by Sharon Boyle
I was moaning, head in hands, when I sensed someone standing over me—a perceptible coolness caused by a change in light. I looked up, squinting at a figure shrouded in shade.
‘Sorry,’ I said,’ ‘I’m half-dead. You’ll have to get yourself a coffee.’
‘Half-dead?’ said a female voice—female? ‘Yes, I understand last night was a stonker, even by your standards, Molly.’
‘Look, whoever you are, some judgemental freeloader, I really need you to go.’ A sudden thought. ‘We didn’t…’ I give a you-me gesture.
She shook her head.
‘Good. Nothing personal but I’m not a fan of fannies.’ I waved a hand to indicate the direction of the door.
The figure swept past, her pillowy softness skiffing my head. I looked up again, ready to remonstrate, but gulped and said, ‘Those look impressive.’
She chucked a thumb behind her. ‘You think you can fly with a tiddly pair?’
Her wings were huge. They curved above her head and swept the floor. Impressive in size, but mottled, and in need of a comb through. They could even have been described as tatty. And as for her, she looked off-the-street normal: tattoos, dyed blonde hair (a poorly-done job), facial spots, a black t-shirt and mini skirt.
I scrunched up a lip. ‘Jesus, this is my best yet. We must’ve attracted loads of looks stoating back here. If only I could remember.’
‘Then allow me to remind you, Molly. You left work at four yesterday afternoon. You came home, drank, changed into a too-tight frock, drank some more, staggered down the stairs pinballing off the banister, before rocking out the front door in a mess of swearing, fagging and fumbling.’
I blinked. How could she know? Ah, I must’ve told her when we met. My going-out routine probably served as a conversation opener.
She shook her head. ‘You were at your barrel-scraping worst.’
‘You then rocked into one of your locals, of which you have six, lipped the barmaid who threw you out, gnashed your way to the next fine establishment of sleaze where you drank, prayed—’
I started. ‘Prayed?’
‘—preyed on a man ten years your junior who sat terrified as you near ravished him. The barman had to wade in. It was then kebab time before lurching back home.’
I said nothing. Her words were like the incessant thud of a head against a wall. I must’ve downed a spiked drink or two to pick up someone parading as an angel. Not my usual thing.
‘You’re on your last warning, Molly. You were once an attractive woman. With aspirations. You’re now a caricature of your former self; a tragedy on legs; a walking example of nasty excess—’
‘That’s enough.’ I stood. ‘There’s nothing angelic about you. You look like you need a good feed, and wash, and Clearasil, and I don’t know who you think you are, spouting about my life. You know my name but I don’t know yours—’
‘You don’t need to know what I’m called. But you do need to know what I am.’ She gave a thespian pause. ‘I am not a dypso dyke you picked up last night. I’m your cautionary angel, a being who warns folks they’ll be taken up earlier than expected if they don’t change their ways.’
Manners prevented me from telling her she was talking shite. ‘Oh, taken up earlier than expected. How terrifying. Anything but that.’ She obviously hailed from Nutsoville. It was possible she could turn feral and snappy like an Alsatian dog so I pointed and said, ‘Door. Go. Now.’
‘Look at your life, Molly. What do you actually enjoy about it?’
‘Free will.’ I nudged her and her wings to the door. ‘Oh, and booze.’
‘Which in your case does not a good combination make.’
She allowed herself to be bustled out, refusing to take off her wings so that they momentarily impeded her exit as she strained to get them out.
‘Last warning, Molly,’ she said as I closed the door against her raised finger.
I intended to hover on the brink of inebriation, wanting to appreciate a gentle haziness but not actually descend into my usual full Friday-night crapulence. I didn’t want another episode with the thing with wings. But, as I waited on the pavement outside Marks and Spencer, I saw her standing on the other side of the pedestrian crossing, her wings failing to attract attention. She raised a finger. A caution? A threat?
A nuisance, more like. I went back into Marks and Spencer and strolled through the food aisles, trying not to glance at the glinting, jewelled wine bottles. I walked past them all, then backtracked and watched my fingers wrap themselves around the body of a beautiful Chablis.
‘Come sit beside me,’ the voice lulled.
I tilted against some railings and flung up a hand, bellowing, ‘Naw, I don’t wanna sit on the ground.’
The woman was dangling her legs over a low wall. She beckoned me. ‘Take a gulp of air. You don’t feel well.’
She was right. I felt green, as if my guts were about to the geyser-spout. I sashayed toward her and slumped down, dangling my legs over…oh, a pier.
‘Are you ready to jump, Molly?’ There was a strange eager look in the woman’s eye.
At the same moment I realised this was my celestial beastie, she grabbed my hand and slipped off the pier, pulling me along. We hit the water. I surfaced in a frantic upshot, freezing, shocked into sobriety and thrashing with one hand for something solid. She kept hold of my other hand, her submerged face looking up at mine. She smiled and slowly began to pull me under.
‘No,’ I gulped, spitting out water.
Another gentle tug.
‘Not yet!’ I screamed.
The pressure ceased. I splashed over to the stone wall and worked my way along till I touched a set of metal ladders. It was December and I was shivering so hard I couldn’t stop my teeth chattering. As I hauled myself up, I vomited and was glad for the sudden heat.
I’d never heard of anyone having a cautionary angel. Was there an unwritten rule they must never be spoken of? And why was mine a spotty, shabby effort with a murderous bent?
‘Question for you all,’ I said to my work-team as they hunched over the canteen’s best.
They look startled. My preference was to sit alone and fight over The Scotsman crossword. Crosswords require complete attention; a break from everyday thinking; a respite from rogue memories.
I took a seat. ‘Anyone here believe in angels?’
Silence. It was nearly Christmas so I figured I’d get away with the question. They looked at one another, sharing glances. I didn’t care; my weekend experience had shocked me into desperation.
‘Questionnaire for my niece,’ I explained. ‘School project.’
There were ahs and nods and talk of belief in God meaning belief in all celestial beings, but the census was no, nobody believed in angels. I checked for sidelong looks of contradiction, but nothing. No hint anyone was hiding a secret.
I didn’t leave the house. It was the first Friday in a long time that I didn’t slam into a pub and enunciate my request for drink in a pseudo-sober voice. Instead I sat on the couch, staring at a glass of vodka, imbibing its sexy chemical perfume. Not touching it. Testing my will. Next to the glass sat a crossword. Half completed.
By nine o’clock the crossword remained unfinished. The same could not said for the glass and bottle.
I did something I hadn’t done in six years, I attended church. I ambushed the minister after the service.
He rubbed his chin. ‘Yes, Molly, I suppose angels must exist.’
‘You suppose?’ This was feeble. His answer was ancient worldwide storytelling rubbing against modern-day common sense. ‘I’ve seen one. She’s stalking me. More or less said I’m a wastrel and wants to execute me.’
The minister kept the straight face of a man who’d heard everything. ‘Why don’t you change your wastrel ways then?
‘I happen to like my lifestyle. I like the dullness drink brings. I like how it places a soft wall between me and life.’
And the cloudiness it gives memories. Six years ago there was a boy…
He invited me to sit on a pew while he explained that it was my inner-self deciding I was squandering my God-given life.
…a very much loved boy.
I was to take heed and change.
…who belonged to the happiest couple, Molly and Colin.
He suggested getting professional help, for being an alcoholic wasn’t a switch-on, switch-off scenario, apparently.
…until a treacherous, terrible disease got hold of him.
When he finished I thanked him and he said—actually held up a hand and said—no, Molly, you know you need help but you need to want that help. Only you can save yourself.
But there was no saving of Molly after that.
I went home, via some locals, and found the angel in the kitchen.
‘You’ve been asking about my kind,’ she said, unscrewing a bottle of vodka. ‘Any luck?’ She offered me the bottle.
I pushed it away. ‘Even the minister barely believes in you.’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘Is that right?’
‘That tattoo’s new. Who’s Amy?’
The angel twisted to look at her shoulder. ‘My latest,’ she said, brightening. ‘Lovely girl. Sad case though. Pathetic really. And this, Johnny F.’ She turned and held a wing to the side so I could see her back. ‘He’s next. And this space, Molly, on my upper arm, I’m keeping for you.’
I stepped back. ‘I won’t fall for your tricks again.’
‘You won’t need to. You’re half-dead, remember?’
I’m sitting in a corner booth pleased with my choice of pub: The Green Angel. The sign outside depicts a cherub sporting tiny wings that have a laughable chance of getting the fatso body airborne. A large, untouched vodka sits in front of me. I circle the rim of the glass with a finger, wondering whether to sip and savour or down it in one burning quaff.
Something—a ruffle, a snort—makes me look up. There she sits, tapping a pen against a newspaper at the table opposite. Tap, tap, tap. I know what she’s doing. She’s waiting.
The Scotsman is next to my glass. I flick through, my heart drubbing as I read a story about a Mr John Fleming who drowned yesterday in Leith. He had taken a jolly drunken walk off the pier.
‘I bet Johnny F never thought the liquid ending his life would be water,’ croons the angel. ‘Come with me, Molly Moo.’
‘Are you on commission or something?’
She’s determined. Behind her smile is the hardness of one used to winning. I used to be a winner too. Until my boy…
‘His name was Samuel,’ I whisper. ‘Sammy. He was four.’
‘Samuel? How religious,’ the angel says casually. ‘And what happened to Colin?’
‘I thought you lot would know everything.’
She leans back and shrugs. ‘I’m performing the charade of conversation here.’
‘Our relationship couldn’t take the strain.’ I nod over. ‘You got my name inked on yet?’
‘Oi, pish-head,’ comes the voice of the barmaid. ‘I know you. You come here most Fridays, slavering over the counter till you’re pie-eyed. Any more talking to yourself, freak, and you’re outta here.’ She points to my glass. ‘You drinking that or what?’
The barmaid is wearing a top that shows every in and out (mostly out) curve she possesses, and a face hampered by brutal acne, yet I don’t remember her.
‘Well, are you?’ the angel chips in, her face eager. ‘Let me save you, Molly. You know you need saving.’
‘Don’t you heavenly folk know anything?’ I smile. ‘I don’t need saving. I need to want saving.’
I shrug on my coat and make to leave, glancing over at the angel’s newspaper, folded at the puzzle page. The crossword needs completing. I glance at the angel’s attempts—she’s worse than me, some of those clues are giveaways. She raises her brows and slides the paper toward me.
Accompanied by the barmaid’s good-riddances and a request to take my time coming back, I leave, two papers folded under my arm. I take a last look at my glass, still full, on the table and as I turn to push the swing door, squinting and bracing myself for a Friday made sharp with spiky sobriety, I see a slouching old punter straightening in his chair. His eyes light-up at absolutely nothing, almost as if an unexpected, unseen guest has just sat down next to him.
Sharon Boyle has had short stories and flash pieces published online and in magazines including Writers’ Forum, The Moth and Sentinel Literary, and won first prizes in the Highlands & Island Short Story Association (HISSAC) short story award and Exeters’ Writers competitions.