The Other Cheek
I SAT IN front of the Land of Decoration for over an hour that evening. The little people looked at me with their painted on smiles. I knew every one of them. The two little people I had made to begin with, years ago–a pipe cleaner doll with a green sweater and a kite, and a fabric doll with brown hair, dungarees, and flowers–stared at me hardest of all. They seemed to be asking something, but I didn’t know what.
“God,” I said, “I’m finding it really difficult having this power and not using it to punish people.” But God didn’t answer.
* * *
AT TWENTY TO six I heard the front door slam. Father called up to me, then he went into the kitchen. I heard Mike with him. Mike is not a believer, so we shouldn’t associate with him, but Father says he is a good man so it’s all right.
Mike and Father work in the factory together. Most of the people in town do. Inside the factory they make steel for things that fly. Mike says as factories go it’s not such a bad place. In the next valley is a factory where they kill chickens, and someone got so tired of killing chickens he put his hand in the machinery. And not long ago in the paper, there was a factory where people began getting ill because their gloves weren’t protecting them from the chemicals they were using, though the factory said it was nonsense. But Father has never liked our factory much and is always in a bad mood when he comes home, unless Mike is with him.
I got up and went along the landing. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, I stopped to tie up my shoe. And that was when I heard Mike say: “Doug’s a bad lot. I’d keep out of his way if you can help it. I know it’s easier said than done.”
Someone moved a chair and Father said something I didn’t catch, then Mike said: “Aye, I heard about that.”
Father put something on the Rayburn. “Jim and Doug go to the Social together. They’re like that.”
“Aye. Well,” Mike said, “I’d say something.”
“It’s cutting the hours that’s done it,” said Father. “It’s getting to some of them.”
“Extra meetings for the union.”
Father said: “The union’s a joke.”
Then Mike said: “It might be a joke, but if they do strike I’m not looking forward to it.” He sighed. “If it wasn’t this it would be something else. They’ll get this sorted and something else’ll pop up; it’s like molehills.”
Father said: “I didn’t read my contract properly,” and I could tell he was smiling.
Then they were quiet, and I went to the door and opened it and Mike said: “Top of the morning to you!” which is what he always says even when it’s evening. And I said: “How’re the hens laying?” which is what I always say back.
He said: “What have you been up to, Fred?”
I thought for a minute and then said: “Making things.”
Mike said: “Good for you. Why did the chicken cross the road four hundred and seventy eight times?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because his suspenders were stuck to the lamppost.”
“Good one,” I said. I sat at the table and peeled a tangerine.
They went on talking, but not about the factory. After a minute I said: “What’s a bad lot?”
Mike looked at Father, then he said: “A bad lot is someone you should stay away from.”
I put a piece of the tangerine in my mouth. “What’s the union?”
Father said: “Judith, don’t you know better than to listen to other people’s conversations?”
Mike laughed. “The union is a group of people that hang around with one another.”
“Oh,” I said. I thought about Gemma and Rhian and Keri, and Neil and Gareth and Lee. I knew about gangs. “Why is it a joke?”
Father shook his head and got up. Mike said: “I suppose they just aren’t very good at what they do.”
“What do they do?”
Mike said: “Talk about the third degree! Well, they organize things so that us workers get a fair deal; that’s the theory anyway.”
* * *
LATER, WHEN FATHER and I were having tea I said: “Why isn’t the union any good?”
Father said: “You don’t give up, do you?”
I was just about to ask again when he said: “The union’s too disorganized to do anything.”
He was eating quickly. I could see that a lump of potato was traveling down his throat. He said: “It’s nothing for you to worry about.”
“So why do they want to strike?”
“They don’t think our hours should be cut.”
The muscles of Father’s jaw and temple were moving up and down. “It’s not important what I think, Judith. What’s important is that we honor the civil authorities as God’s representatives on earth. Jesus said: ‘Pay Caesar’s things to Caesar, God’s things to God.’”
“But is cutting the hours unfair?”
“Jesus said: ‘Turn the other cheek.’ We have to leave things in God’s hands,” Father said. “Most things aren’t worth getting wound up about. Most things are small stuff.”
Smoothed my potato down. “Small stuff is important too,” I said.
Father put down his knife. He said: “Are you playing with that food or eating it?”
I stopped mashing.
“Eating it,” I said.
ON WEDNESDAY, NEIL Lewis put a worm in my curry and threw me in the bin and I had to bang till Mr. Potts, the caretaker, heard me. When Father saw my clothes, he was angry and said he had enough to do without this, but I didn’t say anything about Neil, because I didn’t want Father to have to go to the school. I just went up to my room and told a story in the Land of Decoration.
On Thursday, Neil pulled my chair from under me and tried to start a fire in the playground with my bag. When Father saw my bag he said: “Damn it, Judith, money doesn’t grow on trees!” and I knew he was very angry because he had sworn. I went upstairs and played with the Land of Decoration and told a story about an umbrella that had a pattern of flamingos on it; if it had been opened, each flamingo would have taken flight, but it never was, because the little girl it belonged to loved it so much she didn’t want it to get wet.
On Friday, I kept my head bowed over my work and didn’t look up once, because if I had seen Neil I wouldn’t have been able to hide how angry I was. And it was strange how I didn’t remember being angry, only frightened, before I discovered my power, but now that I had, I was angrier than I had been my whole life and felt as though something was racing round inside me, like the Road Runner trying to get out.
Mr. Davies’s face was the color of putty that morning. He adjusted his glasses and his hand shook. Sweat glistened on his forehead. At ten to eleven he banged on the desk, fumbled in the drawer for a bottle inside, and stood up. He said: “I’ll be back in five minutes. Get on with your work quietly and remember: I’ll be checking spelling and grammar!”
When he had gone, pandemonium broke out. I bent over my book and leaned my head on my hand. We were doing creative writing in our news books. I like creative writing, but the subject was “Presents” and was difficult for me to write about. The Brothers don’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays, and Father didn’t buy presents, because he said the world was full of materialism and we didn’t have to add to it. I suppose I could have written about one of Josie’s presents, but I didn’t want to.
Gemma was saying: “I’m getting a pony for Christmas.”
“I’m getting a trampoline,” said Keri.
“I’m getting a pair of Rollerblades,” said Rhian.
Then Gemma said: “You don’t celebrate Christmas, do you?”
“No,” I said, “because it’s not Jesus’s birthday. It’s the birthday of the Roman sun god.”
Rhian said: “You don’t have birthdays either.”
“No, because they were pagan celebrations, and on the only birthdays recorded in the Bible, people were beheaded.”
Keri said: “You don’t have television either.”
“No,” I said, “because when my mother and father got married, my father said: ‘It’s either me or the telly.’ My mother made the wrong choice.”
They didn’t get the joke. They gave me the “weird” look, which is one eyebrow raised, chin drawn in, and a frown. Then Keri said: “You don’t have a mother, do you?” And I said nothing.
Gemma said: “Anyway, Jesus was born on Christmas Day. Everyone knows that.” And one turned her back on me and leaned on her arm and forced me over the edge of the desk.
But suddenly I knew what to write about: I would write about the snow. It was easily the best present I ever had, better than any Christmas or birthday present, and it was safe to write about too, because Father had only said I shouldn’t talk about the miracles and no one would read my news book except Mr. Davies, who wrote Good work at the bottom of everything–once I wrote I would rather die than go to school and he wrote Good work at the bottom of that too.
I drew a margin with my ruler. I wrote the date. I closed my eyes and the noise of the classroom faded. I could hear the wind rising. I could feel the air getting colder. Whiteness was filling my eyes. Everything got darker.
* * *
I DON’T KNOW how long I had been writing when I felt something behind me. When I turned, Neil Lewis was standing there looking pleased, as if he had just found something he had forgotten about. He said: “What you doing, spaz?”
“Nothing,” I said.
I opened the drawer to put my book away, but he was faster.
I grabbed at the book, but Neil held it higher. I grabbed at it again and he lifted it above my head. Then I sat very still and looked at my hands.
Neil found the page I had been writing on. He read in a loud voice: “I had the best present I found out I have a gift it was magic it happened on Sunday I made it snow–” He frowned. Then he laughed and shouted: “Oi! Everyone! Judith’s got magic powers!”
There were hoots. There were shouts. They gathered around.
Neil began to read again. “I made it snow I made it in my room I made it from cotton wool and sugar–”
There was shouts.
“God showed me how to make it–”
There were hoots.
“It was a mi mir a mira c mira–there was no other ex exp expa …” Neil cleared his throat. “… other explan … explan …” Neil frowned. “As we appro appro the con conc conclu we must be vigi …” He was getting red. “As we ap ap appro appro the con conclusi … we must be vigi … we see an inc inc incre in sup erna occ occu …”
People were staring. Neil said: “What the fuck ?” and he hurled the book at my chest.
“Thank you!” I said, like it was all a big joke, but my hands were shaking too much to open the drawer.
Neil’s face was dark. He bent close to me and I saw again how blue his eyes were. He said in a soft voice: “So you’ve got magic powers. So you made it snow.”
I tried to smile, but the smile wobbled.
He came closer. His voice rose. “But you’re scared really, aren’t you? You’re scared now. You’re shitting your little pants.” His lip curled. “The end of the world. Ooh. I’m scared.”
There was laughter and shouting. Neil stood up and grinned. Then he sauntered away. And as he did, something rose inside me. It rushed down my arms and into my fingers. It crawled up my neck and into my hair. I heard a voice say: “You will be.” I think it was me.
Neil said: “What?”
Someone else said: “Oh my God.”
I said: “You will be.” And this time I knew I had spoken.
Neil’s face was thickening with something, as if he had smelled something foul, like when Gareth did one of his farts. He came close to me and said in a low voice: “You are such a waste of space.” And all of the words were heavy and slow, as if they were too enormous to be spoken.
My head was too hot to think. It was too hot to see. I said: “At least I can read.”
For one second there was complete silence. Then someone laughed. The sound bounced up as if released by a spring. It bubbled somewhere beneath the fluorescent strip light, then the silence reached up and strangled it.
Neil’s face was peculiar. It changed, then changed again as I watched, as if something was passing through it. He said: “You are such a fucking loser.”
I stood up and there was a roaring sound and my body was full of shaking blood. I said: “It’s you that’s the loser. You’re the biggest loser I’ve ever met. Stay away from me, Neil Lewis, or you’ll be sorry.”
“What are you going to do?” someone shouted. “Turn him into a frog?”
“I might,” I said. “If I want to.” I looked at Neil and I said quietly: “I can do anything I like.”
Then three things happened. Neil lunged forward, I stepped backward, and the door opened.
Mr. Davies said: “Why is everyone out of their seats?” Neil and I stared at each other. Mr. Davies said: “Perhaps you two didn’t hear me!”
Neil walked over to his desk. Mr. Davies said: “Thank you.”
I sat down, and I was glad to, because my legs didn’t feel solid anymore.
Gemma said: “Oh my God.”
Keri said: “He’s going to kill you.”
Rhian said: “Can you really do magic?”
I bent over my book. I tried to find my page. But two invisible strings were attached to my back. Whenever I moved, the strings moved too. When I turned, Neil was staring at me. And as I watched, he took a pencil in one hand and, without taking his eyes from me, snapped it.
A wave of heat rushed over me and I was falling. But I felt something else too. I felt my whole body pricking as if it was catching light, like it did when Brother Michaels told us about the mustard seed, like it did when I saw the snow.
And as I turned back to the front, I thought about the snow, of how it came softly at first, of how the flakes melted and left no trace. But how soon it covered roads and houses and wiped the town clean and flattened ditches and made the mountain disappear and shut down the factory and turned off the power and shouted from the page of every newspaper in black six inch letters. Of how it came from nowhere, while I was sleeping, and turned the world white.
WHEN I CAME out of school that afternoon, something happened that had never happened before. Neil and Lee and Gareth were waiting for me on bikes by the gate; they followed me all the way home.
I made myself walk slowly and didn’t look round. When I turned into our street, they circled, and Neil rode so close to my feet that gravel sprayed up. They waited to see which house I went into, then they cycled away. I went upstairs and lay on the floor and stared at the ceiling.
I like the ceiling in my room. There are small stains and gray furry balls in the corner where spiders live that are like a little cluster of huts. There are old cobwebs that hang like tired party streamers. And there is a hot air balloon lamp shade. My mother made the lamp shade. She liked making things too. When I look at the hot air balloon, I think of her and I think of traveling somewhere and leaving this town behind. I was looking at it now, but for the first time I wasn’t really seeing it. God, I said: “I wish I could do something.”
“Like what?” said God, and I was so pleased He had spoken to me again. I had the feeling of fire along my back and my hair, as if someone had flicked a switch.
I sat up. “Well, what’s the point of having this power if I don’t use it?” I said.
“Your father said it was dangerous,” said God.
“You use Your power.”
“Yes,” said God. “But I am the Almighty.”
“I’ve only used my power for good things so far, haven’t I?”
“Yes,” said God. “So far…”
“But this was what I wanted it for in the first place,” I said. And suddenly I was shaking. “I hate him!”
“Aren’t you forgetting forgiveness?” said God.
We were quiet for a while.
Then God said: “Of course, there is another way….”
“There’s the Old Testament as well, you know. Have you heard the saying ‘an eye for an eye’?”
“That’s the Law.”
God said: “I see you’ve been paying attention. ‘Soul will be for soul, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand.’ I got tired of being messed around, you see. If people hurt Me, I hurt them back. It’s My Fundamental Law. But you don’t need Me to tell you; you know all this.”
“What are You saying?”
“That someone needs to be paid back,” said God.
“Do You think so?”
God scratched His head–or it could have been His beard. I heard Him scratch something. “Yes,” He said at last.
“Yes,” said God. He sounded more certain. “Something has to be done.”
“I’m so glad You agree!” I said. “But what about Father?”
“He doesn’t believe you can do anything anyway,” said God. “I wouldn’t worry. What were you thinking of doing?”
“Oh, something little,” I said. “Nothing much. To begin with.”
“I like it,” God said. “I like your style.”
My heart began hammering. “And it will be OK?” I said.
“Of course,” said God. “That is: I think so. As you said, it’s a small thing. I can’t see any problems with that. A taste of his own medicine will do the boy good.”
“Hooray!” I jumped up.
“I’m just saying, I can’t give you a guarantee it will all turn out as you expect.”
“So are you going ahead with it?”
God laughed. “Then what are you waiting for?”
How to Make a Man
THIS IS HOW to make a man. You will need:
all purpose glue
1. Make shoes and shins and hands and arms and a head and neck from modeling clay using the toothpicks. Make holes in them for wire with the toothpick. Let the clay harden.
2. Glue pipe cleaners into the holes and bend them into a figure. The spine must be thin enough to bend but not thin enough to break.
3. Give the man a nose (upturned, in this case), two eyes (blue, for example), a mouth (big teeth), and whatever else you fancy (freckles).
4. Give the man mohair hair (yellow, cowlick). Give him a mood (a frown, tears).
5. Wrap wool around the pipe cleaners. Measure the wool, then cut it off.
6. Paint the man’s shoes (or trainers). Give him trousers (or warm up pants: black cotton and Wite Out stripe). Give him a coat (or Puffa jacket: umbrella material).
7. Breathe into his lungs and stand him up.
A Knock at the Door
I PUT THE man I had made in the middle of a group of people. The people stood around and pointed. The man tried to break through the ring, but the people didn’t let him. He walked around, but the people wouldn’t let him pass. He sat down and put his hands over his ears. I felt better just looking at him. I had no idea what was going to happen yet, but whatever it was, I didn’t think Neil Lewis was going to like it.
Then I wrote up my journal. When I heard the front door shut I hid it under the loose floorboard and ran downstairs. My legs felt like I had just run a race and my heart was beating in my ears.