Claire dreams she is walking along a beach with the Lord. She cannot humble herself and speak nicely so they progress in silence. The sand is hard and damp, puddled in places; its ripples bump her bare feet. They walk until He stops and presses a gentle hand to her arm.
‘Please come back. I love you.’
The words whisper along the tiny hairs of Claire’s inner ear. Did someone sneak into the bedroom, touch her arm and murmur, I love you? She lies as still as she can, in case someone is there, hoping to talk to her. If they think she is asleep they will go away and leave her alone.
She continues to feign sleep as she listens to the morning noises. The radiators pop and clank, a kitchen cupboard slams shut and she hears the unintelligible rumble of voices downstairs. The room feels empty, the air undisturbed. When the children breathe they puff air out of their noses like little steam engines. She holds her breath until her stomach is tight and her ears are thrumming. Nothing. No one. She tries to relax, to unfasten the tension in her muscles and soak back into the mattress. Why did she have to wake up just as the Lord started to speak? She attempts to switch her ears off, breathes deeply, slowly, and imagines herself back on the beach. It doesn’t work. Eventually she gives up and occupies herself with a thought that flutters through her mind like a little biplane, trailing a banner of scripture in its wake: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or in other words, I have seen a vision.
“a thought that flutters through her mind like a little biplane, trailing a banner of scripture in its wake: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or in other words, I have seen a vision.”
The front door closes and Claire hides under the covers for a little longer in case anyone returns for an overlooked lunch box or a forgotten PE kit. Once she is certain no one is coming back, she unwraps her bedcover cocoon.
The room tilts as she stands and she holds onto the top rail of the bunk for a moment, eyes squeezed shut. Once the ground steadies she tiptoes along the landing to her own room, drags an old pair of trackie bottoms off the floor and balances against the wall as she pulls them on.
Then she heads back along the landing and down the stairs, tucking her nightie into the elastic waistband as she goes. Her coat is hanging on the bottom stair post; she takes it and retrieves her pink wellies from the shoe tidy. She opens the door. The fresh air is cool and smells of composting leaves, mud and damp wood.
She walks down the empty drive, and when she reaches the gatepost, she looks back. She doesn’t have her key; perhaps it doesn’t matter.
The house is tall, narrow and slightly hunched. It’s the mid-terrace in a squeeze of three 1920s mock-Tudor properties. There are two windows on each of the three storeys, every one criss-crossed with lead squares, making the house seem short-sighted and elderly. The front door is chunky and panelled. Its black paint is peeling away in plastic-sharp shards. Ian’s new slate sign hangs next to it, inscribed in white enamel: The Place. He ordered it before – in the summer. And when it arrived everyone stood outside and watched him drill holes into the brick while he sang a hymn: We’ll fi nd the place which God for us prepared, Far away in the west. Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid, There the saints will be blessed! The sign is a half-serious joke. ‘This is the place,’ Ian says as he reverses the car onto the drive; the same words the prophet Brigham Young is supposed to have uttered on entering the Salt Lake Valley with the Mormon pioneers. The sign makes Ian happy; he grins as he passes it. Claire used to think stripping the front door and painting it red would make her happy. She heads in the direction of the beach. It feels strange to be outside and expose her waxy skin to the weather for the fi rst time in weeks. She keeps going and eventually reaches the undulating road that divides the marsh. The road was built on rubbish, purportedly hardcore, but contractors fly-tipped uncompacted household waste into the open cavity during its construction. As the waste settled, the road sank and crested, and it waves through the marsh like a tarmac sea. Claire has always called it the Bumpy Road. Even on a beautiful day like today when sharp blue sky and autumn sunshine distract from the creep of winter, it’s windy here.
” Overhead a swarm of starlings begins a red-arrow swoop. They whip through the sky like feathery fireworks and as she stops to watch, a swell of emotion breaks in her chest and trickles from her eyes.”
At the top of the Bumpy Road there’s a birdwatching viewpoint that isn’t much more than a section of green fencing with peepholes. She peers through one of the holes. There’s a board attached to the fence showing images of birds. She looks at the water and thinks she can see black-and-white avocets like the one pictured. It seems right to be surrounded by birds at a time like this. After all, birds have always been messengers and comforters; a dove helped Noah determine the end of the flood and a raven took care of Elijah in the desert. She thinks about the selfless swallow in The Happy Prince and the nightingale that sacrificed itself in order to create a red rose. Several seagulls fly towards the beach and she remembers another story about birds, the miracle of the gulls. It happened in Utah not long after the first pioneers settled. Crops were being eaten by locusts or crickets, something like that, and the pioneers prayed and prayed until flocks of seagulls descended and ate all the pests. People believe the Lord made the seagulls intervene and, as seagulls don’t seem to be naturally helpful birds, perhaps He did. She follows the seagulls and crosses the coastal road to the car park at the edge of the beach.
The sea is still at least a couple of miles away, but she can feel the motion of its waves in her chest as she crosses the car park, and each undulation brings a small, unexpected surge of happiness. Overhead a swarm of starlings begins a red-arrow swoop. They whip through the sky like feathery fireworks and as she stops to watch, a swell of emotion breaks in her chest and trickles from her eyes. She walks past a couple of cars that probably belong to the dog walkers on the track ahead and an elderly couple in a camper van, drinking from Thermos flasks. She follows a slight incline to the Sandwinning Track. There’s a bright, new warning sign at the gateway. Caution: Ribble Estuary Cockling. She knows the tides here are dangerous; the sea sneaks behind people, fi lling imperceptible dips in the mudfl ats, rolling in like a lake, and there is quicksand. Just last week the front of the local newspaper carried the story of another rescue.
Her wellies scuff the stony track and she hears cars whoosh behind her as they race along the coastal road. It was much quieter in her dream. To her left, in the distance, the pier needles its way from the promenade out onto the bare sand. Inland, she can see the tips of buildings and the pyramid of steel suspension cables supporting the Marine Way Bridge. To her right she can see Blackpool. And if she squints she can see the thin curve of a roller coaster. It seems like she could walk there. People have tried and some of them have drowned.
The track is sandier now, damp and sticky; gritty, like cake mix. It’s stamped with a network of prints. There are wide tyre marks from cockling vehicles and thinner tracks from bicycles. There are footprints, paw prints and birds’ prints, some tiny, others surprisingly large, pronged like windmill blades. As she continues, the texture of the sand changes; it is speckled with a mosaic of broken shell pieces which draw her towards the sea like a trail of breadcrumbs. She stops walking when she sees a discarded net. It’s red like the little bags that hold oranges, and half full of tiny cockles; silver bells and cockle shells – she remembers singing the nursery rhyme to the children. She prises one open with her thumbnails and when it unlocks like a little mouth she thinks of the children again, of trying to insert toothbrushes past pursed lips. Inside the shell is a brown jelly splodge of clam. She lifts it to her nose, smells the sea and then drops it.
As she walks further she can hear birds calling. It’s rockier underfoot and the track is strewn with debris that the sea has spat out. The sand grows muddy and it sucks at her feet, slowing her pace. A dog barks and she glances back. In the far distance, she can see the hill summit of Rivington Pike. She remembers stories where people built towers and climbed mountains in order to talk to God. Rivington must be more than twenty-fi ve miles away and apart from several railway bridges the town is fl at. She could have walked to a railway bridge and she has imagined doing so several times in recent weeks, but this morning’s dream has made things clear. When she woke she knew where her exchange with God should take place. The dog starts to run towards her, shaggy hair streaming in its wake like wings. It’s only a puppy, an animal that’s bursting with mindless affection. It jumps up and wipes sandy paws on her coat.
‘I’m so sorry. Down, Bingley, down!’ The man squelches through the last patch of marshy track. He tries to grab the dog by its collar while it licks the rubber of his wellies. ‘Who’s a bad dog? You are, aren’t you? Yes, you are! Oh God. He’s got mud all over your coat.’ He ruffl es the dog’s fl oppy ears and attaches a lead to its collar.
‘Don’t worry.’ Claire’s voice sounds rough and discordant. Her tongue is thick and the roof of her mouth is sticky.
‘You’d better get it in the wash, or it’ll stain. You turning back now?’
‘I’m heading on.’
‘You want to be careful out here. Got a mobile?’ She hasn’t, but she nods.
‘Keep looking around. Make sure the sea’s not snuck in behind you, the tide’s a bastard!’
She raises her hand slightly to indicate goodbye and the man does the same. She watches him and the dog walk away for a moment. He seems to sense her gaze and he stops and turns.
‘Lovely day for it,’ he calls.
She heads on, unbuttoning her coat as she walks. Her nightie has slipped out of one side of her trackies, so she untucks it and lets it fall to her knees. Ian would say the beautiful weather is a Tender Mercy, a manifestation of the Lord’s capacity for reassurance and comfort. She hopes so, but it’s hard to know. Ian believes the good things are heaven-sent and the bad are arbitrary. She isn’t sure what she believes any more. She keeps walking in the direction of the sea and suddenly, in the squinting distance, beyond the endless corrugations of sand, she thinks she can see its shimmer. She increases her pace, forbids herself from looking left, or right, or behind, and it soon begins to feel as if she is all alone in the world.
Jacob wakes up early. He isn’t sure why at fi rst and then he remembers it’s his birthday, which makes his stomach tip like a Slinky. It’s still dark, the thick kind that hides your hands from you. He lies quietly for a few moments, willing morning to get nearer.
‘Issy, are you awake?’
He listens for a reply. The sound of his heartbeat pulses in his ears and he gives them a hard rub. The bunk bed creaks as he sits up to lean over the side.
Issy makes a little noise and the bed creaks; not him this time, she must have turned over.
‘It’s my birthday, Issy!’
‘You’re not, you’re awake now. Go on, say happy birthday to me.’
‘I don’t feel good.’
‘I’m the birthday boy!’
‘Happy birthday to me! Happy birthday to me!’ He waits for Issy to wish him happy birthday and rubs his ears again – they are thrumming with the darkness. ‘I’m going to get up. Want to sneak downstairs with me?’
He climbs down the ladder and stands next to the bottom bunk. Issy’s silence suggests she has slipped back to sleep, so he opens the bedroom door and creeps out onto the landing. He sneaks along the corridor and peeps his head around Al’s half-closed door. There’s no sign of life so he sneaks a little further. Mum and Dad have shut their door and the stairs up to Zippy’s room are too squeaky to risk. He turns back and tiptoes down the stairs, remembering to stand in the quiet places. He goes into the lounge and switches on the television. He turns the volume down to number eight and fl icks from channel to channel. It’s too early for children’s programmes, so he fi nds the news. There’s a clock in the corner of the screen: ten past fi ve. He decides to watch a DVD.
His favourite cartoon at the moment is one from the Book of Mormon collection. It’s the story of Ammon who goes on a mission to the savage Lamanites. The Lamanites don’t wear many clothes and they’ve got red and blue war paint on their chests and faces. They capture Ammon and take him to their king. The king is called Lamoni and he is fi erce, with two long plaits, blue earrings and a feathery hairband. King Lamoni agrees to let Ammon be a servant and he tells Ammon to look after the sheep. One day some wicked men come and try to steal the king’s sheep. Ammon is completely brave.
At first he uses a sling and some stones to shoot at the men like in David and Goliath, but eventually Ammon gets fed up with fi ring stones and he pulls out his sword and chops the men’s arms off. Chop! Chop! Chop! Jacob slides off the sofa, steps over Issy’s Cinderella beanbag and rummages in the toy box for Al’s old lightsabre.
Chop! Chop! Chop! He chops along with Ammon and the Lamanites’ arms break off like twigs. Serve them right! The servants take the arms back to the king in a bag and he opens the bag and says, ‘Yes, these are arms all right.’ The king thinks Ammon must be the Great Spirit, but Ammon says he is just a messenger. The king is so pleased with the bag of arms that he listens to Ammon’s message about Heavenly Father. In the end, everyone is happy – except for the men with no arms, of course.
The story of Ammon is a true story from the Book of Mormon, which means it tells people something Heavenly Father wants them to know. Jacob lies down on the sofa and thinks about what he knows as the music plays and the credits roll: stealing sheep is bad, swords are dangerous, and fi ghting might be OK if you do it for the right reasons.
Mum comes down just after seven o’clock.
‘Hello, birthday boy. What are you doing down here?’
‘I woke up and then I couldn’t get back to sleep.’
‘You daft thing.’ Mum wraps her arms around him and gives him a squeezy kiss. ‘Let’s make breakfast, shall we?’
They make pancakes. What an ace start to his birthday! Mum lets him crack the eggs. She doesn’t get cross when the shells shatter into the mixture and she does extra tosses before putting the pancakes in a dish in the oven to keep warm.
‘Shall we sing a song, Mum? Shall we? I’ll pick – I’m the birthday boy! Let’s sing “Here We Are Together”.’ Mum laughs. ‘Not that one, you always pick it! Tell you what, you sing while I finish doing this.’ She pours more mixture into the pan and Jacob starts to sing. Here we are together, together, together, Here we are together in our family.
There’s Mum and Dad and Zippy and Alma and Jacob and Issy And here we are together in our family.
Mum opens the oven door and slips the new pancake into the big dish. ‘Lovely singing,’ she says in the way she always does, even when he forgets the words and loses the up and down of the tune.
‘Will you tell me a story now?’ He climbs onto the kitchen table and sits with his bare feet resting on the seat of one of the chairs. He sniffs the burny smell of hot oil and feels a fizz of birthday happiness in his tummy. ‘Tell me the story of when I was born.’
‘Well, once upon a time, exactly seven years ago today,’ Mum begins, and she recites his story while she opens the cupboards to fi nd syrup, chocolate sauce, lemon juice and sugar.
She jumps when the telephone rings and Jacob climbs off the table and wraps his arms around her waist as she answers it. He billows his face into her pillowy middle, closes his eyes and squeezes extra tight. He holds his breath and pretends his supersonic strength can stick her to the spot.
‘Hello, Sister Anderson. No, of course you’re not a nuisance.’
Jacob knows what’s coming next. If he had a big sword he could chop Sister Anderson’s arms off and then she wouldn’t be able to use the telephone.
‘Well, it’s Jacob’s birthday. But . . . yes, of course, just a moment. I’ll go and get him.’
Jacob doesn’t let go of Mum when she attempts to move. She tucks the phone under her chin and tries to unfasten his arms.
He holds on, even though he knows it’s silly, even though he knows he will make her cross. Mum pulls the phone out from under her chin and covers the mouthpiece with her hand.
‘Stop it. Let go. Now.’
‘But what about my presents? Has Dad got to go? He’s already missing my party, he can’t go out now as well! Am I going to have to wait until he gets back before I can open anything?’
He lets his hands fl op to his sides and stands statuestill, pulling his saddest face. But Mum isn’t having it. She shakes her head then goes upstairs.
It’s suddenly lonely in the kitchen. Jacob hears the low rumble of Dad’s voice through the ceiling. He suspects Dad is going to miss the birthday pancakes and he tries to think of something to make him stay. He knows please won’t be enough because Dad likes to follow the rules. If he is going to stop him, he will have to come up with a bigger, more important rule than the one about helping people, a rule that will trump the saying Dad always repeats when he has to disappear at important moments: Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Mum has an easier way of saying the almost same thing: Do as you would be done by. Jacob thinks about the best way to persuade Dad – Inasmuch as you have stayed to eat breakfast with me on my birthday, you have done it unto Jesus. But it sounds cheeky. He wishes Dad was the kind of person who would say, ‘No, I’m sorry I can’t come. If it’s an emergency, you must call the police or the fi re brigade because today is Jacob’s birthday.’ But he knows Dad isn’t that kind of man because Dad has already said, ‘Of course I’ll come to a missionary meeting on Saturday. I’ll miss Jacob’s party, but I’m sure he’ll understand.’
Jacob looks at the casserole dish of pancakes through the glass of the oven door and decides that after he has died and gone to live in the Celestial Kingdom, when he is actually in charge of his own world, he will make it a commandment for dads to stay at home on their children’s birthdays. And if they don’t, he will send a prophet to chop their arms off.
Issy wakes up with achy arms. When she opens her eyes, they are full of lightning icicles. She tries to get out of bed and discovers that there isn’t much breath in her tummy. She wonders if part of her has popped in the night, like a balloon.