Grace McCleen The Land of Decoration



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* * *
AFTERWARD, I STOOD by Brother Michaels and waited for Uncle Stan to finish talking to him. But when Stan went away, Elsie and May came up. Then Alf. Brother Michaels shook hands with them, he listened, he nodded; he smiled and smiled. None of them wanted to go.

I was beginning to think I would never talk to him, but at last there was a gap and he turned round to put his papers in his briefcase and saw me.

Hello,” he said. “Who are you?”

Judith,” I said.

Are you the one who gave the lovely answer?”

I don’t know.”

I think you were.” Brother Michaels held out his hand. “Good to meet you.”



I said: “I liked your talk,” but my voice didn’t seem to be working properly. “I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a talk so much.”

Thank you.”

I was wondering if I could see the mustard seed?”

Brother Michaels laughed. “You can,” he said. “But I’m not sure it will be the same one.” He took a small jar from his bag and it was full of seeds.

I said: “I’ve never seen mustard like that before!”

This is what it’s like before they grind it up.”



I said: “I wish I had some.”

Brother Michaels shook a little pile of seeds into my hand. “Now you do.”

I stared at the seeds. I was so pleased I almost forgot what I was going to ask him. “Brother Michaels,” I said at last, “I came to talk to you because I have a problem.”

I knew it,” he said.

You did?”

He nodded. “What sort of problem?”

Someone–I’m afraid that–” I sighed. Then I knew I must tell him exactly how it was. “I think that soon I may be no more.”



Brother Michaels raised his eyebrows.

I mean: not exist.”



Brother Michaels lowered them. “Are you ill?” he said.

No.”



He frowned. “Has someone told you this or is it just a feeling?”

I thought about this. “No one has told me,” I said. “But I’m pretty sure.”

And have you told anyone?”

No. There’s nothing they can do.”

How do you know?”

I just do,” I said. Grown ups seemed to think that you could tell a teacher everything. They didn’t see it only made things worse.

Brother Michaels didn’t say anything for a minute. Then he said: “Have you tried praying?”

Yes.”

Sometimes prayers take time to be answered.”

I only have until tomorrow.”



Brother Michaels inhaled. Then he said: “Judith, I think I can safely say nothing is going to happen to you before tomorrow.”

How do you know?”

What you’re facing is simply fear,” he said. “Not that there’s anything simple about fear; fear is the most insidious enemy of all. But good things come from facing it.”

I said: “I don’t see how anything good will come from this.”

Start looking at things differently, then. When we look at things from another vantage point, it’s amazing how problems we thought were insoluble disappear altogether.”



My heart beat hard. “That would be nice,” I said.

Brother Michaels smiled. “I’ve got to go, Judith.”

Oh,” I said. I suddenly felt afraid again. “Do you think you’ll be coming back?”

I’m sure I will sometime.”

Then he did a strange thing. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes, and warmth traveled all the way down my arms to my fingers and right across my shoulders and back. “Have faith, Judith,” he said. Then he looked up. Father was calling me.

In a minute,” I said, but Father tapped his watch. “OK!” I said. I turned back and the row was empty.



I ran up the aisle. “Where did Brother Michaels go?” I said. Alf shrugged. I ran into the foyer. “Uncle Stan,” I said, “have you seen Brother Michaels?”

No,” said Stan. “I was just looking for him myself. Margaret and I wanted to invite him back for lunch.”



I ran into the car park. Gordon was showing the other boys his new spoiler. “Where did Brother Michaels go?” I said, and I felt my eyes prick.

It was colder now but there still wasn’t a breath of wind. The mist had lifted, but the sky was thick with cloud.

A hand on my elbow made me turn. Father handed me my coat and bag. He said: “The roast’ll be burned to a crisp.” Then he said: “What have you got there?”

I had forgotten.

Seeds,” I said. I opened my hand and showed him.


Why Faith Is Like Imagination
I KNOW ABOUT faith. The world in my room is made out of it. Out of faith I stitched the clouds. Out of faith I cut the moon and the stars. With faith I glued everything together and set it humming. This is because faith is like imagination. It sees something where there is nothing, it takes a leap, and suddenly you’re flying.

Circles of paper from a hole punch become saucers for tea parties when you press the end of a pen into them. Glue that has hardened into bubbles becomes a bowl of soapsuds for a pair of aching feet. An acorn cap becomes a bowl, toothpaste caps funnels for ocean liners, twigs knees for an ostrich, an eyelet a small pair of scissors. Matches become logs, drops from the griddle tiny Scottish pancakes, cloves oranges, orange peel a slide, orange tops rows of plants in a garden, the net bag fencing for tennis courts, the bar code a zebra crossing.

Everything is pointing to something, and if we look hard enough for long enough we can see what those other things are. The real Land of Decoration pointed to the way the world would be again one day, after Armageddon. This is called Prefiguration. Father says Prefiguration is showing on a small scale what will happen on a grand scale, it’s like soaring above things and seeing it all. But we can only see the possibilities with Eyes of Faith. Some of the Israelites stopped seeing with Eyes of Faith and they died in the wilderness. Losing faith is the worst sin of all.

Once a girl came to my room and said: “What’s all this rubbish?” Because to her that was what it looked like. But faith sees other things peeping through the cracks just itching to be noticed. Every day the cracks in this world get bigger. Every day new ones appear.
Snow
THAT AFTERNOON I planted the mustard seeds in a pot on the kitchen windowsill. I asked Father if they would grow, and he said he didn’t know. Then he turned off the electricity to save money and went into the middle room to have Peace and Quiet. Peace and Quiet is another Necessary Thing. I went upstairs and sat on the floor. The clock said 2:33. Less than nineteen hours to go till Neil drowned me.

I imagined them finding my body on the school bathroom floor, my hair spread out like a mermaid’s, my eyes staring, my lips as blue as if I’d been drinking a blueberry Jubbly. Neil would be looking on too; he’d have raised the alarm; no one would know. I saw the funeral. Elsie and May would be crying. Stan would be praying. Alf would be saying that at least I had been spared the Tribulation. Gordon’s neck would be sunk in his suit collar deeper than usual. I couldn’t imagine what Father would be doing.

I knew that Brother Michaels said I should have faith that God would help me, that things we thought were impossible were possible with God. But I didn’t see how, short of magicking the school or Neil Lewis away. If I was God, I would bring a hurricane or a plague or a tidal wave that would wipe out the town and the school. I would bring Armageddon, or an asteroid to make a hole in the earth where the school used to be or, if it was a very small asteroid and fell in just the right place, flatten Neil Lewis. But I knew none of those things would happen.

I began to feel like I did the other evening when the cloud swallowed me up. I went to the window and leaned my head against the glass, and my breath kept clouding it and I kept wiping it away. Outside was a row of houses. Above those was another row and above those another. Above the houses was the mountain. Above the mountain was the sky. The houses were brown. The mountain was black. The sky was white.

I looked at the sky. It was so white it might not be there at all. It was like paper, like feathers. Like snow. “It could snow,” I said aloud.

There had been a lot of snow once before and school had closed. I looked at the sky. It could be full of snow this very minute, just waiting to fall. It could snow; it was even quite cold. Brother Michaels had said that if we had a little faith, other things would follow, sometimes more than we dreamed, and I thought I did have a little faith, and perhaps a little was enough.

I began thinking about snow; I began thinking hard, about the crunchiness of it and the clean smell of it, the way it muffles everything and makes the world new. How the air comes alive when the earth is asleep and things listen and hold their breath. I saw the town laid out under a blanket of snow, the houses asleep and the factory covered and the Meeting Hall and mountain white, reaching into a sky that was white, and from the sky more whiteness falling. And the more I thought, the heavier the sky seemed and the colder the pane beneath my fingers.

I turned back to the room. I had an idea, though I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t even know where it had come from, except it was as if a giant hand had written “Snow” on a blank piece of paper. I could see the way they had written the “S,” the tail coming back to the “n” so it looked more like an “8.” And the hand was writing other things, and I began hurrying to do as it said before the sheet was wiped clean.

I went to the trunk in the corner of my room, which used to be Mother’s. Inside were materials and beads and threads she had and all then things I have found. I searched and I took out white cotton. I cut up the cotton and draped it over the fields and hills of the Land of Decoration.

Good,” said a voice. “More!”



Something hot licked my spine. My scalp pricked. “Who’s that?” I said. No one answered.

My hands were shaking. I felt my heart in my throat. I took sugar and flour and sprinkled them over sponge treetops and paper grass and heather hedges.

Faster!” said the voice. And although I didn’t know where the voice was coming from, I knew it was real this time and meant for me, and I didn’t care who or what was speaking.



I ran to the bathroom. I ran back. I squirted shaving foam along windowsills and eaves and gutters. I let glue dry clear in small drops around eaves and on branches and on bandstands and streetlights.

More!” said the voice.



There was a drum in my brain. The whole room was pulsing. I made a fire in a caramel keg with gold sweet papers on the side of the lake where tall firs stood. I made frankfurters and marshmallows on sticks with pieces of plasticine. I made a polystyrene ball snowman, a line of white paper geese. I hung them on a string across the moon. I took some down from my leaky duvet and shook it above, and it fell over the towns and seas and hills and lakes.

I snowed in houses and shops and post offices and schools. I iced roads and blocked bridges and strung white pipe cleaners along telegraph wires. I set cardboard skaters on a tinfoil lake and on the hill a woolly tobogganing party.

I grazed my hand and didn’t feel it.

My foot went to sleep.

I stamped around and sat down again.
* * *
WHEN I OPENED my eyes the light was gone and the Land of Decoration was glowing whitely in the darkness, the line of geese tiny arrows in the sky. I was curled on my side, at the edge of the sea. My cheek hurt because it was pressing on the edge of the mirror. I sat up. Then I heard Father calling me. I held my breath. I heard him come to the foot of the stairs.

My heart was beating so fast it hurt but I didn’t know why. He called again and I shut my eyes tight. At last Father went back into the kitchen and closed the door. He must have thought I had gone to bed.

I was shaking. I got up and went to the window. I couldn’t see the mountain now, and the sky was black. Behind me the room was still. I could feel the stillness all around me, like water. I took a deep breath, turned back to the room, and I said: “Snow.” I looked at the sky and I said: “Snow.”

A car flashed by. It lit me up, then left me in darkness. The sound of that car pulled me after it. I thought it had gone but it came back again. I listened to the sound of that car, then I closed the curtains and got into bed.

I heard the clock chime nine times in the hall. I heard Mrs. Pew call her cat, Oscar, for his supper. I heard Mr. Neasdon come home from the Labour Club and the dog from number 29 begin to bark. I heard the bell from the factory toll the night shift and Father come upstairs, his steps hollow on the boards of the landing.
The Stone and the Book
THAT NIGHT I had a wonderful dream. I dreamed I was walking in the Land of Decoration. I was passing Glacier Mint ice palaces and tinsel fountains and Rolo Giant causeways and calico trees where jeweled fruits clustered and birds with long tail feathers sang. I wished I had time to stop and look at it all, but a voice was calling me. The voice led me to a field.

The air was warm and smelled of summer. I went walking, leaving a trail in the grass. Sometimes I went this way and sometimes I went that. Sometimes the sun was in my face and sometimes it was at my back. The hedges were filled with tissue cow parsley. Paper birds flew up under my nose. Paisley butterflies fluttered away. There were sweet paper gnats and down dandelion clocks and glittering hat pin dragonflies darting then stopping quite still in the air.

In the middle of the field there was a tree. Beneath the tree was an old man with a beard. His skin was like caramel and his hair was very black. He was dressed in a white robe and held his hands behind his back. He said: “Welcome, child. This is a great day. You have been chosen to receive a gift of inestimable value.” And his voice was like dark chocolate.

Thank you,” I said. Then I said: “What does ‘inestimable’ mean?”

Something whose worth can’t be estimated,” he said.

In one hand I hold a stone that contains more power than anyone has ever possessed, and its fruits are sweet but the aftertaste is bitter. In my other hand I hold a book the wisest seek to read, and its fruits are loathsome but it gives the reader wings.”



I said: “Why are you holding them behind your back?”

Because the sight of them might influence you,” said the man. “Now you must choose. Think carefully, because much hangs on your decision.”



It was difficult. Because I wanted to have all the power in the world, and make Neil Lewis disappear, and never go back to school again. But I also wanted to find out what the secret was that even the wisest seek to read. And I would definitely like to have wings. And there was a moment when I thought perhaps I shouldn’t choose at all and should go away through the long grass and not look back.

But I didn’t. I said: “I’d like the stone please.” And when the old man took his right hand from behind his back and gave it to me, it glinted many colors in my palm and I felt myself swell and become heavy, and when I spoke I thought it had thundered.

It could have been a long time or it could have been a short time that passed, I couldn’t tell but I know that I said: “Could I look at the book?”

The old man pursed his lips. I thought he wasn’t going to let me. But finally he said: “All right. But you can’t touch it,” and he brought a small brown book from behind him. The spine was coming away and the pages were dog eared, and when he opened it it was full of letters I had never seen before.

I said: “Why are the pages wrinkled?”

And the man said: “They are wet with the tears of all those who have tried to read it and failed.”

Suddenly I felt cold. “Would I have been able to?” I said.

He smiled. “We will never know now.”

And then I woke up. But it wasn’t morning. It was dark and I was shivering. The air was stirring and full of the sound of beating wings.

I pulled the blankets higher and wriggled down. I shut my eyes and tried to find the old man. I wanted to ask him about the aftertaste of the stone. But the air was no longer filled with gnats and dandelion clocks. It was filled with feathers, as if someone had shaken a giant pillow somewhere above my head, and as I watched, the feathers grew thicker.

It wasn’t easy to see with the air so full of swirling. I sheltered beneath the tree in the middle of the field as the air got colder. The stone grew hot in my pocket and I warmed my hands on it, but soon it grew too hot to hold and I had to put it on the ground, and it grew brighter and brighter while all around the world grew white.
* * *
WHEN I WOKE it was morning. The air was still and it was heavy. It pressed close to me like a blanket, and the blanket was cold. I got out of bed. I pulled back the curtains. And the whole world was white.
The First Miracle
I STARED AT the snow and wondered if I was still dreaming. But the houses weren’t made out of cardboard and the people weren’t made out of clay: Mr. Neasdon was trying to start his car, Mrs. Andrews was peeping through her curtains, little kids were building a snowman, and the dog from number 29 was lifting his leg against a heap of snow and trotting off to the next. I blinked and it was all still there. I pinched myself and it hurt. I sat on the bed and looked at my knees. Then I got up and looked out the window again. Then I pulled on my clothes and ran downstairs and opened the front door.

The snow wasn’t cotton wool or pipe cleaners or felt. It was real. I turned my face to the sky. Whiteness sealed my eyes and my lips. The cold was like silence around me. I went back inside.

The back door crashed as Father came into the kitchen. His cheeks were red and his mustache bristled. He put down a bucket of coal and poured himself tea. “Put plenty on,” he said. “It’ll be cold until the house heats up.”

Aren’t you going to work?”

There isn’t any,” he said. “The power’s down at the factory. There’ll be no school for you either. The road’s closed; even the gritter can’t get through.”

Then I sat down at the table and kept very still, because something was fizzing inside me. Father was saying: “I’ve never seen anything like it. Not in October,” and it was as if he was a long way away, and everything was now new and strange: the clank of the Rayburn stove lid, the shunt of the scuttle, the wheeze and pop of the porridge. I was standing in a high place but I didn’t want to get down. I wanted to go higher. I said: “Perhaps the snow is a sign of the end! That would be exciting.”

Father said: “The only exciting thing around here is that our breakfast is getting cold.” He put two bowls of porridge on the table, sat down, and bowed his head. He said: “Thank you for this food, which gives us strength, and thank you for this new day of life, which we intend to use wisely.”

And thank you for the snow,” I said under my breath, and I reached out and put my hand on his.



Father said: “Through Jesus’s name, amen.” He moved his hand away and said: “The prayer is for concentrating.”

I was concentrating,” I said. I tucked my hand into my sleeve.

Eat up,” Father said. “I want to get down to the shops before they sell out of bread.”
* * *
WE PUT ON wellies and coats. We walked in the road, in the pink trail left by the gritter. It wasn’t snowing anymore; the sky was fiery and sun flashed in each of the windows. And all the things we usually saw–the dog mess and cigarette butts and chewing gum and gob–had been washed away. Cars were tucked up beneath snowy eiderdowns. There was nothing except people carrying bags or shoveling snow or blowing on their hands.

At the top of the hill, the town spread out before us. I knew it was all there, but today you had to look hard to be sure. We passed the multistory car park and the bus station and the main street, and they, too, were deep under snow. I said: “I like this. I hope we have more.”

Father said: “There won’t be any more.”

How do you know?”

The forecast is clear.”

They didn’t forecast this, did they?”



But he wasn’t listening.
* * *
THE CO OP WAS busy. Hot air was blowing and people were pushing. “Have you ever seen anything like it?” they said. “No mention on the forecast,” and “In October too.” There were no newspapers by the tills and not many loaves of bread left. We paid for the groceries, Father took four bags and I took one, and we began walking home.

Halfway up the hill I said: “Father, how would you know that a miracle had happened?”

What? ” He was puffing, his face red.

How would we know if a miracle happened?”

A miracle?”

Yes.”

What are you talking about?”

I think the snow might be a miracle.”

It’s just snow, Judith!”

But how do you know?”

Father said: “Now, look, we don’t want a long discussion, OK?”

But how do you know that lots of things aren’t really miracles?” I said.



I ran to keep up. “I don’t think people would believe a miracle happened even if it was right in front of them, even if someone told them. They would always think it was caused by something ordinary.”

Father said: “Judith, where is this going?”

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. “I can’t tell you yet,” I said. “I need more evidence first.”

Evidence?”

Yes.”

Father stopped walking. “What did I just say?”

But–”



Then Father frowned. He said: “Drop it, Judith. Just drop it, OK?”


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