‘You don’t have to finish it,’ said Anthony Adams. ‘Nobody’s holding a gun to your head.’
But I did, and had several more. The pub shimmered and glittered around us; people came and went, perching on stools, sliding off again, feeding coins into the square-in-the-wall jukebox, chattering. The Angel was a faded sort of place, with green flock wallpaper, torn leatherette benches and ceilings turned sepia by years of cigarette smoke. I liked it there.
There seemed no great hurry to get down to business. Anthony Adams was easy company, said little. Every so often he took out a little black book and pencilled in a name, or flipped back the pages, turned the pencil round and rubbed a name out. It had a title in gold lettering in some foreign script. I squinted sideways. Beautiful handwriting. Copperplate, maybe. Some of the names were ringed in black, and some had a kind of halo round them. Trick of the light, I thought.
‘Anthony Adams isn’t your real name, is it?’ I threw this in, conversationally.
‘What makes you say that?’
‘Alliteration. Too much alliteration, and too plain. Geoff Green, Peter Porter – same thing. You made that story up, didn’t you?’
‘Some of it. The bit about the wife and kids and the newspaper in the bath I did.’
‘And the bath-towel.’
‘That too,’ he agreed. “Can I get you another of those slimy yellow things?”
‘Snowball? Yes.’ It occurred to me that he might poison it on the way back, but no, I hadn’t given him the money yet. Tradesmen don’t work for nothing, and payment in advance would be essential for a job like this. He’d be getting cash in hand, of course. I wondered whether he would declare it to the taxman, and if so exactly what he would declare.
I hadn’t felt tipsy up to now, but this time the drink worked and I began to feel blurred and reckless, almost sexy. It made it possible for me to say what I had to say.
‘I want you to kill me, Anthony Adams: when I’m not expecting it but preferably this year.’
He sighed. ‘Yes.’
‘Yes, you will or – ?’
‘Yes, I know. You think I’m a contract killer and you have a thousand pounds in your handbag for me.’
He sounded more sad than I had ever heard anyone sound before. I looked him full in the face for the first time that evening and saw that he was deathly pale.
‘Are you feeling poorly again?’
‘Sick to death, my dear.’
I put my arms around him then, and he put his around me, right there in the pub. We were both out of practice at holding, all elbows, bumped noses and awkward pats on the back. His cheek against mine felt wet. Wet and rough. He smelt of soap and incense.
‘What is your real name?’ I asked as we separated. I wondered if my mascara had run. He told me his name was Azrael.
‘Azrael what?’ It sounded vaguely familiar.
‘Just Azrael. That’s the Arabic version of it. I’m also known as Izra’il, Rahab, Suriel, Mairya. I have many names in many different cultures, but basically I’m the Angel of Death.’
Somehow this worried me less than the idea that he might be a drink-drugger, bag-snatcher or serial rapist.
He told me a lot of things that night. What his job involved. It all sounded a bit archaic. When a soul’s time was up, he said, a leaf fell from a tree at the foot of the throne of God – a metaphorical leaf and a metaphorical tree of course. And then he, Azrael, had forty days in which to sever that person’s soul from his or her body and accompany it to heaven. Or the other place.
‘So there is another place?’
‘Yes. I can show you both places if you like, and me as I really am. I mean, obviously I have to appear in some sort of disguise. I make myself look expected, ordinary.’
I suppose it was some kind of vision. I was still there, in the Angel public house, but before me also in my mind’s eye, this scene. A gigantic creature, black-winged and fiery, a gothic version of the feathery, rosebud-mouthed angels you used to see in those little stick-on texts they used to hand out in Sunday School. It was standing on a bridge between two lands. One land, as far as I could make out, was all sunshine, green meadows and snow-capped mountains, and full of music. The other was very dark, more like Milton Keynes in November only stretching away into the distance for ever and ever. I knew that place. It was where I had been in my head ever since my babies died.
‘So my leaf has fallen?’ I asked, as the vision faded and the bell for ‘time’ and the sound of glasses being loaded into a dishwasher faded in.
‘Well no, actually, it’s still attached. Metaphorically. You see, I also come to those who long for me. And you were longing for me, weren’t you Dorothy?’
I shivered. How long since anyone had called me that? The girls at the shop where I worked invariably called me ‘Mrs Hodge’.
‘So many deaths,’ he said. ‘Oh Dorothy, I long for there to be no more deaths, for rest and sleep. I’m sick of the expressions on people’s faces. The fear, the shock, the pious acceptance, the – whatever. But Azrael will be the last to die. At the Second Trump. Judgment Day and all that.’
‘This dress is killing me,’ I said. ‘It’s far too tight and my stomach hurts from holding it in.’
‘Your place?’ he said.
And that’s how it happened, in a roundabout way, that I got laid by an Archangel, his new black brogues under the bed, waiting for morning. And how we came to be here, in Skegness, walking hand in hand along the front like an old married couple, thanks to my thousand pounds and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of angel dust. An unexpected break, or a permanent escape? Who knew? I knew I would never go back to the shoe shop and, temporarily at least, people had stopped dying; all over the world, in car crashes, hospitals and natural disasters. Sooner or later, of course, somebody would notice. I didn’t want to die right this minute. Somehow, knowing that I could, and that my dear Azrael would come to me whenever I longed for him, it no longer seemed so urgent.
We were looking out to sea one evening, leaning on the rail, as the sun drowned quietly and spectacularly in the drink. I imagined mermaids, fishes, the hissing and bubbling of the water as the sun slid into and under it. I suddenly remembered having been here before. In the early fifties, it must have been, with Mum and Dad and the dogs. Mum was happier then. She held the dogs on a lead, and Dad held my hand. A tall, dark man in a crumpled demob suit. I can’t make out his face against the sun, but I’ll be seeing him soon enough. And my precious babies.