It was the day that changed everything, the day that set the skies of Manhattan alight with a fire that burnt into the hearts of millions across the globe. It was a day that changed mankind forever in a way they swear never to forget. For me it was the day that awoke me to the reality of the world, as it was the one that closed it to so many others. It all began, however, just like any other early autumn morning.
As always the sun rose in the east, pulling itself slowly over the Atlantic horizon to awaken the metropolis which never really sleeps. On that day the sky was a severely crystal-clear hemisphere of such astounding brilliant blue that it made the whole of the Northeast sparkle. The infinite visibility almost seemed to be compensating for what was to come. It was almost as if nature itself were mocking us for having turned a blind eye to our threats. Glorious shafts of amber sunshine crept down the streets of Manhattan. Daylight danced gracefully against the stark façades of the skyscrapers and the waters of the Hudson glistened under the morning glow. In the seasonal symphony of life the first leaves began to shrivel up to die as September beckoned Central Park’s trees into the sleep of autumn. It was a beautiful opening to the day.
The citizens of New York awoke to their familiar dawn chorus of traffic, city-stifled birdsong and breakfast-show presenters. Busy parents taxied their children to school and fitness fanatics ran their morning runs. The yellow fields of the streets moved mechanically as traffic from all directions intersected at junctions and wove amongst itself to deliver people to their destinations. Three-thousand city workers flocked onto the usual taxis and trains, a carefully balanced infrastructure demonstrating the relentless, powerful strength of humanity, thousands of gears in a society, all leaves on the same tree, working for themselves as individuals but also together as a whole. Only in cities do you find such masses of people living in such a vibrant atmosphere. Elsewhere the symphony of life dragged other people from their beds, to school, to work, to well deserved recreation. Holiday makers and business consultants boarded planes to fly to exotic destinations across the globe. It seemed an ordinary September day.
In New York couples kissed each other goodbye as they went their separate daily ways. Children waved farewell to their parents as they were dropped at the school gates. Two joggers nodded in greeting as they passed, one running north, the other south. A father phoned his family to tell them he would be home soon as he boarded his flight. It seemed an ordinary September day.
I was six years old at the time, old enough to question the world and its ways but not experienced enough to understand the answers. I appeared annoyingly fascinated with everything and yet almost totally indifferent to it all. I lived in the peace and security of a sheltered middle-class safety bubble which, combined with my age, had kept me ignorant of pretty much all the bad things that happen in the world. It was a good state of mind, for a six year old at least, and I guess I was happy, though the tender memories from my mind at that age are so distantly shady they could easily have been influenced by what other people have later said to me. Maybe some of the younger memories aren’t real at all. Everything before that September morning that awoke me to the world seems faded in some way or another…
My mother was a semi-religious Christian as far as I remember and my father a rarely practising Muslim. We had celebrations for both but I don’t recall anything of deep sincerity. They both loved their cultures and traditions but didn’t seem to care for either of their religions. Perhaps in another past I could have shared in the joys of both cultures had my life been different, but an eventual forced over-exposure to one unfortunately put me off both. My parents had two focuses in their lives, their work and myself. Both had complicated financial jobs that even now I do not fully understand - other than they involved short term visits to a variety of foreign places. I was dragged around the world behind them like a dog on a leash, drinking in the sights and sounds that would interest a typical six year old boy. My limited memory of the era suggests an overwhelming curiosity about the places, something I lost in later years, only regained in the past two.
They were good people, I think. They led busy lives and did not have all the time in the world but the little memory I have of them will tell me all the good things you would expect parents to be. The jigsaw of my memories and anecdotes from relatives tell that I was their pride and joy, the centre of their lives. The more cynical side of me suggests that perhaps their love for me has been exaggerated in the wake of their fate as is so common. I suppress this thought though; it seems dishonourable to remember them as any less than the best; not that a six year old’s weak mind yields much memory. Over time what I truly remembered had became cloudy with the fog of years and perception, nostalgia reinventing for the better and smoothing blots on the pages of history away. I fear most of what I have of them is in imagination. I try not to dwell on that. I don’t really dwell on them at all any more; important as they were, they are history. Someone told me earlier today that the best way to honour someone is to live the way they would want you to. I guess that means I am allowed to keep them in a shrine in the corner of my mind, paying respects every so often but not letting the past intrude on my present. That is what they would have wanted. That only became the case a couple of years ago…
On that distant day, that September morning in Manhattan, I was in the penthouse suite of a hotel overlooking the south end of the island. My parents were attending what they told me was a ‘very important meeting with some very important people’. I never did find out who those people were, though I guess in the end the chaotic nature of our world proved them to be no more important than anyone else. Chaos does not bow down to power. The universe does not recognise importance. A hotel nanny was supposedly taking care of me though she was happily watching a film in the other room, leaving me to my own devices. I was quietly drawing something I remember, one of those awfully proportioned child’s pictures of their family holding hands; that picture is still with me. I have it here in my room somewhere. I don’t know why I keep it, it carries so many horrible memories, but beneath all that it is proof to myself of the carefree parented life I once had. Maybe the memory of that kept me alive during the years of depression, maybe the false promise that something better could have played out made it worse. I shall never know.
I remember pausing from the drawing to look out of the window. That’s when I saw it happen, that’s when my façade cracked and my innocent life shattered before my eyes, that’s when I was left alone. The plane seemed to be flying too low, too close to the tower where my parents worked, dangerously close… I saw it hit. I saw it hit like it wasn’t even real; how could it be real? I saw the smoke pour out of the gaping hole, I watched the black cloud which would carry away three-thousand souls ascend into the air. It was real alright. My parents were gone, I was an orphan…
I was so alone.
That was the flame that burnt the skies of New York that day, the tragedy the world swore never to forget and to me the singularity that changed my world. It was the day that has etched its name and number into our history. It was the day that shattered our imaginary safety bubble and allowed the threat of terror to look us directly in the eye. It was the day the towers came down, two twin towers, four fateful flights, three-thousand souls…
I was only six but I understood. I had not really encountered death before but something about the billowing black smoke told me that my parents would not be returning from their very important meeting with very important people. I felt a presence in the room; a dark chill swept through me. I turned slowly, a dark figure stood behind me. My breathing faltered as I caught sight of him though I did not scream and I did not run. Despite his appearance of horror he did not threaten me; instead he intrigued me.
The man was a tall figure with smooth white skin, completely hairless and glistening as if wet. His cheeks were hollow and his toothless mouth an ugly gaping hole tending upwards at the corners, reminiscent of a smile. The man had no eyes, merely two fleshy indents, and between them was a small wedge that could perhaps be a nose, although there were no visible nostrils. He wore no material clothing but was instead robed in thick black shadow which hung about him like a vicar’s cassock. Protruding from his shoulder blades were huge angelic wings which draped majestically down his back. Despite their attractive posture, the wings were no less horrific that the rest of him. In place of feathers there were grimy transparent shards of glass, riddled with veins such that they resembled dragonfly wings. In each shard of glass was a trapped face, screaming, burning, dying.
He was frightening, but I was not frightened of him. Even today I’m not sure why I wasn’t frightened; rationally I should have been for I knew in my mind that he was death, taker of life, ender of all. Regardless of this, the six year old that was me walked slowly towards him.
“You’re death,” I said quietly. “You take them away, all those people who are dying…”
“I am the dark angel,” he replied, a cold dry voice. “I come to those who are dying and end their suffering; I cut them free from the world; I save them, release them from their pain.”
A tear came to my eye. “Are my parents, free? Are they in pain?”
“Your parents are free, I have relieved them of their suffering.”
“I can see you. Am I dying?” I asked quietly.
“Everyone is dying, even those as young as you, Gabriel,” he said. “Every person on Earth has an egg timer of falling sand and as the sands of time fall, their death comes closer. Your time will come but it is not yet.”
I looked tentatively at the glass shards of the wings; the screaming souls were fading, the dying letting go. I stared at him in silence; he was not evil, he was not good. He was simply there and he happened, he was the inevitable end, he was the one who took us from the world when the time was right. He was not the cause, but rather the effect.
“Where are mummy and daddy now?” I asked meekly.
“Free,” the angel said. Then he was gone.
They found me frozen, staring at the window, a full three hours after the incident. The clocks of my life had stalled, the gears that kept me moving forward jammed, for I had no-where to go and no parents to run too. I have heard from others that in the first week of my shell-shocked transformation I said nothing. I had nothing to say. The world around me spun on whilst I remained frozen and powerless. I was the eye of the storm, imprisoned and restricted with a world of chaos enveloping my existence. People signed documents in my name, took me to sit in rooms with people I didn’t know, discussed my future before me but without my input. Even if I was allowed to have a say I could not have given it; all my tiny mind could see was a widening void. The death of my parents had opened the world to me in a way I had never seen before. Without two strong role models to rely on, suddenly the other six billion people in the world became much more relevant as everyone was equally distant and equally significant. I trusted no-one. I was detached, I was without foundation and without direction. The whirlwind of intercontinental bureaucracy and unanimous confusion eventually landed me back home in England. Finally it washed me up on the doorstep of an uncle and aunt. They were the type your parents don’t really speak with and you only ever see at Christmas. Looking back I am grateful that they took me in, but that doesn’t mean I have grown to like them.
That fearful void was not to close with the adoption. My veil of innocence had been torn open and the truths and dangers of the world faced me without obstruction. The uncle and aunt were no-more than the other people of the world, they were nothing special, I had no emotional reason to be with them than with anyone else. I would sit on my bed for hours at a time with only one thought perpetually circulating my mind, a child’s desperate longing for his parents. It was from then that I drew myself into my shell and locked myself out from the vast monotonous meaninglessness of the universe. I created a mental barrier and where possible a physical one to keep anything and everything out because none of it mattered, none of it was relevant. Or quite possibly without a pair of parents to focus my life on, it all became far too relevant and it hurt too much to take it all in everyday. Walking the streets became a nightmare, going to school, even lying in bed. When the things that mean the world to you are taken away the world loses purpose. I took to painting and reading, but as escape methods rather than enjoyable past-times. The fantasies of stories between the pages of books and the pictures which I could conjure up upon a canvas were ones which could all exist within my shell. Being fiction they were separate from the painful vastness of reality and therefore a way for me to hide from it. It was not until I met her that I truly began to appreciate the arts. I lived in that tight shell of mine for ten long years, poking my arms out to eat, to study, to survive but not to integrate. As a forcibly self-buried introvert the little life I had was confined to the insides.
I visited countless therapy sessions which eventually forced me to talk about the incident and my sighting of the angel. That of course landed me on medication which incidentally I never took, why would I want to hide the angel? He was not bad, he was not good, he merely existed; like trees, or people - or bacon for that matter. It was five long years after New York when I saw him again, standing amongst flashing blue lights and roadside broken glass. I saw him again three years after, standing over a patients bed when I visited the hospital for vaccinations. He also came to me a couple of times during my deepest depression when suicide crossed my mind, but in these instances it was always to dissuade me. He was an infrequent visitor to my life and when I saw him he barely spoke but I felt his eyeless face regard me with sympathy and I knew that he hated his job as much as we hate what he has to deal with. Perhaps he was watching over me, as my guardian angel.
And so my life ticked on like an old clock, tired and working as slowly as the spring would allow it. I grew up in sync with my peers and under the duties of my uncle and aunt. They took me to school, fed me three meals a day, bought me clothes and suchlike. They were reasonable people I suppose… It would seem wrong to discredit them though they held suppressed prejudices that bothered me and they had a ridiculous self-righteous air about them. They were the kind of wannabe middle-classers who like to think they earn far more than they do. They brought me up in polite disdain for my father’s religion, Islam, and the large sum of money I would no doubt inherit when I grew of age. I did grudgingly give them fifty-thousand of the half-million when I turned eighteen to cover a fraction of the costs of raising me, though I did it out of moral obligation rather than respect.
They would often make subtle, snide remarks about by father’s family or his religion and would do ridiculous, supposedly subliminal, things to ensure I did not follow Islam. I remember they used to make me a breakfast of bacon two or three times a week and speak condescendingly to me like a bad teacher.
“That’s very good bacon isn’t it?” my aunt would say. “It’s a shame some people choose to shun it. Wouldn’t that be a sad way to live?”
It seems utterly comical looking back on it but as a growing child I could not help but feel the uncomfortable pressure which forced me away from half my heritage and indeed put me off the other half. Their uptight middle-class closet-racist conservative-christian upbringing had been a tight-lipped straight jacket to me and probably what had denied me a belief in God. I would do everything I could to avoid being like them. At the age of sixteen I spent a short period of time believing, probably because my depression was at its worst then. I did have a mild resurgence of faith when I visited a church earlier today, though I’ve since returned to my sceptical self. I really don’t know what’s out there, I don’t know if the angel of death’s journey is one to heaven or one to nothingness. I don’t know if I even care anymore. I have become so consumed these past thirty hours with the notion of death as an end to life that what comes after has escaped by mind, probably because I cannot bear to think too hard about it. Maybe my aunt and uncle’s abhorrent obnoxiousness was worse than the death of my parents itself. All the time I was with them all I wanted to do was distance myself from them and their society. That was the fatal error, detaching myself from civilisation. I want to blame them for it because I want someone to blame, but perhaps they weren’t so bad. Maybe I was the one to blame for being so secluded and perhaps my distaste for their ways is a subconscious effort to avert the blame for my condition away from myself. It is so much harder to live under a shell if you think you are the one who put it there. I think perhaps I am being too harsh towards them; maybe they just did the best job they could.
I don’t actually know where my ex-guardians are now. I haven’t spoken to them since I left home three months ago, though I imagine they’re wearing British-Legion-impersonating poppies and patriotically waving flags at demonstrations in Rotherham. I think actually I really don’t care. They brought me up as their own; they were never abusive but their uptight mannerisms and cryptic cruelty makes me very glad to be rid of them. They’re really not important now so I shall not think of them any more.
Back to my growing up though: My life was pretty miserable up until the age of sixteen. I had spent the previous 10 years being dragged to churches and tea parties, scraping half-decent grades on exams and studying arts as a desperate escape from reality but not for enjoyment. My life changed however in my first year of sixth-form; the bottle-neck of my shell was cracked and I knew true joy for the first time in forever. That was the year I met her. She was the one who raised me from the pit of my shell and gave me legs to walk upon. I owe her so much and yet we both know there are no debts between us.
I first encountered her on the opening day at my new school. I was at my loneliest at that point. I had never really had any hope for the future, but to see the sort-of-friend peers I had grown up with begin to progress into real life struck me hard. They were all planning for futures of prosperity, getting into relationships, experimenting with alcohol and I was stuck behind. If I had ever been truly suicidal in my life I would say it was at this point. I did consider it a few times, but the angel was always there, beside me when I stood on the edge of a bridge, behind me whilst I searched for drugs on the silk-road. He told me to stop; every single time the thoughts of a way out came to mind he was ready to stop me, and I always listened. The angel was a wise figure, not good, not bad, just there and yet he supported me and urged me to live on, constantly telling me that things would improve and I was not ready for death. It was the week before returning to school that I began to ignore his warnings and the basic animal instincts within me which tell me that death is bad. If it had not been for her, perhaps I would have killed myself. Things could have been so terribly different and these past two years which turned my life from something horrible to something magical would not have happened.
We collided in a busy hallway amongst a surging tide of year sevens. We mutually apologised, thinking nothing more of each other and moving off on our separate ways. However as the weeks progressed we shared a number of tiny, infinite moments, catching each other’s glances in lessons, exchanging quick smiles as we passed. For the first couple of days I barely noticed it; she was just another girl, an acquaintance not a friend. The shell had a narrow opening and I limited my social interaction to unhealthy medicinal dosages. I stuck to the corner of the small group I tagged along with and left my social life at that. But as time went by I became more and more intrigued, obsessed even, with her. That auburn brown hair, the delicate smile which would unashamedly grow into the most garish laugh I knew, those deep, soulful eyes. I took to drawing her as I found it was all I could focus on. She would never know, she was an essay student, she studied English, History and such! However, to my initial embarrassment, she wandered into the art rooms one lunch to find me painting her.
She snuck up behind me, I felt her breath on my back. I could not see her but I knew who it was. At that moment I felt so ashamed I wanted to freeze time and escape, or bury myself in the floor as a crab hides itself in the sand.
“It’s amazing,” she whispered. “I don’t usually like pictures of myself but, if it doesn’t sound cocky, I think you’ve done me justice!”
I remember I laughed nervously and she joined in. That’s what got us talking, a painting I did out of a creepy obsession. Though in retrospect I discovered she noted the many moments of infinity we had previously shared the same as I did. From that day forth she would come and sit with me in the art rooms whenever she could. I would draw and we would talk about the creative subjects. I opened up to her in a way I have never done to anyone else. Though she was not afraid to debate you could say nothing wrong in front of her, she found joy in everything and beauty in the smallest of niches. She would always have something artful or insightful to say to every point, with a stroke of innocent beauty, though I could see she thought too deeply for her apparent innocence to be naïveté. Whilst I would usually hate falsity and sugar coating, she made it work in a way that the facts were not ignored but were presented in a more pleasant light. She would read me some of the great novels she studied and introduce me to the great works of Mahler and Vivaldi. She had a passion for the beauty in art like no-one else and I think she saw something of that in me from the start. As I have mentioned before, art was a pastime for me with the purpose of escape. I could live within my shell and create the world outside in the colour I wanted it to be. Annabelle showed me that the world outside could really be that colour. If I looked hard enough and in the right places, I did not even have to blind myself to the horrible colours of my surroundings. It was important not to ignore the nastier colours but almost more important to know the nice ones were there, somewhere. Annabelle did not see the world through rose tinted spectacles, instead she saw it as a whole and was able to bring out its best parts whilst keeping them in their rightful context.
She focussed my world, allowed me to home in on things that were important, once lost to me in the vastness of the void. My scattered life came back together and my trapped soul escaped its shell. She showed me positivity in the darkest corners and made me feel alive in ways I could never have imagined. I learned that she had been as lonely as I, but trapped outside of a shell, feeling alone and excluded, a voice too quiet to hear unless you listened closely. But it was a voice which played the most beautiful of music. Through her my vague use of art became a passion, and one so deep it stretched all the way to my core.
We were complete arts nerds, fuelled by each other’s love of everything so useless to basic survival that it was about as human as you could get. Nothing defines human beings more than their pursuit of seemingly useless endeavours. Those two years of sixth-form raised the sinking wreck of my soul from the ocean and reignited a long-dead flame in my heart which wished for the world. I revelled in everything I had hated before because I had someone else to share it with. The void of vastness was supported from two sides now, making it more of a window. In those early days we would meet up in the evenings at each other’s houses or in the park under a sunset if the weather permitted. I would paint or draw and she would read or write. Sometimes we wouldn’t even talk but we shared air, presence and appreciation of existence and that is what counted to us. I felt valued to know another was there in the same room for the sole purpose of being in the same room as me. She felt the same. And so our friendship evolved; we had a few rough patches, mostly down to the bitterness that ten years in the shell had given me, but her optimistic outlook cleared that up quickly and easily.
I have never had so much respect for someone. Sometimes I wonder why she put up with me. My doubtlessly annoying cynicism would be hell to anyone else and formed a stark contrast to her optimistic realism. However she seemed to be complimented by the disparity. The opposites juxtaposed allowed us to talk from both sides of everything. I guess we were like pieces of a puzzle though, two parts distinctly different when separate but together making up the same picture. Or maybe she was like a pure crystal and I was the medium it sat in. The boundary between us was what was of interest and our contrasts amplified it to a thing of beauty. A clear crystal is boring at any point other than the edge… I don’t really care what it was that drew her to me, I can only be grateful that she was. I used to wake up some mornings fearing that she was a dream, that I would find her entire existence was no more than a sleep induced hallucination. It was always a relief to find her, feel her breath against my face and her heartbeat against my chest.
We would always enjoy playing the stranger game. I imagine to most people it would be a rather shitty date but there was nothing we loved doing more than snuggling up together on a park bench and creating stories about those who walked by. Maybe it was judgemental to talk about strangers, maybe it was interloping into lives we knew nothing about. It didn’t matter, the strangers never knew. I would try to create intricate pasts for each one we studied, I would create a character flaw for them and a difficulty within their life. If they were sad it was obvious, if they were happy they were hiding something, unsurprisingly a horrific past! Annabelle would counter each element I made with something hopeful for their future. We would have a good laugh, encounter some thought provoking complexities of their mock lives (which indeed related to real world issues) and leave each character feeling we’d learned something from them, even though we had created them. It was such a wonderful thing to do, share in creation and share in a fantasy. In truth our character creations were a sharing of ourselves and an exposure of our own souls, but through the medium of farcical fiction.
I remember one cold morning in March where we were sitting on a park bench in one of London’s green spaces. We were wrapped up warm together and snuggled so close we took up little more than one man’s space. On a bench further down the path a man sat alone, his head bowed in solemnity.
“He looks sad,” Annabelle whispered to me knowingly.
I nodded, recognising traits of my former self within his hunched shell.
“He’s seen things,” I said thoughtfully, “horrible things, things that he wants out of his mind but daren’t forget.”
Annabelle finished off. “But he’s strong and he’ll learn to live with them,” she said defiantly, “just like you!”
I smiled. “He’ll find a special friend, or someone he can relate to. Maybe a relative he thought was lost will come back to him and he’ll be given a chance to be reborn again.”
“He’ll finally get to be happy again.”
I nodded. “I hope he can find his Annabelle, I hope she can do for him what she did for me.”
I gave her a light kiss on the lips in adoration; I think that was our first.
Over the two years we grew closer, to the point where those evenings of artistic silence exchanged as much between us as a good conversation would. She took to writing poetry as I furthered my painting, we learned to read each other’s works as one might imagine a mind could be read. The connection was strong. We both pulled each other through the sixth form and exited the other side with grades good enough to progress to university. We were at the same college but on different courses, she was studying English literature and I was studying fine art. I used the large pot of savings left behind by my parents to buy ourselves an apartment, so whilst we were apart for much of the day our lives revolved around a shared space. The flat in question was a top story duplex in the Trellick Tower, not really a great building for looks but one that is tall enough to offer some of the highest residential views in London. It was perfect for us. We were amongst the cultured expanse of the city that we loved but had a private space together quite literally above it all. The first few weeks of our courses were running well; we would each have new and exciting things to discuss concerning our arts each evening. It was not the outgoing, partying student life most wanted, but for us it was perfect. That was my life up until yesterday morning, all had been an upward curve until then, until I went wrong and one thing led to another.
I guess what set the events of these past couple of days in motion was the mistake, my mistake. It’s curious how such small things can lead to life changing consequences. I believe they call it the butterfly effect: where someone misses the bus and are late to work and hence are not caught up in the 9/11 catastrophe, where a jolt from an obnoxious year seven brings two people together, where an angel stealing bikes to offer a second chance prolongs a life. For better or worse what a curiously unpredictable world we live in.
Yesterday morning I was desperately trying to finish some analysis of an artist’s work for today’s review. I was finding it very difficult and the question of how useful it really was crept into my mind. Unfortunately that creeping creature unnerved me and I began to query how useful my degree was and if art would really get me anywhere in life, or at least to a level I was happy to be at. There were so many other people in my field who could excel far and beyond my measure, leaving me behind, insignificant in the dirt. If I couldn’t even do this stupid piece of analysis how could I hope to make anything of myself in this world? In contrast to my frivolous worries Annabelle was speaking excitedly about the new people she had met on her course.
“There’s this one girl in my class who has written a book you know. Only eighteen and published, that’s really quite something isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said, not really listening.
“I wonder if I will write anything worthwhile one day. I wonder if I will ever be published. Do you think I could write a book?”
“Then there’s Harriet, she comes up with the most amazing imagery in every day conversation you know. She was talking about her ex and described him as someone who monopolises the confidence in the room; like when you’re in his presence you physically feel your confidence drop and see his gain. You can really relate to that image can’t you? You can just picture that feeling as your heart sinks when he challenges something you say?”
“Yeah, it’s a great image.” I would usually be totally into a conversation about this. I may not be one to devote my life to studying literature but I loved talking words and wordplay with Annabelle, I could really share in her deep passion for the subject. But yesterday was not my day and my early ‘mid-life-crisis’ distracted mind was what put me at fault. I did not properly register what she was talking about. The frustration of the essay bled into fast-made assumptions and poor analysis of Annabelle’s words.
“They’re all amazing,” she said. “Everyone on the course is just so excited by it all; apart from you I’ve never been able to have an extended conversation about Gatsby or Don Pedro. This course is just so… perfect!”
“Good to hear.”
“Oh and have I told you about Alex? Alex is simply amazing, really not afraid to share opinions, not at all. We get some really interesting stuff from that brain. I’ve never seen anyone view characters in such an understanding way. Like they are real people who exist beyond the pages of the book, though I guess if you bring them alive in your mind they can go further… Alex said that to me; what do you think about that? The idea of things existing in your mind? How real is an imagined person? Are they even a thing? A thought is a ‘thing’ isn’t it?”
“Alex?” I said a little too angrily. “Who the hell is this’ Alex?’ Why’s he so interesting to you all of a sudden? What do you really like about him!”
I had gone so wrong. To suggest infidelity, even as subtly as this, was disgusting. She had made no comment that really suggested anything more than friendship. Besides the fact I had known her extremely well for the past two years, I knew there should be no issues, I knew the strength of the bond between us. I felt sick inside the moment I made that mild accusation.
Annabelle paused her excited description of her new friends. She sighed. “Gabriel, you truly are the centre of my life and I am very glad of it; that is how I want it to be, that is how I always want it to be. But there are other people in the world too, I can interact with others! I don’t do it often, as you know my introvert nature often prohibits it. Please don’t even hint at suggesting I am something that I am not, you know me far too well for that! …anyway, Alex is a girl.”
Annabelle left the room and slammed the door as loudly as her polite manners would allow. I was shocked, but not by her, by myself. I felt awful. The accusations I had made (as cryptically mild as they were) were totally unjust and without reason. Who was I to challenge infidelity? What did that say about me? I knew there was no issue between us, I knew she would not cheat on me for anyone. She told me every day that she loved me, casually but with the underlying sincerity of the truth. I was looking for issues where there were none. I was at fault and I felt terrible.
As usual we cycled to the college together, following closely in each other’s tracks, but on that morning it was out of habit rather than the usual companionship. It was not to last but I had put a scratch upon our almost faultless relationship. I moved through the day as usual, a recluse working in the corner of the art room. I chatted to a few of my peers but most of them were the outgoing art types. There are only a few of us on the course who prefer quieter company, and that has thus far inhibited much interaction. I had grown to like them, spoke with them a few times a day and ate lunch with them sometimes, but we were not at friendship levels yet. Half the conversations we had were vaguely art related and of interest to me. The other half were gossip which, whilst not entirely boring, is just so endless that its vast emptiness bored me. By its very nature gossip has no conclusion, which is what separates it from news. Despite the fact that I do enjoy the very human nature of gossip (as it serves no direct purpose to survival) there is only so much of the same conversation that one can endure. We always seem to end up discussing the coupling of two of the other students and every conversation about them follows a predefined route as if it is filler talk when there is nothing better to talk about… like when TV channels repeat old programmes because there is nothing new.
Anyway, to the conclusion of that day, I returned as usual to the bike rack where I silently met up with Annabelle. We left out any usual verbal greeting, I didn’t look at her so I’m not sure if there was any expression of greeting. I suspect there was none shown externally. I found that in my morning frustration I must have forgotten to lock up the bikes properly. As is typical in London anything left insecure in a public place gets nicked. I swore loudly and uttered an exasperated sigh of disbelief. I hailed us a cab to get us home. We sat in silence. I think we were both afraid that the other was angry, when in fact all we individually wanted to do was kiss and make up and forget the morning. I found that out from Annabelle later; in some ways it made me feel even worse as I could have made it up to her sooner.
Once home we separated, I went to relax in the main bedroom and Annabelle hid herself away in the spare one which acts as a study room for us both. I stood at the window and stared sadly down at the street. The row of that morning had been the first major unsettlement I had felt in our relationship and the way I had induced it worried me. Perhaps it was only a side effect of some minor student stress, perhaps I was not truly at fault. My eyes fell upon a cyclist in bright cyan spandex and I followed him down the road as he approached the building. Our routines usually intersected with his and and Annabelle and I would frequently find ourselves riding behind him on the way home from university. I had never spoken to him though, or shown any sign of acknowledgement. He was only ever the cyclist in cyan spandex; that’s all he will ever be to me, a stranger in the background radiation of humanity. Suddenly, just before he reached the building, a truck sped out of a side-street, colliding with the oncoming traffic. A car flipped and scattered glass across the road, the cyan spandex cyclist was lost in the collision. There was no way he could have survived. I shuddered. On any other day we would have been right behind him. Were our bikes not stolen we would have met the same fate. I felt a ghostly presence behind me; he was here, he is always there when there is death.
“He’s dead then?” I asked nervously without looking round.
“He will be soon,” the angel said sadly. “Then I shall be able to end his suffering.”
“That could have been us too,” I said.
“And it should have been.”
I bristled with fear - what had the angel just said? I turned to face him. He was gaunt as ever, his hollow, eyeless face as worn and weary as before. The face of the spandex cyclist had appeared in one of the shards of glass of his wings along with five others, including my own… and Annabelle’s… I looked up at his face in fear, “What! What does that mean!!”
“You should have died today, the bikes were locked perfectly fine this morning,” the angel said smoothly. “I have intervened.”
My eyes widened, “What does this mean?”
“You have been through so much, you finally had things going well, I could not allow you and Annabelle to leave this world with a schism between you. Your implied accusation was not a note I wanted to leave you on. You have tomorrow to fix things, undo the mistrust and fulfil your life. After that I cannot keep the door closed any longer.”
I stared at him in stupefied horror. “So… I… we… have only one day left? Then, then we die!?”
“I’m sorry to say that is correct, you and Annabelle have one full day remaining, that is the most I can do for you. Use the time well.”
With that the angel disappeared. I collapsed to my knees and pressed my face into my bed. I wept, as silently as I could. Annabelle was in the next room, I did not want her to hear. How could this happen? So suddenly, without warning… but this was a warning, this was something no-one else had the privilege of. My unusual relationship with death had granted me special treatment.
Special treatment meant that I knew it was coming, special treatment meant that in spite of all possible efforts both Annabelle and I would face an end the day after tomorrow. I flopped back onto the floor and cried like a baby, bawling without comfort, wailing without purpose. There was nothing I could do. I screwed myself up into a little ball and screamed in emotional angst. It had all been so wonderful, so perfect, so… why did it have to be now? A little over two years ago I might even have welcomed an approaching death, or at least met it prepared. How could I prepare for this? My life was just beginning, true I had panicked earlier in the day about how exactly my arts degree might pan out, but even so… I was meant to have a lifetime with Annabelle, we were meant to travel the cultural world together and see all its amazing sights, settle down somewhere where we could paint and write, maybe have kids, grow old together, look back on a long fulfilling life together, meet our grandchildren. A million possibilities were crushed in the definitive term ‘death’ and a thousand doors to a thousand futures were slammed in an instant. There were so many things that we would not do together and so many experiences which would not be ours. Then there were the horrible connotations of what death would mean for her and me, our souls, our consciousnesses; also, what form would our deaths take? The angel knew for certain that there was no escape so whatever precautions we took and whatever we avoided something else would find us.
My head hurt from the tears and the fears. Why had the angel told me? Dreadful anticipation was possibly the worst part of the torment of death. I had been so free of it until this afternoon, my parents had been flat memories on the inside of my skull, the fact that they had ‘died’ seemed distant and irrelevant. Indeed all death had seemed so distant, that is how it should be for eighteen year olds. At this young age we should be on the brink of a new dawn of independence, not the dusk of existence.
I knew why the angel had told me though, he had said it himself. I needed to make things right with Annabelle, somehow I needed to ‘complete’ my life with her. That made the pressure worse. If I could not create a fulfilling end within a day then it would be my fault. I shook my head, what was I supposed to do? She might even have been angry at me still from my rash comments this morning. I sat myself up and tried to force myself to think straight. Eventually the disturbed dusts of my mind began to settle and I saw more clearly what I had to do. The angel had somehow postponed death to give us an extra day together to reconcile the problems I had awoken this morning and to fulfil anything between us that was unanswered. Dreams of travelling the world, having kids, sitting surrounded by our own grandchildren flashed before my eyes. It was not possible. Only one thought was clear. Do not tell Annabelle. Do not tell Annabelle. I would not put her through the torture of anticipation, but I would ensure that my enduring was for the best and my precognition would be used to make the best of our final day together.
I went to bed uneasy that night, my mind plagued with the same mental hurricanes as earlier. I knew before I slept that bad dreams would ensue and that this torment was far from over. I didn’t speak much with Annabelle that evening; we ate together as usual and had some small unusually dry conversation; I can’t remember the subject. My mood could not sustain anything of any length or depth, not with that one persistent thought of imminent termination in the way. After that we watched some mindless television before eventually turning in. Annabelle did not notice my pain. I think I did well.