2nd Place in the Cambridge Short Story prize 2021
How I Became A Guardian Angel
We met at church in one of the bloodshot suburbs, the time we were both hoping God would straighten us out. While the congregation kneeled and prayed and sang, I sat with my hands pressed between my knees. Yours was the only presence I truly felt. Shorn like a spring lamb, save for a dirty-blonde forelock curling across your forehead. Hands pushed deep into your pockets, shirtsleeves turned up to reveal a blue star inked into the bruised skin of your forearm. Your face was a bad trip strung with fairy lights. When we locked eyes for the first time across the church pews, it was heavenly. Just divine.
Afterwards, we stood outside in the sunshine and smoked. Or, I smoked and you asked for a drag, and then another. You said you liked my shirt. I liked the feeling of your fingertips on my ribs where you had lightly touched the hem. It was actually a child’s T-shirt. Poor Minnie Mouse’s face was stretched across my chest. Members of the congregation circled us with polite wedges of cake on cheap paper napkins, their button-up shirts littered with crumbs. They had big smiles but eyes that darted away. The minister approached, emptying the last of his tea into the grass beside my foot, a sudden motion for a man with such rosy cheeks. I folded my arms in front of my exposed midriff to hide my navel piercing. But I felt like God couldn’t be too picky. In fact, I thought we were exactly his type.
After the first time we had sex, you asked me what was special about me. I wasn’t sure how to reply. ‘There must be something, otherwise I wouldn’t be interested,’ you said. My eyes were very large from looking at the world with unrequited hunger. I had ideas that were too big to put into words yet worried most about which parts of my arm I could encircle between my thumb and forefinger. I was a good listener. Someone not unused to abstinence. ‘Guess you’ll just have to wait and see,’ I said.
It became clear that you were casual with your charm and preferred a transient fanbase. By night you tended bars or deejayed, though never regularly enough to call it a job. By day you did tattoos. I went around to your flat in the heart of studentsville and watched you scratch ink into people. I was impressed that you could draw coherent shapes in such dim light, though I cared little for your customers. Friends of friends, you said over the buzz of the machine and weeping flesh. The girls had that faraway look I tried so hard to mimic, carelessly dribbling smoke from their bee-stung lips. The boys sweated alcohol while clenching and unclenching their fists. They were all a little in love with you. One guy, Hyser, was a regular with a talent for pulling people down. He looped himself over the furniture, cackling. You used to give him tattoos in exchange for gear but now you gave him tattoos in return for bringing rich kids flirting with ruin.
You really wanted to make art, you said. The tattoos were just a sideline. I hadn’t met many true artists. I knew some people who were arty, the types who bought their counter cultural attitude at quirky boutiques and worked in the media. You came from a place so broken that making art was all you could do. One day, you took me to a vintage shop to buy a handful of mix tapes from the retro bin. They told a story you said, those pop songs that people had patched together with the dying bars of old school radio jingles over the top. I imagined the eager listeners sitting at their tape decks, fingers on the record/play buttons, hating the DJ for talking over the intro. We listened to the tapes from the cassette player in your car, a piece of shit Cortina that rattled our brains against our skulls. I drove, praying that the engine wouldn’t cut out at red lights, so that you could sketch your impression of the person whose mix tape was playing. ‘You can really get a sense of them,’ you said tapping your pencil on the dashboard in time to the song. ‘It’s like they’re sitting right here in the backseat.’ There were a lot of young boys out there making mix tapes apparently. Young boys and old men.
We spent a dappled afternoon in the botanical gardens. You lay with your head in my lap and said I was your reason for wanting to be a better person. High on your attention, I was as joyfully swollen as a balloon. In my flat, I bounced around for days needing only the barest sips of water. Then you disappeared. I burst, lay deflated on my bedroom carpet. Weeks later, my phone rang. It was your voice saying you needed me more than ever: ‘I’ve never met anyone as selfless as you.’ I knew what you meant. We ended the call and I began the process of expunging my selfhood completely, replacing my own desires with icons of your temperance.
When we moved in together, we found a flat opposite the cemetery in aid of your search for your guardian angel. One morning, we slipped through the ornate iron gates and walked along the tarred drive cutting through the neatly tended death. You took Polaroids of the headstones which had angels carved into them. They were mostly the same stock figures — the cherub, the weeper, the messenger with open palms — but to you each one was a worthy subject. I fixated on the dates, subtracting the smaller number from the bigger number. The answer was thirty-five, eighty-nine, sixty-four. Sometimes eight, fourteen or two. While I troubled over how a compassionate God could be so arbitrary, you told me that you felt closer to the truth than ever before. That night, you read me passages from Conversations with God. I wanted to be your muse but I was your audience. I was making you real.
Relapse hit you like a predictable plot line. Each time you messed up, I worked harder to be more perfectly empty. I became like blown glass, an ornament which would have made a lovely ting if only you’d struck me. I tried diligently to drag the violence out of you; at least it would have been something honest. Using didn’t curtail your quest for redemption, though it turned the Sunday service into awkward emotional acupuncture. After one particularly robust laughing fit, I realised that desperate people stuck together until someone did better or worse than everyone else. I never went back. Sunday mornings were spent in bed, painting my toenails and cross-stitching your name into the centre of red hearts.
When you decided to make a life-sized angel, I was a readily available model. You twisted my limbs into position – arms slightly out to the side, feet together with one leg bent at the knee –and covered my body in Vaseline. With each layer of plaster-soaked bandages, I became more and more like a soft animal retracting into a shell. It was a homecoming. You removed the cast tenderly but I never fully re-emerged. You stroked the angel’s body in pure white paint and pressed a crown of duiwel doring on her head. To her chest was glued one of my cross-stitched hearts, the colour of fresh blood. You spent a week spinning wings from the finest golden wire, which you feathered with X-rays of your numerous childhood fractures. The angel’s magnificent wingspan made it impossible for her to stand on her own two feet. You lay her gently on the sofa, facing the TV, and turned on the daytime soaps to keep her company. Light flickered across her beatific face, turning her cold or warm, blessing her with a litany of adverts for laundry detergent and hair dye. After a month, you decided no angel of yours was going to be a couch potato. A cross was made from metal bars attached to castor wheels from a salvaged office chair. The angel was hung up and wheeled from room to room. It cut so deep into my self-esteem that I still wince when I hear squeaking of any kind. The first time you knelt before her to pray, I laughed. You bowed your head and said, ‘We were not here to learn anything new but to remember what we already know.’
One summer evening, when the sweet smell of Jasmine was in the air, you strapped the angel to the roof of the Cortina and drove her to the Top Star Drive-In to enjoy the view of Johannesburg’s desperate lights. I went too though you ignored me, nodding along to the mixtape music. When we drew up alongside other cars, the death rattling Cortina and the angel vibrating on the roof, people tried to look without turning their heads. They were just young couples and families on their way to the mall for a low budget takeaway. Only the children pressed their faces to the windows. They stared at you, a character punched out of a Hunter S. Thompson novel, wearing amber coloured aviators and a paisley shirt unbuttoned to your navel. Your elbow hung out the window and a gold crucifix glinted on your chest. Just one little girl, buckled into the backseat of an expensive car, noticed me. She took a moment to adjust her crystal tiara before offering a delicate wave. I pressed my hand to the glass in reply but she had already turned away, the tendons in her neck taut from the effort of looking in the opposite direction.
That night you asked me to sleep on the sofa so that the angel could take my side of our bed. I had an urgent dream about drowning in a sea of silent crickets and woke up sweating. On my way to the bathroom, I looked in at you, curled in foetal position, your hand resting on the angel’s stomach like an umbilical cord. Enough was enough. I marched to the freezer, peeled the lid off a tub of chocolate fudge brownie ice cream. Went at it, spoon after spoon after spoon, until there was no longer the taste of chocolate or even of sugar, until all that remained was thickness dulling my tongue, forcing its way down my throat. I brought up the slick mess in the kitchen sink. As water from the tap carried my sin down the drain, I rejoiced in my new found power; the ability to fill myself up and empty myself out as I saw fit.
You started doing tattoos at a studio in the CBD. I stayed at home and got to know the angel better. You had given her a tattoo on her right forearm: Reality is a representation created by will. I smoked a joint and looked at our dirty little life through her eyes. A thinning towel draped over a plastic washing basket. The borrowed wood veneer furniture. I stroked her lacquered breasts and remembered that she was made in my image. I tapped Morse code onto her hollow torso — three short, three long, three short — and listened for the echo of God. I told her some bad jokes. You were right, it was therapeutic to talk to her. She was infinitely patient. I told her things I had never told anyone. I could see why you liked her so much.
I left. It wasn’t as dramatic as I thought it would be. I unhooked the angel from her cross and carried her down the road under my arm. She came without protest — she was lighter than one of our arguments. The contour of her waist fitted snugly into my own and I thought; this is what it would be like to carry myself. It was a struggle to stop her wings from dragging along the ground. I dropped her a couple of times. Some of the X-ray feathers fell off. I began to fantasise about tying her to a train track, the way I had seen in those kids’ cartoons growing up. You would come to save her, wearing a cowboy hat and track marks, and we’d all go home and live happily ever after.
In the end, I left her propped up against a fence on the side of the road. I kept our parting to the point: ‘You should have tried harder.’ I walked away, promising myself I wouldn’t turn around but I did. She looked so forlorn, showing her grey insides where the paint had chipped away across her belly, legs and arms. Her wings drooped. No one else would have noticed but I could tell she was slowly sliding towards the pavement. ‘Fly away then. Go on.’ I watched a moment longer and then carried on walking. When I think of her now, she’s either sliding or flying, her golden wings bristling in the sun.
Marilyn Parr began her writing career as a political journalist in South Africa. After a stint living off the grid in the rainforests of Patagonia, she emigrated to Europe, teaching and studying in Barcelona before moving to London, where she worked at ITV. Now settled in Bath, she writes fantastical documentaries exploring our relationships with each other and the planet. She holds an MA in creative writing and is working on her first novel about pregnancy loss. Twitter @Marilyn_Parr_
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