Norman doesn’t like sharing. He is begrudgingly sharing this with you now, albeit in the past, anonymously and once removed. If you want to stop reading he wouldn’t care, he’s not too bothered about sharing with you or anyone else. He probably wouldn’t like you anyway. That’s not to say that he wouldn’t have an opinion of you, no matter what your breed, race, creed or sexual deviation from the norm you might be. He is not biased in any way really; Norman has equal contempt for everyone. Including you. He is not prejudiced any more than anyone else is and, like all humans, Norman has a sense of self-preservation which makes him suspicious and un-trusting, at least to begin with. So Norman doesn’t willingly share unless he knows you. But that’s not going to happen now, of course.
If he felt the need to impart something to you it would not be for altruistic reasons, you understand. It is probably his vanity. He is always taking care of his nearest and dearest. Himself. Perhaps you should know a little more of Norman before continuing. After all, you should have context in which to make sense of what he says before you judge him.
Norman stands 5’8” in his casual sports attire with aspirational branding. He enjoys golf. He has done very well for himself, retiring at fifty having ceaselessly worked as a financial manager in the City. He was never a handsome man, but he had wealth and that counts for much when selecting a partner. He invested wisely, because he now has a huge pension. It’s because of this pension that Norman needs to go on his favourite kind of holiday, twice a year: a cruise with his partner, Janet.
You would have thought that Norman was a happy man, with all this money and time. But of course, he isn’t. There is and always has been something missing, but he couldn’t quite decide what that was. So he had spent his wealth on things that might solve the problem. Holidays abroad, house extensions, fine wine, investments, a second home in Devon. Finally, he had a half-a-dozen oaks cut down in his garden to let in more light. There might have been a subtle clue there for Norman, but he was blind to subtleties, despite the added light. He dealt in facts and proof, but the remaining oaks seemed to make him even more unsettled. Instead he buried himself in routine and so of late has become a man of habit, getting into his BMW X5 sport (2019 model) every morning to collect the paper (The Times). He could walk, of course, but the car needs a run. Instead, what he does sometimes, is leave the car somewhere different, and walk home from the parking spot, returning the following day to collect it. He feels that this is fairly clever thinking. Which is proof that you don’t need to be that clever to make a lot of money.
Secretly, Norman sees life as a terrifyingly random, meaningless series of events. Age might be nothing but a number, but it nevertheless marks the starkly inevitable process of decay. The routine passing of each day began to alarm Norman. The people around him accepted their pleasant existence in a very matter-of-fact way, as though it was the only reality there was and their lives were normal. Strictly speaking, normal had come under a lot of criticism of late. There was no normal, only different and this irritated Norman. The bell-curve distribution of the scientist was conveniently discarded for this acceptance of all things diverse, which Norman saw as ironic, as science and technology had become such a trusted part of everyone’s life. Neither could save Janet unfortunately. She succumbed to the virus very early on. They had just returned from a brief Pacific cruise, ending rather fatefully, in Singapore.
Because he was now alone in a huge house, Norman had turned to social media where everyone seemed to mark their existence by the Emoji, the Like and the rant, but he soon got into the swing of the beginnings of the New Normal. As time passed ever more quickly, Norman hid in the time-thieving world of social media. It was a salve to his mortality, despite its immediacy and demands on one’s time. Nevertheless, time marched on. Tik-tok. “How much time have you spent sharing on your device during the virus lockdown daddy? We’ve heard hardly anything from you.” His daughters, Zoe and Zena had introduced him to all this, but three messages a day is considered hardly communicating. His daughters’ lives revolved around their smartphones and Norman was a little dubious about accepting the Samsung device posted to him. Best call it a device, because it’s not a portable telephone. In fact, there is no word for it other than device, because that keeps it neutral, uncontroversial, calming. Your device is your friend and absolutely essential in these days of lock-down. The news has gone viral. Finally: we have something that has gone viral that is actually important. A virus. The irony. Norman loves that sort of thing. He’s a miserable git really. He misses Janet.
Norman didn’t like the smartphone and that the data collectors were filling their boots in an unprecedented information bonanza. Previously he had what his acquaintances called a brick. Another irony. It was a quarter of the size of the black mirrors that his daughters stared into. Mind you, not many people called Norman anyway, which suited him just fine. Back in his heyday, he had used an actual brick-sized analogue cell-phone. Now that was a brick. The kind of phone you could kill a burglar with. He didn’t let Zoe and Zena know, but he hung on to his old ‘phone, just in case.
Change was happening too quickly for Norman. His solitude, his rude introduction to Facebook, the dragon-virus from the East and the exit of his significant other from this mortal realm. He had always told his colleagues and vanquished competitors (these were often synonymous) that everything changes but change, yet Norman was stunned by the speed of these changes. And despite having everything except Janet, he still knew that he lacked something important. So his walks back to his home each day were now an opportunity to reflect, something that quite frankly, he had rarely done before, as proper reflection needs time and he had always been in such a hurry. Perhaps he was maturing with age. Reflecting was good and Norman was wrestling to keep his head focused on one reflective task when he had an epiphany.
It happened as he was passing the graveyard of St Mary’s. It was a bright spring morning and he skipped breakfast for the fourth time before his habitual walk at about 6am (to miss other walkers), having left the Bimmer outside a large ex-farmhouse with conservatory. The candles on the horse chestnut were in full turgor and the birds were twittering delightful airs. The air smelt good. Norman strode purposefully along the lane but stopped in his tracks. He almost wept.
The angel was standing in the graveyard. It was brighter than the morning and seemed to shimmer. It was beautiful, even to the pouched and jaded eyes of Norman. Its beauty transcended the word. The angel stood below a yew tree. Norman stared. The angel stared back. It could have been a statue but for the slight movements in its pose. Norman knew it was real: he felt it. It knew him and was so calm and benign that Norman had no response to give as instantly, everything he was, was as nothing.
A small dog yapped in the woods behind the graveyard and the spell was broken. Norman was distracted and in a blink of a tear, the angel was no longer there. Norman cursed the dog and after searching for the angel he falteringly continued his walk, bitter that such a stupid thing as someone’s retirement pet could deprive him of such beauty. Hate welled up in him. All the dog-walker saw from his two-yard distancing, was a quickly-walking man wringing his hands and talking angrily to himself. He said good morning anyway and was reminded that social distancing was not such a bad thing after all.
Since the 26th of February, Norman had adhered to a diet. This had nothing to do with weight-loss. It stemmed from a conversation that he had had with his friend Abu Kabir about Ramadan. Abu took his fasting very seriously and ate nothing in daylight. When he did eat, it was simple fare. He told Norman that it gave his life perspective and allowed him to truly enjoy the gifts of Allah and particularly the meaning of food. This had impressed Norman and now, since the beginning of Lent and through the 20th of March lockdown, he was trying the same.
The next morning, a little earlier than the previous day, Norman went for his walk which passed the graveyard. He had to see the angel again: he had not slept well and decided what he would do if he saw it again. He took a camera. On his perambulations he had occasionally paused at the graveyard, staring over the wall at all the gravestones and pondering, as many did. With some, sardonic gratification, he admired the equality. He spent ten minutes surveying the church yard and as he scanned the gravestones his vigilance was eventually rewarded, as out of the corner of his eye the angel had returned. This time there was no shock, no jolt; he gradually noticed it standing there, appearing almost as a magic eye picture. This time it was in front of a horse-chestnut, but was definitely standing on the ground, not floating like in pictures. His heart leapt. The angel seemed to fade if he looked straight at it, so he held his breath and watched indirectly, slightly averting his gaze, almost as if he were not worthy to look upon the divine. A great wash of comfort and joy came over Norman and again, he was moved to tears, only this time the tears started to come from somewhere below his lungs in huge, convulsive gasps, like a little child. The angel’s face had an expression akin to the Mona Lisa, at least that is what Norman thought afterwards. The image of the angel swam in his tears and was once again gone, but Norman stayed there weeping. The dog-walker took a different route today.
The third visit to the churchyard was unrewarded. Norman stood there for nearly an hour. In the end he walked into the cemetery and looked at the two different trees where the angel had appeared. It was almost as though he had lost something and continued to return to the same place in the hope that your keys or wallet might re-appear, which of course, they never did. They were usually under the sofa. He felt a sense of great disappointment. The kind of disappointment that he a felt as a small boy when his father had forgotten to visit him at school. He felt dejected and the feeling began to build on his way back to his tangible monument to his success, the shiny BMW. The dejection had become bitter by the time that he returned to his house. The huge property loomed over him with its enormous gable end windows and its quadruple timber-framed garage. All very modern, all impressive, all meaningless. Or so it now struck Norman. Disconsolate, he strode in and slammed the solid oak door. Why was he crying again?
Over the next few days, Norman stayed in, as directed by the Government. He had more-or-less ignored the advice up until then, saying that it was all a load of rubbish and he will damn-well make up his own mind and do what he wishes to do. Social distancing? Pah! Face mask? Not for me! But this time, he just didn’t want to go out. The angel had shaken him without saying a word, or doing anything. He looked out at his garden as it started to rain. The missing trees were still there in ghost form, the gaps left in the remaining trees were tree-shaped and he started to wonder whether his actions had been just. He had had the trees cut down because they were old, twisted and took away all the light. Norman noticed his reflection in the window as he though this.
Norman was covertly religious. Covertly because a popularly-held belief of his age is that effectively, science has disproved religion and anyway, the current trend was towards multicultural secularism. Everyone can get along just fine without a god, economically at least. Man had invented God and now had no need of Him. Janet, his partner had been religious, but in a New Age sort of way, with scented candles, sacred stones and a bit of tree-hugging. She had believed that religion is innate in humans. She saw all her humanist friends as deluded and sad, but she never told them so, much as a bullied child eagerly agrees with the other children in order to conform and be safe. Janet saw religion as a need proven over countless millennia. “You go against this need at your peril” she would say. “It is there to be questioned perhaps, but not discarded as so many progressive liberal-minded folk have done”. Janet was a good person, looking for deeper meaning and probably had some idea of what that was by now.
Despite Norman’s apparent curmudgeonliness, thanks to Janet, he had surprisingly profound views on a variety of philosophical themes and this is what had enamoured him to what Abu had said. Janet had been his guide in many ways. Perhaps that is what attracted him to her. He had a need for a guiding partner, his first wife was as shallow as a puddle. He referred to her in Latin as Vadum Conlectus. You can Google it, if you wish, but Daniella his wife never thought of doing so, she just assumed that it was a posh name of endearment. His attraction to her was solely physical and for status. Most of his colleagues agreed: she had a great figure. Impressed by the length of her legs though everyone was, an intellectual giant she was not and fairly soon after their seventh wedding anniversary, Norman got a divorce and started seeing Janet. Not necessarily in that order. He was not sorry to see her, or Poppy her yappy Pekinese, depart the house, even with the sizeable amount of his cash she took with her. One thing that Daniella did, apart from giving him two daughters, was cure him of ever wanting dogs again. An un-remunerative outlay of capital if ever there was one.
Janet and Norman never got married but they had been well-matched partners for thirty-two years. Because of Janet, Norman now had some views on life, other than his previous glib aphorisms about it. Janet had believed that the planet is an organism but one so complex and beautiful that no one component of that organism can comprehend it. To start looking for a God particle (Norman was reading a book about it at the time) is no different from looking for the perfect scone recipe. It might make you feel better if you find it, but it will not allow you to understand God. This is because, according to Janet, God is not a thing, God is all there is. From a human’s tiny and insignificant viewpoint, God is in all things on the planet and has the power to be both angry and destructive and loving and benign all at the same time. Shit happens is possibly the best way to comprehend the state of affairs. Norman hid these interests incredibly well from the boys at the Probus and golf clubs.
It was with some determination that Norman marched out of the house sans BMW and headed for St Mary’s, which was about a mile away. His fitness had improved since the lockdown and a couple of miles’ walk would be completed with ease. It was only a month or so ago that he wouldn’t think twice about taking the BMW to the local shops, less than a mile away, for the most minor of reasons. He reached the church in fifteen minutes and seemed almost to demand an audience with the angel. It wasn’t there, so he sat on the wooden bench by the church and enjoyed the morning sun. There was a nightingale in the ash tree by the church, singing joyfully. The ash was looking a bit threadbare for the time of year, but it meant that Norman could see this tiny broadcaster of life. A robin fluttered into view and cocked an eye at him. Norman didn’t move, but quietly greeted the small bird. Looking up from the robin, he saw the angel standing nearby, under the ash. Norman kept calm and readied himself for his plan. He had bought his small camera again and slowly pointed it from his knees at the angel. He depressed the button a few times at different angles, then put the camera down. Part two of the plan: ask the question.
“Are you an angel?”
“Have you come here to see me?”
No reply. In fact the angel remained just an apparition, with no physical manifestation but its image. They continued exchanging gazes. Norman was surprised to find that this time he could look straight at the angel and it appeared extremely clear. Light seemed to emanate from its face, but not in a theatrical way. Before it faded, it spoke. “Choose your next question more wisely”. Norman was left in a state of rapture. He sat on the bench for a further hour before returning home.
Choose your next question more wisely. What did that mean? He pondered this as he looked at the picture of an angel-free graveyard taken with his camera. He thought about it for quite some time. In fact, it was dark by the time he realised that he was hungry and that he had been sitting in his easy chair for nearly five hours. Janet would have called it meditation. She used to do it every day for an hour or so. She claimed that it helped to empty her mind, but Norman was quite doubtful of this as it is impossible to empty one’s mind. The words spoken by the angel tumbled in his head, like numbers in a drum at his mother’s bingo nights. Wisely. To be wise. What is that? Wisdom. Janet said that as you give away health, you gain wisdom. Why can’t you be wise and healthy? Healthy, wealthy and wise. He knew that he had two of these.
The next encounter with the angel was on the following Friday. It was a grey and cold morning, the first flush of spring having flown. It was not the kind of morning you would expect to see an angel, especially as there was a gentle wind, hushing the leaves. The angel appeared far more real this time. More defined somehow, more matter-of-fact. It stood, as Norman stood, near the front of the graveyard by a hawthorn, where all the older, more interesting graves were. It was almost a confrontation in that the angel was quite close and facing him. Norman’s question burst forth. He blurted it almost:
“Is, is Janet with you?”
The angel seemed to ever-so-slightly wince. Perhaps not the wise question it was expecting. It had seemed to Norman that he had spent as much time over crafting it as the NASA plaque team did choosing images for the Pioneer probe. So much more was implied in the simple question. The angel spoke.
“I’m afraid not. She was too… she had yet to develop sufficiently to be able to do that. I’m sorry to say that some people are just too stupid to get to the higher plane”.
Norman was enchanted by the voice, it was soft and sonorous, just as one would expect an angel to sound like. The voice was the medium but the message was a little harsher. He was stunned into unbecoming unfamiliarity. “You can’t say that! That’s not very angelic language”.
“I speak in whatever language I need to, to communicate with the earth-bound. It could be any language or dialect. As you seem little more than a shaved monkey, I have adjusted to your normal parlance. If you don’t like it then I’m afraid I am merely a linguistic mirror. Angels don’t have a political life, correct or otherwise”.
Norman started to feel anger: anger that someone was being rude to him. Stupid? Who is this person to say?
“I am an angel and I can say. I am unaffected by human resource training in what language to use”.
The angel was even aware of Norman’s HR training! In the normal course of events, he would retaliate with all sorts of unpleasantness, sometimes even fists. It had been a long time since someone had done this and it seemed to Norman that all that façade, that material fence and all that pretension to wealth came crumbling down. Although “stupid” might have disappeared from current language, so had “humble” and Norman wasn’t a humble man.
“I am certainly much more than a monkey”.
“Yes, I have developed so much since I was twenty”.
“Because that’s when I was aware of being aware. I knew who I was and what I wanted to be”.
“Ah me”, said the angel.
“I give money to charity. I go to church, I…”.
“Can I stop you there? I know all about you. I am an angel, it is my job to know. In your own idiom, you are a git. You go to church in your shiny German car trying to squeeze yourself through the eye of a needle. You casually invest in other people’s hard work and misery. Well it won’t rub. God’s not that easily fobbed off”. Norman was dumbfounded.
After a while he realised that rain had started to blow against his face. He ached and needed to sit down. He looked at his watch and noted that he had been standing there for two hours, the angel long gone. How could he have stood for so long? Was he going mad? He ambled home, dazed. The morning dog-walkers long since gone.
Norman continued his daily walks and each one got a little earlier, as the dawn did. The angel was on his mind a lot, it was almost as though it was always with him: in the kitchen, in the toilet and in bed. It escorted him on his walks. Perhaps it is my guardian angel, he supposed before turning towards the cricket green. A couple hove into view with his ’n’ hers dogs. The first was a Pomeranian-pug aberration, which gave an angry staccato yip. Its beady little eyes informing its tiny brain that making an irritating noise is the most gratifying thing it could do. It knew that nobody could harm it because the owner would always defend it. The owner spent more on its food in a week that a Syrian family spends in a month. The impotent bitter rage the dog had, was focused into its bark. That is all it has. Its colleague, an aged and rotting Labrador, that dullest clone of dogs, plugged its wet nose up Norman’s crotch and snuffled nonchalantly as the Pomerpug yipped on.
“Only being friendly”, said the jovial owner. “Get down Ben”.
Norman deployed his Glock 17 automatic pistol which up until then had been well concealed at the back of his belt. The owner stood horrified as Norman deftly despatched both animals with ruthless efficiency, one round in each head. Norman’s imagination had been wasted on investment fund management. What he actually did was benignly rub the dribbling mutt’s head before walking on with an understanding smile, to all the happy dog-lover. The older dog caught Normans’ look with his own rheumy cataracted eye and joined in the deafening barking, knowing Norman’s true intentions.
He walked past the cricket green and headed towards the graveyard. He turned into Church Street and at the cemetery his hopeful gaze was returned by the angel. “Hello” said Norman. He was much more at ease with this situation now, which is part of the human condition. Familiarity breeds familiarity and perhaps contempt would follow. The angel suggested that Norman love not only the dogs, but the owners too. Norman doubted that he could do either as the dogs were made that way by the owners.
“In the same way God has been made by humans” said the angel, completing Norman’s thoughts.
“That doesn’t sound very much like opinion of God’s messenger”.
“God exists outside human ken, but humans have set God up as to what they truly wish to be: it’s easier that way- work in eternal progress. They can never achieve what they aspire to be, only aspire to it. The dogs are a more realistic project. They are merely what humans actually achieve and of course a reflection of that owner in all its bitterness or beneficence”.
The angel was standing next to a gravestone in the middle of a leafy part of the graveyard, near a holly tree and Norman drew near in the faith that he might learn more.
“You are mortal”, said the angel. “You are called a mortal and like all words humans contrive to describe things, it is at best a metaphor, at worst a euphemism”.
Norman looked down at the gravestone which separated them. It had been a week since his last meeting with the angel. He had not noticed the gravestone before. On it someone had added a small wooden plaque upon which was written:
John is dead
He’s not resting in his bed.
He has not passed, away or on
Not asleep, nor at rest is John
So let it just be said
That John is simply dead.
The angel looked to the tombstone too before continuing. “It was the Romans who named you such: mortal: doomed to die. This life is not your destiny, death is. Anything you do in this life is merely your spiritual quickening, part of the path to your death. I cannot say what that destiny is, because that would be a bit of a spoiler, wouldn’t it?”
A flippant angel, Norman thought. But maybe you have to be flippant in order to recognise flippancy. As if reading his vaguely self-aware thought, the angel continued.
“You will die, Norman, of that there is no doubt. You are only here for four-score years and ten. Three-score if you smoke. But what about eternal life? The life hereafter? All that stuff about being good in this life in order to be rewarded in the next? Can you think of a better way of keeping peasants in order? Work hard now for your brief, miserable life and things will be much better when you are dead- and look, here are some pictures on the wall as proof!”
“But what about our bible reading this very week on the vicar’s podcast: Verily, I say unto thee, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life?” Norman was secretly proud of the fact that he could remember quotes from the Bible and Shakespeare. It made him sound educated.
“Ah yes, saint John. He’s dead too you know. It’s all so up for interpretation isn’t it? A bit arcane, and all those thees and thous. The seventeenth century was such a wonderful time for the English language. It always sounds so much better, more poetic, when said in such terms. That was one translation for the masses that really worked. That New International version is so demotic, so dull and impotent. You don’t like all that, do you Norman? All that egalitarian crap: level playing fields, equality, equity even. I am an angel and I know my place as do you and that’s why you voted for the Eaton Mess.”
Norman thought that quite witty, for an angel.
“There are a lot of pre-conceptions about angels”, said the angel, “we’re not the only ones discriminated against. I don’t float around in the clouds you know, I am as earth-bound as you are. How could it be otherwise? Angels are for guidance, not blind following. I have joined the choir invisible to become a guide to humanity, specifically: you. I am your guardian angel and I know you well. But let’s cut to the chase”, said the angel, “why am I here?” Norman was not now entirely sure that he wanted to know.
Norman’s father had been a small business owner in Doncaster. He had worked very hard but had never done particularly well. Norman was proud of his name- man of the north. He had invaded the south and done so well for himself, much better than he had ever dreamed, that now, he had become the things he owned: big house, big car, big bank account. Perhaps what Norman had not become was aware of his situation. Lots of zeroes in a bank account cannot be eaten. They could disappear as quickly as they arrived, and in Norman’s case, as easily too.
The angel spoke up. ”It’s right and meet that you think of your father. Did he not used to say that he got an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work? He was right. We are paid for what we do, good or bad. There are signs presented to you in life, to all of you, signs in the path of life to guide and inform. But the signs have been ignored, through negligence, through weakness, through your own deliberate fault. Only now are you truly sorry for what used to be called sins”.
“But I haven’t hurt anyone. I haven’t broken the law. I have only done what was best at the time in the situation. I haven’t been shown any signs; I didn’t know.” Norman knew that he had sinned.
“How many signs do you need?” said the angel. “Raging fires, deluges and floods, drought and now plague. And you still talk about getting the travel industry back to its pre-pandemic level? Your builders are still destroying your environment in the name of economics. You are still arrogantly exploiting. You can’t eat cash. Humanity races toward the future like a tripped sprinter, trying to regain balance but never managing it while in a state of permanent tumble. No control, no aim and no way of stopping. In the end, plague was the only way the earth could speak back. It will do so until all those little blinking lights, all those frivolous products, all that consumerism and waste is brought to a halt. No more Range Rovers. No more mini-breaks to a city not unlike the one you just left. No more trip-of-a-lifetime cruises, twice a year. No more weekly luxury food. No more anything. The planet will be here, but you won’t. Only a Thundbergian change in human development will assuage the planet and evidently, nobody wants that. Not really. Life is too comfy. You would all be wise to come out of this covidious situation humbler, more penitent and certainly less arrogant”.
“But how can God allow this?” gasped Norman. “It’s His fault! God allowed it to happen!” he blurted, before tempering it with “Surely?”
“Don’t blame God”, said the angel, “that is for cowards, as your father would have said. You have the ability to build or destroy. You choose. And for many decades as a race you have known that what you have been doing is wrong and is bound to end in disaster. You know this individually, but as a race, you do nothing. It is almost as if you have been waiting for someone to stop you. Sins are sins for a reason. A sin causes bad things. Sometimes it is hard to do the right thing, but if enough people choose to do the right thing then good things result. You are flawed but you are also blessed”. At that final word, the angel faded into the shrubbery and left Norman to his thoughts.
Despite the family’s northern roots, Norman’s daughters, Zena and Zoe had forsaken the open, honest exchange of northern English friendliness in favour of cynical southern competitiveness. It was not surprising really. Their mother was a vacuous and profligate woman and Norman had not helped. During their formative years, he had relentlessly pushed them through private school, pony club, gap year and then University. They had been cossetted and had a fairly skewed vision of the world compared to their forebears. Norman was unremitting in his drive for wealth and his brutal ruthlessness was channelled into his unfaltering campaign to acquire status. He had made both his daughters singularly selfish in their climb to the top. He had often repeated to them: no excuses, no apologies, no regrets. It made him feel strong and decisive, but both daughters could see through this.
They had both done well in their marriages. Zoe had married Mike, a venture capitalist and Zena had married Steve, who was something in international recruitment. Both were clever men and not unlike Norman, save for the façade. The husbands were products of the post-Thatcher age: greedy, arrogant, self-important. The secret of both daughters’ success was that they spent as much time and money doing what they wanted to do as possible. It was practically a religion for them. Kitchens and bathrooms were regularly replaced, cars too. The skip outside Zoe’s house contained more wealth than the entire contents of most people’s houses. The lives of all four young people were entirely unsupportable.
“What do you think about daddy then? He doesn’t seem himself. Sad face sad face.” Zena texted Zoe on Whatsapp to see how she felt about it. Zoe responded unusually tardily: “Hi Sis. Do you think he misses Janet? Query face.” “Do you think he has another woman? Query face.” Zena was quite perturbed, so felt the need to actually speak with her sister.
“Hi Zo, howayou? Good, good. Has daddy been in touch?”
Both women talked loudly through their respective tracts of countryside while they marched their respective dogs along leafy lanes. They both agreed that Norman was acting out of character but what with the lockdown, what could they do?
“I’ll give him a call this evening”, offered Zoe, posing the statement as a question.
“Thanks Sis, ask him if he needs anything. Love you, love you… bye; bye…bye.
Both women felt that their daughterly duty had been done and got on with their surprisingly busy lives.
The next morning was another early one for Norman. He left his BMW at home and walked briskly towards the church, drawing in the good air and yet still feeling full of regret about what the angel had said. It wasn’t quite self-loathing yet, but what Norman felt was akin to some sort of… yes, remorse. It wasn’t really his fault that the world was coughing up arterial blood. ”And hey”, he said to himself, recalling a song “I’m not so blind that I can’t see where we’re all going. It’s no fault of mine if humankind reaps what it sows. All it’s ever been is the pursuit of happiness.” Yet Norman was so desperately unhappy that he knew something had to give. His phone rang. It was Zoe.
“Hi daddy, howayou? Good, good thanks”. It seemed strange that his daughter, who rarely called, would do so at such a time. “Just off to dollop the pony’s field and thought I’d check-in”
“Thanks Zoe, I’m fine.”
“Only, Zena and I were worried daddy. Are you feeling OK? You’re not poorly are you?”
“No Zoe, I don’t have a cough or temperature, if that’s what you mean.”
“Oh thank God”, said Zoe, a confirmed aethiest. “Do you need anything?”
Do I need anything? Norman thought. For decades he had wanted for nothing. He had everything, everything he had ever wanted. It dawned on him that he had never truly known what he had needed. “Yes, yes, I’m fine darling”, he replied, in a tone that mollified his daughter.
An ageing jogger sweated past, fending off the inevitable. Why bother? Thought Norman. Never give up! Fight! Why make the inevitable even more painful than it already is? The runner’s face said it all. What are you trying to prove? Thought Norman. If Europe had simply negotiated with Germany and if Churchill had merely done the same, then London and Coventry would be in better shape and we would be making superior cars. In fact, Churchill would probably have been a peacetime Prime Minister, or possibly Neville Chaimberlain would never have been ousted and Churchill would be what most youth think him to be: a dog in an insurance advert. Norman was knocked out of his reverie by his daughter.
“Sorry Zoe, I lost the signal for a bit- you know what it’s like in the village.”
“1955, you mean?”
“Yes, mobile signals have difficulty penetrating the mists of time.”
“So, are you OK?”
“Of course, of course.”
“Don’t ignore the advice”. Zoe reprimanded him, knowing that he would. Norman had ignored advice and had what the government described as underlying health conditions too. He told no-one of this and hoped that his doctor wouldn’t notice. Keep your head down Norman, is what he told himself, although even if his doctor had contacted him about isolating himself, he would have ignored it.
“Darling, I live on a large piece of land in a small rural village, miles from the dull conurbations of mediocrity. I am as low risk as I can be. I will be buggered if I sit in front of a telly for months just because the Orientals made a balls-up experimenting with the mother of all Chinese take-aways. Actually, come to think of it, was it a balls up at all?”
“Oh daddy, you are wicked. We know for certain that it was an accident- something to do with chickens and bats.” Norman gave a sardonic smile at his daughters trust in social media. He found it quite remarkable how a whole generation avoided any form of critical assessment. Both daughter and father had run out of things to say, so Zoe made a few must-get-on noises and rang off. It started to rain. He turned and headed back home for the last time.
The gentle shower started, hissing on the leaves and pattering on the grass, wafting around Norman’s head and soaking his hair. It was a hazy, gentle rain- a dousing mizzle. The angel seemed to shimmer in the rain, like a hologram projected onto it. It seemed more grave today, with a sombre look. It was watching.
“Did you consider why I might be here?” Said the angel.
“You are here to make me more aware of my life and how I conduct myself”, said Norman.
“You are still saying what you think I want to hear”, said the angel. “You are still bothered about what people think of you- your public image. You need to let that go- become who you are.”
“Who am I?”
“That’s better. As an angel, I can only be honest with you. Your neighbour calls you the cunt next door, you know”
Norman thought his neighbour was a cunt too, truth be told. He had a ride-on mower, a pig-ugly wife who dressed like a bouncy castle bound in bailer twine and a Bentley, the pretentious cock. Bentley. Once a car for the discerning. It had class, poise and quality written all over it. Now it is a vulgar thug of a car for the vaguely insecure obscenely wealthy.
“You see”, said the angel, “Your mind is still chattering away like a monkey. You are still so rooted in the material now that you cannot even consider your own mortality without hate.”
“Mortality?” A thud went through Norman.
“Yes, that’s right Norman, your mortality. I tried to hint, but you are not a subtle man. I am here to prepare you for the life hereafter.”
It was a strange feeling, to put it lightly. The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living. We all know our birthday, but…
Norman felt dizzy, light-headed and went into a crouch with one knee on the grass. Soaked through, he was unaware of it. All he could hear was his laboured breathing.
“It’s shock”, said the angel. “You’re not dying. Not as such. I’ll give you a minute”, it said, as though Norman had just been kicked in the bollocks.
Winded, Norman carefully walked to the bench at the side of the graveyard. With caution, he sat next to the angel who was now sitting there.
“There is no such thing as death” the angel said, comfortingly, “as we all know, energy is eternal, it can be neither created nor destroyed. Ask a scientist. However, it can be transformed, and that just about sums up what death is. The self evaporates and the energy of the mind, the thought, is left. We cannot measure this any more than we can measure the soul- it is beyond matter.
Space and time are not constants, they are as much created from our minds as death is but as we don’t fully understand this, it scares us. Fear has been our guiding principle for millennia. Fear of the wrath of God; fear of the unknown; fear of mortality.
“Fear of missing out, losing or failing” proffered Norman.
“That’s the spirit! And did you ever stop to consider the current situation?”
“What? Covid 19?”
“Yes, the virus. How do you feel about it?”
“I am not sure: I suppose fear has made us do strange things. Fear has made everyone buy loads of toilet rolls, fear has made us ever-so-thankful do the medical profession. Fear has made us more tolerant and polite perhaps. But the fear is from mankind’s own doing. We were happy to get cheap goods from China without asking too many questions, but this is the downside.”
“You are not too far from the truth”, said the angel. ”You have put money before all else. It is an old tale.”
“Not God’s wrathful vengeance, surely?” asserted Norman. “They said that about SARS and AIDS. It is a man-made problem, with a man-made solution.”
“Had you considered that mankind might be the virus? That the earth has finally had enough and these simian pretenders need to be reminded how fragile they are?”
The angel remained stern. “You are now living in the time of Revelations. ‘And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works’. Their works collectively are detrimental to man’s very existence. People have excitedly awaited this fire and brimstone end to humanity, but the fact is far less immediate; far less dramatic. All the souls that ever were have been rising on an unprecedented scale. Billions of jabbering monkeys, all wanting more. The population of the world now equates to all the people that ever lived- give or take. This means that they have to live on this mortal plain somewhere and that means supporting these huge numbers of risen souls. How we care for all these people, who are in fact as ourselves, is how we will be judged.”
”I am being judged?”
“Yes, of course you are. By everybody. All the time. Of course, they all say that they are not judgemental, but they all absolutely are. Some hide it better than others. To be judged and found wanting by God, only we are all God and man’s feast is over.”
“That sounds rather biblical”
“Book of Daniel”
“What has that got to do with me?”
“You already know the answer to that. Remember, you are your own judge too.”
“But I am powerless to make a difference. I am just adapting to the situation. I am not a bad man, I am…”
“Excuses, excuses. You are exploiting the situation as you find it, the same as everyone else, yes. Get it now and get away with it before someone else does. Use it up, burn it out. All humanity from the Amazon to the Arctic knows what it is doing is wrong, but pleads helplessness in the face of such enormity, hoping that they will not be the ones to pay the bill for the enormous party.”
“It is time to pay the bill?”
“Eschatologically speaking, yes. But that is part of the reason why I am here. The virus is a convulsion in the final cycle of the human race on this planet and I am one of many here to ease the passage of souls and in my case, it’s you.”
Norman sat upon the bench letting the word of the angel sink much as the rain was seeping through his clothing. It was beautiful, dense but gentle rain.
“Walk with me” said the angel. It was a placid command, as gentle as the rain. Norman stood, feeling quite light. They walked together out of the graveyard and into the leafy lane which ran alongside the church. What they spoke of, Norman could not bring to mind, but it was as in a dream where you were walking with a good friend and talking about commonly-shared events from your lives. As the lane started to rise towards the hills, so the rain abated. His lungs heaved for air as he walked up the hill. They walked on upward to where the last hedgerow gave way to the open land where the sheep grazed.
After some time Norman felt rather tired and out of breath, so lay down in the sunny meadow with the buttercups and let the sun dry his heavy clothes and warm his face. He breathed in as deeply as he could, taking in the pure and magical air through his nose and exhaling through his mouth. It felt good. The rising vapour from the rain whispered through the mingling airs and into Norman’s head. He glimpsed the sky between his eyelids and drifted away. The angel was now nothing more than a presence, but a reassuring one. Norman felt himself falling’ leaving his fatigue and discomfort behind. Plunging into a profound and deep sleep. It was good. His breathing deepened, his mind became hushed and time seemed to slow. And yet in its slowness, it seemed to Norman that everything around him buzzed with energetic speed.
As he lay on the earth, his body became as a wonderfully mellifluous, leaden weight, dragged down by gravity from the very core of the earth. He felt the vital undertow drawing him under. Presently, delicate tendrils flowed from his fingertips searching for moisture in the rich earth, before broadening and thickening into ten tender roots. The heels of his feet burrowed smoothly into the subsoil like taproots, joining the oak, the ash and the fir. He felt connected with wondrous things.
The grassy meadow in which only a moment ago he had lain was now full of sycamore tree saplings which swelled and grew at an astonishing rate. Hazel and Birch rose from nowhere, their seeds previously invisible. The roots of the beech snaked their way under him, he could feel them moving. The grass leapt and receded like lapping waves. There was a low, thunderous tremor in the earth and trees all around him rose. Flowers came and went- cow parsley, celandine, herb Robert, cowslips. He sunk into the deep, rich, humid soil which rose and fell with his chest. His chest was as a barrow; a mound of mossy, grass-covered loam. Norman fell from the tree of life and as all leaves do, returned to his roots, the roots of the tree of life. He was becoming at one with an entity too vast to perceive, the light of the sun, still and constant, the interconnectedness of all things evident.
He was no longer Norman, the bitter, greedy little egotistical being which jealously inhabited its small patch of space-time. He understood. He had been guided by the angel and was now part of the angel and part of all else too, inseparable. Through his developing roots, he received nutrition, communication, wisdom and love. Unity is a word he would have used to describe how he felt, but what he now was, was beyond description. His being was not human, not plant, not animal, it just was and is and will be.
Rising with the others, the new Norman towered above the ground and sunk deep beneath the rich soil. There was no now, then or ever, only being and new Norman looked out upon a timeless landscape of green. Green, the only light rejected by the forest, yet symbolic of the life force of the planet, the tiny cell in the amniotic fluid of the Universe, which new Norman was a part of. Hope, faith, trust and truth all merged into one benign existence, feeding, breathing, reciprocating, growing and dying in an eternal cycle. New Norman had faded like a gene and had evolved into the aspiration of all things, irrespective of their form. He didn’t want to return. The inner sun was guiding him, but this happy state was being disrupted with noises penetrating deep into his reverie. With huge sadness he realised that he had glimpsed the Infinite and the Oneness of Being, but that was now ending. Time had returned. He was suddenly aware of his conscious mind trying to make sense of the noises.
His physicality disturbed him. The feeling, the noise, the stench of the individual. Individual again. He tried to suppress it but instead he began to awake as if from a drowsy slumber by a loud shrieking sound. It was a horrible, ugly sound. Norman tried to speak but could not, his lungs felt leaden. An arm reached in to his returning field of vision followed by a face. Zoe.
Zoe was not in tears. She was not perturbed. She was rational and in control. Systematically she was doing the things needed to resuscitate her father. Had she not chosen to be the idle wife of someone rich, she would have made a fine airline pilot. On the spur of the moment she had decided to make the hour-long journey to see her father, forsaking her daughters’ pampered ponies to be with him. She was unsure why, but she hadn’t liked the way her father sounded on the ‘phone. Norman was pale and the virus enfeebled his pulse. His mind, however, was strong and fought the return to the pink. He had seen what existence really was and wanted no more of the constrained and pained carnal life. Perhaps if he had had anything worthwhile to return to, he would have helped Zoe, but in truth, he had nothing. Zoe worked harder, feeling her father slipping away. Finally, she attempted the kiss of life as his last breath left his body. Most fathers would have described their daughter at this point as an angel. But not Norman.
The angel watched dispassionately at the struggle for death: the death of an individual. To the earth-bound it was a tragic end, to the angel, it was merely a transformation and certainly not tragic. What had been the sunny uplands of the sheep-strewn hills to Norman had in fact been his own garden, although he could have been anywhere. In his final, fluttering thoughts Norman once again was aware of the angel and considered his lot. He saw his brief human existence in summary. He had been a foolish man, he had destroyed, lied, polluted and exploited his fellow human beings. He had been arrogant when he should have been meek. “The meek shall inherit the earth” said the angel. As he quietly expired on his newly jet-washed driveway, Norman’s daughter was already considering how to dispose of the property. She called 999 and prepared to get into character for the paramedics.
Norman had been a selfish man. How could he have been anything other? It was in his nature to be so and truth be told, it was a broadly human trait. He had never liked sharing; he had trusted no-one and had been essentially selfish, the self being to Norman, all there was. And for what? He died in the presence of an unloved and unloving daughter in a neat and tidy garden next to a shiny metal box on wheels. The virus had taken another victim, yet Norman had effectively killed himself through his own arrogance. Even that was selfish, really.
Without Norman, the angel returned to the oneness of being. The remaining trees in the garden meekly waited for their companions to re-join them. Of course by that time, the shiny car, the garden, the house and its occupants would all have passed to dusty death.
Robert Parker is a dyslexia tutor based in Sussex, England and lives with his marvelous wife and son. He has been writing for several years. He considers his chief accomplishments in life to be overcoming the various obstacles in his way, one of which was dyslexia. Other than that, his goals have been somewhat abstract but he has thus far achieved quite a few, sometimes quite unintentionally.