. Andrews. I don’t think they had ever seen a fence go up so quickly. At half past eleven Mr. Neasdon came out of next door and stood on the pavement. He had his hands on his hips and was blinking fast.
Father either didn’t see him or pretended not to. “McPherson!” Mr. Neasdon shouted. “What’s going on?”
“Fence!” said Father.
Mr. Neasdon said: “Did it occur to you to let us know before you started?”
“Hammer!” Father shouted. I handed it to him.
Mr. Neasdon looked up the street and back again. He shook his head, then he looked the other way. He threw his hands in the air. Then he finally looked back at Father and said: “How high is it going to go?”
“Don’t know!” Father said. He swung the plank into place. “Nails!”
Mrs. Pew poked her head over the railings at the other side of the garden wall and said: “John, would you like a cup of tea?”
“No tea, thank you, Mrs. Pew!” Father said.
She fiddled with her hearing aid. “I have Tetley if you like.”
“No tea! Thank you, Mrs. Pew!” Father said.
Mr. Neasdon said: “Whoa, whoa! Just a minute! I want to know how high this fence is going! It’s already blocking out the light at our front and it looks bloody awful! You just don’t do this without asking us.”
Father continued to hammer.
Mr. Neasdon’s chest began to go up and down. “You know, we’ve just about had it up to here with you! What with your proselytizing and your End of the World this and Armageddon that and you’re not striking–but this is the limit! I’m not going to stand for it!”
Father shouted: “Nails!”
Mrs. Pew reappeared and said: “What about herbal?”
Mr. Neasdon’s eyes bulged. He went inside, slamming the door.
Mrs. Pew came back later, but by that time we could only hear a voice saying: “John! John! I’ve peppermint if you’d like!”
* * *
IT BEGAN TO get dark at five o’clock. The group of people on the other side of the street went indoors. I expect they wondered if Father was going to go on all night, but no one came to ask him to be quiet.
Father told me to go inside, but I was feeling sick and wanted to see him in front of me, so I carried on handing him wood. I was cold though. “Isn’t it high enough now?” I said at last.
“We can’t see the street anymore.”
“Not high enough by half!” he said, and hurled the cement at the board as if he was teaching it a lesson.
Not long after that, I was handing Father a plank when a splinter went into my hand. Father didn’t see. I tried to pull it out but it broke off, and after that it hurt whenever I passed him anything. It was quite dark then and Father rigged up the Tilley lantern on top of the planks and carried on working, tottering on top of another two milk crates. He asked me to go and fetch the carrier bags of glass for the bottle bank, and when I did, he jumped on them and stuck the broken pieces in the cement along the top of the wall and in the gaps between the wood where the cement was fresh along the outside. At nine o’clock, we went inside. Father’s face was red, and around his eyes there were two white rings. He poured tea in the kitchen and his hand shook. He said the only thing left to do now was make a new gate and he would do that tomorrow.
We ate dinner in silence. It hurt to hold the fork. I didn’t feel like eating anyway. Suddenly I said: “You forgot to say thanks.”
Father stopped eating. Then he swallowed with a gulp and reached for his cup of tea. “Well, it’s too late now,” he said.
I stared at him. He cleared the last of his plate with a clatter, pushed back his chair, and said: “Is this finished?” I didn’t answer, but he took my plate anyway and went to the sink.
“What’s the matter with you?” he said as we were washing up.
“Yes there is. Come on, out with it.” Then he stopped rinsing the dishes and said sharply: “What’s the matter with your hand?”
He took the plate I was drying and opened my palm. The skin around the splinter was red and raised. When he touched it, I jumped.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he said, in a different voice altogether, and I shrugged and looked away.
Father turned off the tap. He told me to sit down and went out of the room. When he came back in he had antiseptic, cotton, a tin of Band Aids, and a needle. He pulled up a chair and sat opposite me and took my hand and began stroking the splinter with the needle.
Father’s face seemed to be completely empty now. I could feel his breath on my hand. He was gentle so it didn’t hurt, but my eyes got full anyway and I couldn’t look up.
He took a bandage and peeled off the back and pressed it down around the cut. “By there,” I said, and he pressed it. “And there.” He pressed the Band Aid some more. All around us, the room had become very still.
Then he stood up as if he’d suddenly remembered something and said: “That should do it.”
I said: “Do you think I need it wrapped?”
The darkness came back into his face. He said: “It’s a splinter, Judith.”
I put my hand over the Band Aid and watched him go.
WE DIDN’T GO to the meeting the next day, so I didn’t have to decide whether to wear Josie’s poncho or not. We didn’t go preaching or read the Bible or eat roast lamb and bitter greens. Instead, Father made a gate.
I have never seen a gate like it, and I don’t think anyone else had either judging from their faces as they walked by. Father worked on it all day in the front garden. There was ice on the ground and it didn’t melt, because there was no sun. I took cups of tea out to him, but he told me to stay inside because it was so cold.
At ten to two Uncle Stan phoned to find out if we were all right. I thought it was strange Father hadn’t phoned him or Alf before now to tell them about the fire, but I didn’t like to ask why. I told Uncle Stan that Father was making a gate. He said: “Oh…” Then he said: “Well, as long as you’re both all right … not ill or anything.”
“No,” I said. “Would you like me to get Father for you?”
“Is he busy?”
Father tottered past the window with the gate. “A bit,” I said.
Stan said: “Well, don’t bother him, pet.” Then he said: “A gate?”
“Well, just let him know I phoned to say we missed you.”
I felt strange when I put the phone down. Uncle Stan’s voice seemed to be coming from another world. I suddenly wished we had gone to the meeting. I wouldn’t even have minded wearing the poncho.
When Father had finished the gate, it was taller than him and shaped like a church window. It was three planks thick, with metal studs in the front and right in the middle a brass knob that was as big as a hand and shaped like a spike. It took Father an hour to hang it, and the sweat ran down his face and he made a noise as if he were in agony. Afterward, he showed me how to unlock it and gave me a key. The key was longer than my hand and very heavy.
At dinner I said: “Uncle Stan phoned.”
“He wondered if we were ill.”
“What did you tell him?”
“That you were making a gate. He said to tell you they missed us.” I took the plates to the sink and said: “Shall I get the Bibles?”
Father put his head in his hands. “In a minute.”
I hadn’t noticed his hands till now. They looked twice their normal size and were bright red, as if they’d been plunged into boiling water. There were cuts and dried blood and pieces of skin peeled back. His fingers looked like sausages about to burst out of their skins.
I washed and dried the dishes and fetched the Bibles. But when I came back, Father’s head was on his arms and he was fast asleep.
A Ring of Stakes
ON MONDAY, NEIL Lewis wasn’t in school and I was glad. Mrs. Pierce didn’t seem to know about the fire and no one else did either, so if Lee and Gareth had been with Neil they hadn’t told anyone.
When I went home, I saw Mr. and Mrs. Neasdon, Mrs. Andrews, and Mr. Evans standing on the corner of our road with bags of shopping. Mrs. Neasdon was saying: “We’ve got to live next door to that.”
Mr. Evans said: “I can understand why he’s done it, but you don’t go and do that. I mean, look at that glass.”
Mrs. Andrews said in a low voice: “If you ask me, I think he’s losing it.”
Mr. Neasdon shook his head. “He lost it long ago.”
They stopped talking when they saw me, and Mrs. Neasdon smiled a wobbly smile. I didn’t smile back. I heard her say when I had passed: “And God knows that child gets stranger every day.”
I felt itchy as I walked to the house. I went through the gate and locked it behind me. I peered through a crack in the fence. The itching got worse. Then I picked up a small stone and climbed the cherry tree. I flung the stone as hard as I could over the top of the fence, then dropped to the ground. When I looked through the crack, they had all stopped talking and were looking at the house.
I waited till they began to talk again, then got another stone, climbed up the blackened cherry tree, and threw it as hard as I could. It caught Mr. Neasdon on the neck, and he saw me before I could jump clear. Through the fence I saw him stare at our house. Mrs. Neasdon put her hand on his arm. They went indoors.
I felt hot after they had gone and sat with my back against the fence, digging my shoes into the earth. I didn’t go inside until the bus came with Father on it, though it was dark by then and I was shivering.
“What are you doing out here?” he said.
* * *
AT DINNER I said: “Mr. Neasdon said how much he liked the fence.”
Father said: “I’m glad it meets with his approval.”
After a few minutes I said: “Is it going to stay there?”
“For the foreseeable future.”
“Good,” I said. “I like it. It’s the best fence in the world.”
The Bible study that night was about Jerusalem. It turned out Jerusalem also became a Den of Iniquity after Jesus died, and yet it was the capital of the Land of Decoration. God let it be destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Most of the people inside forgot to escape to the mountains, like Jesus told them to do, when the first troops came and went again. When the Romans came back, it was too late; they built a fence of pointed stakes around the city and the people starved and began eating their own children. “Only a few escaped,” Father said. “Those who remembered what Jesus had told them. They went to the mountains and stayed there until the Romans went away. The Great Tribulation will be the same. We mustn’t become complacent, because it will come like a thief in the night.”
* * *
THAT WEEK, PEOPLE shouted if they wanted to speak to Father, and he stood on a milk crate and peered down at them. The postman had to throw our mail over the top of the fence because Father said a letter box was asking for trouble. I had told Father I liked the fence, but when I came home from school and someone was walking behind me, I didn’t go in through the front but slipped down the lane and went in through the back gate.
I couldn’t sit in my room anymore, because I didn’t want to be near the Land of Decoration. I was trying to remember exactly where everything was and couldn’t be sure if something had moved or not. I had a bad headache before bed and had to ask Father for some acetaminophen.
At night I slept with my back to the Land of Decoration, but then I felt frightened and turned back to face it again. Once I dreamed the little people were scaling the sides of the bed with ropes, and I woke as the little man I had made to look like Neil was nailing my hair to the mattress with toothpicks.
After school, I spent a lot of time walking around the garden, looking through the cracks in the fence. It was like being invisible, but we weren’t invisible–we were the most visible house on the street. If our town had been Jericho, we wouldn’t have had to tie a red cord to the window; God would have known which house to leave standing.
I had lied to Father about Mr. Neasdon liking the fence, but someone really did like it. On Tuesday Mrs. Pew was coming home with her shopping and said: “I wish I could have something like that. It would be ideal for hanging baskets.” She asked me to ask Father if he could build her a fence, but I didn’t. He was acting strangely.
He sat in the middle room every evening after the Bible study and went over bills–at least that’s what he said he was going to do, but when I looked through the keyhole he was staring into space. He told me off for leaving the hall light on and for throwing a crust away because there was mold on it. He said: “It’s only penicillin; you’re lucky to have food at all!”
He went to bed earlier than usual and began sleeping on a mattress on the kitchen floor. Before bedtime he walked around the garden and checked that the back gate was locked. Then he came inside, turned the electricity off, and balanced an ax above the back door. I lay in bed looking out over the town and thought about those people in Jerusalem. I wondered who the Romans were this time, and if they came, would the mountains hide us?
ON FRIDAY, NEIL Lewis came back to school. I felt him come into the room before I saw him though he didn’t come in as he usually did. He sat down quietly. Then he did something strange. He glanced over his shoulder at me, as if to check I was there and in that moment I knew everything. I knew he had started the fire, he and his brother and his friends, and I began to feel sick. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was angry or because I was afraid, but I knew I mustn’t think about Neil Lewis anymore, not even for a second, because if I did I would do something bad.
On Monday I woke to a strange sound: a slap and a roar. The roar came a split second after the slap. I looked down to see Father standing on the pavement. He had a can of brown paint in one hand and a brush in the other. He was dunking the paintbrush into the can and splattering it against the fence. His face was screwed up as if he was crying.
I had never seen Father look like that, and it made me feel worse than I had ever felt in my life. I sat down on the bed for a minute. Then I went down. When I came through the gate, he shouted: “Get back! Your clothes’ll be ruined!” But I had seen what was on the fence, the words sprayed in big looping letters, and this time I understood them all.
I went back to my room and curled up and shut my eyes. I put my fingers in my ears and pressed hard and kept pressing. I ground my teeth. But I could still hear the roaring and I could still see Father’s face.
I began to think I would like to hurt Neil Lewis badly.
* * *
MY HEAD WAS hot and full in class that morning, like it had been the afternoon I made the first miracle. We were making snowflakes at school, folding and cutting and opening circles of paper. I would normally have enjoyed making things, seeing how the patterns suddenly sprang into life when you opened out the snowflakes, but my eyes kept wandering to Neil.
He was sitting with Kevin and Luke, his cheek on his hand. He looked bored, half asleep: The sunshine was catching his hair and making his eyelashes whiter than ever. I thought that you would not know to look at him what he was like. You would never know what he wrote on people’s fences and did to their gardens. I began cutting my snowflake again, but my eyes were getting fuzzy and I couldn’t make the scissors go where I wanted. I looked up again. Neil was putting his thumb inside the corner of his nose. He saw me looking at him. And when he did he smiled so that his eyes became slits and his lip curled.
I looked down and bit into my lips and kept pressing down until I tasted iron. I thought of Father and what he had said about forgiveness. I thought of everything good and everything right and everything hopeful, but it was all I could do to keep cutting. Something was rising inside me, millions of small things, scurrying down my arms to my fingertips, crawling up my spine into my hair.
Specks appeared in front of my eyes. There was roaring. The room was getting darker.
I don’t know what made me look up, but when I did I saw that someone was standing behind Neil Lewis. I couldn’t see the person’s face because it was hazy. The rest of the classroom was empty. The person’s hands took Neil’s head, brought it back, then down onto the desk. I jumped. The head made a dull sound and the desk rocked.
The roaring was getting louder. The hands brought Neil’s head back again. His skin was stretched and his eyes were staring. His mouth was an “O.” The hands brought the head down on the desk and Neil yelled. When his head came up this time, there was blood coming from his nose.
He tried to get up but lost his balance. The hands brought his head down again. This time it hit the edge of the desk and I heard a softer sound, like a cabbage broken open.
I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I was being pressed into the seat. My eyes were closing, I was falling. The hands brought the head down again. The face didn’t look like Neil anymore. The hands brought the head down again. Neil had stopped yelling now. His mouth was a hole and his eyes were two bags of flesh and his nose had spread sideways.
Then someone was saying: “Judith! Can you hear me?” But the roaring went on and the hands went on bringing the head down on the desk.
“Judith!” Someone was shaking me. The roaring was stopping, the light was coming back, the room was full of people again.
Mrs. Pierce’s hands were on my shoulders and her face was white. Anna and Matthew and Luke were staring at me. Everyone was. I looked around. Neil, too. He looked normal. Nothing had happened to him.
My body was wet. I thought I was going to be sick. Mrs. Pierce opened my hands and took the scissors. My fingers were cut and the snowflake was in tatters.