The Biggest Miracle of All
I CLOSED THE bedroom door and went along the landing and none of it was real. I went down the stairs step by step, holding on to the banister, and they weren’t very real either. At the bottom, light was coming through the panels in the kitchen door. I went along the hall and turned the handle.
Father was sitting with his back to me at the table. He was the only thing that looked real. I closed the door.
I could see his shirt rise and fall. I could see the hairs on his head catch the light. I could smell him and hear him breathing. I stood there for ever so long, just looking and listening to him.
Suddenly he turned. He put his hand on his chest and said: “You frightened the life out of me.”
“I thought you were asleep.”
His voice wasn’t thick anymore and his eyes weren’t glassy, and his face was gray now instead of red. He said: “I came back up and put a blanket over you to keep you warm. I didn’t want to wake you….” He looked very sad.
He stopped talking and I was glad, because I had a lot to say to him and not much time to say it in. I took a deep breath and said: “Father, I’m sorry I got you into trouble with the elders and I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you about the miracles.”
He shook his head and passed his hand over it. “Oh, Judith, it’s not your fault. You really didn’t help things, but there would have been trouble anyway, what with the strike and everything.”
“No!” I said, and my heart beat hard. “It was me! If you knew half the things I’ve done!”
Father said: “All right; let’s not get into that now.”
I hung my head and said: “I did it all.”
Then Father said: “Judith!” so I was quiet.
He put his finger and thumb in the corners of his eyes as if they hurt him. When he took them away, his face looked grayer than before and his eyes were red and more tired than I had ever seen them. He said: “I’m sorry about your room.”
“It’s all right.”
He put his head in his hands. “It’s not all right, but it’s done now. I was drunk.” Then he took his head out of his hands and said: “You know I love you very much, don’t you?”
The words were so strange. They rolled into the middle of the room and rocked there between us, and we listened till they settled, and afterward there was such silence.
I was trying to think quickly, I was trying to think what to say, but there was a pain in my heart and breathing was difficult. Father turned back to the table. He said: “I love you more than you know.”
Then my heart hurt more than it had ever hurt before in my life, and I thought it might have broken, but I knew what to say. I said: “I do know.” And suddenly I did.
I remembered how he had looked after me all this time even though I had made Mother die, how he had taken me to the doctor when I was little and read the Bible to me to help me talk, how he had warned me about the miracles only to protect me, hadn’t told me about the strike so it wouldn’t worry me, had chased the boys away to protect me, taken my hand so I wouldn’t be afraid when we walked through the bikes, forgiven me for lying, built the fence to keep me safe, pretended the note through the door wasn’t about me, sat on my bed after the accident and told me everything was going to be all right, offered to take me to the meeting though he couldn’t come in, bought me fish and chips and walked hand in hand with me that day for eleven miles, and was going to take me on a hot air balloon.
He was saying: “I haven’t been much of a father to you, but I tried. There are things I’ve never been able to say to you, things about the time after your mum died, how you were suddenly there, asking for attention, asking to be taken care of, asking so much, and I had nothing–heck, I could hardly take care of myself; sometimes I couldn’t even look at you because you reminded me so much of her.” He sighed. “This probably isn’t making much sense….”
He was saying other things as well, but he was going too fast and I was still thinking of the first thing he had said, the thing about loving me. What he said after that didn’t matter much. He stopped talking in the end and didn’t look at me again, and I was glad because he didn’t like seeing people cry. He said: “Well. We have to look to the future now,” and I said: “Yes,” but I couldn’t think properly.
Then he said softly: “It’s almost tomorrow. You’d better go up.” And I remembered that it was late, later than he or anyone else realized, that I had only come to say goodbye, but I still couldn’t make myself go.
He said: “We can talk some more tomorrow.”
“Good night, Judith.”
When I made no move, he turned back around, and I went to the door. “Father?”
“Don’t worry about anything! Everything is going to be fine. It’s going to be better than you think.”
He laughed, a dry sound that broke off too soon, and nodded, but he didn’t turn round again.
He said: “Go to bed now, Judith.”
I couldn’t think of anything else to say then so I looked at him for the first and last time, then I opened the door. I closed it behind me and wiped my face. Then I went upstairs step by step, holding on to the banister.
The Space Where Miracles Happen
AND THIS IS how I learned that everything is possible, at all times and all places and for all sorts of people. If you think it’s not, it’s because you can’t see how close you are, how you only need to do a small thing and everything will come to you. Faith is a leap; you’re here, the thing you want is there; there’s a space between you. You just have to jump. Walking on water and moving mountains and making the dead come to life aren’t difficult; you take the first step and the worst is over, you take another and you’re halfway there.
Miracles don’t have to be big things, and they can happen in the unlikeliest places. They can happen in the sky or on a battlefield or in a kitchen in the middle of the night. You don’t even have to believe miracles are possible for one to happen, but you will know when it does, because something very ordinary you never thought would amount to much has amounted in the end to quite a lot. That’s because miracles work best with ordinary things, the more ordinary the better; the greater the odds, the bigger the miracle.
A Life for a Life
MY ROOM WAS in darkness. I said: “Are You there?” but no one answered. I went to the window and drew back the curtains and the moon came in. It was silvering the factory and the electricity and making the train tracks gleam like glue left by a snail.
I looked out at the town at the television aerials and chimneys and rooftops, the telegraph wires going up and down the valley, and above it all the dark mountain, darker still against the white of the moon, and it was funny, but for the first time it all looked quite beautiful, like Brother Michaels had said, and in a few minutes it would be gone.
I turned back to the room. I pushed aside masts and forks and garden fences, branches and thatches, strands of rainbow, wires that birds used to sit on, white horses from the top of waves, wisps of cloud. The magic had gone now; the sun looked just like a wire cage, the sea a mirror, the fields like pieces of fabric, the hills papier mâché and bark.
I wondered what Father would do with the Land of Decoration. He would probably put it out in black bags for the garbagemen. The egg carton hills would be paper, the toffee barrel house a new toffee barrel or a tin can or cup, the milk carton houses more milk cartons and other things when they were empty, the feathers and straws might become real birds’ nests again, the wood and heather would become new trees and new heather, the stones would one day become mountains again, the shells become sand, the sand glass, and the glass perhaps a new mirror.
Nearly everything would be changed, but one or two things would remain what I had made them. Perhaps the barrel with the sail–perhaps it really would find its way to sea and the tiny fisherman see real birds overhead, taste real spray on his lips, and real breezes would make his cheeks pink. Perhaps some very small pieces of cloth, some of the glitter, or the smallest of beads, might stay right here in this room under the floorboards, in nooks and crannies with the spiders and mice.
Then I remembered that there wouldn’t be a room, and Father wouldn’t do anything with the Land of Decoration: and the Land of Decoration wouldn’t be anywhere–or, rather, it would be everywhere, because it would be real.
I fetched a chair and put it in the space I had cleared. I got onto the chair. “Thirty one minutes,” said a voice.
“There You are,” I said. Then I stopped. “It is You, isn’t it?”
God said: “Who else would it be?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You sounded strange for a minute.”
“Different,” I said. “Well–sort of like me .”
“Don’t be silly,” God said. “You’re you and I’m Me.”
“Yes,” I said. “Sorry. A lot has happened tonight.”
I balanced on tiptoes and unscrewed the lightbulb.
“Twenty nine and a half minutes,” said God. “And counting.”
I put the bulb on the chair and it rolled back and forth.
“Quietly!” said God. “We don’t want interruptions.”
I unscrewed the hot air balloon lamp shade and put it on the chair too, but it fell onto the floor.
“Great,” said God. “That’s just great.”
I tested the light cord. I got down and fetched my school tie. I got back up and tied one end of the tie to the cord above the light fitting and tugged it. I tied a loop in the other end of my tie and loosened it. I put my head through the loop. The material felt soft next to my skin. I expect it wondered where my collar was.
The room looked strange from the ceiling: like a box, smaller than it had ever seemed before. I wondered if I had already stepped off the chair, because my arms and legs felt like they were falling, but they weren’t, and I wasn’t, I said to myself; there was a rushing in my ears, as if the tie was tightening. But it isn’t, I said to myself. Not yet.
I looked at the Land of Decoration. “It was so good in the beginning,” I said. “Now I think it would have been better if I’d never made it at all.”
“We all make mistakes,” said God.
“What did You say?”
“I said: We all make mistakes,” God said.
“We?” I loosened the tie.
I was beginning to feel sick. “Are You sure about this?” I said.
“Oh yes,” said God. “One hundred percent. Twenty three and a half minutes.”
There was a sound in the room like a creature panting. “What’s that noise?” I said.
“It’s you,” said God. “Can’t you breathe more quietly?”
“No,” I said.
My knees were behaving strangely now, as if they wanted to fall forward, though I was afraid of that more than anything, and my left leg wouldn’t stop tapping the chair.
I took one foot off the chair and held on to the tie. I closed my eyes and lifted the other foot off too. Darkness throbbed and jumped in front of me. Colored lights and whistling sounds filled my head. I put both feet back on the chair and hung on to the tie and my body was wet, as if I had been running, and my teeth were chattering.
“Nineteen minutes, nine seconds,” said God.
My foot slipped. Something hot dribbled down my legs. I swallowed and was trying hard not to cry.
“Nineteen minutes and two seconds,” said God.
Then I said: “You know what I wish?”
God laughed. “I’d think carefully before you make another wish. The last ones haven’t turned out very well.”
“I wish You would go away and never come back.”
“What?” said God.
I hung on to the tie. “I would like,” I said, “to never speak to You again.”
God said: “You don’t mean that.”
“Yes,” I said, “I do.”
“Be careful what you say,” said God.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “You can’t do anything to me now.”
God said: “You’ll be sorry.”
“No,” I said, and took my hands away from the tie. “I already am.”
One Good Thought
IT GOT QUIET in the room. I took a deep breath, but I couldn’t kick away the chair.
I tried to think what Father would do if he were me and I knew he would try to think of a good thought. So I tried. I thought how good it was now that God had gone away, like it was in the beginning. But it wasn’t like it was in the beginning, because now I knew nothing I had made was good after all.
I tried again. I thought how in a few minutes Armageddon really would be here and all the bad things would be washed away and the world would be how it was always intended to be. But then I remembered all the people God would destroy, and pretty soon I couldn’t think about that either.
Then I looked down and caught sight of one of the little people I had made to begin with. An arm had come away from the body, but the face was still the same. And that is when I had the best thought I have ever had in my life. I thought of Father going into the Land of Decoration and meeting my mother again.
Father would see Mother standing a little way from him. Something about her would make him go toward her. Then she would turn round and he would not be able to believe it. But he would have to believe it, because it would be true. They would go walking together, leaving a trail in the grass, sometimes my mother’s hand would be in Father’s and sometimes his arm would be around her shoulders. And all the streets and all the rivers and all the names and places of this world, all the people that were and are and will be, would be nothing to this moment.
I knew it was possible, I knew they really could be together if I could just step forward. But I still couldn’t do it. And then I realized it wasn’t that Father didn’t love me but that I didn’t love Father enough. And when I thought that, the world split apart.
I undid the tie and fell off the chair and began to cry, though it wasn’t much like crying and more like being sick, like turning myself inside out. I don’t know how long I’d been crying when I heard someone say: “Judith.” Father was standing there.
His face was white. Then he was beside me on the floor pulling me to him roughly, holding me so tightly, saying over and over: “I’m sorry”–and it was all very strange, as if I was dreaming.
I don’t know how long we stayed like that, but we were in no place and there was no more time. We were borne up high; we were burning. I never knew another person could do that to me, and perhaps I was doing it to him too.
And then something happened. The clock in the hall began to chime, and I stopped breathing and looked at him. I got to my feet and my chest was rising and falling.
He said: “What’s the matter?” He said: “Judith! What on earth–?”
I listened to those strokes, and at each one a little part of me passed into nothingness, and as each new stroke came, a new piece of me took its place.
Then the strokes were over and I looked at him. I said: “We’re still here.”
He blinked. “Where d’you expect us to be?”
“I don’t know.”
“Judith, what are you talking about?”
I began to cry again. I said: “We’re alive, aren’t we?” I held on to his sleeve, his shoulder. My hands were hungry.
He said. “Judith,” and then he was crying too.
I said: “I tried to save you. I thought the world was ending,” and we didn’t say anything more for a while. Then he laughed and sniffed and said: “Well, it looks like it’s still here to me.”
I shook my head. I stared at him. “What are we going to do now?” I said, because I really couldn’t think of anything; I couldn’t see how it would go.
Father wiped his eyes. He said: “Well, we could have breakfast.”
“I don’t know–we could go for a walk.”
He thought for a minute. “Up the mountain–the Silent Valley, maybe. We could watch the sunrise.”
I wiped my eyes. I looked around. “What about the Land of Decoration?”
“We’ll take care of it when we get back.”
My eye caught the card of Auntie Jo and I took hold of Father’s sleeve. “Let’s visit her,” I said suddenly.
He looked at me and then at the card. I kept hold of his sleeve. I gripped it tight. He said: “All right.” He got to his feet, as if he was very tired, and then he helped me up.
We were going through the door when I stopped.
“What is it?” he said.
“I thought I heard something,” I said.
He looked at me. “All right?”
“Yes,” I said. “I must have imagined it.”
How to Make a Hot Air Balloon
AND NOW I will show you how to make a hot air balloon, one that really does fly. It is not very difficult once you get the basic shape right.
You will need:
a wire helium balloon
all purpose glue
a small basket
a net bag oranges come in
cardboard (no thicker than a Weetabix box)
very sticky tape
a sharp pencil
1. Take a helium balloon that is shaped like a pear. Not the flattened kind, not the perfectly round kind, not the novelty kind. Trim the seam that runs around the edges.
2. Cut a rectangle of cardboard and curl it around the bottom of the balloon so that it is a little cylinder and hides the tail. Glue it together on the inside and tape it to the balloon.
3. Paint the cylinder and the balloon in wide, brightly colored stripes.
4. Take a net bag oranges come in and cut off the label. Drape it over the balloon and gather it so that it tapers to the bottom. Sew down each fold of net with the cotton thread. Turn it inside out and snip off the net folds. Turn it the right way out and place over the balloon fixing it to the bottom of the cylinder at several points.
5. Attach string to the cylinder by boring holes in it with a pencil. Take a small basket (the very light kind that comes with little soaps), and attach four strings to it–one at each corner.
6. Push the stem of the balloon through the center of the basket and cut the stem at the very bottom into four. Open out the end, folding them beneath the basket. Tape in place.
7. Shred yellow, orange, and red tissue paper and gather into a tongue of flame attaching it to a wire taped to the inside of the cylinder.
8. Wrap up tiny people and sit them in the basket.
9. Light the flames above their heads.
10. Make four little burlap sacks of rice and attach them to the insides of the basket with plenty of string. If you want the balloon to fly, put the sacks on the ground.
You can forget the sacks altogether, but I would leave one attached, otherwise the balloon will soar up to the ceiling and bump around for days and crash when you’re not there to catch it, and lots of small people will die; it may fall on a town or a school or a marketplace and then even more will die. Or if you are not in a room but in the open air, it really will sail away and the little people will never be heard of again.
Of course, they will have the time of their lives because the view will be marvelous; it’s coming down that is the difficult thing. So always leave something attached. If you want to go higher, just let out more string.
Thank you to Clare for discovering the book, and for her care and advice.
Thank you to Clara–a fellow lover of little things–and to Sarah, for such sensitive and transformational editorial advice.
Thank you to Anthony, Val, and Mike for taking time to read the first draft and for such helpful feedback.
Thank you to Mark, Sos, Richard, and Karen for believing I could do something long before I did.
Most importantly, thank you to my mother, an extraordinary human being, for never giving up.
About the Author
GRACE MCCLEEN is an author and singer songwriter who lives in London.
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This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2012 by Grace McCleen
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Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
The land of decoration : a novel / Grace McCleen.
ISBN 978 0 8050 9494 7
1. Girls–Fiction. 2. Fathers and daughters–Fiction. 3. Good and evil–Fiction. 4. Miracles–Fiction. 5. Religious fiction. 6. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
eISBN 978 0 8050 9527 2