What is Dying Like?
There is a world in my room. It is made from things no one else wanted and it is made with things that were my mother’s, that she left to me, and it has taken most of my life to make.
The world stretches from the second floorboard by the door to the radiator underneath the window. There are mountains by the wall, where the room is darkest, and great cliffs and caves. There are rivers running down from the mountains to hills and pastures and here is where there are the first houses. Then there is the valley and the fields and the town, and after the town there are some more farms and then there is the beach and the beach road and a forest of pine trees and a bay and a pier, and finally, right by the radiator under the window, there is the sea, with a few rocks and a lighthouse, and some boats and sea creatures. Strung from the ceiling on short strings there are planets and stars, from longer strings there is the sun and the moon, and from the longest strings of all, clouds, aeroplanes and the light shade is a paper hot-air balloon.
The world is called the Land of Decoration. In the Book of Ezekiel it says God swore to bring the Israelites out of captivity to a wonderful country. It was flowing with milk and honey. It lacked nothing, it was a miracle, a paradise. It was so different to everything around it that it stood out like a jewel and it was called ‘the decoration of all the lands’. When I close the door of my room the walls fold back and there are planets and rainbows and suns. The floor rolls up and there are fields and roads at my feet and hundreds of small people. If I stretch out my hand I can touch the top of a mountain, if I blow I can ripple the sea. I lift my head and look right into the sun. I feel happy when I go into my room. But that Friday night I didn’t notice any of those things.
I closed the door and leaned against it. I wondered if I should go back down and tell Father why I had been holding my breath. But if I did he would only say: ‘Have you told the teacher?’ and I would say: ‘Yes,’ and Mr Davies had said: ‘No one is going to put anyone’s head down the toilet,’ and Father would say: ‘Well then.’ But I knew that Neil would just the same. And I wondered why Father never believed me.
I sat down on the floor. A woodlouse was crawling out from underneath my knees, flicking its antennae and strumming its feet. It looked like a tiny armadillo. I watched it climb the sand dunes in the Land of Decoration and wondered if it would ever find its way out again. We did an experiment with woodlice in school. We built a plasticine maze and counted the number of times they turned left or right. They nearly always turned left. This is because they cannot think for themselves. I wondered if this meant the woodlouse would come out eventually or would just keep going round in circles until it died in a little crusty ball.
Darkness was closing the valley up like a book between black covers. It was sifting down over the broken-backed streets, over roofs and over aerials, back lanes, shops, dustbins and street lights, the railway and great chimneys of the factory. Soon the darkness would blot out the lights. For a while they would glow all the more brightly but eventually they too would be eaten up. If you looked into the sky you would see their glow for a little while. Then nothing. I wondered what it would be like to die. Was it like going to sleep or like waking up? Was there no more time? Or did time go on forever?
Perhaps everything I thought was real would turn out not to have been and everything that wasn’t real was. I don’t know why but I looked for the woodlouse. It suddenly seemed very important to find it, but I couldn’t, even though only a few seconds ago it had been there, and there was not enough air in the room and it was like someone had struck a match and it was burning up all the oxygen.
I sat back against the wall and my heart began to beat hard. Something was coming towards me, unfurling like a cloud low down on the horizon. The cloud gathered. It filled my mouth and my eyes and suddenly there was roaring and things happening very quickly and all at the same time, and then I was sitting back against the wall and sweat was running down from underneath my hair and I felt stranger than I had ever felt in my life.
And if I had to say how I felt I would say like a box that had been turned upside down. And the box was surprised by just how empty it was.
The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen was published in paperback by Vintage in January 2013.