Andrew Darlington

Heaven Must be Missing an Angel

She was crying. She was sitting on folds of cardboard on the street, crying. She was sitting on the corner just down from St Pancras Station, on folds of cardboard, crying. Writhing from side to side, as though in physical pain, sobbing softly. I watch her. People stream by taking no notice, talking into mobiles, talking to each other, dragging their wheeled cases. Human suffering here on the street, and we’re too caught up in living even to glance. Another derelict on another corner. Another casualty. I toss a two-pound coin that dances and spins on the pavement.

I walk a little further to the British Library courtyard. Sit on the perimeter wall and consider her. Deep in thought for long moments. People drift up and down the wide Library steps. People pore over laptops, talking to America. Pigeons scrat and fuss around flakes of dropped ‘Greggs’ sausage rolls.

Eventually I retrace my steps. Past the busker and the ‘Big Issue’ seller. Uber cabs and tourist coaches shush past. And she’s still there.

I crouch down beside her. ‘Are you alright?’ Which is a dumb question, because she’s obviously not alright.

She wipes tears and almost smiles. Slightly pretty behind the straggly black hair. Big wide eyes as deep as black holes. Mid-to-late twenties, no more. Her brown coat pulled in close around a faded floral-print dress.

‘Hungry?’

No-one even glances as I lead her into the burger bar, and guide her to the corner alcove. She dumps her pack on the floor. I get two cappuccinos. Her hands, tipped by grimy fingernails, lace tight around the glass as though intent on drawing its warmth into her. She wolfs the burger as I watch.

‘Virgil, Virgil Caine is my name’ I say. ‘What’s your name?’

She says what sounds like ‘Anna’, thickly accented, around chewing mouthfuls. Eastern European. She smiles again, warily, through her hair. I try a few more questions, but she either doesn’t understand, or pretends she doesn’t understand. Her words could be Romanian or Polish. I don’t know enough Polish to tell for sure. Could I believe her anyway? If she could tell me her tale, can I believe anything? The way she was writhing on the street betrays substance dependency. But then, sleeping rough needs numbing solace. It’s so easy. She could weave me sympathy-stories of people-trafficking, an escape from sexual slavery, and I’d be none the wiser. They have ways of tapping into your good nature, until you can never be certain of anything.

I ask her where her parents are. I ask where she comes from. I ask if there’s anywhere she can go… if she has family or friends. She shrugs and says nothing. After all, isn’t the street the place you go to forget how to find yourself? But when she does speak, a brief phrase, then a little more, I understand none of it.

She settles back into the seat, wiping her fingers on the folded branded paper napkin. I can see the tracks of her tears down the side of her snub nose. There’s a sprinkling of freckles. Has she suffered abuse? There are small healing scabs beneath her right eye, and across the bridge of her nose. Or is it an eczema-type infection, due to poor diet? Soft electro-jazz swirls around us from some unseen device. On other tables, people gorge carelessly, so much thoughtless food indulgence. Such obscene gluttony amid casual wealth, while others sleep on the streets. It’s grotesque, illogical, it makes no sense. She raids the plastic cup for packets of sugar, white and brown, and stuffs them deep into her pockets. Glances across at me as though sharing a conspiracy. I wonder what she has in her bag. A change of underwear? A book? Tampons?

When I start up to leave, she makes to follow. As though we are now a unit. The problem of spontaneous generosity is that it implies obligation. A follow-through that’s difficult to tactfully discourage. Should I just give her money? And if so, how much? What will be an acceptable amount, without appearing either tight-fisted, or an easy touch? Or will that simply leave a guilty backwash, as though she’ll think of it as conscience money? She follows me to the bus-stop, I swipe my card for her fare and she sits opposite me on the coach all the way to Tooting High Street. Once there, I help her down onto the pavement. There’s a cool breeze. There’s always a cool breeze here. Even the light is flat and hard.

At times I feel a strange detachment from all this. As though I’m watching it from outside, from some place immeasurably remote, beyond time and space. Untouched by the squalid tragedy of it all.

We walk in the direction of Amen Corner, but turn off into the narrow streets where green wheelie-bins sit in predatory formation. Along Oriental Terrace there’s garbage crushed into the paving cracks and graffiti on the walls. I’m old enough to remember when things were different. When people had pride, and took care. I unlatch the door and she follows me inside, dumping her bag in a pile beside the sofa. She looks around in a vaguely disapproving way, as though she expected more. A bigger TV perhaps, or a Sky-box?

I make my excuses, go into the kitchen and check the kettle. I allow the tap to run. Then fill the water-filter. While it purifies the impurities from the water, I rummage through the drawers beside the sink, where I keep tea-towels, dusters, candles, scourer-pads, matchboxes and coils of washing line.

Anna barely struggles as I loop the cord around her neck and apply pressure. She just gives a resigned moan. As though she understands and accepts what I offer. We should never live our lives imprisoned by fear, we should reach out and embrace its potential. Her body bucks and writhes, as they all do. But eventually quietens. Into a perfect stillness. I carry her upstairs. A weightless thing. I undress her reverently. The soiled clothes will be laundered and ironed. She’s painfully thin and undernourished, with small undeveloped breasts. I run the water in the bath, monitoring its warmth with my hand – not too hot or too cold, running perfumed gel into a layer of foam. Lower her into the water, and sponge her clean, ritually cleansing away the street-grime, using moist cotton-wool to tease away the small abrasions around her nose, shampooing and rinsing her straggly hair, brushing it and combing it into shape.

I towel her dry with a big fluffy white towel, clothe her in one of the long white nightdresses that I keep in the wardrobe, just in case, and lay her out on the bed. Then use cosmetics to make up her face in subtle shades, nothing too vulgar. Her nails had been broken and grimy, I varnish them into respectability. The same with her neat toenails. I stand back with a catch in my throat. She looks beautiful. She deserved better, someone to care enough to free her. But where no-one else cared, I’ve rescued her from dirt and pain, cruelty and terror.

I sit in the chair beside the bed, watching her. Later, I’ll inter her safely in the garden, where the world can longer hurt her.

Alongside the others.

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