Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Short Story: Someone to watch

So, as you know I like to post the occasional short story on this blog: as I've been writing about angels lately, I thought this one might fit nicely.

Someone to Watch...

Later, they all agreed that the car had been going too fast, though some of them, when retelling the tale to their curious children or indifferent spouses, would add that she had not been looking where she was going and had stepped into the road. To Julia, it was the slowness with which it happened that surprised her: the thick, solid thud of the car hitting her, the ugly, swooping curve of her body as she rose into the air, the crunch of the windscreen and the driver’s horrified expression, his hands rising to his face as if that would stop her coming towards him. She saw her carrier bags splatter on the tarmac, milk staining the blackness like her shopping’s blood, and wondered if her own landing would be so dramatic. She had the time to hope that she wouldn’t lose any teeth, or be hideously scarred, and then she was on the ground and for a moment she could think of nothing at all.


Voices, at first: concerned, curious, far away. Then faces: a circle crowding around her, instructions being shouted, cries for an ambulance, tears on the face of the driver as he asked again and again if she was all right, strangers’ arms holding him back from touching her. When Julia saw the man, she wasn’t sure what made him stand out against the blur of worry and curiosity that surrounded her, except that he alone seemed calm. He was tall and dark, dressed despite the heat in a long black coat, and he looked so like a businessman that she was surprised, when he held his hands out to her, that he did not have a briefcase in one and a rolled up umbrella in the other. No one seemed to notice the gesture, and Julia was undisturbed by it, staring at him for a moment as his kindly face moved slowly into a smile, as if such an operation required some effort.

“You’re all right,” he said. His voice was smooth and dark as chocolate. “Come on.”

Drawn by his certainty, Julia reached up and took his hands, allowing him to pull her to her feet, ignoring the pain in her hip and ribs when she stood.

“You’re just a little shaken, that’s all. Let’s get you something to drink.”

It didn’t occur to her to argue as he put a guiding arm around her and led her, limping, away from the crowd, who seemed strangely uninterested in her departure. He sat her down at a table in a small, cheap café across the road that she had noticed but never before been to. Julia fidgeted a little as he ordered coffees - both black, the way she took hers - but there was something so calming about him that she couldn’t bring herself to worry about the groceries she’d left in the street, the slow spreading ache in her side or, indeed, the fact that she was accepting coffee from a man she had never met before.

Perhaps it was simply because he had such a nice face. Dark in colouring, like herself, he was lined and shadowed by age, though his hair was still thick and black. He looked, she thought, a little like a famous South American actor whose name she couldn’t recall, and a little like she imagined her father to look, when she stared at his photograph and tried to add on all the years he’d missed. He allowed her to study him for some minutes, not speaking until the waitress had delivered their drinks and departed.

“I expect you’re wondering who I am,” he said, his eyes never leaving her face, his stare making her feel exposed. She nodded, slightly. He gave an almost coy smile.

“I’m an angel. Your guardian angel.”

Julia’s bark of laughter died almost as it emerged, and she stared at him, astonished. He looked serious, but aware of how bizarre he must sound. She wondered if he was mentally ill, a care in the community casualty who had, for some reason, selected her for his delusions, but the steadiness of his gaze defeated her suspicions.

“Oh,” she said, eventually.

“I don’t blame you for being surprised. It always comes as a bit of a shock to people.”

To people?

“Does everyone have one, then? Do they know?” Was this some secret the whole world knew that she was excluded from, as so many other things seemed to be?

“Mm, no. And no, most of the time. A few people find out - near death experiences, that sort of thing. Most of us prefer to remain incognito…” again, that almost coy smile. “I always think a little contact doesn’t go amiss.”

“Are you serious?”

He nodded, slowly. “Yes. Yes, I am.”

She was silent, so he leaned forward and smiled at her. “My name is Paul.”

Julia was aware that she should be more curious about this, that there were a hundred questions she should be asking, but the pain in her ribs was starting to make her head pound. Perhaps she’d hit her head when she fell, and this was all a hallucination. Still, why waste it?

“Can I ask you something…Paul?”

He shifted slightly in his seat.

“Well, I can’t tell you anything…confidential…about heaven, or God, or the technicalities of it all, but other than that, yes.”

“Could you get me a boyfriend?”

The angel looked surprised, but he gave the question some thought.

“No. But if you got one and he lost his temper and threw something at you, I could make sure it missed.”

“That’s something, I suppose.”

Julia paused. She wasn’t sure of the conversational etiquette of these situations, but was uncomfortably aware that this was turning into a scene from an angst ridden European film, all awkward pauses. All she needed now was someone to produce a chess board.

“So…you’ve been a guardian angel lots of times?”

“Quite a few.”

“People’s whole lives?”

“Yes.” He looked sad, for a moment, though she couldn’t be sure.

“You must get attached to them.”

“Oh, yes. If I get a chance it’s always nice to make contact. I like to meet my charges, if I can. It makes things more personal. I think it must be nice to think that there is someone looking out for you, that it isn’t just luck.”

“So it wasn’t just luck when my dad caught hold of me when I rode my bike onto the road when I was seven?”

“No.”

“Roads a bit of a problem for me, obviously.”

“It would seem so, yes. Perhaps you should be a little more careful in future.”

Julia nodded, though she was thinking that, in fact, she could be less careful from now on. How far did this protection extend? Could she do stupid, wilfully dangerous things and get away with it? Or was it only bad luck she was guarded against?

Her side was aching, and her legs were starting to go numb, but she didn’t feel this was the kind of conversation she could break off.

“Sort of scary, though. The idea of divine intervention.”

The angel shrugged. Julia wondered if he ever took his coat off. Did he have wings? If so, how did he sleep? Did he need to?

“How do you decide who gets a guardian angel and who…” she noticed his expression. “Can’t tell me, eh? Fair enough.”

They fell silent. Paul seemed, if anything, more nervous than she was, though he fidgeted less; all of his movements seemed slower, heavier than hers. It occurred to Julia that she was seeing a very old man in a normal body, but was that true? Were angels dead? If this was really happening, not some crazy hallucination, there were so many questions to ask, so much to find out. Then something that had been nagging at the back of her mind surfaced.

“So, you look out for me all of the time?”

The angel didn’t notice that her voice had changed, and smiled when he answered.

“That’s right.”

“All of the time?”

“Yes.”

“So you’ve seen me go to the toilet? You’ve seen naked? You’ve seen me having sex?”

“Not recently,” he laughed, but her face froze his smile and he was suddenly serious. “Yes, I’ve seen you do all of those things. But I’ve seen lots of people do them. Everyone does them. And it isn’t as if I actually watch. I simply…see.”

Julia covered her face with her hands, smothering a sob. Her mind was frantically cataloguing everything - 30 years of bad habits, all of the things she allowed herself in private - he knew them all. She had no secrets from this man, this creature. He knew her better than she knew herself, because he knew what she did in her sleep. Paul reached across the table and pulled her hands away from her face, the warmth of his skin surprising her.

“Don’t let it upset you. You’re one of the lucky ones. I’m here to protect you.”

“But…” she couldn’t finish the sentence. Did she even need to? Could he read her mind?

“But why tell me? Why do I have to know?”

The angel frowned at her.

“I had a chance to save you. I thought you seemed like a nice person, so I wanted to talk to you.”

The numbness was spreading to her hands, now. She grasped her coffee mug, her fingers closing around its fading heat.

“Have you saved me?”

“Well, technically, you’re dying. Only you aren’t, of course. You’re talking to me. You’ll be fine. A little bashed, is all.”

“And you’ll still watch over me?”

“Of course.”

Julia tried to keep her voice calm.

“You’ll see everything I do? Every minute of my life?”

He nodded.

“And I’ll know this?”

“Have I upset you?”

“I’d rather die! I’d rather be dead than know you were…gawping at me all of the time! I’d never be able to relax! I’d never be able to take my clothes off again!” she was shouting, now. Too angry even to be surprised that her hysterics went unnoticed by the café’s other customers.

Paul shook his head. When he spoke, his voice was patient, like someone calming a child.

“But I’m saving your life.”

“That’s not life! That’s a prison sentence! That’s hell! You’re not an angel at all, are you? You’re a devil! A devil!”

He closed his eyes for a moment.

“Julia,” it was the first time he had spoken her name, and it sounded strange on his tongue. “You’ll never be alone again. Think about it. People spend their entire lives wanting to be accepted, frightened that at any moment the world will find out their dark secret and everyone will hate them…don’t you see what I’m offering you? I know you darkest secrets, Julia, and I accept you. Nothing you can do will make me abandon you.”

“Ugh!” Julia was crying. Big, unselfconscious tears streamed down her face. Was this the only choice? She didn’t want to die, she was terrified of dying but this…the thought made her sick with disgust. She would never be able to get away from him. Never. Even suicide would be no use, as he could stop her. He had the power to save her from everything, including herself.

The angel put his palm to her face for a moment, then prised her hands from the mug, holding them tightly in his own. Julia couldn’t feel her fingers.

“No, that isn’t the way it has to be. I can make you forget me. I’ll still be here for you, you just won’t know it. I’ll never be able to contact you again, but I’ll be here.”

Relief hit her like nausea and she nodded, frantically, snorting tears.

“Yes, yes, please do that for me. Please do that, please.”

He nodded. He was still for a moment, before going to her side of the table, helping her stand. She slumped heavily against him as they left the café and went back to the accident, the crowd still unmoved by their absence. Julia was whimpering her thanks even as he let her go, and then she was simply crying, weeping her pain and confusion into the hard comfort of the road.



Later, they would say she had been lucky, the speed the car was going. Some of them would use the word ‘miracle’, in the tabloid and television sense of the word. Now, though, they just watched her being loaded into the ambulance by kindly, well-trained hands. They stood, watching it pull away, reluctant to return to their days. They spoke to each other in hushed voices, as if Julia was still there to hear, their unfamiliarity overcome by the union in the spectacle. None of them saw the angel standing, his dark, lined face sad but unsurprised.


This story first appeared in No Love Is This, Kennedy & Boyd

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