Night Bus

After eleven I get on the night bus. I know all the routes by heart and which particular one doesn’t matter, only being in the dry. Often there’ll be a café at the end of the line, one of those workmen’s ones that open their doors at dawn. You might get a free tea. Egg and chips on the house if you’re lucky. But not always. Not by any means always.

It’s hard on the legs when you can’t lie down at night. Does your circulation in. Been carted off to hospital twice. Sally Army – they do that sort of stuff. I find a seat by a window, rest my head, close my eyes and sometimes drop off to sleep. Not always.

Sometimes I have dreams, but those special dreams you get when you’re neither asleep nor awake. Once I thought I was teaching in some posh private school. Up in front of the class, writing my stuff on the board with my back to the kids. But when I turned around the room was empty. And when I turned back what I had written was all, like, scribble. And why should that surprise me? All I could ever write was my name. What was I doing up there with my piece of chalk and my academic gown, me with the greasy dreadlocks and string-tied mac?

Nobody sits next to me, ever. I mean, why would they? It’s a mixed bunch: young and drunk after parties; shabby pensioners pretending they’re not just trying to save on the gas fire. You get those in libraries, too. Tonight there’s only me and the driver. He’s got his head in one of those free newspapers as I sneak past, tiptoeing to somewhere near the back. He often manages not to see me that way. ‘Course, if I was to start being disorderly he’d turf me off. Ditched in some East End thoroughfare, some hopped-up kid coming out of an alleyway, blade glinting in the streetlight. But I’m not disorderly. Always the quiet sort.

You don’t often get an angel in full regalia, but that’s what gets on next. I wonder if he’ll catch my eye and nod, but he doesn’t. Well, why would he? The lighting down this stretch isn’t too good, one streetlamp on, the next one off. Council economies. Driver slows us down, going gingerly. I am wide awake by now and watching as shadowy terraces slide by, broken factories, bits of waste ground. The angel has his nose in a big book, leather-bound with gold lettering, like they had in the olden days. He seems very taken with it.

On we trundle. Where might an angel be off to on a night bus, I wonder. Resting his wings for a bit maybe, like me. Next minute he snaps to attention. It’s as if he can see something or hear something that I can’t. He plucks a stray feather from one of his wings and bookmarks his book with it, lays the book down on the seat. He stands up and raises his arms. There’s a kind of swish, a roaring, kind of stars, kind of butterflies. I don’t know. I hang onto the rail in front as the bus shudders to a stop.

Whatthe…? This from the driver. It’s just bleedin’ stopped. The bus just bleedin’…

The angel and his book have disappeared. Well, why wouldn’t they? I get up and stumble down to the front where the driver is opening a metal compartment and groping around for a torch. We go outside together and shine it, and there is this monster hole in the road. We can neither of us see to the bottom of the hole, it’s just too deep and black. Nearer the surface, tangled cables, water pouring out of a severed drainage pipe. That hole would have swallowed this bus. Probably several buses.

Sink’ole, says the driver, that’s what it is. All that rain we been getting. Bloody bus did an emergency stop, all on its own. I never saw that ‘ole, mate, and I swear I never touched the brakes.

Nah, I say. It was the angel.

You saw one?

I nod. Sitting across the aisle from me, it was – wings, feathers, the works.

Bleedin’ell, mate! And we look back down the hole.

Things didn’t change much after that. Nobody came and put me into sheltered accommodation. I wasn’t learned to read or offered a job. I didn’t get clothed or washed or my hair cut short or converted to Jesus. I went on catching the night bus month after month, year after year, and sometimes there was teabag-tea or egg and chips at the end café.

Three things stayed with me, though. The driver let me on without a ticket, and when we were staring down that bus-sized hole he called me mate, spoke to me like a human, not a filthy tramp. And an angel put down his book to save our lives.

An Old Naked Guy in a Curtain

Haven’t forgotten about cat/Halloween posts. Naked Guy just – appeared to me in a vision – or something.

saint jerome

Well, my sister, the one who was recently widowed, rang me from Canada. As part of her recovery she has signed on for an art degree course made up of a series of modules. Currently she is engaged upon a compulsory ‘painting’ module; something she had been dreading all summer.

Apparently, when the weekly project was announced – to copy an old master entitled Saint Jerome and the Angel by someone called Remi, there were grimaces all round. I’d have grimaced too. However, she completed it and, apart from getting his right leg a trifle too short in my opinion (I didn’t tell her) she made a really good job of it. I was going to try to insert her painting in here, but then I thought it wouldn’t be fair as I hadn’t asked her, and it might accidentally ‘identify’ her. Her angel a wee bit more spikey and etherial. We agreed the Remi angel was a bit of a porker. Maybe it’s just the draperies.

Anyway, we spent an hour or so on the phone discussing the Remi painting. I found it on my Fire after several false starts. No, not that one… it’s an old naked guy in a red curtain! But they were all old naked guys in red curtains. Everybody in the world seemed to have done their version of him. He’s got a leg, that pokes out… The same leg that’s a bit too short in her version.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do about the other leg. He doesn’t seem to have another leg…

We perused the painting together, and located it. It’s just a heel and part of a foot, really, and it looks for all the world like part of that improbable red drapery, but it is where a foot would be, given a knee where it is, beneath the book.

Sister and I tend to look at things differently. She looks at pictures like blocks of colour, and shade, and artistic stuff. I, not being gifted in that direction, look at them like stories. I want to know why stuff is there at all.

What’s that little pot? I asked. Next to the skull (why the skull?) there is a little black pot. Thinking about it, we decided it was an ink pot, which would go with the scrawny little feather in his right hand, which must be a quill.

Why is he reading?

We realised he was not reading. He was writing stuff down. In those days, presumably, paper or parchment would be bound into ‘books’ or ledgers.

What is he writing down?

Whatever the angel is telling him. Look – their eyes are locked, they are in rapt concentration on one another. She is teaching him something – look at her hands, she is making a series of points, enumerating them.

I don’t particularly like the painting. Why is her hair swept back by some invisible wind, whilst his beard isn’t being swept forward? Why does that left foot look so much like a piece of red curtain? He’s got the ‘flabby’ aspect of the ancient St Jerome right, but then why are his ancient arms and shoulders so magnificently muscled? Why is he naked in any case? Who sits about in a curtain? Why are her wings that dingy grey? What’s the point of having an angel if she’s – depressing?

This morning, out of curiosity, I decided to find out a bit more about Saint Jerome. He seems to have led a rather muddled real life but has a correspondingly vivid legendary life. He was the one who translated the Bible from Greek into Latin, producing what is now known as the Vulgate Bible. He also wrote a string of Commentaries on books of the Bible, and it is these that the angel is helping him with.

(He’s also the saint who, legendarily, removed the thorn from that poor lion’s paw. I love him for that, even though he only did it legendarily. Being a cat-person, if I came across a lion with a thorn in its poor old paw I would feel irresistibly drawn to try to help it. And no doubt the lion would eat me. )

st jerome lion

I like enjoy this painting much more than Old Naked Guy. Look at that lion! Oh, my poor paw! its face is saying. I love it. I suspect a real lion would be bigger than that in relation to a human being, but maybe not.

Further research. Like many saints, Jerome tends to be depicted with  a number of iconic objects, among them red garments (explains the curtain), a book and writing implements. Later – not in this painting – there were also eyeglasses. This is because in his Commentary to Ezechiel he complains that:

I am quite unable to go through the Hebrew books with such light as I have at night, for even in the full light of day they are hidden from my eyes owing to the smallness of the letters.

This made me smile. Suddenly I liked Old Naked Guy a lot better. Whilst researching for my previous post (the one about Cat’s Cradle) I had to get out the dreaded magnifying glass to read the tiny index. An admission of defeat. I am catching up with Old Guy. Short sighted, I was always comforted that I could read even tiny stuff if I took off my ‘eyeglasses’. Those days are definitely gone.

Addendum: Many, many decades ago I bought a postcard in the souvenir shop a posh London art gallery. I couldn’t afford to buy anything else. It was lurking around for ages, but then, like most of my possessions, it got lost. I loved Dürer – still do – and liked the look of the quiet old gentleman, with his casually sleeping lion and sleeping dog. How quiet it all looked. I so wanted to be in that sunlit room, sitting on one of those wooden benches. And it’s just dawned on me – that was St Jerome too.

durer 4.jpg

 

Angel Delight, concluded

Pete had never heard of a new router somehow managing to reset a person’s home page, but that was what it seemed to have done. Instead of Google, Hot Babes popped up on his screen. Although…

Well she was hot enough, he supposed – blonde, blue-eyed, a shapely figure from what you could see of it beneath that white, feathery outfit. Too much of the feathers, he thought, and not enough flesh. It was hardly worth the subscription, this site. And she wasn’t… she wasn’t behaving like a Hot Babe usually did – none of suggestive pouting, the secretive smiles, no writhing… And where was the bed? The whole set looked a bit weird compared to normal. Instead of a boudoir type thing, this blonde babe seemed to be in an office, working on a computer not so very different from his own. She seemed absorbed in whatever she was studying on that screen, didn’t even look up though she must have known he was there. Some little light must have gone on.

At last the webchat box came up. Ah, that was more like it.

Helo gorjus! Pete typed, with one cigarette-stained forefinger. And wot is yr name?

The girl looked up then. He wasn’t using the webcam but he could have sworn she could see him. An expression which might or might not have been distaste flitted across her face, to be replaced by one of neutral efficiency. Must be some sort of role-play, Pete thought: a variation on the one where there was a nurse in a very short, starched white uniform which would conveniently get removed, in instalments. Sometimes the one fee covered all. Sometimes the girl would pause and demand extra in bitcoin before she took off the rest. When were those feathers going to start falling? He hoped she wasn’t going to want the extra. Pete had never really understood bitcoin, and couldn’t be bothered to find out. She was taking her own sweet time about replying.

Nameless, she replied, eventually. And your name please?  All this was beginning to unnerve Pete. His head was beginning to thump again. Why hadn’t Google come up? What was this?

Pete.

Pete short for Peter? Peter what?

Hey, liten up babe…

Surname now, please, and any middle names. Reluctantly, he typed in the information. Surely they didn’t usually ask for surnames? It was getting weirder by the minute but he couldn’t seem to unglue his hands from the keyboard.

Nameless is typing…

Nameless is typing…

The girl in the feathers appeared to be looking down a list of names, then second list of names. As she typed, he spotted something. There was something on the desk beside her. It moved… it was alive. A small, black, silky creature that looked very much like a cat. It came closer and bent to rub its head against her ear. Nameless reached up a slender, well-manicured hand to acknowledge the affectionate greeting. Then it walked right across her keyboard and for a second or two was looking straight out of the screen. What was it about that cat? Something familiar…

Nameless is…

You do not appear on my database, Mr Peter.

Yr wot?

You do not feature on any of my lists, Mr Peter. I believe the most helpful course of action would be to transfer you to a colleague.

Wot colleeg?

A colleague in different department. Transferring you now.

Hang on, Nameless. Cum bak hear!!

But another face had appeared on the screen. This time it was a middle-aged man in a very dirty singlet. He was in the process of mopping a sweaty, soot-smeared brow with what might once, many aeons ago, have been a white handkerchief.

What can I do for you tonight, mate?

Tonite? Iss no even diner tim hear!

Different time zone, matey. Different everything. Black as the night and fiery as a furnace, hahaha. Name?

Pete.

Pete what?

Jus went thru all that with the other one.

Well just go thru it again, eh, Pete? Humour me. Surname and any middle names? Ah, here you are. I found you on my Little List. Hmmm…nice one! No fewer than three pitchforks against your name, Pete. You’ll be a splendid addition. Come on down, mate…

Down were?

Down here of course, matey. Come a little closer to the screen, that’s right. It won’t hurt much I promise you.

WOT wont hurt much?

Just a little closer to the screen, that’s it.

And a little closer…

Featured Image: Black angel kitten cat – I miss you too 3: Cyra R Cancel, Florida

Angel Delight

The story behind the story?

As always, miscellaneous. Late last night I thought, ‘I do believe I will try one of those six bottles of speciality, fruity-type beer I bought myself for Christmas’. I promise I only drank one bottle, in fact I drink so rarely nowadays that I’d had to buy a bottle-opener to go with it. Anyway, it was fruity, and a bit strange, and I woke at three in the morning sharing a fur-splotched pillow with Arthur (a black cat) who was snoring. No headache just a slight sense of confusion.

The Miseries arrived with a whoosh. I started thinking about Mum in that hospital bed, not ‘mobilising’ as they had so confidently predicted, not eating, not drinking, hardly responding. I was thinking how hard it was to live with the undead, the drowning, and how at some point you had to let them sink away down and out of sight, like Kate Winslet in that film ‘Titanic’. But how do you loosen your grip on the last of  your whole-life relationships? Mum has, with the best of intentions, been driving me round the bend my whole life and yet now I find I can’t imagine life without her.

And then – with that lightning switch you can only manage at three in the morning – I found myself worrying about the new broadband router instead. Would the little brown box arrive tomorrow as scheduled? Would I be able to sort out all those little plugs and wires and get it working? No doubt it would mean yet another stressful, circular call to a surly individual, barely able to speak English in a call centre half way round the globe.

At this point I gave up and got up. Stumbling downstairs I made myself a cup of builders’ tea, wrapped the spare dressing-gown round my knees to cut out the draught from the front door and turned on the TV. Mostly it was teleshopping but I managed to find something – was it Lucy Worsley wittering on about the six wives of Henry VIII? Or maybe she was the night before. Maybe last night it was endlessly-looped repeats of the unbearable carnage in Aleppo and the temporary ceasefire gone west again. The day ahead was promising to be a very, very bad one indeed, unless I could manage to write something.

And then I thought, supposing you were to get your new broadband router, plug all the bits and pieces in and get the all those little lights flashing? Something or someone materialises on your computer screen: but very much not the something or someone you had been expecting…

ANGEL DELIGHT

Two things woke Pete – bright mid-morning sun hitting his eyelids because he had forgotten to close the curtains last night, and some stupid bastard leaning on the doorbell. He squeezed his throbbing eyes tighter shut but could not shut his ears. However long he waited the ringing would not stop. He moved slightly and fell off the sofa, landing in the cold remains of a pepperoni pizza and knocking over a half-empty beer-can full of cigarette butts. Breakfast TV had already finished. They were on to the Business Program.

‘All right, all right!’ he screamed, and then wished he hadn’t. His skull hurt, and unknown creatures whistled, shrieked and reverberated inside it like bats in a cave. How much had he drunk, for God’s sake?

The cat got in his way as he staggered towards the door. He kicked out at it with his still-booted foot, not really expecting it to connect with the animal’s scrawny frame, but it did connect and the cat cried out and fell down. How long since he had fed that thing? Pete couldn’t recall. Why had it even persisted in hanging around? It wasn’t even his. Shelley had taken the kid but not the kid’s cat when she ran off to that feminist shelter place. Looked like he’d done for it this time, anyway – it wasn’t getting up.

The front door seemed unusually far from the sofa. That sun needed a dimmer switch. There wasn’t room on the carpet for him to tread without treading something underfoot: everywhere, clothes, magazines, bottles and cold, greasy take-away food. Bile rose in his throat.

‘I will never eat again,’ he told himself. Not realising it was true.

To be continued…

Angel Delight, continued

Angel Delight, concluded

Featured Image: Black Angel Cat – Green Eyes 2: Cyra R Cancel, Florida

I MEAN, I WAS ONLY TRYING TO HELP (Angels & Other Occurrences 3)

You see, that’s the trouble with people, they don’t want to be helped.

I mean, you’d have thought she’d be grateful, a woman at her time of life, suddenly pregnant. I mean, who’d have thought it? Didn’t think Zak had it in him, but obviously…

And she’s such a little mouse of a thing, I mean, wouldn’t say boo to a goose. You’d think she’d be pleased to have a woman of my experience, mother of no less than seven kids. I mean, I do know what I’m talking about when it comes to childbearing.

I told her, it’s no good pretending it won’t hurt. It’s agony. I mean, I remember with Kerry, my fifth…

I could see her going a bit green around the gills but… I mean, it’s better to be a realist, isn’t it? Face up to it? Better to know what’s in store for you.

Personally, I think the pair of them are a bit soft in the head. She said an angel appeared to Zak, and the angel announced it to him, and then Zak came home but couldn’t speak. This angel had struck him dumb, apparently. Load of old nonsense! Angels! I reckon it’s flashbacks. All that drinking when he was younger probably fried his brain. Not that he hasn’t reformed. I mean, he doesn’t touch a drop nowadays. Turned into a good provider and all that – held down that job at the castle for years now. Well thought of, too, I gather. Don’t know what all this struck-dumb business is about.

He had to write it down for her. Write it down! Beth, by the way, you are in the pudding club – or words to that effect.

I was only trying to help. I brought her some of my kids’ cast-offs. Thought she’d be pleased – I mean they’re not at all well off. Poor as church mice in fact. She looked at him and he looked at her, and she said thank you, but I could see she didn’t mean it. I could see she had no intention of actually using them. Not on her baby. Not on an extra-special baby that’s been announced by an angel, oh no!

When the baby actually came – well, it was lucky I was there. Zak was off at work when she started. She couldn’t get through – he must have had that mobile of his turned off again – although I suppose if he can’t speak there’d be no point – and she couldn’t find anyone else, so she came knocking at my door. Asked me to drive her to the hospital, she did. Well, after the business with the clothes I was half inclined to say no but you can’t, can you? We ladies have to stick together in times of trial. And I must admit I did rather want to be in on the action at the hospital. I thought perhaps I could go in with her. I mean, women nowadays, you can have what they a birthing partner, and it doesn’t need to be your husband; it can be anyone you nominate.

But she didn’t nominate me. Or perhaps – I don’t know – perhaps they didn’t ask her. It was all a bit of a rush. The first one always tends to be quick. After that, well, everything’s sort of stretched and sagging. All your muscles gone, you know. Gone for ever; slows everything down. I remember with my second, Mikey – went on for forty-seven hours. Forty-seven hours of absolute agony… how I didn’t die of exhaustion I honestly don’t know.

And to cap it all, there’s been this name business. I popped in to see her afterwards. Worn to a frazzle, she was. White as a sheet. I mean at her age, poor old thing. It’s too old to be having your first one, over forty. You don’t have the reserves like when you’re younger. I mean, it’s manual labour, is labour.

Anyway, the midwife was asking her what name she should put on baby’s little progress chart, and I told her Zacharias, because of course they’d be calling him after his father. People always do that with the firstborn son and Zacharias is a nice name – unusual, like. I mean, ex-alkie or not, Zak’s a good enough man and it’s a nice name and – why wouldn’t you? But then Beth opened her eyes and started shaking her head at the nurses. No, she said, his name is John. It’s John!

But Zacharias is a lovely name, I said. Whyever would you want to call him…

I mean, John. How plain can you get? Who calls a baby John nowadays? Sounds like a politician, or maybe someone who designs railway timetables.

John!! she said. She was beginning to get a bit stroppy by this time. I mean, labour, it does take it out of you. Can’t blame her for being a bit snappish, like.

And then there was this voice from the door, sort of rusty. It was Zak.

John, he shouted. John, his name is John. That’s what it said. That’s what the Bird of Light said. It said his name will be John.

What on earth was he rabbiting on about? But he seemed happy enough, crying and laughing. And somehow he’d got his voice back, after all these months of writing notes and waving his arms about. John, John, John he shouted. This baby’s name is John. And he did a little dance around the room.

Well, I’d had enough by this time. I came away. I mean, it’s not as if I haven’t enough to do at home, without getting dragged into other people’s business.

Luke 1 (57 – 64)

FLYING WITH GABRIEL (Angels & Other Occurences 2)

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.

EDEN (1)

I SAW it before it saw me, or at least so I thought at the time.

Daleth is the cycle in which the sun first begins to feel warm on one’s back and the birds start building their nests, and it was early one morning in Daleth that the Angel first appeared to us. Gideon had lost his favourite ewe and, he being sightless now, Sharma and I were accompanying him on the search.

Gideon, my father, The Elder, a shepherd, a shaman.

Sharma, a girl of sixteen summers, his brother’s child.

And myself, Marthe.

At first it was no more than a white speck moving a hundred cubits below, weaving a complicated path between the trees. I noticed, even from far above, that its long naked feet made no impression on the turf, as if they were out of sequence, the turf existing in one reality and it in another. As it came closer it resolved itself into exactly what you might imagine an angel to be, a flame-haired being, winged and robed. Ah, those wings! I felt such tenderness for those wings that tears started from my eyes and coursed down my cheeks. Glancing over at Sharma to see if she was similarly moved, I caught an expression I had not expected. For a moment I was sure I recognised it, but then, what could I know of such things? I told myself I was mistaken, for it had looked like lust.

Gideon stopped dead, scenting the air like a hind.

‘What is it, Marthe, what do you see?’

‘I believe it to be an Angel,’ I replied. Even to my own ears my voice sounding oddly prosaic, as if I was remarking upon an unusual moth or butterfly.

The Angel stopped and looked up, inspecting us with care. I could scarcely breathe. I felt engulfed by its attention, as by a wave of the sea. I swear that for a moment I sensed its eyes resting not only upon my face but in my blood, in my bones. Then it unfurled its wings and in a moment had risen up the sheer face of The Edge and was hovering. So close was it that I fancied I caught the hiss of air through feathers. All nature seeming to pulse to the beat of those glorious wings.

THE ANGEL returned with us to our village, home of the Seventh Tribe, where Gideon caused the horn to be blown in the age-old pattern, calling upon the people to prepare in haste a feast. One by one they began to appear in the doorways of their dwellings. When they caught sight of the Angel behind us, there was a moment of shocked silence as they tried to understand what they were seeing. Then they scattered, each to his own allotted task.

Before long every last member of the Seventh was gathered in the centre of the village. An ox was slaughtered and a bonfire built to roast it upon, and our children ran about in a storm of cinders and ash. The Old Ones set up a drumming, to call the Sixth from over the hill. Soon, by ones and twos, our cousins began to straggle in, anxious to catch a glimpse of, maybe even touch, the first Angel to visit us on Eden. Meanwhile the Angel sat by the fire, its eyes fixed on the flames, absorbing the heat as though long since starved of such.

The sun hung red and dying on the horizon as the moons began to rise. First Krista, the golden; then the twins Marta and Alph followed by indigo Shem and violet Shan. Finally, after an infinitesimal hanging-back during which you could not somehow help but to hold your breath, rose Menem the green, the smallest of them all. The first few rays of Menem’s light are of such poisonous intensity that they kill the unborn children, in any female child.

I, MARTHE, am thus accursed. Four and thirty summers ago, my mother having delayed too long in the fields that evening, Menem rose in the sky and I was born unsheltered into Eden. Ever since have paid the price for my mother’s carelessness, but the price she paid was greater. She gave birth alone in her hut, with none of the women to assist her. As soon as she was fit to walk she was given a small bundle of food and belongings and sent off in exile to the Ninth, the untouchables, those who have been cast out for their crimes, never to be invited to Feasts or communicated with in any way again. I think of her sometimes and wonder if she survived, and whether she would find another man to look after her. Maybe I have brothers and sisters.

Gideon’s father was the Elder then. Heartbroken at the loss of his young wife Gideon broke with tradition and begged to be permitted to follow her into exile. His father would not allow it.

OUR FEASTINGS last three days. The first day is to greet, the second is for the sharing of visions and the third is for saying farewell. On the second day Gideon and I set out for the Forest to pluck Fruit from the Tree. He had gone alone in the past but there was no question of that now. He needed my eyes, and my arm to steady him on the path and my body to make the descent of The Edge, which would be certain death to a blind man.

A descent of The Edge is always perilous. There are step-spirals hacked into the chalk with handholds only as nature happens to provide: an overhanging tree if you are lucky, or a tuft of grass. More than once I slipped and thought it would be the end of me, but although my shins were scraped raw and bloody I managed to save myself. Hastily I tore strips from my underskirt and bound up my wounds, covering all with my robe.

The foot of The Edge is a dark, dark place; it took all my courage to face those legions of trees stretching away, rank and file, as far as the eye could see. ‘In that place,’ Gideon had forewarned me, ‘the traveller has no choice but to sing. He must sing the Forest Song so that the Forest may know him. He trusts that, knowing him, the Forest will make him a path.’

It might not; and I was not a shaman. No woman could be.

My legs were weak from the strain of the long descent, still stinging from the vicious scrapes the path had inflicted; but worse, I found that my mind had become as white as a lamb’s back and I could no longer recall the words of the Forest Song that Gideon had taught me.

I cast around ever more desperately for any sort of path. The Edge stood at my back and no matter how I craned my neck, the top was invisible, lost in distance and clouds. And then, quite suddenly, a memory arose in me, of Gideon’s deep voice crooning lullabies as we returned from our long days on the hillside with the sheep. As I bumped along in the sling on his back in the summer twilight, my arms clasped around his neck, his words would drift back to me through a haze of sleep:

  • Three things are known to me,
  • Three things to compass by:
  • Menem the Green will rise
  • Sixth in a starry sky;
  • A shepherd will find his sheep
  • No matter how far he must fare,
  • And the forest will make a path
  • For a pure soul wandering there.

So I sang this, and without any awareness of having moved or travelled I found the Tree before me, so tall it reached right to Heaven, the trunk seeming to broaden even as I watched until all the Forest appeared to have melded into this one, single tree, whose leaves multiplied and multiplied again, a deeper and glossier green. As my song came to an end I stood trembling, with cupped hands, as the Tree itself reached down and dropped a great green globe into them. The Fruit rested heavy in my hand, warming, becoming part of me, then all of me, or I all of it.

Time to return to Gideon, and for both of us to return to the Tribe.

AS WE approached the settlement I saw Sharma coming towards us from the direction of the Angel’s hut. Gideon heard her greeting and stared ahead, smiling vaguely in welcome, but I had cause to give thanks that he could not see what I saw. We paused while she caught up to us; she looked, I thought, flushed and foolish.

‘He has been teaching me,’ she mumbled, the memory flittering across her face like a bat in the dusk, then a tiny, fearful, lascivious smile. ‘That is, the Angel has been teaching me, of the nature of the universe, and of Oneness.’ Sharma seemed scarcely to care whether I believed her or not, so lost was she in the throbbing afterglow of whatever had just taken place between herself and our visitor.

I thought of my Oneness with the Fruit, mirroring the Tree’s Oneness with the Forest. Seeing Sharma’s disordered clothing and inability to meet my eyes, I could not help suspecting that the Oneness Sharma spoke of was of another species. Gideon was now carrying the Fruit. Instinctively, without explanation, I reached across and placed my hand upon it.

This time it was different. It was as if I was being burnt, not so much in my flesh as in my soul. Sharma remained before me, but darkened and transformed. It was as if I was now dreaming her rather than seeing her. Her face was wreathed in cloud, infinitely high, and I saw that her feet were disappearing into the earth, as if taking root there. But what I saw coiled in her belly. O Menem! O Krista! Something writhing. No, no, many things, snakelike and bony and black, growing apace, clamouring to be born!

EDEN (2)

GIDEON BEING Elder and shaman both, it should have been he who ate of the Fruit that night, at the Second Feasting. But this could not be; for Gideon and I shared a secret from the rest of the Seventh Tribe. As the sight of his body had declined, so too had the other Sight. It had been taken from him so quickly, five cycles at most before both sight and Sight were gone as if they had never been, and the Fruit would no longer vouchsafe him visions.

As far as either Gideon or I knew, this had never happened before; none of the Stories, our usual source of wisdom, gave tell of it. But the fact that it had happened presented us with a grave problem for the Fruit is poisonous to all but the very few. And it maddens, may even kill, those who have not inherited immunity. Gideon possessed this immunity, but he had no sons. After my mother’s banishment he kept his oath to take no other woman in her place, as would have been his right. One child only Gideon had.

Marthe, myself.

Only sons had ever been permitted to eat of the Fruit, so we had no way of knowing whether I was immune, or even whether a daughter could be immune; but the visions were so important; they allowed us to see through the flesh, through the appearance of things, and so to the truth. It was in accordance with these visions that we planted our crops, decided when or whether to marry and divined the futures of the children born of those marriages.

And so, between us, we had decided upon a plan. At the appointed time we would retire into Gideon’s hut: no one would be likely to object to a blind man being assisted by his daughter in this most solemn of rituals. Once inside, hidden from the Tribe, I would lie down and take the fruit, with Gideon at my side. As the visions came to me – if they came – I would attempt to give voice to what I saw, whilst Gideon would listen carefully. When all was done, and whether or not I survived, Gideon would step out to the waiting Tribe and relate my visions to his tribespeople as if they were his own.

‘Are you sure that you want to do this, my child?’ Gideon’s voice, for the first time, was that of an old man: I heard the grief in it, I heard his fear. I raised to my mouth the bowl into which he had poured the juice of the Fruit. Pieces of the green flesh swam around in the juice. It appeared a harmless, everyday substance, like any other drink.

Gideon said, ‘I never told you, my dear, how much I have loved you.’

There was no going back, however much I might wish there could be. Until today I had merely been apprehensive of the effect of the Fruit; curious, even. I was a woman accursed of Menem. There could never be a man for my bed or children for my heart and I had nothing but loneliness and a barren life ahead of me. What could there be in death to frighten me so very much? But having seen the vision of Sharma, with her head in the cloud and her snake-children writhing, and that arising just from laying my hand on the Fruit, I found myself shaking violently in anticipation of the ordeal to come. Controlling it as best I could, and forcing a smile into my voice, swiftly I drained the bowl.

‘But I knew, Gideon. I always knew.’

THE HEAT of my own funeral pyre returned me to my senses. In my head I was trying to move, but my body refused to obey. Every part of me hurt so badly. A flame licked at my ankle, and then I caught the smell of my own flesh, roasting. I screamed, and screamed again. And then there was pandemonium. The voices, many. Hands gripping tightly. Arms reaching in to snatch at me, pulling me down from the pyre in a tearing of twigs, a tumbling of logs. Fire had caught at the robe I was wearing and someone was beating at the fabric with their hands, rolling me over in the dust. And finally, silence.

The Tribe arranged themselves in a circle around me, apparently waiting for me to speak. I opened my mouth and tried, but no sound issued forth; my throat seemed clogged with the dust of ages. Someone held a flagon of water to my lips and I drained it to the last drop.

‘Where is the Angel?’ was what I was trying to say, but still I could not make myself understood.

Finally, and all at once, it seemed, the Tribe started to talk to me, telling me what had happened. I had drunk of the Fruit and had lain as one dead, neither speaking nor moving. When much time had elapsed and he had been unable to revive me, his heart numb with grief and having received no intelligence from me as to what visions I might have seen, Gideon had stumbled out of the hut to confess what had been done.

‘Marthe has sacrificed herself for you, my people, and for me. She partook of the Fruit, and has perished for our sakes.’ And with that he ceased to be a shaman, or an Elder. Becoming my father again, he wept.

To all this they had listened in silence and then some of the older women had followed Gideon into the hut. One by one they stooped to discern a heartbeat, but there was none. Holding a mirror to my mouth, they saw that no breath clouded it.

‘WHERE IS the Angel?’ I screamed at them now, for the vision I had suffered under the Fruit was returning to me in full force.

‘Where is the Angel now?’

‘Why, he took all the children to The Edge for a special feast,’ said Sharma. ‘He thought to save them the sight of the funeral pyre. His only concern was for them. They followed him willingly enough, for he promised them games and laughter.’

I was up and attempting to walk now, but my legs buckled under me. ‘Carry me,’ I heard myself shouting, ‘carry me!’ An unfamiliar note of command seemed to have entered my voice, and they obeyed without question. And so we hurried to The Edge path, Gideon and I and the whole of the Seventh Tribe; but of them all, I was the only one who despaired, certain it would be too late.

I knew what I would find there: children hurled down one by one into the darkness of the Forest. On the very spot where I had so lately stood, casting around for a Forest Song to sing, we would be forced to gaze upon a heap of crumpled, bloodied bodies. And there, crouched amongst them, would be the creature. Angel no longer but a great carcass of a thing, brown and hideously winged, its hind legs hinged and long, out of all proportion to its carapace. It would be chattering to itself as it picked over the bones of our children, scrabbling at them with its long disgusting claws, some kind of insect being, equivalent in size to the Angel but different in every other way.

I looked down into the Forest as the dark images the Fruit had vouchsafed me translated themselves into reality, in our everyday, daylight, sunlit world.

It glanced up then and I swear that even from so far above I could hear it mocking me, a faint tinny cackle no Angel could have made. Then it recommenced its gnawing upon the tumbled limbs.

And at that moment a sound came from the village. A woman crying out in pain.

Sharma’s labour, even now, had begun.

The Angel

The Angel

‘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.