I spent the rest of the afternoon tiptoeing around Vee and trying my best to lighten the atmosphere. Try as I may, I only managed to draw a small half-smile out of her once, when I got my shirt stuck in the washing machine door. I’d already pressed the ‘on’ button before I realised what had happened, and so I had to wait by its side while it drained and then released the door lock so I could free myself.
Vee went about her usual business distracted and subdued; when I enquired what exactly it was that made her sad and whether it had anything to do with the Morel woman, she simply said that we would know for sure tonight, and that she hoped the omens had been wrong.
It was with a heavy heart, therefore, that I agreed to accompany her to this moronic ceremony performed in the dark in which a woman I thoroughly despised would scare the living daylights out of a paying crowd and treat them to artless conjuring tricks aimed at a general age of five and an IQ of approximately the same numeric representation.
After stuffing a banknote that looked suspiciously like a tightly folded twenty-pound note into the collection box – an old biscuit tin with a roughly hewn slot in the lid – Vee pulled me to the front of the semicircle of people gathered around the sizeable driftwood fire.
I had to give it to the witch. The set-up was faultless. We were on the top of a cliff, overlooking the sea. Two fallen tree trunks constituted the seating area, and the low gorse bushes either side of us were eerily lit from their roots up with the help of short candle stubs stuck inside vividly painted jam jars. Frayed ribbons tied here and there in the higher branches of the shrubbery were twisting and whipping in the wind, always wilder here, at the top of the cliff. The way they were thrashing about gave the impression that something bad was about to happen and they were kicking and writhing, impatient to get away. I knew how they felt; I wasn’t any happier to be here myself.
The surf was up, too. The sound of waves crashing onto the rocks below blended with the whistling of the wind and the crackling and spitting bonfire to create a truly sinister symphony. I could feel my hairs stand on end before I even caught sight of Madam Morel.
When she appeared, her face was drawn and haggard, more wrinkled than usual. She almost looked in pain. Black and yellow feathers had been braided into her wild grey hair, and she wore a floor-length black gown with pentacle shapes painted in yellow all over it.
“Out of purple and orange paint?” I sniggered into Vee’s ear.
“Stop it, Martin,” Vee hissed back, annoyed. “I’ve told you before. She is wearing black for protection from evil spirits and the yellow is for inner wisdom.”
“Bit late to ask for wisdom now…” I laughed.
“If you can’t be serious, you’d better leave,” she snapped.
Christ, Vee could be a bit intense, I thought, and twisted in my uncomfortable seat to look at the other people’s faces. Two dozen eyes fixed me with hostile glares. I turned and faced the fire, my shoulders hunching against the harsh stares I could still feel burning holes in my back.
Madam Morel moved slowly, her face contorting in what could only be grimaces brought on by severe pain, or bad acting, depending on which point of view you shared. Her fleshy arms shook their way up above her head, and then her head would twist abruptly right and left and back again, as if pulled by the invisible strings of an exceptionally indecisive puppeteer.
No one stirred. Everyone was still and staring, a dozen people following the mad witch’s every twitch with their mouths open and dead serious expressions on their frozen faces. I mean, how can you not laugh?
I was good; I managed to keep a straight face up until the stage at which Madam Morel started doing frog squats around the fire, with her legs wide apart and grunting as she went. I snorted and Vee elbowed me in the ribs. I clamped a hand over my mouth and tried to convey an ‘I can’t help it’ message through my eyes, but she frowned at me and gestured that I should go.
So I stood up and backed out, bent double, trying very hard to stop any further inopportune sounds from escaping my clenched jaw. Unfortunately, I couldn’t control the rest of my face as well; tears of mirth started streaming down my cheeks as I hurried back down the path, away from them. The last image I caught before my tears completely blurred the scene was of the witch, legs splayed, arms open wide, bent over the fire like a bat, struggling to breathe, surrounded by a cloud of smoke, sparks flying up into her face.
My feet took the left fork and carried me on, lower and lower down the path until I reached the soft, moist sand of the beach below. The tiny bay was closed in, surrounded as it was by sheer cliffs on three sides, but no matter how many times I came here, it never made me feel claustrophobic. Fingers of rock stretched on into the sea, whilst tangled manes of a hundred galloping white horses crashed onto them relentlessly.
I could sit and watch the sea forever. I settled down on a flattish rock, leaning my elbows on my knees and looking on over infinity. If I had good enough vision, I could probably see Newfoundland from here. I smiled to myself as I remembered the last time I had made a genuine wish, and how easily it came true. If only I could have that pair of wings again, even for a short while…
A great big sigh escaped my lips. My fleeting incursion through heaven, a few months ago, was something that haunted me a little too often for my liking. Most of the time, as long as I didn’t have to think about it, I could pretend that it never happened. That was my preferred option. Unfortunately, due to the complex relationship between JJ, my father in law, and his old business partner, Gary Mackie, who was now living amongst the angels, I was forced to stare the legendary series of events in the face more often than I liked to.
I could certainly refer to those three days as the most traumatic of my life so far, even if you take into account some of the less conventional punishments my mother experimented with during my turbulent childhood years. I discovered there was a heaven, a hell, grew some wings and dealt with bureaucracy as diabolical as I’d known on earth in only a few short hours. I swiftly followed that with bumping into my guardian angel (named D Opey, but rechristened Grumpy because of his attitude), then I made the breakthrough that the whole human race was marked for extinction and heaven was malfunctioning due to a computer glitch. I won’t even mention being chewed up and spat out by Chow, the sabre-tooth, or being arrested for being in heaven illegally.
But I don’t regret any of that. Even when I trip over JJ’s black market merchandise or when Gary makes me jump as he pops up out of the blue in my dark stockroom – I wouldn’t change a thing. Because if it hadn’t been for them I wouldn’t be with Vee now. Vee is what makes my life worth living.
I shook my head as I realised I actually missed seeing Grumpy, and Cronus, and even St George, with his bizarre fashion sense and prehistoric dancing.
My head snapped up as I recognised my ex guardian angel’s voice. I focused on the blurry image, half amused, half-irritated to see him smiling smugly at me. Had I been thinking aloud?
“Grumpy?” I blinked, bemused, tilting my head this way and that, as if this mere action could make him morph into something more pleasing to the eye, such as my wife’s behind, or maybe disappear altogether. “What are you doing here? I thought you’d found some job in admin, somewhere. You haven’t screwed that up, too, have you?”
The fact that I hadn’t considered his work as my guardian angel a job even half well done was no secret, in fact it had formed the foundation of our rickety relationship from the moment we inadvertently ran into each other.
He ignored the ribbing. “Guess I missed you, too.”
“Hey, hey,” I protested. “I never said I missed you.”
“But you thought it.”
“Who told you that?” I asked, irked. An official complaint form started filling itself up in my mind’s eye as I spoke. My current guardians were bound by a confidentiality agreement, I was sure of that. They shouldn’t have let an outsider know my private thoughts.
“’S who you know,” Grumpy winked, touching the side of his nose with his finger. My eyes narrowed. “Relax,” he exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear, before I could ask for names. “I’m only here because I care about you, and… someone high up there does, too,” he pointed at the sky with his index finger.
My eyebrows shot up. “You mean Cronus?”
Grumpy nodded. “He fixed my time off so I could come and warn you.”
That got my attention at once. “That doesn’t sound like good news,” I said warily. Had anyone cottoned on to Gary’s business, and then tracked it all back to me? I should never have agreed to JJ moving the stock from his shed into our stockroom; I always knew he and Gary were trouble. “What have I done wrong?” I asked reluctantly.
Gary let out a heavy sigh before he spoke again.
“It’s not you, personally.” He seemed to have a little difficulty in finding the right words. “I mean, it is you. It’s all of you. Only your time hasn’t come yet,” he pointed at me.
He was too serious, every trace of hilarity gone from his expression. And if my time hadn’t come yet, there was only one other person on this earth that it would hurt me to lose. Vee. Something bad was coming her way, I could feel it in my bones.
Gritting my teeth, I hissed at him. “Spit it out, Grumpy. Don’t you dare draw this out, like some freakish game show.”
He put his hands up. “Whoa. Chill. I came here to tell you, didn’t I?”
I drew in a deep breath, trying to calm down.
Grumpy stared at me with sad eyes. “You know when you broke into heaven, a little while ago?” He waited for me to nod first. How could I ever forget it? “And then, instead of coming back in… you and Vee and her dad did a runner?” I nodded again. “Well, they formed a commission to look into an appropriate punishment for your actions.”
I’d been expecting something like that to catch up with us at some point. “Go on,” I encouraged him, an ominous feeling in my gut.
“The Pro-Angel Parliamentary Impartiality Suggestions Select Committee has published the report, now. The Parliament has looked at it and reached a unanimous decision – you three and Gary, too, are to be judged and sentenced, one by one, starting with the person considered the greatest danger to society: Vee.”
An involuntary smile stretched my lips for a split second as I heard the name of the Committee charged with looking into our misdeeds. Only in heaven could you find such pertinent acronyms. The Pro-Angel PISS Committee was one of the best I’d encountered so far. And then I lost the smile. A shiver ran up my spine and spread out through my veins as what he was saying really sank in. In order to be judged, Vee had to be present in court, in heaven. You couldn’t be alive and in heaven at the same time. Before sentencing Vee to goodness knows what over the top punishment their twisted minds could come up with, they had to kill her first. And the only reason they were going for us one by one was because we already knew too much. We knew enough to be able to defend our actions.
For a second my mind pulled out the image of Vee at her most vulnerable, tears streaking down her face, when she was telling me goodbye. I could imagine the scores of angels with clear wings descending upon her, surrounding her, scowling, pointing. She cringed away from their threatening expressions. And then I saw myself step between them and Vee. I’d never shown much courage before now. I’d never given Vee much reason to trust that I would take care of her, that I was a good husband. Maybe that was the reason why she hadn’t looked reassured back at the shop, when I implied she didn’t need guardian angels, because she had me to look after her.
It was time to be a husband. It was time to be a man. A real man, if I could manage it. No one would touch Vee.