Grace McCleen The Land of Decoration



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The Best Day of My Life
THERE WAS ONE day when I thought Father loved me. On that day Father and I walked hand in hand for eleven miles.

We had been preaching and it was summertime and the evening was coming. We were a ways from here in a place called the Silent Valley, where there are not many houses and lots of trees. We hardly ever go, because not many people live there, so all the houses can be covered in an afternoon once or twice a year. The Silent Valley is full of fields. They lead down to a river. We walked down there, and sand martins were going into holes in the bank. There was grass long enough to wade through and a few flowers and some trees. It was one of those days when everything shimmers.

My hand was inside Father’s and his hand was inside his trouser pocket. Father’s skin was surprising. I could feel the veins in his hand and the hairs on his knuckles. I felt his leg muscles move. I remember thinking I must remember this moment, the weight of the sun, the feel of his hand. There was a quietness inside my head and between us, and I thought of the scriptures where it says the Men of Old walked with God and thought it must have felt like this.

Cars went by every now and then on the road, and the sound they made in the air, and the way the land seemed to wash around us, the cool grassy smell and the sounds of the earth breathing and the trees and green things swaying, did something to my stomach.

I don’t know how we came to hold hands, but I know if I had spoken or if we had met someone or had to stop or cross over, or get something out of one of our shoes, we might have stopped.

Moths were in the air when we got home. We made tea and ate leftovers, sitting on the back steps and watching the stars appear one by one. There were more stars that night than I had ever seen before, and they were shooting through the sky in some sort of shower. The street was so quiet, I think everyone else must have been watching too, because there were no sounds of dustbins and dinners and people shouting and kids yelling.

Father told me that without stars we wouldn’t be here and that everything in the universe came from them. He told me each star was a fire, and the fire burned out sooner or later and the star died, but before it did it made new ones. He said they collapse to form black holes, where the gravity is so strong that nothing can escape, not even light, so stars go from being the brightest things to the darkest of all. He said all these stars were ending and beginning all the time.

There was fire in me, and in Father, and heat all around us. We were traveling as fast as those stars, though we were sitting quite still. I was holding something enormous and my body was too small for it. I kept my eyes open so fiercely, they burned. I kept so still, my chest got too tight to breathe.

I sat still all the time those stars were flying, and we watched them cross the heavens and eventually they were gone, and after a while I could swallow again, and then I could blink, and then I could breathe.

Father and I sat on the steps a while longer and then we went inside. And that day was the best day of my life.
Dark
I HAVE NEVER liked the dark. I think if Mother were alive she would have sat with me or left a night light on or something, but Father doesn’t believe in things like that; he believes in Common Sense and Saving Electricity.

People say they are scared of the dark, but they’re not actually scared of the dark itself; they’re scared of the things in the dark, like monsters and ghosts. But I am afraid of the darkness itself, because in the dark there is Nothing.

The night of Neil’s accident, after Father left, darkness pressed around me. It filled up my nose and my ears and my mouth. I struggled to breathe. I turned this way and that. I said to myself, I wouldn’t talk to God. I was afraid of what I would say. But the dark kept pressing, and in the end I sat up and threw back the covers and said: “I undid it!”

There was silence. I started to cry. Then God said: “You can’t undo things. I’ve told you before.”

Why did You let it happen, God?” I said. I wiped my face. “I should tell Father it was my fault,” I said. “He should know.”

Don’t,” God said. “He’ll hate you even more. Trust Me.”

I thought for a bit. “Don’t You ever get tired of it?” I said at last.

What?”

Being right.”

One thing I never get tired of,” God said, “is being right.”


The End of Judith McPherson
JUST BEFORE DAWN I dreamed I was in the Land of Decoration: It was dark and I was running for my life, and I could hear footsteps and every so often a shout: “Over here!”

I didn’t understand how people knew where I was, because I wasn’t leaving any footprints and I wasn’t making a noise. Then I saw there was a trail of bright dust shining in the dark, and it was coming from my pocket, the one I had put the stone in that the old man had given me, but when I put my hand in the pocket there was only a hole and, trickling from the hole, glittering dust.

I tore off my jacket and threw it away and ran faster, but still the trail continued. I stumbled and fell and got up again, and then I was running at different speeds, fast one minute–and the hills and fields around me jumping this way and that, the way they do when you are thrown around on the back of a horse or in a very old film of cowboys and Indians–and slow the next, as if everything was flowing like treacle or honey, and that was worse because I couldn’t make my legs go fast enough.

However I ran, the dust kept trickling, and I thought this stone must be enormous, bigger than the universe, and I hadn’t known it. I ran and ran, trying to remember where the land gave way to the floorboards, but where the sand dunes should have ended there were more dunes and where the hills should have stopped there were more hills. The Land of Decoration went on and on, as I used to imagine it did, only now I wanted it to end and just come to the door or the radiator or the edge of the ring.

I had to stop to get my breath back and as I bent down I saw that the reason the dust wasn’t stopping was that I was full of it, I was made of it, and there were holes in me everywhere. And as I began to run again, I knew that soon there would be nothing left of me except pipe cleaners, cotton, and a little bit of felt.
At Dead of Night
NEIL LEWIS HAS had an accident and won’t be at school for a while.” Mrs. Pierce was standing in front of her desk.

What happened, Miss? What happened?”

He was involved in a car accident. Mr. Williams has told me they’re taking good care of him in the hospital.”

When did it happen?” said Gemma.

Last night,” said Mrs. Pierce.

When will he be back?” said Luke.

We’re not sure,” said Mrs. Pierce. “It’s just as well it’s nearly Christmas; it will give him a chance to get better before school starts again.”

For the rest of the day I tried to see if Mrs. Pierce was looking at me. I don’t think she was, but I couldn’t be sure.

There were Christmas lights on every one of the trees in the front room windows as I turned in to our street that evening. The rooms looked warm. I was aching and pulled my scarf higher. I wasn’t sure if it was because I had cried so much last night or because I was coming down with something.

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

Fine.”

Oh.”

Yes. Mrs. Pierce said Neil had had a car accident. That he would be off till after Christmas.”

Right,” he said.

Was work all right?”

Absolutely.”

Absolutely” is a word Father never uses.

We were reading the Bible later when a dustbin rattled in the back lane. Father jumped. Then he went to the window, looking first to the right and then to the left. When he came back to the table, he smiled and said: “Cat.” He turned a page over, then turned back. “Where were we?”

I looked at him. “Here,” I said.

Oh yes.”



He began to read. But before we had got ten verses further, he stopped mid sentence, took off his glasses, and laid them on the table. He said: “I think we’ll leave it there for tonight.”

We’re halfway through the chapter.”

What better place to finish?” he said. “We can ponder what’s going to happen next,” and he got up from the table and didn’t come back.
* * *
LATER THAT NIGHT I woke to voices. To begin with, I thought they were coming from the street, but then I realized they were coming from downstairs, and I crept onto the landing.

Halfway down the stairs I saw light coming from under the middle room door. Inside the room I could hear Uncle Stan. He was saying: “Taking things into your own hands like this.”

What would you have had me do?” Father said. “If I hadn’t heard that window smash, I don’t know what would have happened. There was petrol–did you know that? I didn’t know what to expect next.”

I understand,” said Uncle Stan. “But–”

No, you don’t understand,” Father said. “And you won’t until you’re in a similar situation. Yes, I know what it says here, but it’s different when it comes down to it, I don’t care what you quote me.”

A little boy has been seriously injured because of your actions,” said Alf’s voice.

I’ve explained all that,” said Father.

Do you feel any remorse at all?” said Alf.

That ‘little boy,’” Father said, “is a complete hooligan. He has made my life hell for the past couple of months and–”

I asked if you felt any remorse,” said Alf.

There was silence for a minute, and I could hear the hall clock and the wind in the gutters and my heart. Then Father’s voice said: “You know, Alf, I don’t,” and my stomach went up and down and I shut my eyes.

There were no sounds then, except for a rustle of paper and the fire crackling, until Uncle Stan said: “I’m very sorry to hear that, John,” and he sounded sorry. “I just don’t think you realize how extreme your reactions have been; you don’t seem to be thinking clearly.”

Alf said: “I think you should be marked, John. I mean, what sort of example are you giving?”

Why shouldn’t I protect my family?” Father said. “I’ve only done what was natural.”

But if you had faith, you’d leave things in God’s hands,” said Stan. “Faith means not doubting, not questioning, not asking why.”

It was a minute before anyone spoke. Then Father said something in a low voice that was so quiet I couldn’t hear and Stan said: “Oh, John. Why d’you bring that up?” and he sounded as though Father had hurt him.

Father said: “Well, she did, didn’t she? She didn’t doubt, she didn’t grumble, she didn’t ask why!”

There was another pause, then Alf said: “Sarah had great faith, John. No one’s denying that.” And I shut my eyes and leaned my head against the banister, because “Sarah” was Mother’s name.

Great faith –” Father’s voice rose, then stopped short.



There was silence. Then Uncle Stan said: “Can’t you see we’re trying to help you, John, that we want the best for you?”

Father said: “D’you know, right now, Stan, right now, I’m not sure.” A wave of hot and then cold washed over me. I needed the toilet.

There was another silence. Then Alf said: “We’re going to pray for you.”

Stan said: “You know the procedure. If we haven’t heard from you in twenty days…” and Father said quietly: “Yes, I know.”

The door opened suddenly and light fell across the hall, and I nearly fell over myself trying to get back up the stairs in time. I crouched on the landing and heard footsteps going to the front door. Father went out the door with them and I heard the bolts slide back on the gate, then Father locked it, came inside, locked the front door, and went into the kitchen.

I waited for him to come to bed for over an hour, but he didn’t, so I went halfway down the stairs again. The hall light wasn’t on anymore, but there was a light under the middle room door. I went down the outside of the stairs where the steps made no sound, and when I got to the bottom I walked over the tiles until I could bend down and peep through the keyhole. Father was sitting in an armchair in front of the fire, holding the silver picture of Mother. He was looking at the fire, not making a noise, and tears were coming down his cheeks. He was letting them come and not wiping them away.
The Greatest Test of All
MY MOTHER AND father prepared a room for me before I was born. Mother decorated it and made curtains and a hot air balloon light shade, and Father made me a bed and a trunk. They wanted a baby more than anything and when they found out Mother was pregnant everything seemed perfect. But things went wrong.

When Mother was giving birth, she began to bleed. The doctors said she must have a blood transfusion or she would die, but she knew God didn’t approve of them. She knew that it was written that we must not take blood into our body, because blood gives life and belongs to God. The doctors didn’t understand and they wouldn’t help her. Some got very angry. “Save the baby,” she said. One doctor agreed to; the others walked out.

The greatest test of faith is to give your life for it. Mother gave her life for her faith. She saw me and was happy. She told Father she would see him in the new world. Then she died. She wasn’t afraid, because God had promised to resurrect her. Father wasn’t afraid, because he also knew God had promised. But I think he was angry, and I know he was sad.

He kept the house and garden as she had left it. He watered the Christmas roses, he pruned the cherry tree and golden cane. He dusted and polished her things and kept them safe. But he stopped smiling, he stopped laughing, and he stopped making plans.

I asked God if it was my fault Mother died, and He said that it was. I knew that already though. I knew it every time Father was angry with me. “What can I do?” I said to God.

Nothing. I told you. You can do things, but undoing them–that’s something else altogether.”


Payback
IT WAS THE last day of the term. We took down our work from the walls, ripped the spare pages out of our exercise books, and put them in a pile to be used as scrap paper. When everyone went into the hall in the afternoon to sing carols, I crossed my arms, put my head down, and closed my eyes. For the first time in my life I felt better at school than at home.

A sound made me look up. Mrs. Pierce was closing the door. She said: “Nobody will miss me for five minutes.” She sat down beside me.

Judith, I hope you don’t mind, but I wanted to have a word with you before the end of the day and I probably won’t get a chance if I don’t do it now. You don’t say much, but I’ve been very worried about you lately and wanted to check up on you. What did your father say when you asked him to come and see me?”



I swallowed. “He said he would come up,” I said, “but not for a while–because he’s busy.”

Mrs. Pierce said: “That’s unfortunate. I’d hoped he would–” She sighed and said: “Judith, here is a letter. I’d like you to give it to your father. Tell him it’s very important he reads this.” She looked at me. “All right?”

I bit my lips and nodded.

Then she took a piece of paper out of her pocket and pushed it toward me. She said: “Judith, this is my phone number. I don’t usually do this, but if you need to talk to anyone over Christmas, please call me.”

Thank you,” I said.

In fact,” she said, “in the new year, regardless of whether I manage to speak to your father or not, I’m going to get you some help. I think there are a lot of things going on in that head of yours, a lot we could do to help you if we knew what we were dealing with.”

What do you mean?” I said, and I was frightened.

It’s nothing for you to worry about,” she said, “just help from some professional people.”

I didn’t know what that meant, and I didn’t want to know.

She got up from the table and said: “They’ll be finishing in a minute. I’d better go back.”

I looked at the paper, and suddenly my eyes were full and my heart was beating so fast. “Mrs. Pierce,” I said.

Yes, Judith?”

There’s something I do have to say, but I don’t know if I can.”

Stop!” said God. But I had started.



Mrs. Pierce came back to the table. “Yes, Judith? I’m listening.”

I felt dizzy. “If I told you I had done something bad…” I said.

Yes?”

If I told you I’d done something very bad … something unforgivable–”

Judith–”

No!” I said. “If this thing was very bad–”

Mrs. Pierce put her hand on my arm. She said softly: “Judith, I don’t mean to make light of what you’re telling me, but I’m sure you’re not capable of doing anything very bad.”

I am!” I said. “It’s worse than you can imagine!” and I began to cry.



She waited and handed me a tissue and then said: “And you can’t tell me?”

I shook my head.

Have you talked to your father about this?”



I shook my head. “He warned me about it–he told me it would lead to trouble, but I didn’t believe him.”

Mrs. Pierce was flushed. She shook her head and said: “Judith, I’m going to phone your father; the sooner I talk to him about this, the better.”

When she said that, I began to breathe very fast, and she put her hand on my arm and said: “Judith, please try not to worry. I’m sure that whatever you did, you did it with the best intentions and your father will understand that; I really do think I should try to talk to him.”
* * *
THAT AFTERNOON MRS. Pierce read the last chapter of Charlotte’s Web to us, where Charlotte dies but is happy because she has done everything she could to save Wilbur and people think what she has done is a miracle. Of course the real miracle is that it was such a difficult thing for Charlotte to do because she was dying and yet she did it anyway. Mrs. Pierce stood by her desk as we trooped out and said: “Have a lovely holiday! Don’t eat too many mince pies. I want you all in peak condition for next term.” As I passed, she said: “Remember what we talked about, Judith.” I nodded.

When I got home I burned Mrs. Pierce’s letter in the Rayburn, and I was glad I had done it before I read it, because it made me more frightened than I could imagine thinking of Father reading it. But I stuck Mrs. Pierce’s number in the back cover of my journal. Then I went upstairs to lie on my bed and ticked off the days till I could go back to school; I thought how strange it was to do that, to want to go back. Then I felt colder and got under the covers into bed.

A little later a car pulled up. I heard a door slam and then the gate swing open and a man’s voice say: “Steady.”

I got up and peered through the window, but whoever it was was now opening the front door, and I jumped because it banged against the wall. Someone said: “I’ll get it,” and it sounded like Mike.

I ran along the landing and down the stairs. And then I stopped halfway down, and so did my heart, because it was Mike. He had his arm around someone who looked like Father but I couldn’t be sure: The person who looked like Father had his arm across Mike’s shoulders, and his face looked like it had been pushed sideways, and there was blood on it, and his eye was puffed up and closed like a fetus.

Mike said: “Whoa!” when he saw me. Then he said: “It’s all right, pet. Your dad’s just fallen down some steps. He’s going to be fine. Run and get some cold cloths, will you?”

I must have still been standing there, because Mike said: “Go on, there’s a good girl.” But I still couldn’t move until the person who looked a bit like Father picked up his head and said: “I’m fine, Judith,” and the voice sounded a bit like Father’s too, except that the person’s mouth sounded full of something.

I went back upstairs to the bathroom and began soaking a flannel under the tap. Halfway through soaking it my legs sat down on the side of the bath, because I knew Father hadn’t fallen down steps and I knew it was something to do with what had happened to Neil, and I was pretty sure that a person had done this to Father and that person was Doug Lewis.

I got up and turned the tap off and took the flannel downstairs. Father was sitting at the table and the washing up bowl was beside him. Mike was touching his eye with some cotton and Father’s head was going back whenever Mike touched him. I put the flannel on the table and Mike said: “Good kid. Your dad’s going to be as right as rain. Go and make us a cuppa, will you do that?”

I went to the sink and heard Mike say in a low voice: “You should have let me take you to the hospital.” Father said something back and spat into the bowl.

I brought two cups of tea in and put them on the table, but Mike seemed to have forgotten he wanted them. He finished bandaging Father’s eye and said: “Lift your shirt,” and when Father did, I saw blood on his stomach and a red mark that looked like the sole of a shoe.

Father put his hand to his eye and touched it. He took it away then touched it again, as if he had forgotten he had done it the moment before. When Mike had finished bandaging him, Father lay on the sofa. His face was white and his arms and legs lay any old how like a rag doll. Mike said: “I’ll call on you tomorrow after work with some groceries.” Father raised his hand but Mike said: “John, I’m telling you, not asking,” and Father let his arm fall again. Mike said: “For once you’ve got to give in and let someone else take over.” Then he put his arm round my shoulder and squeezed. Then he said: “See that he doesn’t get into any more trouble, will you, Fred?”

Then he said in a different voice: “He’s going to be all right, Judith; your dad’s a toughie.” But Father didn’t look tough. He looked dead.


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