Grace McCleen The Land of Decoration



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One Good Thought
THAT NIGHT THE letter box crashed again. I know that’s what it was because as I woke I heard the boys laughing and the gate spring shut. I got up and stood by the side of the window and looked through the curtains. I couldn’t see much without moving them, so I slipped into the other front bedroom.

Neil and Lee and Gareth were down below, with Neil’s brother Tom, who I sometimes saw at the school gates, and some older boys I had never seen before. When Father opened the door, they rode away. But they came back about five minutes later. One of the older boys was swigging from a can; the others were doing wheelies on their bikes and spitting on the ground. The phone rang in the hall, and I heard Father come out of the kitchen and the door slam behind him. The phone stopped, and then I heard him say: “Mrs. Pew!”

Yes,” he said. “Thank you. I’m dealing with it.”



He said: “Everything is being taken care of, Mrs. Pew. Please don’t worry.”

I was cold then, so I went to bed.

When the boys came back they shouted: “Where’s the witch?” through the letter box slot and threw chippings at the upstairs windows. I felt the noise in my chest like a shower of red hot pellets, and I wondered if this is what it felt like to be shot. I couldn’t lie there, because my body was on fire and I was shaking, so I got out my journal and wrote. But the noise went on so I put the journal away and sat against the wall. I sat there for a long time, until it was quiet in the street, until the hall clock struck twelve. Then I got up and opened the curtains.

It was very still and very bright. The full moon cast long black shadows from the houses and trees in the Land of Decoration. The shadows stretched right across the floor. I wondered what they reminded me of, and then I remembered that the graveyard in town looked like that when shadows fell from the headstones.

God,” I said quietly, “why is this happening?”

Well,” said God, “to Neil it looks like you’re the cause of all his problems at the moment.”

I can’t help it if Mrs. Pierce doesn’t like him,” I said. “What should I do?”

I don’t know.”

You’re God!” I said.

But you got yourself into this.”

You did,” I said.

No,” said God. “It was you.”

But I’ve only done what You told me to do.”

You’ve done what you wanted to do.”

It’s the same thing,” I said.

What?” said God.

I don’t know!” I said. I began to feel hot. “I don’t know why I said that.”



I didn’t want to talk to God anymore, I didn’t want to be in my room anymore, I was afraid the cloud would come over me again like it did the day I made the snow, so I went to the door, but when I got there I couldn’t go out, and I sat back down. After a minute I went to the door again and this time I went down the stairs.

Halfway down, I screamed.

A figure was standing in the hall. The figure whirled round and Father’s voice said: “What the –”

You frightened me.”

What are you doing up?”

Nothing. I–I didn’t want to be in my room.”



He turned back to the front door. He looked like a boy with the moonlight catching the back of his head.

I couldn’t see any reason for him to be standing in the hall, so I said: “Are you all right?”

Yes.”



I suddenly wanted to say something to him very badly, but I didn’t know what. “Don’t worry about the boys,” I said.

I’m not worried!” He turned and his eyes flashed.

Good,” I said. “I was just checking.”

Everything’s under control!”

OK.”

They won’t be back tonight anyway.” He sniffed loudly and put his hands in his pockets as if that settled it, but he continued to stand there.



I said: “Are you sure you’re all right?”

I’m fine! You’re the one who’s all bothered! You should be asleep! What are you doing up?”

I don’t know.”

Well, get back to bed.”



OK.”
* * *
AFTER A WHILE the boys came back. I heard Father go out. He stood in the street and they rode around him, calling him names and spitting at him.

At last he came back in. I heard him open the front room curtains and saw the light stream across the road. I heard a creak and knew Father had sat down in one of the wicker chairs. I didn’t understand what he was doing. Then I heard him begin to whistle, and I knew he was thinking good thoughts. The boys hung around for a while and then they went away.
My Perfect Day
FATHER SAYS WE should never underestimate the power our thoughts have to help us. He says that all we need is One Good Thought to save the day. I have a few good thoughts. These are some of them:
1) that the world is about to end,

2) that everything is actually quite small,

3) that I am in the Land of Decoration, having my perfect day.

The last is the best thought of all.
* * *
I HOPE THAT there are still things from this world left over in the Land of Decoration, because I am very fond of some of them. If I could have all of my favorite things in one day, that day would be perfect, and this is how it would be.

To begin with, there would be Father and Mother and me. I know Mother will be in the Land of Decoration, because God has promised to bring the dead back to life if they were faithful, and Mother is dead, and she is the most faithful person I know. They still talk about her in the congregation, about what an example she set, about how she died, about how she trusted. Margaret still has a dress Mother made for her, and Josie has a shawl.

I’ve tried so many times to imagine meeting Mother, but all I have are odds and ends. I know, for instance, that she had brown hair and eyes like me. I know she smiled a lot, because she is smiling in most of our photos. I know that she liked making things. But after that I have to use my imagination.

In my perfect day, it would be one of those days when you wake up to sunshine, with nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it in. This day would be like a bubble floating past your window. It would be like opening your hand and it landing right in your palm, the light touching it the way it does, so that only the surface seems to be spinning and the inside of the bubble is perfectly still.

The day would begin with Mother and Father and me having breakfast, and as we ate I would tell Mother all about my life in this world and how I had been looking forward to seeing her, and she would tell me what it was like to be dead and how she had been looking forward to seeing me. Then I would show her the things I have made with the things she left, and she would shake her head as if she couldn’t believe it, she would hug me, and then we would go outside.

It would be one of those days when everything shimmers and the world is made up of jostling pieces of light. The air would be warm and smell of summer and the hedges would be filled with cow parsley and butterflies. There would be dandelion clocks and crane flies and dragonflies darting and stopping quite still in the air. There would be a field leading down to a river with grass long enough to wade through and a few flowers and some trees, and in the distance maybe the sea. Mother would take one of my hands and Father would take the other, and it would be difficult to believe it was really happening, because I had imagined it so often, but I would have to believe it because it would be true.

We would go walking in the field. There would be lots of different sorts of grass, and the grass would get inside our shoes and the cuffs of our trousers and inside our socks. And there would be a shaggy dog with one ear up and one ear down and he would bounce ahead of us. He would race ahead, and on this most perfect of days I would be able to whistle and bring him back.

But Father doesn’t approve of dogs because he says they carry germs, so we would keep the dog away from him.

Then my mother would point and over the way there would be a Ferris wheel and music. But Father doesn’t approve of Ferris wheels and fairgrounds, because they are dangerous and they are a Waste of Money, so Mother and I would go alone.

We would ride on the dodgems and shoot down the slide. And when we came home, there would be fish and chips for tea, and the chips would be fluffy and squidgy, and the fish would fall apart in moist flakes, and the batter would crunch when you bit it and then it would ooze, and Mother and I would eat with our fingers. But Father doesn’t approve of fish and chips, so for him I guess there would be bitter greens or something.

And there would be television. This might seem a strange thing to have in paradise, but I like television. Father says television is softening to the brain, but he needn’t watch it, Mother and I could, when the stars came out, in a gypsy caravan which would be our home now, with blankets pulled over us and a fire crackling outside and sausages on sticks and black currant punch. And I have forgotten the main thing! Which would happen earlier: There would be a hot air balloon.

One summer day when Father and I were in the back garden, a balloon came over. It was like a creature from the deep sea. I saw the shadow pass over, I heard the flaring, and I wanted to go where those people were going so much.

Yes, there would definitely be a hot air balloon and we would take a ride. Or perhaps just Mother and I would, because Father doesn’t approve of hot air balloons either. He says they’re dangerous and if anything happened to you in one of them there would be No Chance. He means if it exploded in the air, you would get fried or plunge to your death. But I think the feeling of flying would be worth the risk.
* * *
I DON’T KNOW what Father’s perfect day would be like. I expect it would be full of Necessary Things like Bible study and preaching and pondering and Saving Electricity and Being Quiet and Wasting Not Wanting. In which case he has his perfect day all the time.

Or perhaps his idea of a perfect day vanished a long time ago and he has forgotten how to imagine a new one.
Neil Lewis Gets Angry
ON MONDAY NEIL looked at me and whispered a word which sounded like “blunt.” Mrs. Pierce looked up as he turned round. She said: “Neil, if you would like Judith to help you with your arithmetic, you can ask her. You don’t need to whisper.” Then Neil looked as if he would like to murder someone. He bent his head over his desk.

Mrs. Pierce said: “Do you need help, Neil?”

Neil’s fist tightened on his pen.

Mrs. Pierce said: “I’m sorry, Neil. I didn’t hear you. Was that a ‘yes’?”

Neil flung down the pen.

Don’t be embarrassed, Neil,” said Mrs. Pierce. “No one is going to laugh if you are struggling. Would you like some help?”



Neil sat up so suddenly, the chair screeched on the floor.

All right,” said Mrs. Pierce. “Then you’ve no need to bother Judith, have you?” She raised an eyebrow at me, then went back to her marking.



Everything was quiet for about fifteen minutes, then something whizzed past my head and clattered to the floor.

Mrs. Pierce looked up. “What was that?”

A ruler, Miss,” said Anna.

Whose is it?” Mrs. Pierce said.

Lee spluttered: “Neil lost it, Miss!”

Judith took it!” Gareth said.



Lee said: “She can do magic, Miss.” There were guffaws and giggling.

Mrs. Pierce turned to me. “Judith, did you take Neil’s ruler?”

No, Miss.”

What is your ruler doing by Judith’s desk, Neil?”

I don’t know, Miss,” said Neil.

You can’t remember why you left your ruler there?”

Neil scratched his head and looked round. Everyone laughed.

Mrs. Pierce said: “Really, Neil, I’m getting quite worried about you. On Monday you lost your bag. On Tuesday you told me you had lost your shoes. This morning you can’t remember where you left the ruler you were using a few seconds ago. If this goes on, you should think about seeing a doctor.”

Everyone laughed again and Neil scowled. “Pick up your ruler, Neil,” said Mrs. Pierce. Neil came to the table and picked up the ruler. As he straightened he looked at me and his eyes were sleepy and slow, full of something I couldn’t name.
* * *
AT LUNCHTIME I walked around the edges of the buildings, looking for things for the Land of Decoration. I collected five different weeds, three wrappers, two can tops, a straw, and half a plastic Kinder egg case, in which I planted the weeds. I showed them to Mrs. Pierce because she was on playground duty. “Are these for the model world in your room?” she said, and I nodded.

I’d love to see the things you’ve made,” she said. “Could you bring some in for me?” I said I would. Then I went to the toilets to water the weeds.



I was leaning over the sink when I heard a slippery sound, looked up, and saw a black jacket in the mirror. I didn’t have time to see any more, because hands were dragging me toward the toilets and my legs were scrabbling on the floor. Someone said: “See if God can help you now, bitch!” My head knocked against the toilet bowl; my nose was burning, and water was filling it.

Then I was falling backward, and Mrs. Pierce was holding Neil by the back of his jacket and her voice was shaking, but I didn’t think it was because she was afraid. She said to me: “Go to Mr. Williams, Judith, and tell him exactly what happened.”

When I got back to the classroom, Mrs. Pierce and Neil were standing opposite each other. Mrs. Pierce was shouting: “What makes you think you’re different from everyone else? What makes you think you can get away with this sort of behavior?

Neil said: “I didn’t do anything to her!”

Mrs. Pierce shouted: “Good God , boy! I saw you!

I sat down.

There’s not one good thing I can say about you, Neil Lewis,” Mrs. Pierce was saying. “Not one! And to top it all you are an incorrigible liar. Right now I don’t know what to do with you! I don’t even want to look at you!”



Neil picked up his coat and walked toward the door. He said: “I’m not staying in this fucking dump.”

Then something happened to Mrs. Pierce. She was in front of Neil, blocking his way, her glasses were flashing, her cheeks two bright pink spots. I suddenly saw how small Mrs. Pierce was. Neil was almost as tall as her. I thought he was going to hit Mrs. Pierce, because his fists were clenched. Then I thought Mrs. Pierce was going to hit Neil, because her chest was rising and falling. And as I watched them, something seemed to be happening to me too, because my heart was beating so hard I was floating and something was flowing out of me as if there was a leak.

Nobody moved for what seemed the longest time. Then something, somewhere, snapped. The strings holding Neil were cut; Mrs. Pierce set her chin a little higher. It was difficult to say what changed exactly, but we all felt it. Mrs. Pierce said: “Get!” and Neil went to his desk. He put his hands over his ears and he didn’t look up.

And something about the way everyone was looking at him, something about the way he drew in his head and curled up, reminded me of something I had seen somewhere else, though just then I was too tired to remember what it was.
In the Classroom
AT HOME TIME Mrs. Pierce said: “Would you wait behind a minute, Judith, please?” so I sat at my desk while everyone trooped out, and after a little while the classroom was quiet.

Mrs. Pierce shut the door. Then she came to my table and sat down beside me. She said: “I’m sorry about what happened today. If it’s any consolation, I think things are going to change quite a bit around here, so you won’t have to worry about that sort of thing anymore.”

I said: “They’ve changed a lot already.”

Mrs. Pierce inhaled. She said: “And high time they did.” Then she said: “Judith, there was just something I wanted to ask you. You see, something I overheard Neil say today in the toilets puzzled me–something about God helping you? At least that’s what it sounded like. Perhaps I’m wrong….”

I heard God say: “Be careful. Be very careful.”

Don’t worry,” I told Him.

I don’t remember,” I said out loud.

Mrs. Pierce frowned. She said: “I thought I heard him say: ‘See if God can help you now’–or words to that effect.” She smiled. “I only mention it because it reminded me of something I read in your news book, about God making it snow. Is that right?”

Get out of there,” said God.

But Mrs. Pierce is my friend,” I said.

I’m your friend,” said God. “And I’m telling you to get out.”

I have to answer her,” I said to God.

I said to Mrs. Pierce: “Yes, I did make snow in my model world. And then it really did snow. But it was just a coincidence. God didn’t make it happen.”

Oh,” said Mrs. Pierce. “I thought you wrote that a miracle had happened.”



God said: “Get out right now!”

My hands felt slippery.

Mrs. Pierce said: “How did Neil know God ‘helped’ you, Judith?”

I looked down. “Neil read my news book.”

Ah,” said Mrs. Pierce. “Then I did read it there.”

But it’s all made up!” I said. “It’s just imaginary. I’m a good storyteller.”

You are,” said Mrs. Pierce. “Well.” She smiled and folded her hands in her lap. “That explains that.”

Yes.”

I thought she had finished, but then she said: “Judith, there was just one more thing. There was a conversation with God in your news book. It was so lifelike I wondered whether you ever heard voices or chatted to people–in your imagination, of course.”

Why are you still there?” shouted God.

No,” I said. “I mean yes. Sometimes!”

Mrs. Pierce bent her head so that she could see my face. “And is that person God?”

GO!” shouted God.



I rubbed my hands back and forth over my knees. “Yes,” I said to Mrs. Pierce. “But that’s pretend too.”

Mrs. Pierce’s voice was very soft now. “What about seeing things, Judith? Do you ever see things other people don’t, things that are invisible? Do you ever see things you can’t explain?”

God shouted: “She is going to ruin everything!” and His voice was so loud it sort of flattened me and it took me a minute to feel three dimensional again.

I heard Mrs. Pierce saying: “Judith, are you all right?”

She was saying something else too but I couldn’t hear her, because it was like being turned round and round.

I heard Mrs. Pierce say: “It’s all right, Judith, it’s all right; let’s stop talking about this. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I was just interested, that’s all.”

Then God said: “GET OUT.” And His voice was so deep and so strange I wondered if it was God at all, and it frightened me so much that I began to cry.

Mrs. Pierce said: “Judith! What’s the matter?”

I walked to the door but I couldn’t go out. Instead, I stood there, staring at the handle and it was as if my body was one big heart. I said: “I’ve never seen anything invisible, but I do believe in God. And sometimes I talk to Him,” and it was as if the words were the burning coals the angel touched to Isaiah’s lips, and saying them was like stepping off a cliff. There was a rush of heat and my blood frothed up inside me. But once I had said them I was glad, because Mrs. Pierce smiled, as if she had been hoping I would say something like this all along and knew I would manage it eventually.

She came up to me and said quietly: “Does talking to God make you unhappy, Judith?”

I opened my mouth and closed it again. I looked down at my shoes. “I don’t know,” I said.

All right,” said Mrs. Pierce. “Sometimes it’s difficult to know what we feel, isn’t it?” She put her hand on my shoulder. “You’re a very special person, Judith, I want you to remember that. I also want you to remember that if ever you need to talk about anything–anything at all–you can come to me and talk to me in the confidence that whatever you tell me won’t go any further. And though I might not understand, I’ll do everything in my power to help you.”




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