Grace McCleen The Land of Decoration



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What Have You Done?
WHAT HAPPENED IN there?” said Mrs. Pierce. I was sitting on the seats beneath the coat rail.

I don’t know. My head got hot.”

Has this ever happened before?”

Her face was more serious than I had ever seen it. She said: “We have to talk about this. With your father. I’d like you to ask him to come and see me as soon as possible. Right now I have to get back to class. Would you like to go home?”

I nodded.

All right,” said Mrs. Pierce. “I’ll get someone to walk with you.”

No,” I said, “I’ll be all right. It’s not far.”

No,” said Mrs. Pierce. “Wait here and I’ll go and get Anna to walk with you.”



When she had left, I got up and went out.

I don’t remember walking home, but I must have. I don’t remember if it was raining or sleeting or blowing a gale, but it must have been doing something or other. I don’t remember Sue not being there and having to cross the road myself, but I suppose I must have done that too. I don’t remember turning in to our street or coming through the gate or unlocking the door or coming upstairs or sitting beside the Land of Decoration, but I must have done all those things, because then I remember staring at the figure I had made of Neil Lewis, standing up, and bringing my foot down hard on it. I remember the feel of the figure beneath my shoe and the roaring in my head and hearing myself say things I had never heard before, like “I will drain the very gorge from his veins”–though I didn’t know what “gorge” was and whether it came from veins or another place altogether. I didn’t know if I was speaking, because it didn’t feel like my mouth or my voice, and when I caught sight of myself in the sea I didn’t recognize my face either. Then the roaring grew less and I don’t remember anything after that. I lay down and went to sleep.

When I opened my eyes, my head felt as if I had hit it and my tongue felt too big for my mouth. Light from the streetlamp was falling on the fields and the hills and the towns of the Land of Decoration. A voice was saying: “What have you done?”

It said: “I think you really have done something this time.”

No I haven’t,” I said.

Look,” said the voice.

I picked up the figure of Neil Lewis and looked at it. The head dangled, one leg was longer than the other, an arm was missing. The face was in pieces.

I pushed the arm into the body, but it wouldn’t stay. I pushed the head on again, but it fell off. There was nothing I could do about the face. I leaned against the wall and closed my eyes. “It doesn’t mean anything,” I said.

Like the fire didn’t mean anything?”

I’ll remake it.”

What have I said about remaking things?”

I don’t care!” I said. “I’ll do it. I’ll make it right.”

I got out wire and wool and modeling clay. I remeasured the wire and remodeled the head, but my hands were shaking. I remade the hands and the feet and re dressed him and re wigged him and repainted his face, but the eyes were smaller and the nose was straighter and the checks fuller than they should have been. I didn’t have any more Wite Out left to do the white stripe down the trousers, and the new figure was a good half inch shorter.

I pushed the figure away. “It doesn’t mean anything,” I said. But I knew of all the things I had made, this meant the most.

BOOK IV

The Lost Sheep
Waiting
UNTIL NEIL WALKED into the classroom on Tuesday, I felt sick. “There!” I said to God as Neil slouched to his seat. “Nothing! I told you so.”

Don’t count your chickens,” God said.



That night I wrote in my journal: Nothing has happened to Neil.

On Wednesday we finished our snowflakes and hung them around the room, got to the bit in Charlotte’s Web where they are about to go to the fair, and wrote some more poetry. But this time my poem wasn’t any good at all. I couldn’t seem to do anything else either. I multiplied when I should have divided, confused nouns and verbs, pasted the wrong side of my graph to my math book, and colored my mercury red instead of silver.

Mrs. Pierce called me to her desk. She said: “Are you all right, Judith?”

Yes, Mrs. Pierce.”

How’s your hand?” she said. But my hands were fine, because the cuts had only been little.

Mrs. Pierce said: “Have you asked your father to come and see me?”

I flushed. “Yes,” I said.

But it was important Father never did that, because Mrs. Pierce would let him know I was still talking about God and the miracles.

My book was open in front of her. Only two sums had ticks by them. She said: “It doesn’t matter about the sums, Judith. You can do these standing on your head. I just wondered if you wanted to tell me what was worrying you.”

I shrugged.

Is everything all right at home?”



I nodded.

How is your father coping with the strike?”



I thought about it. When he came in from work, Father’s face was pale but his voice was calm. We ate dinner and studied the Bible. Then he went into the middle room to look at the bills on the metal spike and I went upstairs. He inspected the fence, came in, balanced an ax above the back door, and turned the electricity off. “I think he’s OK,” I said.

Mrs. Pierce said: “Remember, Judith: I’m here if you do need to talk to anyone. OK?”

OK,” I said.


* * *
ON THURSDAY WE got a letter from the civil court, asking Father to ring them as soon as possible. He said: “They didn’t waste any time.”

Who?” I said, but he didn’t answer. I had to look at the envelope. “What do they want you to do?”

Take the fence down.”

Why?”

It’s an antisocial gesture ”–he held the paper up–“a safety hazard , and aesthetically incongruous .”

Are you going to take it down?”

In their dreams,” he said, and dropped the letter into the grate. I took that as a “no.”

That night I dreamed of the field in the Land of Decoration and the two little dolls I made first of all. The field wouldn’t stay still, as if someone was shaking it, and the dolls clung to each other. The sun was bigger than before and seared their hands and faces. The grass was long and silken, but it was writhing as if it were alive and grasped at their ankles.

Something was coming, lolloping through the grass. It looked like a person, except there wasn’t a head, only something bobbing like a balloon on a string. The fabric doll screamed and pulled at the pipe cleaner doll’s sleeve. It came off in her hands and she backed away.

The pipe cleaner doll stared at his arm, then at the fabric doll. His face was blank. Suddenly his legs crumpled and he dropped to his knees. He continued to stare at her. She opened her mouth. Then the pipe cleaner doll’s eyes turned up, his head toppled backward, and his body fell at her feet.
* * *
ON SUNDAY IT was good to see everyone. It seemed ages since we had. They were shocked to hear about the fire. “Well, are the police doing something?” said Elsie.

It’s outrageous!” said May. She put her hands over my ears and mouthed to Father: “You could have been killed!”



Uncle Stan said: “Do you need anything? Do you want to stay with us for a while?”

Father said: “No, we’re fine. It’s all right now.”

Then Uncle Stan said: “When did this happen, John?”

Father said: “Friday night.”

Uncle Stan said: “You must be exhausted!”

Yes,” Father said. “Pretty much.”

Do you want us to come and give you a hand getting things straight?” said Margaret.

No, no,” said Father. “It’s all taken care of.”



I suddenly realized everyone thought the fire had happened two nights ago and that Father hadn’t corrected them. No one knew about the fence either. Why didn’t Father tell them? Perhaps he didn’t want to worry them, I thought. But it was rather strange.

May shook her head. “Well, I hope the police find whoever did it,” she said. “They should go to prison.”

Father said: “You can’t depend on the police.”

That’s right,” said Gordon, and everyone looked at him. If anyone knew about the police it was Gordon.

Anyway, I know who did it,” said Father. “But apparently there’s not enough evidence.” Then he laughed. “They want me to install a security camera.”

Uncle Stan shook his head. “What’s the world coming to?”

The Tribulation!” Alf shook his head.



Elsie hugged me. She said: “At least you’re safe.”

May shook her head. “I can’t bear to think of what might have happened.”

Do you think it’s anything to do with the strike?” Stan said.

Probably.” Father nodded. “I’m not exactly flavor of the month at the moment.”

I went out to the toilet and sat in a cubicle. It was cool there and quiet. I leaned my head against the plasterboard. I wondered what would happen if they knew I had done it all.
The Law
ON MONDAY EVENING a man with a briefcase and suit banged on the gate. I went and told Father, who I wasn’t sure had heard, and he said to let the man in. I slid back the bolts and turned the key and pulled the gate open. The man stared at me. I think he expected to see someone taller. “Come in,” I said. The gate crashed behind him and he jumped.

The man looked at the burned tree and the boarded up window. He looked at the nailed up door and the black earth and the broken bottles.

I led the way to the kitchen. Father was standing with his back to the Rayburn. The man touched his tie and said: “I expect you know why I’ve come, Mr. McPherson. You’ve received a letter from us expressing our concern about the existence of the fence and asking you to contact us as soon as possible.”

Father said: “I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

The man said: “What’s wrong was explained very clearly in the letter: It’s an eyesore. It’s also extremely dangerous. People could get hurt.”

That’s the point,” said Father.



The man looked at Father.

Father said: “Do you have any idea what we have been dealing with?”

That’s none of my business, Mr. McPherson. Take it up with the police.”



Father said: “I’ve tried to take things up with the police. I’ve been trying for the last two months. There aren’t many options left open to me.”

Well, I’m just doing my job.” The man straightened his shoulders. “And I’m afraid your neighbors want the fence to go.” He picked up his bag. “I’m going to go back to the office to make a report,” he said. “If they deem the fence unsuitable to remain standing, you’ll have to take it down; if that doesn’t happen, we’ll be issuing you a summons. Then it’s up to the magistrate to decide whether it stays or not.”



Father said: “Show the gentleman out, Judith.”

Suddenly the man started. I followed his eyes to the ax above the back door. The man looked at the ax. Then he looked at Father. Perhaps it was strange to have an ax above a door. I now wondered if Father would have put it there a few months ago; I wondered if he would even have built a fence. Or whether he would just have said: “Judith, trials are stepping stones bringing us closer to God.”

The planning man and I went back through the hall, out the front door, and down the garden path. I undid the gate and watched him walk away.

The farther he went, the stranger I felt. “Wait!” I shouted, and ran after him.

He turned.

Please let my father keep the fence!”

I’m afraid that’s not possible.” He began walking again.

Can’t you make an exception?” I panted. “It’s not really dangerous, because no one climbs up it. If it gets taken down, I don’t know what Father will do!”



The man said: “I’m sorry, I can’t discuss this any further.” He began to walk faster.

It’s so much better with the fence! We don’t get anyone knocking at the door anymore!” I said. “And no one starting fires! And no one vandalizing the cherry tree or putting things through the letter box. Can’t you let it stay?”



The man repeated: “I’m sorry.” He unlocked his car and swung into the seat. He slammed the door, looked over his shoulder, and pulled away from the curb.

It’s not fair !” I shouted.



The car disappeared round the corner. The man had forgotten to put on his seat belt.
The Seventh Miracle
I SAT IN my window. “How much longer, God?” I said. “How much longer till Armageddon? I want it to come and put an end to everything.”

It’s close,” God said. “Closer than you think.”

You always say that,” I said. “They’ve been saying that for years.”

Well, this time it really is,” God said. “If you could see the timetable I’ve got drawn up here, you’d see it truly is just round the corner.”

Imminent?” I said.

Exactly,” God said.

But it’s been imminent forever!” I drew my knees into my chest. “I want it right now, right now–today! I don’t want to wake up in this world anymore.”

Well, you might have to be a little more patient than that,” said God. “But I’m not joking: It really is very close.”



I took a deep breath. “What will it be like, God?” I said. “I mean afterward?”

Oh, wonderful,” said God. “Everything you’ve always imagined.”

No more sickness or hunger or death?”

That’s right,” said God.

And you’ll wipe the tears from people’s eyes?”

Yes.”

And Father and I will see Mother and everyone will live forever and it will be like it was in the beginning?”

Yes.”

And will I have a dog and will there be fields and trees and a hot air balloon?”

Oh, all of that,” said God.

And will my mother like me?”

I should think so.”

Tell me how long, God!” I said. “Give me a clue, just a little one.”

No one knows the day or the hour,” said God.

Except You.”

Yes … but it’s variable. I really couldn’t give you an answer on that at the moment.”

Well, I’m ready for it,” I said. “Whenever it comes. It won’t be a moment too soon.”
* * *
WE WERE SITTING in the kitchen that night, reading about the end of Jerusalem, eating kippers and peas, when something thudded at the front of the house. Father’s eyes stopped moving in the middle of the page. They stayed where they were for a moment. Then they began moving again.

A minute later there was another bang, only this time it sounded as though someone had driven a car into the fence. We heard laughter–high pitched, husky, and broken. Something passed through Father’s face and he pushed back his chair.

Don’t go!” I said, and jumped up. I don’t know why I felt so afraid.



But he did. He went out of the back door. A few seconds later I heard the back gate swing to, a shout go up in the street, and running feet.

I sat for a while on the settee and then I began walking. I walked into the hall and around the front room. I walked into the middle room and back out again. I walked upstairs and along the landing and into each of the bedrooms and downstairs again.

When the hall clock chimed nine, I went upstairs and lay on Father’s bed and breathed in the smell of him. I pulled his sheepskin over me. Perhaps I should have gone next door to Mrs. Pew and told her what had happened. Perhaps I should have phoned the police. But I didn’t want to move. I watched the minutes go by on Father’s little alarm clock in faint green numbers and thought how he must look at it every morning when he got up in the dark. Thought about him sleeping here, curled on his side, his head on this pillow where I could smell his skin, and there was a tugging in my stomach that wouldn’t go away.
* * *
WHEN THE HALL clock chimed ten, I went downstairs and phoned Uncle Stan. “I don’t know where Father is,” I said when he picked up the receiver.

Who’s this?” said Uncle Stan’s voice. It sounded sleepy.

Uncle Stan?”

Judith! Is that you?”

Yes,” I said, and I began to cry.

What’s happened? Where’s your dad?”

He went out chasing the boys. He told me to stay in the house. I don’t know what’s happened to him.”

How long ago?”

Hours.”

OK. Now–stay where you are,” said Uncle Stan. “Stay right there and I’ll be with you in ten minutes, can you do that? I’m going to come right over and I’m going to phone the police. Don’t worry, sweetheart, your dad can take care of himself. Just hang on and I’ll be there.” I heard him say something to Margaret. Then he said to me: “All right?”

Yes.”

Right. Put the phone down, pet. I’m on my way.”



As I hung up the phone, it began to ring again. “Judith.” It was Father.

Where are you?” I said.

I’m at the police station.”

You’re all right?”

Yes, I’m fine.”

My knees bent and I sat down on the floor.

Father said: “Judith, I’m sorry. There’s been an accident. I just have to give a statement and then I’ll be home.”

Father said: “Judith? Are you there?”

Yes,” I said.



I wiped my face. “An accident?”

There was a pause.

Neil Lewis got knocked down by a car. It happened as we were coming down the hill.” Father’s voice sounded strange. “He’s going to be all right.”



The receiver was in my hand and my hand was in my lap. A distant voice from the receiver said: “He hurt his back. He’s going to be all right.” It went on talking. Suddenly I heard it say: “Judith?”

I lifted up the receiver. “Yes.”

Look, just sit tight. I’ll be home soon, all right?”

OK.”

Are you all right?”

Yes.”

I’m–I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gone out.”



I heard voices in the background then, a man shouting and doors slamming. Father said: “I have to go now. I’ll be home very soon.”

When Father had gone, I phoned Uncle Stan back to tell him not to come, but Margaret said: “Oh, he’s on his way, Judith. You say your dad’s all right?”

Yes.”

Well, thank goodness for that. Don’t worry about Stan. Are you all right?”

Uncle Stan arrived a little later. I heard him knock on the gate and went out to undo it.

Stan said: “What on earth–”

It’s a fence,” I said. “Father built it to keep the boys out.”

Boys?”

Yes, the ones knocking on our door. Remember I told you?” Uncle Stan shook his head. “Uncle Stan,” I said, “Father’s called. He’s all right.”



His eyebrows shot upward. “He’s all right?”

Yes.”

Thank goodness! Where is he?”

At the police station.”

The police station?”

I nodded.

Yes,” I said. “Sorry.”

It’s all right, pet, I’m just glad he’s safe.” Stan’s eyes were glassy. I saw his pajama trousers underneath his coat.

We went into the kitchen. Uncle Stan’s hair was sticking up. He passed his hand over his face and said: “So why is your dad at the police station?”

I explained how he had been chasing the boys. “He said one of them ran across a road and got knocked down.”

Dear me!” said Uncle Stan. “And this is the boy who’s been giving you trouble?”

Yes.”

I wondered if he remembered how I had told him about punishing Neil, but he didn’t appear to, which was fortunate. He said: “How long has that fence been there?”

I debated whether to tell him. “Nearly three weeks.”

Three weeks?”



I wished I hadn’t.

Your dad didn’t say anything.”



I shrugged.

Uncle Stan looked around, at the dresser and the table, at the mattress Father was sleeping on propped up against the wall. Then he caught sight of the ax above the door. He flushed, and blinked quickly, as if he was trying to make something out. “Your dad been all right besides that?” he said.

He’s been worried about work. And the boys were getting to him.”



Uncle Stan nodded. “It’s terrible what they did to the garden. Your dad planted those things for your mother. That cherry tree was beautiful in the spring. And the window, and the front door…”

But that’s not all,” I said. “They did things outside the house and put things through the letter box and rode around him and called him names in the street. They wrote stuff on the fence. And one night I went out and–Oh, it doesn’t matter.”



Uncle Stan shook his head. “Satan’s certainly testing us for all he’s worth.”

I thought only God tested us,” I said.



He laughed quickly. “But that fence can’t stay there, can it? Your dad’s not going to leave it like that?”

Father thinks it’s all right. It’s the man from the civil court who doesn’t.”

Someone’s been to the house?”

Yes.”

Oh dear, oh dear.” Uncle Stan rummaged in his pocket and brought out a packet of Rennie’s. I was just going to offer him a cup of tea when we heard a car pull up. A minute later we heard voices coming up the back path. A man was saying: “I know, Mr. McPherson, but chasing them like that–what were you going to do if you caught up with them?”

Father’s voice said: “I hadn’t thought that far.”

Then the back door opened and Father came in with a policeman and a policewoman, and first he said: “Judith,” and then he said: “Stan.”

I jumped up and then I stopped, because there was blood on his shirt and his sweater was rolled up in his hand.

Uncle Stan said: “John, what’s going on?” and it sounded to me as though he was angry, and it was strange because he hadn’t sounded angry till then.

Father came up to me and said: “It’s all right. I carried Neil to the ambulance. He’s going to be all right.” He didn’t say anything to Uncle Stan.

I sat down and looked at my hands.

We’ll leave you to sort yourself out,” said the policeman. He looked suspiciously at Uncle Stan, then turned back to Father. “Keep yourself available, Mr. McPherson. We may need to take some more information in the near future.”



The policewoman said: “And by the way, that fence is a complete safety hazard.”

Father showed the police out. When he came back into the kitchen, he put his sweater in the washing machine. Uncle Stan said: “John, we need to talk.”

Father said: “I know how this looks but, believe me, there’s another side to the story.”

Uncle Stan said: “What story? Have you seen out there”–he gestured to the front garden–“and that”–he pointed to the ax–“and this child, in a terrible state? And how on earth did this boy get hurt? What’s happening, John? Why didn’t we know about any of this?”

Father said: “Thanks for coming over, Stan, but I can’t talk any more tonight. We’ll have to have this conversation another time.”

They looked at each other. Then Uncle Stan breathed in suddenly, put his hand on my head, and said: “Well. Good night, sweetheart. Everything’s all right now.” He picked up his car keys and followed Father to the door. I heard him say again just before he went out: “We need to talk,” and Father say: “Not now.” Then I heard the gate shut, then the front door, and Father came back into the kitchen.

His eyes were very bright and very dark. He pulled up a chair and sat down in front of me and put his hands on his knees. He said: “I can see you’re upset, and I’m sorry. I was chasing Neil Lewis and the other boys when Neil ran across a road. I didn’t do anything. The police know that. Neil is being taken care of. He’s going to be all right.”

When I still didn’t look at him, he breathed in and said: “I’m sorry, Judith. I really am. I shouldn’t have gone out. But it’s done now.” He raised his hands and let them drop on his knees. Then he stood up. “Well, I think it’s time for bed.”

He made a hot water bottle like he used to when I was little and said: “Come on.” He went upstairs with me and put the bottle in my bed and I got in. Then he sat down on the side. I looked out the window and was glad it was dark so that Father couldn’t see my eyes.

Beyond the windowpane there were millions of stars, light spilling out of them as if they were holes cut in fabric and something marvelous beyond. I wanted to speak, but I had to wait because my throat was so tight. I kept waiting. I almost gave up, but in the end my throat let me and I said: “Are we going to be all right?”

Yes,” Father said, and he, too, waited to speak. It occurred to me that he hadn’t said: “Of course we are,” or “That’s a silly question.”



Neither of us said any more for a minute, and my throat got tighter and my jaw began to ache. “Will you go to jail?” I said.

No.”



I said: “I was so worried about you,” and my voice was not much more than a whisper.

Father looked down. He said: “I’m sorry, Judith. I shouldn’t have gone.”

I said: “What’s going to happen now?” and my voice was just air.

Nothing. Nothing is going to happen; what happened was unfortunate, but it’s over now.”



He sat with me a little while longer, then he said: “I have to get up for work tomorrow. Are you going to be all right?”

I nodded because I couldn’t speak anymore.

I thought for a minute he was going to kiss me, but he just brought the blanket up to my chin and said good night.


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