* * *
THERE WAS NO sound in the room. Beyond the window, street light spilled over the black garden and the broken cherry tree. My jaw was too tight to speak. I said in my head: “It’s because of Neil, isn’t it? It’s because of what I made happen to him.”
“An eye for an eye,” the voice said. “A tooth for a tooth. A life for a life.”
I began to cry. “But Father isn’t dead,” I said. I began to shake, my whole body. “Why didn’t You protect him?”
God said: “My ways are unsearchable.”
I said: “It’s convenient being unsearchable, isn’t it?”
Fish and Chips
WHEN I CAME downstairs the next morning Father was in front of the Rayburn. That day he got up to get dinner and that was all. I asked: “Shall I call May or Elsie to help?” but he shook his head.
The next day he sat in front of the Rayburn again. He hadn’t shaved and he hadn’t changed his clothes and he didn’t seem to have slept much, because his eye–the one I could see–was bloodshot.
I couldn’t ask him if he was going to phone Uncle Stan without letting him know I had heard the conversation, but when he unplugged the phone I felt shaky and said: “What if we need to call anyone?”
“We plug it back in.”
I was pleased because now Mrs. Pierce wouldn’t be able to get through, but I was worried that Father wasn’t going to phone Uncle Stan. “But he will,” I said to myself. “Now that Neil isn’t knocking anymore, he’ll calm down. He’ll make the phone call to Uncle Stan anytime now,” and all that day I didn’t go far from Father in case he made the call when I wasn’t there.
Over the next few days, the rest of Father’s body turned all shades of blue and yellow, and green. A doctor came and looked at his eye and said Father was lucky, that he wasn’t going to lose it but that he should have gone to the hospital. Mike came by every day after work and sat with Father. On Thursday he left an envelope on the table, and Father saw it as Mike was going out the door and told me to run and give it back to him, but Mike wouldn’t take it.
The days were long without school. I wrote in my journal. I fed my mustard seeds some Baby Bio that Mrs. Pew gave me. I didn’t dare touch the Land of Decoration. One morning I was so tired of nothing happening with the mustard seeds that I dug them up and spread the soil out on a plate and tried to find them. The ones I did find looked exactly the same as when Brother Michaels gave them to me.
I went round to see Mrs. Pew a bit. She showed me photographs of her and Mr. Pew on a tandem and taught me how to play “Chopsticks” on the piano and I held Oscar in a blanket while she gave him his worming tablets, but all the time I had a pain in my stomach thinking about Father, and though I was glad to get out of our house, I was more glad to get back.
He slept or sat with his eyes closed–in front of the grill, I wasn’t sure which. He didn’t say: “Don’t slam the door,” and didn’t say: “Are you playing with that food or eating it?” and didn’t notice when I was loud, which I was on purpose, just to test him. His eyes passed over things as if he didn’t recognize them. He went to bed at eight o’clock. When I came down in the mornings, he was still sleeping. All he did was get up to make tea or stare at the open mouth of the grill, with its black tongue and the black space crusted with char and the black elements, as if there was some great secret in there.
We ate potatoes and bacon or sausages every night. I cooked them, because Father said I could, and didn’t get them right once, but he didn’t notice. There was no more praying and no more reading the Bible and no more pondering, though I did enough pondering for both of us. On Sunday, Father took his eye patch off and began reading the newspaper, so after dinner I took away the plates, then fetched the Bibles. I said: “We’ve been forgetting.”
Father looked at the Bible for a few minutes, then sucked in breath through his nose, as if he was waking. He said quietly: “I can’t do this right now, Judith.”
I felt a flash of heat as though I was falling. “But it’s important!” I said. “It’s Sunday and we didn’t even go to the meeting! We haven’t done the study for ages!”
Father raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “I can’t get my head round it at the moment, Judith.”
It made me feel terrified when he said that. I said: “What do you mean ?”
“I just need … a bit of space.”
He sighed. “Sometimes things are too complicated for children to understand.”
“I can understand,” I said. “Tell me!”
But he got up and sat with his back to me.
“Well, I’m going to read,” I said. “I’ll read for both of us.”
Father said loudly: “I don’t need anyone to read to me!” I thought for a minute he was going to get angry, but the look left his face as quickly as it had come and he said: “I just need some peace.”
I did read, and it was all about the Nephilim and the flood and how God destroyed everything. Because it was such a long time since we’d done the reading I’d forgotten where we were and began reading wherever I opened the Bible, which happened to be Genesis, though the flood wasn’t a very good subject at all, and I wished I’d never started halfway through. I was glad–though astonished–when Father interrupted and said: “Do you fancy fish and chips?”
“What?” I said.
“I said, would you like some fish and chips?”
I wondered if this was some sort of test, but he kept looking at me, and he didn’t look like he was trying to trick me, he only looked incredibly tired.
“Yes,” I said at last.
We put on coats and walked through the rain down the hill to Corrini’s. It was the first time Father had been out of the house, and he kept pulling his coat collar higher and shivering.
He blinked beneath the lights in Corrini’s and people stared at him. He said: “Cod and chips please” and the woman dug into the metal tray, filled the cone, wrapped it, and said: “Three pounds.” She had to wait to use the till and while she was waiting, the man using it looked up at Father, then back down again.
Father bought four cans of beer from the package store and then we went home. I held the fish and chips in my arms, and the rustling and the smell and the weight of them were almost too much to bear. When we got in, I ate them from the paper so quickly that a lump formed in my chest, and I had to wait for it to go before I began again. The chips were fluffy and squidgy, and the fish fell apart in little moist flakes. The batter crunched and then it oozed. It was so delicious that tears came to my eyes.
Father didn’t tell me to slow down or get a plate or use a knife and fork. I was halfway through before I realized he wasn’t eating. I said: “D’you want some?”
“No, they’re for you,” he said.
But I suddenly didn’t feel like eating anymore. “Look at this,” I said, and put two chips under my top lip and made an evil face. He took a sip from his can and smiled, then went back to looking at the grill. I wished he would tell me off for playing with my food.
I took the chips out of my mouth and looked down at the newspaper. I said: “Are you all right?”
“Why shouldn’t I be?”
There were lots of reasons why he might not be but none that seemed possible to talk about. “I don’t know,” I said. I looked at the clock. It was past ten o’clock; he hadn’t even realized it was bedtime.
“Look at the time!” I said.
I stood up. “Thank you for the fish and chips.”
Still he didn’t look at me. “You’re welcome.”
I said: “I’d better go to bed, hadn’t I?”
“Good night, then.”
I went to the door, but when I got there I laughed and turned round. “You are all right, aren’t you?”
Something flickered in his face. He said: “Of course I’m all right!” and looked almost like himself again.
“Oh, good,” I said, and I felt better than I had done all day.
TWO DAYS BEFORE Christmas, Elsie and May came and tapped on the fence. I wouldn’t have heard them unless I had been in the garden, but it was sunny and I didn’t want to be inside.
“Cooeee!” May called.
“Hellooo!” called Elsie.
“Hey!” I shouted.
“Judith!” they cried. “Are you all right, my lovely?” They sounded a bit unsure; I forgot they hadn’t seen the fence.
“Yeah!” I said. “Hang on, I’ll get the key.”
“We missed you!” said Elsie.
“Hang on!” I said. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Can I have the key?” I said to Father when I got into the kitchen. “Elsie and May are out the front.”
“Oh.” Father touched his eyes. Then he shook his head and said: “I can’t handle that at the moment.”
I stared at him. “It’s Elsie and May,” I said.
“I know who it is, and I said I can’t handle it. Just say I’m not well.”
I looked at him. “But you are,” I said suddenly. A white hot light flashed on in my head. “You’re fine .”
Father said in a low voice: “I’m not going to argue with you: Tell them it’s very kind of them, but I don’t want to see anyone at the moment.”
I was breathing fast. “But we haven’t seen anybody for ages!” I said. My voice was shaking and it was getting too loud. “What if I want to see them? I live here too!”
Father jumped up from the chair. “I don’t want to see anyone at the moment, Judith, all right? I don’t want to see anyone! ”
I stood there, then ran out of the room. In the hall I got my breath and wiped my face. Then I opened the front door and went to the fence and called to May and Elsie and said Father wasn’t feeling well.
“Oh dear … But are you all right, sweetheart?” they cooed.
“Yes.” I leaned my head against the fence.
There was silence for a minute or two. “Can we get you anything?”
“No. Thank you.” I closed my eyes.
“Well, all right … we’ll be off then–we’ll see you soon, though, at the meeting.”
“Give your dad our love.”
“Tell him we’re thinking of him.”
I heard them go down the road, and then I slipped down the fence and sat on the soil.
* * *
I DIDN’T SPEAK to Father for the rest of the day, but he didn’t notice because he wasn’t speaking much either. Late that night he came up to my room and sat on the bed. He didn’t seem to care whether I was asleep or not, but I pretended to be; he smelled of beer and I was afraid.
“We’ll win in the end,” he said. “They think they’ve beaten us, but they haven’t!” He put his hand on my head and it was heavy and clammy, like being touched by a dead thing. I felt him sway on the edge of the bed, then he farted.
He said: “What have I–”
Then he made a noise that sounded like: “Gah!” and put his head in his hands and rubbed his hands back and forth over his hair and groaned. Then he began to laugh, and all the while he laughed he rubbed his head.
When he had gone, I didn’t move for the longest time. I didn’t want to breathe, but I had to. I suppose I had thought that once Father’s body began to get better he would be himself again, but he wasn’t, so something else must be wrong, and I didn’t want to think what that was. I thought for the first time that perhaps Father had the Depression. Depression was a sin, because it meant someone despaired of God.
And I decided knocking on doors and smashed windows and heads down toilets and fires and even getting beaten up were nothing to this, because whatever this was couldn’t be seen and couldn’t be got at and couldn’t be mended. It couldn’t be fixed like a door, or an eye, or a tooth, or a house.
THE NEXT DAY, we got a Christmas card from Auntie Jo. She had made the card herself, as usual, and stuck a photo on the front. In the photo she had her hair cut very short and was wearing enormous double clef earrings and grinning, with a party hat on her head. She had her arms around two other women, and it looked like they were in someone’s back garden at night. She looked as though she had been in the sun.
The card said: Happy Christmas. Thinking of you both. Would love to see you. Come and visit. Love, Jo. There was a long line of kisses. I sniffed the card but it didn’t smell of anything. But I thought how Auntie Jo’s fingers had been all over it. I imagined Auntie Jo smiling at me as she was on the front of the card. I asked Father if I could keep this card and he said that I could, so I stuck it on the wall above my bed. It made the whole room seem different, as if a window had been opened and fresh air had come in.
The Saturday after Christmas, Uncle Stan came to see Father. He came straight after dinner. Father offered him a cup of tea, but Uncle Stan didn’t want one. They went into the front room and closed the door. I couldn’t hear anything, so I went to my room and sat on the floor and took out my journal, but I just sat and looked at the page.
Then I heard the door downstairs. Uncle Stan said: “The announcement will be made tomorrow,” and Father said: “Thank you.”
About half an hour later Father knocked at my door. I scrambled up and put the journal under the floorboard and said: “Come in!”
He perched on the edge of the chair by my desk and said: “Judith, I’ve got something to tell you; I’m sorry about it but there it is. Uncle Stan has just been here and we’ve had a long talk: At the meeting tomorrow there’ll be an announcement made saying I’ve been Removed. I want you to know I’m in agreement with it.”
“Oh,” I said. I didn’t look up.
“I know this will come as a shock to you, but I can’t in full conscience do anything else right now. What I came to say is this: It doesn’t mean you have to stop going to meetings: I’m more than happy to take you and drop you off. I want you to do whatever you want to do.”
I don’t know how long he went on talking, I heard him say: “Judith?”
I swallowed. “Is it because you chased the boys?” I said. But it didn’t really matter why now.
“That–and other things,” said Father. He sighed. “I suppose I’ve been doing things my own way for quite a while.”
I was feeling hot and thought I might faint. I said: “But you still believe in God, don’t you?”
Father gave a very small laugh. “I don’t know what I believe,” he said. He stood up. “But if you want to go tomorrow, I’ll drop you off.”
I shook my head.
“You don’t want to go?”
I shook my head.
“OK.” He went to the door. Then he stopped and said: “Oh.” He rummaged in his pocket. “Stan said to give this to you.” I opened the piece of paper. On it was written:
D. S. Michaels
The Old Fire Station
Dear Brother Michaels,
This is Judith McPherson, the one 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 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.”
The police are not helping. Nobody believes I have done any miracles. The thing is, now I don’t know whether to try to 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 it doesn’t look like I can go back to where I began. I think that it would have been better for me never to have discovered my power in the first place. I am confused about lots of things now, and so is Father.
Brother Michaels, something terrible has happened. I made the boys come to the house, and Father has got into trouble with the elders because he got angry. I should have seen that he would, but I didn’t and as God says, it is easier doing things than undoing them. Father is not himself. I think he may have the Depression.
Brother Michaels, tomorrow Father will be Removed from the congregation.
I know Father will come back to the fold, but I am sure if you came and talked to him, it would help. You could say prayers for us. Would you mind praying right away, because the End is very close?
So many days now I haven’t felt like myself, and I think I am sickening for something. I hope it is not the Depression, as I have heard it is contagious. Brother Michaels, when you came through the hall doors that morning, I thought you must have been an angel or something, and that was why no one could hear where you were from. I am sure if anyone can help us it is you.
By the way, the mustard seeds never grew. If you could tell me where to get some more, I would be most grateful. I hope you didn’t get them in the Bible lands, because if you did it will take a long time to get some more.
The Last Day of the Year
IT WAS THE last day of the year. It was a Sunday but not like any Sunday I had ever known. There wasn’t any lamb and there weren’t any bitter greens and there wasn’t any meeting or preaching. The house was so cold, things felt wet to touch, and it seemed to get dark right after lunchtime. I sat by the kitchen window and thought that I had hated Sunday before but this was a thousand times worse. The one good thing was that I didn’t have to wear Josie’s poncho, but the more I thought about it, even that didn’t seem a bad thing now.
“What can I do about Father?” I said to God.
“He’s lost faith,” said God. “There’s nothing you can do.”
“He hasn’t lost faith,” I said. “He’s just confused.” But I looked at Father, at his neck jutting forward, at his hands flat on the arms of the chair, at the mug of cold tea, at the mattress on the floor and the curtains half drawn, and I wasn’t so sure.
I went up to my room and sat in the window and drew up my knees and watched the sky change from indigo to black and thought how not that long ago I had watched it turn white and fill with snow. The streets and gutters were running with yellow light. There was music coming from somewhere, and every so often I saw people going by; some were arm in arm, some were laughing, some were swaying and singing. After a while there were fireworks, and in the bursts of light I could see for miles. The fireworks stayed still for a second before they fell. I tried opening and closing my eyes so I would see only that flash of light, but most often I missed it.
At midnight, people began singing somewhere, the song about old acquaintances and cups of kindness that they always sang at the end of the year, and then I couldn’t sit there anymore and got up.
“I chose the stone,” I said out loud. I took a deep breath. “I chose to be powerful.” I swallowed. “If I think hard enough for long enough, I will be able to think of something to make things better. But I am not making anything because that always goes wrong.” I couldn’t think of anything to make anyway. I pressed my head really hard with my hands and screwed my eyes up. But I couldn’t think of anything at all.
I said: “Go back to the beginning,” and I asked myself when things had begun to get bad and thought it was actually around the time of the strike.
I had made a factory in the Land of Decoration a long time ago. It wasn’t the sort of thing I usually made, but I had seen the chimneys at the factory in town and thought how much they looked like toilet rolls, so I made them and put ladders from a toy fire engine going up the sides. I made the factory from a shoe box, with clay chimneys and cellophane windows and straws for the pipes. There was a Lego fire escape and a car park and a wire mesh fence made out of a net that oranges had been in. I went over to the factory now and turned it round in my hands. The chimneys wobbled, but there was no sound inside, because it was empty. I’d taken the people out because I needed them for other things. And then I wondered what would happen if I filled it, if I made an inside.
“It might work,” I thought–and it was such an enormous thought I didn’t dare say it out loud.
Then I said: “But I said I wouldn’t make anything else.”
Then I said: “But what’s the worst that could happen?” This wasn’t like making a person. The situation at the factory couldn’t get any worse. But then I thought I might be fooling myself. I walked round and round the room, thinking maybe I shouldn’t and maybe I should and trying to think what else I could do instead, but I couldn’t think of anything. I felt very excited and then I felt very scared, and then I felt tired of being excited and scared and just wanted everything to be over. “God,” I said, “is this possible?”
“Most of the time, everything is possible,” said God.
“But can I really make things better?”
“Yes,” God said, “you can.”
“All right,” I said. And for the last time I went to the trunk and lifted the lid.
I had never seen inside the factory, so I knew this was going to be the hardest thing I had made yet. All I could do was imagine how things looked and hope for the best.
I worked all night, until I saw the light coming over the top of the mountain. Then I felt more tired than I have ever felt, and hollow, like a stalk, and I turned off the lamp and got into bed. “Please, God,” I said, “make this turn out right.”