Grace McCleen The Land of Decoration



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* * *
LATER THAT MORNING, while Mrs. Pierce was organizing the stationery cupboard, a ball of paper landed beside Gemma’s elbow. I didn’t know how the paper had got there, but I saw Gemma’s hand close over it. She kept the paper underneath her hand for a minute, then unrolled it. She giggled and drew something, rolled it up again, and flicked it to Neil Lewis. Neil opened it and grinned. He passed the paper to Lee, and Lee’s shoulders shook. Lee passed it to Gareth.

Mrs. Pierce looked up. She said: “Is something funny? If there is, I am sure the whole class would like to hear it.”

Everything was quiet for a minute or two, then the paper shot back to our table. This time Gemma squeaked she was trying so hard not to laugh. She wrote something, rolled it up, and flicked it back to Neil. Neil then wrote something and flicked it back. Gemma slapped her hand down on the paper too loudly and Mrs. Pierce put her hands on her hips. She said: “Whatever is going on over there had better stop!”

Nothing happened for four whole minutes. Then Neil flicked the paper to Gemma. The paper shot wide and landed by my feet.

Mrs. Pierce put down the tubes of paint she was holding. She said: “Pick up that piece of paper. Yes, you, Judith! Read it out please.”

I picked up the paper and unrolled it. What I saw didn’t make sense. At the top was the word “METAPHOR.” Beneath it was a picture of a girl kneeling in front of a man. Something was coming out of the man’s trousers. It looked like a snake. A wave of heat passed over me and after the wave sickness. At the bottom of the picture there were four words. One of them was my name.

Go on,” Mrs. Pierce said. “Read it out.”



I looked at her.

Read it, Judith!” she said. “I won’t have any secrets in my class!”

Judith gives good head,” I said.

A breath rippled through the class.

Mrs. Pierce looked like someone had slapped her. She walked up to me and took the paper. “Sit down, Judith,” she said quietly. Then she went to her desk.

All right,” she said brightly. “Let’s get these fractions marked. Who can start us off with the answer to number one?”


Strike
HOW WAS SCHOOL?” Father said when he got in.

We’ve got a new teacher,” I said. “She read us poetry.”

Good,” Father said. He filled the kettle.

She read out a poem about winter.”

Did she now?” He put the lid on the kettle and switched it on.

And we talked about metaphor.”

Good.”

Then we all wrote poems and Mrs. Pierce liked mine.”

Good,” said Father. “That’s good.” He placed both hands flat on the worktop and looked at them. Then he said: “Judith, I’ll be coming home later next week. A bus is bringing me and it might take a bit longer.”

A bus?”

Yes.” Father took his hands off the worktop. “They’re striking.”

But you’re still going to go to work?”

Of course.” He got potatoes from the box under the sink.

Caesar’s things to Caesar, God’s things to God.”

But why do you have to be brought home in a bus?”

All the people who aren’t striking are going to go to work in a bus,” Father said. He ran the tap.

Why?”

Father turned the tap off the wrong way, and the water came out in a spurt. He began to wash the potatoes. “Well, some people think we shouldn’t be working,” he said. “And they want to stop us.”

Stop you?”

Yes, Judith! Look, I’m just telling you so you don’t wonder why I may be a bit late.”

I knew he wanted me to stop asking questions but I also knew there was something he was hiding. I said: “What do you mean ‘stop us’?”

Father said: “I just mean–Look, it’s no big deal, OK? It’s nothing for you to worry about.”

OK.” I looked at Father. “Aren’t you afraid?”



Father put down the potato peeler and looked at the taps. He said: “No, Judith. There’s nothing to be afraid of; the strike will be over in a week or two and everything will be back to normal.”

Is Doug striking?”



Father said quietly: “You’ve got a memory like an elephant,” then more loudly: “Yes, Doug is striking.”

I looked at Father and knew I couldn’t ask any more. I wandered to the windowsill. “Nothing is happening to these mustard seeds,” I said. “Do you think it’s because I don’t believe they will grow?”

No, Judith,” Father said. “It’s probably because you don’t know how to grow mustard seeds.”


* * *
THAT NIGHT, THE Bible reading was about the Harlot sitting on the waters. Father said the waters prefigured rulers and nations and the Harlot was causing civil unrest. “Like the strike?” I said.

Well,” Father said, “it’s all part of the sign of the end.”



And then the door crashed. Three short bangs like before. Father went out and I heard a shout in the street. He didn’t come back for twenty minutes.

When he did, he was panting and his face was shining as if he’d been laughing. He said it was the same boys as the other night. He had chased them down the hill. He caught the blond boy at the top of the multistory car park. Father said: “He was saying: ‘Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, mister!’ As if I would hurt him! I frightened him though. He lost one of his shoes.”

What did you do to him?”

I just told him to clear off,” he said. Father shook his head and laughed. “I don’t think we’ll have any more trouble.”
Neil Lewis Learns a Lesson
THE NEXT DAY, while the others were in assembly, I asked Mrs. Pierce what the note meant. Mrs. Pierce turned over some papers on her desk. Then she said: “It didn’t mean anything, Judith. It was nonsense.”

I said: “It must have meant something.”

Do you know who wrote it?”

I think it was Neil … and Gemma.”

Mrs. Pierce nodded. “I thought as much.” She sighed, then she smiled at me. “How would you feel if we moved you from that table?”

I’d like that.”



It was strange sitting with Anna and Stephen and Matthew. No one whispered or giggled or looked sideways at me. No one whispered or pushed my arm or hid my pen or took up all the space or threw things at my head or dropped things in my hair. I wondered why Mr. Davies had never moved me.

Neil came in late that morning, carrying a plastic bag over his shoulder. His feet made a funny sound on the floor, and when I looked down I saw that he was wearing a pair of daps like we wear for PE, except they were too big for him. “Neil Lewis,” said Mrs. Pierce, “where are your shoes?”

Neil said: “Shoes are for wankers.”

Mrs. Pierce said: “One hundred lines.”

What the fuck?” said Neil.

Three hundred lines,” said Mrs. Pierce.

Neil opened his mouth.

Mrs. Pierce said: “I asked you a question: Where are your shoes?”

Neil sat down and threw his bag under the table. His face was dark red. “Lost them.”

Mrs. Pierce said: “You lost your bag yesterday; today it’s your shoes. Have you replaced the books you lost yet?”

Neil frowned so much, his eyebrows hid his eyes. Suddenly he said: “My dad gave me a right bollocking ’cause of you! You got no right to take my bag!”

Oh, so it was your bag,” said Mrs. Pierce.



Neil’s face grew purple. He said: “My dad’s going to come and see you!”

Is that supposed to scare me?” said Mrs. Pierce.



Neil’s leg jigged up and down. He seemed to be thinking of something.

Mrs. Pierce sighed, got up, and sat in her usual place on the edge of her desk. “Now, what do you normally do on a Tuesday morning, class eight?” she said.

Grammar,” said Hugh.

Well, from now on we’ll be doing Art.” There were murmurs of surprise. “Gather round, everyone.”

She held up a postcard. In the postcard there was a café lit with yellow light. There were lamps in the ceiling and the lamps looked like little planets. The lines in the painting were warped, as if they had been painted by someone who was drunk, but Mrs. Pierce said the interesting thing was that the man who painted it could draw perfectly well. He had painted this way deliberately, to heighten “the emotional charge” of the picture.

Then she told us all about how pictures could make us happy or sad, comfortable or uncomfortable, excited or sleepy. She said pictures, like poems, were charged with electricity. There was laughter. Mrs. Pierce said: “Well, pictures make us feel emotions. Emotions are just electricity. How does the picture make you feel?”

It makes me feel seasick,” said Gemma.



Mrs. Pierce looked at Gemma. She pursed her lips: “You’re quite an artist yourself, aren’t you, Miss Butler?”

Gemma said: “What?”

Yes,” said Mrs. Pierce. “I saw an example of your artwork yesterday. Tell me, do you often draw your classmates?”



Gemma flushed. “I don’t know what you mean, Miss.”

I think you do,” said Mrs. Pierce. “But perhaps the picture I saw was a joint masterpiece–with Mr. Lewis. Is that right?”



Neil scowled.

I expect you both thought it was quite amusing, though I’m afraid I didn’t. And your grasp of human anatomy was sadly lacking.” Mrs. Pierce picked up a ruler and got down from the desk. “Would you like to know where your picture is now?” She said a little more loudly: “I said: Would you like to know where your picture is now?” Then there was a crack like a whip and Neil jumped. He wasn’t slouched over his desk anymore.



Neil had turned red. “Mr. Lewis!” said Mrs. Pierce. “I asked you a question.” Neil folded his arms and stared at the desk, but his chest was rising and falling.

Mrs. Pierce began walking again. “The picture is in a safe place,” she said. “Where it will stay until I decide what to do with it–and what to do with the people who drew it.” She frowned and put her hand to her chin. “Perhaps,” she said, “I should include it in the work I show to parents on parents’ evening. It would make interesting viewing, don’t you think?”

Gemma’s eyes were filling. She said: “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Miss!”

A liar too,” Mrs. Pierce said. “Well. It takes all sorts. Doesn’t it, Mr. Lewis? Yes,” she said as she walked back to her desk, “it takes all sorts.” Suddenly she sounded tired. “All right, everybody, let’s get painting.”



I painted the field I had seen in the dream. But instead of me and the old man in the field, I painted the first two people I had made for the Land of Decoration–the pipe cleaner doll with the green sweater and the fabric doll with dungarees. Mrs. Pierce said: “That looks interesting.” I told her it was and that it was something I had made. “Really?” she said. “Out of what?”

Rubbish,” I said, and I told her about the Land of Decoration.



Mrs. Pierce said: “And who are these two people meant to be?”

Father and me,” I said. I hadn’t known this before but saw now that was who they were. I said: “We’re going to be there one day. When the earth is a paradise.”

A paradise?” she said.

Yes. After Armageddon.”



She said: “You really will have to tell me more about all of this, Judith. It sounds fascinating.”

I was very happy for the rest of the morning. When I had finished, Anna and I went up to the sink to rinse our brushes. I was swilling out the jar when I turned to see Neil beside me. He said: “Still got magic powers?” And then he put his mouth close to my ear. “You’re going to need them.”

He turned, and as he did he knocked the jar out of my hands, splashing yellow water on my skirt and tights. “Oh. Sorry, ” he said. “I must have slipped.” He grinned. “You’d think you would have grown out of wetting yourself by now.”

Neil went back to his seat. I saw him nudge Lee and Gareth. Lee said: “Judith’s wet herself, Miss.”

Mrs. Pierce looked up. “Judith, what happened?”

Neil mouthed: “I’ll kill you.” I looked back at Mrs. Pierce.

Judith?” she said.



Neil made furious chopping motions with his hands.

Neil threw water over me,” I said suddenly. It was easy.



Neil stared at me.

Yes, Miss,” said Anna. “I saw him.”

Well, well,” said Mrs. Pierce in a flat voice. “Why am I not surprised? Judith, go to the nurse and get some dry clothes. Neil, you seem to have some sort of problem with Judith. What is it? Can you tell me?”
* * *
WHEN I CAME back to class twenty minutes later, something was strange. I knew it as soon as I closed the door. It was as if something had landed in the middle of the room and no one could look at it. Mrs. Pierce was walking up and down between the desks with a bright, hard look on her face, and everyone had their heads bent over their books. I sat down and then I saw what the strange thing was. Neil wasn’t in his seat. He was sitting with his back to us at a desk at the front of the room that hadn’t been there before.

He stayed there for the rest of the day, as still as a stone. I wondered if he could tell I was looking at him, that everyone was now and then. I think he could, and whether or not it was because of him not being with us, or because Mrs. Pierce was on the warpath, everyone was quieter.

When it was time to go home, Mrs. Pierce said: “Neil Lewis, where do you think you’re going? We have an appointment, remember?”

Neil’s shoulders dropped. He said: “Oh, Miss, I’ve got boxing! My dad’ll kill me if I miss it!”

Mrs. Pierce said: “That’s too bad; you should have thought of that before you swore in my classroom.”

But, Miss!”

No buts,” Mrs. Pierce said. “Get your exercise book out.”

She went to the board and in large chalk letters wrote: I will not use foul language in Mrs. Pierce’s classroom.

Neil stared at her. Then he threw his plastic bag down, flung himself into his chair, and slapped his exercise book on the desk.

Three hundred lines. No mistakes,” I heard Mrs. Pierce say as I went down the corridor.


* * *
YOU LOOK LIKE you’ve just won the lottery,” said Sue as she crossed me over the road.

I’ve won something better than the lottery,” I said. I ran the rest of the way home. “It’s working!” I said, and I jumped up and punched the air. “It’s working!–And it’s better than I imagined!”

How was school?” Father asked when he got in.

Great!” I said.



Father raised his eyebrows. “Wonders will never cease,” he said.
More Knocking
AFTER I HAD gone to bed on Saturday night, the knocking began again. Father went out, but the boys had gone away by the time he got to the door. He went to the door four more times, but the boys kept running away. I watched from the window. When the letter box crashed a sixth time, Father went into the street, and Neil Lewis and Lee and Gareth and some other boys rode round him on bikes.

When Father came inside, I stayed awake for ages but I didn’t hear him come to bed. The boys ran sticks along the railings and threw stones at the windows. They laughed and did wheelies in the road. “Why is this happening, God?” I said. But God didn’t answer.

The next day, in the meeting, Father turned the scriptures in little jerks with his thumb and first finger. His head looked shiny and hot, as if there was too much blood in it. Uncle Stan gave the talk about being separate from the world. He said that the Brothers who were not striking merited the congregation’s support and that we shouldn’t give funds to the strikers. He said: “Our leader is Christ, not men.” A prayer was said for the safety of the factory workers, and Stan said we must have faith that God would help and we should not be afraid. Being afraid was just like faith, he said, but it attracted bad things instead of good. “If we’re fearful, we’re praying for the wrong things,” he said.

Afterward, everyone went to look at the new tracts we had been sent from headquarters. “It’s a new initiative,” said Alf. “We’ll use them next week.” Uncle Stan said we should preach in the main street.

I tugged at his sleeve. “Can I talk to you?”

I took his hand and led him to the side. I said: “I made another miracle happen. I wanted to punish someone. But something unexpected is happening.”

Uncle Stan shook his head. He said: “What is all this miracle business? I’m glad things are looking up for you, pet, but does your dad know you’re going around talking like this?”

I said that Father had said something to me, he had said it was nonsense but I thought that Uncle Stan would believe me.

I do believe you, Judith,” he said. His face looked kind and tired at the same time. “At least, I think you think you’ve made something happen.”



I wondered whether to tell him about God speaking to me. I suddenly felt I couldn’t bear it a moment longer if no one knew. And then something strange happened. I heard God say: “DON’T,” very clearly. And it was peculiar, as if a bit of my brain had split off from the rest.

Uncle Stan frowned. “Are you all right?”

Yes–”

Are you sure?”

I put my hand over my eyes. “Yes,” I said and made myself smile at him.

Uncle Stan said: “Oh, by the way, love, I wanted to ask you if your dad was all right. With the strike and everything, it must be pretty difficult at the moment. We’re all thinking about him, but he never talks much. Is he OK?”

Yes,” I said. “But he’s annoyed about the knocking at the door.”

What?”

There are some boys knocking at our front door.”



Uncle Stan frowned. “Your dad hasn’t said anything about that. Nothing serious, is it?”

I don’t know,” I said. “It’s what I was trying to tell you, about what I did to the–”



And then God said: “STOP!” so loudly that I jumped.

What’s the matter?” said Stan.



And then I jumped again, because another voice said: “All right?” and I looked up and there was Father.

He and Stan began to talk and I slipped away. When I looked back, Uncle Stan had his hand on Father’s back. I hoped he didn’t tell Father I’d been talking about miracles. Then I jumped a third time, because two fat arms grabbed me and a voice said: “Gotcha!”

A whiskery face with a mouth like a slash and creamy bits of spit in the corners was grinning. “You’ve been avoiding me!”

No, Josie! Honest!”

Hmm.” She eyed me suspiciously, then shoved a parcel into my arms. “Present!”

Thank you.”

Well: Open it!”

A poncho,” I said.



There were more shells, there were more tassels, it was more orange than I could have imagined.

Josie’s body shook with laughter. “Well, I know how you like these little things. I’m so busy making things for this one and that one, but I always find time to make you something extra special. Try it on! It should fit, but I made it a bit big to be on the safe side.”

The fringe brushed my ankles. “Just right,” I said.

Why are you taking it off?”

Keeping it for best.”

I looked back to where Father and Uncle Stan were talking. Uncle Stan was talking and Father was looking serious.

I want to see you wearing it next Sunday,” she said.

OK.”

Come on, cheer up!” she said. “Don’t you like it?”



I looked back to Father and Uncle Stan and they were laughing. Suddenly the world was brighter. “Yes,” I said, “I do. Thanks, Josie, I like it a lot.”
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