Marie pulled up the collar of her coat, then fished a thick scarf out of her bag and wrapped it round the outside. March was not particularly warm in London, even at midday when the sun was doing its inadequate best to dissolve the last traces of snow. Marie loved snow, but not when it got this old and weary-looking, spangled with city grime. Unfortunately she would have to take off her mittens to eat her sandwiches. What was it today – she unfolded her mother’s crinkly baking foil – cheese and cucumber. She was chilly and hungry, but more importantly she was happy. Out of the office, if only for an hour; away from that word-processor and the piles of files. This was her quiet time – no longer Marie David, a secretary working for an international aid organisation – just Marie, alone in the Little Park, with her angel.
She came here every lunchtime, unless it rained. On rainy days she went to the library café and read a paperback over a cup of ill-made tea. They didn’t seem to mind her bringing her own sandwiches. But she liked the park better. It was only a small one, by London standards, and not exactly secluded. You walked up one of two shallow runs of steps and into a circular space of formal flower beds. Sometimes the Council gardeners would be at work, planting and discarding, their truck parked up on the pavement for pedestrians to squeeze past. Pansies were favourite, and geraniums. At the moment it was daffodils and crocuses. The daffodils were more advanced, the crocuses only just beginning to show white and purple heads through sharp green leaves. And in the centre was her angel.
Technically the angel was a war memorial. Beneath its stone feet were listed citizens of that part of the city who had died in the First World War. Marie sometimes wondered whether they would recognise it, those citizens, if they were permitted a brief return. All these high-rise offices, the gleaming plate-glass windows. The angel seemed small and lost, beneath them, not exactly neglected but left in peace. Pigeons perched on his shoulders, leaving strings of white behind. Lichen grew in the folds of his stone robes and moss about the base, for most of the day this place, overshadowed by skyscrapers, was cool and damp. Marie liked the angel. She always tried to sit facing him so that she could look into his face, though sometimes that bench was taken. In a way, they conversed.
Maybe others had been put off by the chill in the air, because today he and she were alone in the little park. She breathed deeply, separating in her mind the smell of new grass and young flowers from car exhaust fumes, separating the silence between them from the chaos going on outside. She felt suddenly very happy: and the angel came to life. It was not as if he moved, exactly, but as if he began to give off warmth. He was shimmering. So many colours! She gasped.
Marie, he said, you must not be afraid.
Who are you? she asked, in her head, although she knew.
You know me. You know me well, for I have been here all along. Some call me Gabriel, but I have many other names. Sometimes I have no name. I bring special news for you, Marie; you are blessed – favoured of God. He has seen into your soul, and He has chosen you.
Chosen me? She was afraid now. What could God want her to do? What could she possibly do that a God might want?
God has given you a baby son. Your boy will be great, he will be wonderful. He will become a king, of a kind you cannot imagine. He will reign forever and his kingdom will have no end.
There must be some mistake, she whispered. You see, I am… Sepp and I were waiting… We’ve been together since school. We love each other, but we were saving for a deposit on a flat, waiting till we could marry. I know it’s old-fashioned, but…
Gabriel, Sepp won’t understand if I have a baby. He’ll think, he’s bound to think… Marie thought about her mother and father, who trusted her. She thought about her sisters, her brother, her aunts and her friends. She thought about Sepp and his vast, affectionate Italian immigrant clan. They would all think…
How could this have happened? she asked. For she knew it must be the truth. Something inside her had been transformed as the angel came to life. She could already sense that tiny speck, the child inside her.
God is not bound by human realities. He has given you this child, both to cherish and to mourn. I can tell you that Beth has also conceived, and is now in her sixth month. A boy, also.
Beth? Marie remembered her distant cousin Beth, up north in Yorkshire. Beth with the cheerful smile and the tired eyes, married to ex-hippie Zak. The two branches of the family had drifted gently apart. She hadn’t seen either of them for years.
But Beth is so old… I mean, I thought they hadn’t been able to… Marie didn’t understand any of it.
Poor child, said Gabriel, and she felt his infinite compassion. He stretched out his hand to her. Fly with me now, he said. Be at peace. All shall be well.
And so it was that they flew, out over the city. They flew through the cold Spring air, tracing the winding course of the Thames and circling the grey suburbs. Together they looked down on palaces, lakes and other, greater parks. Marie felt this great city and indeed the whole world as Gabriel felt it, not as a maze of unknown streets and strangers but as a whole, a beating heart.
Giuseppe, she said, using the name she had first known him by, I can only tell you the truth. But it’s a truth you will not believe and Sepp, I am so afraid to lose you.