This story was performed at MONA as part of the Angel Story event in July 2012, and subsequently published on Islandia, the Island Magazine blog. Because it’s not the kind of blog where you can link to individual entries, I thought I’d repost the story here for future reference.
I could have offered it up as a Christmas present to my blog readers, but the thought of giving an angel story AT CHRISTMAS was too much twee for me to cope with, plus it’s not that kind of angel story. Also I didn’t want to inflict melancholy on people during the festive season. The 2nd of January, though, is the perfect date for melancholy!
PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS ANGEL
By Tansy Rayner Roberts
first published in Islandia, 2012.
The Sydney job only lasted a few months, and she was miserable for most of them. Kerry remembers sitting on the train, surrounded by mechanical clatters and whirrings. Dull back fences and walls trailed past her window until one leapt out at her, bright and fierce with its graffiti tags and artwork.
One phrase, spray-painted into her retinas.
PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS ANGEL.
James and Kerry have been ‘going out’ for three years now, and they seem to have left it too late to move in together. She’s losing him, she can feel it. Whenever she tries to have a conversation about the future, about where they are going (if they are going anywhere) he circles around to the one thing in his life that he is completely certain about.
It’s the angel.
He saw it once, when he was eighteen, on his first pub crawl. He remembers the pub perfectly – the sign outside, the sticky floors, the stupid joke toilet signs. He remembers the small, quiet figure in the corner, its wings tucked around itself as it nursed a lemon, lime and bitters.
It was an angel, he insists. It had a halo and everything, hovering several inches off its hair. No, it wasn’t someone in fancy dress. No, it wasn’t a religious experience. It was, simply, an angel. It looked sad, and he wanted to say something clever, to cheer it up. But he couldn’t think of anything until later.
James has never been able to find that pub again. But sometimes on the weekends, or after work, he goes walking, and Kerry knows he is trying to find it, trying to prove to himself that he really saw what he thinks he did.
Every time he sets out to find it, and fails, she loses another piece of him.
Perhaps there was nothing there to begin with.
The second hand bookshop job is temporary, or that’s what Kerry tells herself. It’s not exactly using her degree, is it?
She’s happy there. She likes to shelve books, and to sort through the boxes that get donated to them. A lot more donations than there used to be – everyone’s ditching their libraries in favour of a Kindle. She likes the smell of the place, and the customers.
It was the last place she expected to see an angel. But there he is in the foreign literature section, perusing French and Belgian novels. It’s a shock to her – she can’t stop staring at him.
Him, she thinks. Almost certainly him. He wears an old fashioned brown suit, very grandfatherly, though his face seems quite young and his hair is blond, not greying at all. He has a very lived-in look about him, and she might have thought him nothing but the usual sort of customer, if not for the halo.
James was right. When you see it, you know it’s not a trick, or a costume. There’s no denying the glow about his hair, and the light that floats out above his head. It makes her feel warm down to her feet. Is this a religious experience, or the early stages of psychosis? It’s not like she’s been looking for angels all this time. She hardly even thinks about James any more – the breakup was years ago, and awkward rather than messy.
As the angel chooses a novel and comes to pay for it, she gazes upon his face, and perhaps it’s not a him after all. There’s something utterly female about the beauty of his face beneath unkempt eyebrows.
She says nothing during the transaction, but smiles hesitantly and receives such a beam in reply that it almost knocks her off her feet. The moment he/she is gone, Kerry can’t remember what book it was, and has to check her copy of the handwritten receipt to see that, yes, it was Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
She is certain there were no wings beneath the suit jacket, and yet later when she sweeps the wooden floor before closing, she finds tiny golden feathers all over the floor.
When she was a little girl, Kerry loved the clock in the Cat and Fiddle Arcade. When shopping with her mother, she would always pester her about the time, whether it was close to the hour, and if they could go and watch the mechanical delight: the nursery rhyme, the cat and the cow and the dog and the dish and the spoon.
Even now as an adult, whenever she is walking through the centre of Hobart, she checks her watch to see if she can make it in time. There are so many doughnut bars and muffin counters in the place now. It is always jammed with people, and no one else ever seems to be waiting for the moment as she is, breath caught in her lungs, waiting to see if the music will whir into life, and the clock will begin to dance.
It never lets her down. But it’s always a shorter performance than she remembers from her childhood.
Once, when she was eight, she was sitting there with her mother when the mechanical music hummed and began, and she was gazing so intently at the clock that she did not realise until it was halfway through that everyone had stopped.
Everyone in the arcade was frozen, for the minute or two that it took for the song to play out. And though it was strange to see her mother still like that, caught between the sip of her coffee and the swallow, Kerry didn’t look for long in case she missed the bit with the dog, which was her favourite.
Once the song shuddered to a stop, the arcade sprang into life again, her mother swallowed her coffee, and it was as if the whole thing had never happened.
It was the best memory in her life to date, and had nothing to do with angels.
Kerry spots the angel everywhere. He stares out at her from regional newspaper articles about library fundraisers and junior soccer. She catches glimpses of him in mirrors, and other reflective surfaces including puddles, fridges and her mother’s silver teapot.
He never looks as happy as he did that day in the bookshop.
She sees him on stage in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, playing a Major. His wings peep out from beneath a tweed jacket, and no one else seems to notice them.
When Sara announces they will be taking a wine tour by bus for her hen weekend, Kerry thinks this is the perfect excuse to get away. But two vineyards and several glasses of sparkling white later, she spots the angel picking grapes in faded overalls, a straw hat over his bright, bright halo.
Madness seems the likeliest explanation.
He’s at the wedding. He sits among the friends of the groom, chatting amiably with several young men who seem to know him. He wears an unfashionably long coat to disguise his wings in the church, but does nothing about the halo. It is brighter than ever, a scribble of yellow light blazing around his beautiful, perfect face.
Kerry chose the wrong dress. It’s too short, too tight, and she feels like an idiot. She can’t stop staring at the angel.
The reception is in a stuffy pavilion, full of champagne and shrieking and taffeta and very tiny sausage rolls. Kerry drinks rather too much. She finds herself standing outside in the freezing air, far from the pavilion, with a small group of exiled smokers and a bottle of cointreau liberated from the bar. She hasn’t smoked in years, and it feels like her own skin is cracking and peeling away with every inhalation.
Everyone drifts back to the reception, one after the other, and finally there are just the two of them left, Kerry and the angel, standing in a cold field with a tin of cigarette butts between them.
“Do I know you?’ he asks politely.
“You bought books from me once,” she says. “And I know what you are.”
He gives her a tolerant smile. Perhaps this happens to him a lot. Like being recognised for some old band you were in once.
She sticks her hands in her pockets, to warm them up and prevent herself from lighting another smoke. Already she feels like she might be sick from it, or from the Cointreau, or both. It hasn’t been a happy night. “Do you grant wishes?” she blurts out.
The angel’s smile fades, as if he’s disappointed in the question. Of all the enormous, life-defining things she could have asked him, she went with the greed right up front. But she’s never been religious in any direction, doesn’t know much about the traditions, except that a lavender-scented great aunt always kept a gold angel pin near her collar, and said it was for good luck.
“What would you wish for?” he asks.
Kerry hasn’t thought that far ahead, and feels like an idiot. “World peace?”
The angel throws back his head and laughs, a heavy guffaw like a sound from another age, and she finds herself laughing too, crazy laughing, like she hasn’t in years. She likes the curve of his jaw as he laughs. He doesn’t look so pretty that way. More human.
“An ex of mine saw you in a pub once, in Sandy Bay,” she confesses. “He drove me nuts trying to find it again, to prove you existed. The loo doors had a crab and a lobster on them.”
The angel nodded, remembering. “It’s in Battery Point, not Sandy Bay.”
“Oh,” she said. “That explains why he never found it.”
It’s awkward after that, and she feels she’s said enough that she can let it go now, go on with her life. “Take care,” she says, which she never says to people, it’s something her great-aunt always said, at the end of every phone conversation. Take care, take care of yourself, drive carefully. As if ‘careful’ made some sort of positive difference in the world.
“You take care too,” he says, and the sincerity radiates out of him, almost as bright as the halo above his unkempt hair.
She walks away on unsteady heels.
Kerry has drunk too much to drive home, and so has everyone else. You can’t get taxis all the way out here. She turns down a couple of offers of lifts before deciding on Dave, who’s a good sort and has mostly been sticking to the orange juice.
Only they don’t drive home. They end up having sex in the back of his car down by the river, and it’s uncomfortable and kind of weird but it’s been that kind of evening anyway. Afterwards they drive back slowly towards Hobart, not even bothering to make awkward conversation.
There’s a friend’s car in the ditch, only a few kms from the wedding reception, and Kerry recognises the dresses and shoes being loaded on to ambulances. Dave parks and the two of them lean against his car to watch the whole messy business, even now having nothing to say to each other.
Take care, take care of yourself, drive carefully.
One of the crumpled figures in the car didn’t make it. Dave tries to take her hand, and Kerry won’t let him.
The angel is sitting on the bank, a short distance from the accident, smoking another cigarette and staring into the distance. Kerry walks over to him, her heels sinking into the soft earth, and sits on the damp grass, not caring what it does to her dress.
“No,” says the angel, after a little while. “I can’t grant wishes.”
He needs a haircut. It’s too long and uneven by his ears. His halo is so dim now that Kerry can hardly see it in the dull 5am light of the morning.
“Do you want to get a cup of coffee some time?” she asks.
The angel sniffs, and stubs his cigarette out on the grass. “Okay.”
She takes his hand, and they wait for the day to get better.