© Adrian Lynch
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Michael hurtled downward. Plunging, plummeting, arms and legs flailing, clouds rushing past, skin stretched, freezing pain, hands grasping at thin air, tumbling, wind pounding like fists, tasting metal, smelling ammonia, streaming tears, ground rushing up, green fields, buildings, a church, a steeple. He squeezed his eyes shut, screamed and thumped into the ground; face down with bone-crushing force. Lightning streaked through him. He lay spread-eagled and still. Lost in a world of pain.
After three hours he managed a feeble groan, barely audible. He tilted his head a fraction. A small scraggy black and white dog sauntered up to him. It poked its cold wet nose into his ear and then licked the back of his neck. It moved down his body and tried to force its nose through Michael’s trousers, between his buttocks. It gave up, lifted a hind leg and commenced to pee all over him; several seconds later it finished and then wandered off.
Michael forced his face from its indent in the earth, and turned it sideways.
“Bastard!” he squeaked.
With heroic effort he managed to peel himself from the ground and he forced himself to a sitting position. Pungent steam wafted up from his urine soaked, black hand-tailored suit. He tried to brush it down but every movement sliced his senses with white-hot knives. Dried mud flecked his chubby pale face and stuck to his short curly black hair. He tried to spit out sour grass, but it stuck to his lips.
A long strip of air parted like lift doors and framed a tall, slim man. His shoulder length straight white hair flowed in the breeze around an exquisitely carved ebony face. He focused sharp yellow eyes on Michael and they melted to a smile. The vision stepped forward and he flicked a speck of dust from his immaculate pink suit. The air zipped shut behind him.
Michael recognised him as Peter, his assigned Angel. He glared at him, and then looked up at the sky, and then toward Peter.
“Why didn’t I arrive like that?” he snarled.
Peter shrugged and his full lips rested on the edge of a pout.
“Like what, little buddy?”
“Like you just did. You said that I had to jump off the edge!”
“No. You got yourself in a strop and yelled, ‘Just tell me the quickest way down.’ Mind you it’s swings and horses really, by the time you recover from the drop, there’s only a few seconds in it. That’s why I use the elevator. Less painful too.”
Michael narrowed his eyes and studied him. A wry smile tweaked Peter’s lips and he raised one eyebrow.
Michael relaxed. “Anyway it’s swings and roundabouts. If you must insist on using clichés at least get them right.”
“Okay little buddy, don’t get your hair in a twist.”
“Knickers in a twist.”
Peter rolled his eyes. “Okay, Whenever.” He sat down beside Michael but still towered above him. “You know, I think you’re annoyed with me.”
Several responses paraded through Michael’s mind but none managed to connect with his mouth, and his lips just twitched for several seconds. Eventually he slumped and sighed.
“It’s just that too many things go wrong too many times. I can’t even manage to die properly.” He looked up toward Peter. “That big Angel thingy that wouldn’t let me in, he was a bit gruff wasn’t he?”
“That’s Gabriel, he is a bit officious. He’s my boss,” said Peter
“I still don’t see why I had to come back down here?” said Michael and he waited for an explanation, but none came. He decided to change the subject. “How come I hurt so much if I’m dead?”
Peter flicked his hair back. “Because pain is in the mind…”
“My mind is not where I’m hurting.”
Peter ignored the interruption, “… and the mind is the channel to the soul. The way you died makes you a low category soul so you’ll feel more earthly emotions.”
“Souls are divided into categories?”
“Oh yes,” said Peter, “ You’re an A category. I was born an Angel and I’ve reached category L. Now here’s a sad thing, Gabriel is still only a category Q and he thinks he should at least be a category R, which is the first one for a deity.” He tapped the side of his nose with his forefinger, “If you want to get into Gabriel’s good books then tell him that you think he’s a category R.”
Michael perked up. “Really? Wow thanks, Peter.”
“Yup, if you get back you go straight up to Gabriel and tell him that you think he’s an R-soul.”
A majestic terrace of buildings towered up from Regent Street like cliffs, and formed a sweeping canyon. Rainbow Christmas-lights twinkled against a dull grey sky, and stretched across the street above flows of people far below moving against each other like raging rapids. Shop windows sparkled and tempted with all the toys, fashion and gadgets that money could buy. Red paper sashes advertised New-year sales and greatly reduced prices. Bright red buses and multi coloured taxis inched their way carefully through thronging crowds. Petrol fumes, sweet perfumes and the savoury smell of roasting chestnuts drifted in the cold crisp air. Chatter, laughter and shouts of people competed with the blasts of horns and the roar of stagnant traffic.
Michael trudged through the crowds, hunched up against the cold and continually complained at being buffeted and bumped. Peter strolled carefree at his side as if he had his own private corridor; he was head and shoulders above the crowds.
“Where’re we going?” asked Michael.
“To seek your test.”
Peter smiled down at him. “Yes, then they’ll know what to do with you.”
“What type of test?”
Peter didn’t answer, but he wrinkled his nose.
“You do know that you smell like a toilet?” he said.
“A dog peed all over me!”
Peter nodded, “That’s territorial, and in doggy world you’re probably married now.”
“It did try to have sex with me!”
“Well, you’re a good-looking bloke,” grinned Peter.
A large man, wearing jeans, leather jacket and a woolly hat, forced his way through the crowds toward them. He was breathless, sweating and continually looking over his shoulder while clutching a black patent bag to his chest. He looked up at Peter with mournful brown eyes. Peter slammed a fist into his face. The man stood straight and stiff, looked surprised and then toppled backward like a felled tree.
A distant female voice screamed, “Stop him, he’s got my bag.”
The crowds continued to surge, but tried to avoid stepping on the prone man. A slender woman, in her early thirties and dressed in a Salvation Army uniform emerged from the throng. She raised her warm green eyes toward Peter.
“Oh it’s you, Peter. I seem to be forever in your debt.”
Peter wiggled an eyebrow. The woman looked down at the man on the floor.
“Oh, the poor dear. Are you hurt?”
The man groaned and raised himself onto his elbows.
“He punched me on der dose.”
The woman knelt down and helped him to his feet.
Michael grabbed the black bag from the man and bounced up and down shouting, “Police, Police.”
The woman placed a hand gently on Michael’s shoulder.
“There’s no need for that.” She took the bag, opened it then took a five-pound note and handed it to the man. He snatched it, growled at Michael and then scuttled off to disappear within the crowd.
With short jerky movements, Michael gaped at the woman, then at the direction the man had gone, then at Peter and then back to the woman, and his mind struggled to form the right question.
“What therf?” he blurted.
The woman’s face smiled warmly, her eyes narrowed to compassionate sparkling slits and she tilted her head to study Michael.
“What he did was wrong, but he needs the money more than I do.”
“But he’ll just go and do it to someone else now,” screeched Michael.
The woman’s smile sank to a frown.
“Oh dear, do you think so?”
“I’m afraid he probably will, Captain Jane,” said Peter.
Jane looked up at Peter and bit her bottom lip.
“Oh dear, it’s so difficult to do the right thing, isn’t it?”
Peter smiled and shrugged, and then he indicated toward Michael.
“This is my new buddy, Michael.”
Jane looked Michael in the eye.
“Would you like some nice hot soup and a place to freshen up?”
Michael frowned. “What?”
“I’m just on my way to the soup kitchen you can come with me.”
Michael ignored the smirk on Peter’s face, but realised how grubby he must look, and the smell of dog’s urine tickled his nose.
“No, no, you don’t understand, I’m not a tramp.”
“There’s no shame,” smiled Jane.
“No really, I am … was… a very successful author.” He looked at Peter for support.
Peter nodded. “Eau-de-dogs-piss is a very exclusive cologne.”
Michael glared at him.
Jane’s full lips grew into a broad smile, “You’ll find us all very friendly, isn’t that right, Peter?” She didn’t wait for a reply, “Just follow me.” She turned and walked briskly through the bustling crowds.
Peter smirked at Michael, and then he strode after Captain Jane. Michael trotted to catch him up.
“Isn’t she gorgeous?” said Peter.
“I suppose so,” agreed Michael, “But all that do goody stuff was a bit weird.” Realisation drenched him like a bucket of cold water and he gasped,
“That was my test!” He stopped in his tracks and people bumped into him. A man swerved and shouted,
Michael chased after Peter and then tugged at his sleeve,
“You stole my test!”
“Did I? Well look on the bright side, it can’t do me any harm.”
Jane led the way past Hamleys’ toyshop; a green-uniformed Commissionaire called out,
“Afternoon, Captain Jane.”
“My you do look smart, Edward. Well done,” replied Jane.
The Commissionaire stood proud and flicked a salute to Peter and Michael.
Just past Hamleys, Captain Jane swung to her right and entered a narrow alley. Michael and Peter followed. The hustle and bustle of the main street quickly faded until the only sound was of their echoing footsteps and slow persistent drips of water. The dismal grey buildings either side rose so high that little light found its way to ground level and a chill wind rushed through the alley stinging their faces. Old newspaper danced and swirled around them and empty beer-cans trundled musically over the cobblestones. The stench of blocked drains thickened the air.
Captain Jane called back over her shoulder, “Most people don’t even notice that this alley is here.”
“Lucky them,” mumbled Michael.
A small square suddenly expanded in front of them. It was enclosed on all sides by tall buildings and the alley appeared to be the only entrance or exit. Wet cobblestones shimmered red and yellow with reflections from fires contained in randomly placed braziers. Scruffy, faceless, sexless people, puffed out with layer upon layer of clothing huddled around them, pushing their hands close to the flames and then cupping the warmth to their grubby faces. Wisps of black smoke floated aimlessly in the bleak air like ghostly vultures. Rats scurried everywhere sniffing the air for the sweet smell of tomato soup, that wafted out from a small open doorway opposite the alley to mingle with the stale stench of garbage, soot and vomit.
A tangible atmosphere of hopeless despair crushed the energy from Michael. He stood listless watching Captain Jane move among desolate tramps, gently touching hands and calmly chatting. When she had spoken with each of them she called to Michael,
“Michael, come with me and I’ll fix you up with some soup.”
Michael was startled out of his lethargy.
“I’d prefer to help in some way,” he called back.
Captain Jane smiled and she tilted her head.
“Well good for you! I’ll let the boys and girls have their break and you and I can take over.”
Michael looked up at Peter and rubbed his hands together.
“This is it, this is great, these useless tramps, they’re my test and don’t you dare steal them.”
Peter sighed. “I’m sure there’re plenty of tramps to go round Little Buddy, and it’s a good job they’re all tucked away here. They could really spoil the New Year celebrations.”
Michael studied Peter’s expression; it was different than he’d seen before, distant and pensive. Then Peter relaxed, smiled at Michael, and nodded toward the waiting Jane.
“Off you go then, enjoy yourself.”
Michael busied himself following instructions from Jane. She ladled out the soup and he delivered it, he stoked up the braziers and he washed and swept the cobblestones. He chatted with the vagrants and they transformed in his perception into fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, professionals and musicians, people with tales of highs and lows, of joy, failure, sadness, laughter, or horror. Michael trotted back and forth happy and smiling and he shared laughter and jokes with Jane. He remarked how well they worked together as a team and was delighted when she agreed. As the hours passed and vagrants came and went Michael began to see the majesty of that small courtyard. It was a refuge for the discarded vulnerable, an oasis of hope in a barren existence of abuse, fear and hunger. He also saw the gentle beauty of Jane. The wisps of dark hair that escaped her peaked hat, her soft curves, her sparkling eyes and the way her dainty chin dimpled when she laughed. He noticed her determination, her compassion, her easy friendly manner and her humility.
All too soon it was over. The soup was running low; the sky was black as oil and the icy grip of night tightened. The vagrants dispersed to claim the best and safest corners to beg from the rush hour crowds. Where the flows of shoppers heading home would clash with the waves of early revellers on their way to clubs.
Michael, Peter and Jane gathered together near the alley and studied the near empty courtyard. Jane placed a hand on Michael’s shoulder and said,
“Thank you for all your hard work.”
Michael’s eyes melded with Jane’s until the world was made for two,
“I really enjoyed it,” he said.
Jane smiled. “Me too. You can help through midnight too if you like. See the New-Year in?”
Peter’s voice smashed the moment into tiny splinters.
“So it worked then Michael? Those useless tramps did the trick.”
Jane pulled back and gasped,
“Peter! I’m surprised at you!”
Peter raised both eyebrows, lifted his hands palm upwards and shrugged. A glint in Peter’s eye, forced Michael to screw up his face and squeeze his eyes shut.
“I’m sorry but that’s what Michael said, that he could use the useless tramps for some sort of test. Have I said something out of place?” asked Peter.
Michael opened his eyes to be confronted with Jane’s razor sharp glare. He stumbled backward and only just kept his balance. A silly giggle squeezed from his nose and popped into a snort. His mind raced to find an answer and ensure it’s eloquent delivery,
“I-blue-de-did-nant!” he shouted. His face reddened and crumbled, his eyes bulged and he slumped as though he was melting.
Jane snapped, “ I think the two of you should go now,” and she stomped off across the square. Michael felt his lower lip swell and quiver. He raised his soulful eyes to Peter. Peter flopped his arms at his sides and tutted.
Michael and Peter sat on cold concrete steps. Behind them yellow and green strips of light shimmered on damp pavements, reflecting the glow from the Victorian street lights that sprouted from red metal grating on the arched barriers of Lambeth bridge, and spanned the Cimmerian abyss of the Thames below. A group of revellers ran past laughing and chatting about the need to get to Waterloo for the fireworks.
Michael sat resting his head in his hands. He sighed deeply.
“I sure messed that up, didn’t I?”
Peter sat straight-backed and perky. He looked at Michael and grinned.
“Well that’s a strange thing,” he said
Michael lazily lifted his mournful eyes.
“You didn’t blame me. Since I’ve known you, that’s the first time that you haven’t blamed someone else”
Michael lowered his eyes. “You only told the truth, and I acted like an … I don’t know.”
“Like an A-soul?” assisted Peter
Michael straightened. “When I spoke with those poor people I realized how lucky I was, how they were just ordinary people who’ve fallen on rough times. Just bad luck. No, worse than that, some of them were never even given a chance, just abused as kids and then passed around, then just abandoned.”
“How’s that make you feel, Little Buddy?”
“Like a rat’s gnawing at my bones,” growled Michael. He stood up clenched his fists and kicked the wall. “It makes me so angry, surely it needn’t be like that, why don’t they do something about it?” he glared at Peter. “Why don’t your lot do something?”
“Whoops, there we go, blaming everyone else again,” said Peter.
Michael sneered, “Well what can I do?”
Peter sighed. “What indeed?”
Michael flopped back down on the step and rested his head back into his hands.
“Jane didn’t even give me a chance to explain.”
Peter nodded. “That’s the trouble with her, just because she’s so beautiful and virtuous she thinks everyone else has to be perfect.”
Michael snorted. “You said it! I mean what’s the point?”
Peter looked backward at the Bridge and then to Michael.
“Now here’s a funny thing, that man in Regent Street, and the tramps and stuff? They weren’t your test. That was just a little diversion.”
Michael sat up straight. “What? Really?”
Peter Grinned. “I thought that’d cheer you up. All you have to do is kill yourself!”
Michael frowned. “But I already did that.”
Peter grimaced. “Well technically you haven’t, this is New Years Eve two thousand and eleven, and it’s not midnight yet.”
Michael swung around to look at the bridge.
“This is it, Lambeth Bridge, where I jumped.”
“Will jump,” corrected Peter.
“I don’t understand?”
“It’s kind of complicated, but they don’t think you meant it. So you sort of get another chance.”
Michael slammed his hands to the side of his head.
“Why would they think I didn’t mean it?”
“You’ll laugh at this. It’s probably because I said, you didn’t mean it.”
Michael didn’t laugh; he stood and stomped up and down steps, flapping his arms shouting,
“I had a meaningless life, writing meaningless stories for bored people, I have no talent, no purpose. How could I not mean it?” He sat down next to Peter and glared at him.
Peter shrugged, “You’re a very rich and successful author, you have your health and you have your mind. I’ve read a couple of your books.”
“Really? You liked them?”
“No I think they’re crap. But why do you think so many people keep buying them? It’s because when you scrape away the garbage, it’s clear that you have something important to say. It’s nearly there, just tantalisingly out of reach, but I don’t think you’ve said it yet.”
Michael stared at Peter for several seconds, he didn’t know why, but he suddenly felt that he owed this strange Angel an explanation.
“Look Peter, when I was younger, I had a fire within me, an ambition, not just to write, but to make a difference. I spent years failing and then just wrote anything that might sell, eventually I found an agent that believed in me and at first the stories were just to earn money, get noticed, until I hit them with my great works, but I drowned in the money and what it could buy. I lost touch with the man I used to be. Then when my Agent died, I lost all ties to my past, I drifted aimlessly.” He glanced hopefully at Peter, “Perhaps you’ve met him, my Agent?”
“No sorry. It’s a big heaven up there.”
Michael slumped, “I suppose you’re going to try and persuade me to regain that fire?”
Peter shrugged, “No, as I said, if you jump off the bridge that will be an end to it. How you led your life is irrelevant, all that matters is, do you really want to kill yourself? Whatever you do, it’s all down to you now.”
Michael nodded; he looked over to the gloom of the Thames and then slowly rose to his feet.
The courtyard was much as they’d left it, some additional faces among the regulars from earlier in the day, but the same despair. Michael spotted Jane across the square and he trotted over to her zigzagging between hot braziers and cold listless people. Jane turned as he reached her and she rolled her eyes,
“If you need soup, help yourself and then please leave!”
“No, I need to talk to you, I need to explain. You must listen.”
Jane stood straight, placed her hands on her hips and glared, “Oh must I? It’s all about you isn’t it, all the time, just burst in and demand attention. Well maybe some of these people deserve my attention a little more.”
“I didn’t mean it like that, I just want to explain.”
Jane folded her arms and rested her weight on one leg,
“Okay,” she said. Michael stared slack-jawed, trying to kick-start his brain. Jane raised her eyebrows.
Michael lifted his hands and squeezed the sides of his head until it hurt,
“Oh what’s the use? He’s right you’re so beautiful and virtuous that every one else has to be perfect.” He dropped his hands to his sides and looked Jane in the eyes, “Well I’m as far from perfect that a man can get, and just like every one else I dismissed these people as useless tramps, but I now realise that isn’t through arrogance, it’s through enforced ignorance and fear. If we accept that they’re ordinary people and that they’re not in this mess because of their own stupidity, then we must accept that it can happen to us, and no one has the courage to see that, to know that the erratic breeze of fate can touch anyone of us at anytime. So we sweep them from our minds and dehumanise them, like we do the elderly, the disabled and the mentally ill. We treat them as faceless sub-groups, to avoid hearing their personal stories. Well now I’ve heard some of those stories, and now I see the faces. and I will not fail them again. I’m just asking for a second chance.”
Jane lowered her eyes and chewed her lip. Her fluttering hands tried to tidy loose strands of her hair and rub soot from her face, but failed.
“Am I?” she asked softly.
Michael frowned. “Am you what?”
A smile grew within Michael and surged to euphoria,
“You are the most beautiful person that I have ever met, and what you’re doing is the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever seen. I want to devote my life to it, to be a part of it, to make a difference. When I was with you and these wonderful people I saw a dream that I’d never had the courage to see before. With the money I have and with the royalties to come, we can buy vacant buildings and convert them into hostels, and the people here can work in them until they get on their feet, and they can spread the word to others, and those who claw their way up will support us and we’ll build more hostels, and I’ll write their stories so the politicians and people of this great and wealthy country can’t hide from the faces anymore, and we’ll keep on going until no-one need be without food, or without a home or without hope, ever again.”
Michael was breathless and acutely aware of a heavy silence. He looked around and saw all eyes on him.
Jane’s eyes narrowed to a smile, she tilted her head, raised a hand to stroke Michael’s cheek and whispered,
“I believe you! Look, let me finish this soup-round and then we can talk about your courageous dream.”
Michael nodded and watched Jane saunter to the soup kitchen. His heart skipped when she turned to look at him before disappearing through the doorway. Michael looked for Peter. He stood tall and alone at the entrance to the alley, and Michael strolled over to him.
Peter grinned broadly and wiggled his eyebrow,
“Way to go Little Buddy.”
“Thanks. At least it’s a start.”
“A start is as good as a rest.”
“That’s, a change.”
Peter smiled and nodded. “A start is as good as a change.”
Michael laughed, “I hope you’re right on that one Big Buddy. Do we meet again?”
“I’ll be dropping by from time to time.”
“Like when I mess up?”
Peter grinned. “I don’t think I can make it that often. Look after Captain Jane, she’s special.”
Michael nodded and noticed Peter’s eyes move to indicate that some one was behind him. He turned.
A girl stood before him, shivering, small and fragile. She was in her late teens, wearing layers of cotton clothes, just short of rags. She protectively squeezed a brightly patterned child’s duffle bag under her left arm, the hand was grasping an empty soup bowl, and the fingertips of her right hand touched the corner of her bruised mouth. Grime streaked her small pale face and a ragged scar cut its way from her forehead above the nose and across her eye to her left cheekbone. It was fresh and clearly alien to her. She tilted her head and scrunched her shoulder as if to hide it, and she avoided all eye contact.
“Sorry, but what do I do with the empty bowl?” she mumbled.
“Have you finished or would you like some more?”
“More would be good.”
“Okay, follow me, and hang around after, because Captain Jane and me will sort somewhere safe and warm for you to sleep tonight, and then the three of us will have a chat about sorting things out for the future.”
The girl squeezed a smile across thin lips and nodded. Michael turned to Peter, but he was gone, and a mournful loneliness seeped through him.
Captain Jane called out, “It’s New-Year, people.”
Everyone stood straight and silent and raised their eyes to the small patch of sky high above the dark oppressive walls. Far-off cheers, screams and laughter floated out of reach across the rooftops. Dim multicoloured lights pulsed to the sound of distant bangs, thumps, swirls and crackles of fireworks, which in ten minutes burnt more money than it would take to convert eight vacant warehouses into hostels. The stinging stench of sulphur drifted down, accompanied by muffled strains of Auld-Lang-Syne, and eyes became moist from pungent acid, or poignant memories.
Michael pondered his courageous dream and was filled with a warm comfort at the certain knowledge, that if he failed, it would be his fault alone. Less comfortable warmth seeped through his trouser leg and dribbled onto his ankle. He looked down. A small scraggy black and white dog gazed up at him. It seemed pleased.