Charlie & The Angel

The angel carried Charlie over the sleeping city. The angel was unmistakably an angel; dressed in white with large, graceful, feathered wings.

His grandmother once told him that every kid had their own angel watching out for them. You couldn’t see them but they were always there. When Charlie was a child and woke up in the night, frightened by the fighting and screaming next door, he sometimes took comfort from that idea.

Charlie’s grandmother died many years ago. He hadn’t thought about her in a long while. What kept Charlie occupied was life on the street. Being a successful pimp was tough; it required dedication and a cultivated paranoia. Charlie was good at it but it took up most of his time. There wasn’t much left for thinking about anything else.

So it was strange to be flying above the city in the arms of an angel; though without any doubt it was happening to him. He could feel the wind on his face carrying the scent of the streets below and feel the angel’s arms effortlessly supporting his body. He felt refreshed and calm, as though he had just woken from a deep sleep; and, like someone freshly woken, he struggled to remember exactly how he had got where he was.

It came back to him. He had been visiting one of his women. She was a young whore whom he’d recently discovered had been holding back her pathetic earnings to buy drugs. This was strictly against the code Charlie lived by and required immediate action from him. He had beat her brutally and skilfully, with no pleasure but with a sense of justification; being careful not to damage her too much. He’d continued until he judged the lesson had taken; then straightened his clothes and left her sobbing on the floor.

He had been crossing to his car when he’d heard movement behind him. He turned around quickly but it was already too late. They surrounded him in a moment, grinning like dogs. He’d felt their blades pierce him and weakness flood into his body. He sank to the ground. They stood around laughing and talking a while; then they’d left him alone. It was quiet when they had gone. Charlie lay on the concrete and wondered if he should try to get up. It got so quiet though he fell asleep.

Charlie wasn’t educated but he wasn’t stupid either. It didn’t take a genius to figure out he was dead. What surprised him was he couldn’t seem to get too worked up about it.

He looked up at the angel and thought about asking it a question but there was something in its face that stopped him. The angel’s face was sorrowful and compassionate. It was the same expression that his grandmother wore sometimes when he’d done something he knew was really bad. He couldn’t look at it for too long and instead he looked down.

At first, his eyes took in only the landscape: the houses, cars and streets lit palely by the coming dawn. Then a curious thing happened. As if equipped with a powerful telescope, he found he could see into the houses themselves. Inside them were people; some still sleeping, some stirring; washing and cooking food, getting ready for the day. He could see them distinctly, like ants in an anthill, in every detail and profusion and with a startling clarity.

Charlie laughed out loud, marvelling at his new ability. It was exhilarating to see the world spread out and exposed in this way. He wondered if this was a normal part of being dead and decided it wasn’t too bad a thing if it was.

He became aware of a sound drifting up from below him that was like the wind blowing in trees; a sighing, whispering noise that faded in and out. As he listened more closely, he discovered that it wasn’t a single sound but a shifting pattern of sounds. With a little effort, he could pick one out from another.

They were the unspoken thoughts of people reaching up to him; a murmur of unvoiced impulses, desires and speculations. Here a wife watched her husband fastening his tie and wondered wistfully how long it had been since he’d looked at her with anything but polite attention in his eyes. There a mother sent off her children to school with a bright smile that hid her nagging concern over piles of unpaid bills. An office worker dreaded a report he had to submit to his bullying boss. A waitress wished wearily her feet would ache less. A cab driver told himself today was the day he’d ask the pretty dispatcher if she’d go out with him.

Always and everywhere the skeins of human longing threaded these thoughts: “If he’d just look at me, if only my luck changed, if I could just find the courage” It was a background refrain of small hopes and trivial fears that were indistinguishable. They merged together like the surf from a distant ocean.

Now he was dead, Charlie appreciated for the first time how unbelievably brief and fragile was the world the living inhabited. It seemed absurd that people were such strangers to themselves. That ordinary men and women wasted their lives on futile desires and their energies on petty goals and ambitions when their only certain future was this one. It filled him with a faint contempt for them and also for himself but before he could think more about it, he recognised someone he knew.

It was the young whore. She was sitting in her bathtub and weeping as she sponged her cuts and bruises, her thin back hunched over and her head bent forward. He wanted to take a closer look and found that his wish was granted. In the dreamlike way that things worked now:  the more he looked at the girl in the bathtub, the clearer she became to him until he might have been there with her in the room.

The first thing to strike him was her beauty. It was not the beauty of a film star or model but she was beautiful none the less. Charlie wondered why he had never seen this before. Then it came to him that he was seeing her the way she really was: human and frail and caught in a moment of time. Like a flower that can be carelessly crushed underfoot or a deer poised alertly at the edge of a forest, it was her vulnerability that made her seem beautiful now.

As he looked closer, Charlie realised that he was able to see the young whore not only as she was but how she had once been: a trusting, optimistic child who found pleasure in small things. He saw too how she been changed by a hard life and disappointments until the child’s optimism had gradually worn away. Despair and hopelessness showed in the angle of her head as she sobbed. They were seeded inside her as visible as tumours to his eye.

An unfamiliar emotion welled up inside Charlie. He told himself it was pity. He was sorry for the girl. He wished he could do something but that was beyond him now. It made him uncomfortable and he looked away from her.

Unfortunately for Charlie, it was as though a veil had been lifted. Now, as he looked down on the living below him, he saw into their lives with the same depth of vision.

He saw an old woman lying in soiled sheets, her few remaining thoughts flashing like bright fishes in the muddy pond of her dementia. He saw a child chained to a bed, staring at a wall in misery and he saw just how that misery would suppurate into anger and violence as the child grew to an adult. He saw his murderers laughing and joking together, swaggering the way he himself had once swaggered, but watchful and afraid of each other beneath it.

Each time he turned away from one example of cruelty or indifference, his eye was immediately drawn to another. Eventually it wearied and depressed him. He wanted for it to stop. This was a vision of the world without reason, a place where people existed and suffered purposelessly. He looked up at the angel again, meaning to protest or at least ask for an explanation of some kind, but it flew on imperturbably and the question died on his lips.

It occurred to Charlie that many of the reasons he had used while he was still alive had been meaningless, and the suffering he had inflicted had been mostly needless. It didn’t make him feel better to know that but he was prepared to deal with the consequences. The trouble was Charlie didn’t know if there were any.

He turned his eyes back to the world of the living reluctantly and a flash of something red caught his eye. It was a red jacket and it was worn by a boy of no more than nine or ten playing in a park with a dog. The boy had an old tennis ball he was throwing for the dog

Each time he threw, the dog would bound after it and bring it back. They were both completely absorbed in their game. The dog did not bark when the boy held the ball up but it gave a short bark when the boy let it go and once again when it brought the ball back. On each occasion, the dog would drop the ball at the boy’s feet and the boy would rub the dog’s head and speak to it.

There was nothing remarkable or unusual about either of them. The boy wore cheap plimsolls and his clothes were patched in places. The dog was a long-haired enthusiastic mutt with a fringe that partly hid its eyes. They played together thoughtlessly on this warm day in the park, enjoying the sun shining and the spring of the grass underfoot.

Charlie watched them for several minutes and gradually, as he watched, a terrible grief overwhelmed him. In a way that he was completely unable to explain: the reality of his death, at last, came home.

Charlie grieved for the beauty and mystery of his life that was now surrendered and gone from him forever. He grieved for the times and the opportunities that could never be recaptured. Remorse as keen and as heavy as an axe blow clove him to the quick of his existence. It was a pain sharper than any he had ever experienced and Charlie was not sure he knew how to endure it.

Everything was stripped away until the essential part of him that might have been called his soul was exposed, naked and cruelly alone. Time ceased; it became an empty plain that stretched out into the merciless eye of eternity. His soul writhed in the glare of that eye, finally and inescapably caught.

What felt to Charlie like an eternity passed. At length, he looked down and saw that the city had disappeared. The Angel had been flying steadily higher and they flew now over mountains and rivers in an unfamiliar country. Charlie could not see the people scattered on the earth beneath him but he could still hear the murmur of their unspoken thoughts.

Charlie found he no longer despised his fellow human beings. He opened himself to the sea of voices he heard.  He took the anger, the bewilderment and the fear and let it resonate within him. He allowed himself to be filled with the cruelty and the tenderness and the joy and the whole dumb circus of human aspirations; and, as he did so, he found that the weight of his own desolation seemed to lighten just a little and give him some relief.

The Angel flew higher. Now countries were stretched out, continents and oceans. Nations and races, tribes and families lived on them and Charlie reached for them and embraced them and beyond them, further still, to other living things; things that crawled or flew or grew in the earth.

Still, the Angel climbed steadily and the world shrunk away. Charlie felt himself spread thinner and thinner, felt his remaining substance becoming diffused and lost. At the last moment, there might have been a spark of terror but it was extinguished amongst the stars winking in the darkness. Then there was only the earth, like a small and stately galleon, continuing on its mysterious journey through space.

© David Clough 2004

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