“Shall we get high?” said her Guardian Angel.
“You’re not a very good Guardian Angel,” she replied, prising herself from the armchair.
“No – but even so. Shall we?” He looked optimistic. “It is Friday.”
She wandered to the window and peered sombrely out over the closing light swallowing up the sloping roofs. “I’m bored,” she said. “We always get high.”
“Well, it is fun.” His little angelic eyes sparkled with hope.
She threw out a sigh, moved over to the bed, and slumped onto it. “But everyone does it. It’s what everyone’s doing. Get a hit, get high, reach another level, transcend. I’m sick of it.”
The Angel rolled his eyes and lit up a cigarette. “Well we could play chess.”
“No. You always cheat.”
“You mean I always beat you.”
Silence, perforated only by the sounds of the Angel inhaling deeply, coughing now and again (his lungs were not good).
“Michael,” she said suddenly – he coughed. He did not like his given name.
“I want to go down.”
“I want to go down to The Below. I don’t want to transcend – do you understand? I’ve done that already, I can do that a thousand times over. Anyone can reach heaven. I want to go to hell.”
He fixed her with a stare she had not seen before. The light rustled and flared between his two fingers as the cigarette tarried unsmoked.
“Are you quite sure that’s what you want, little one?”
She nodded. His gaze lingered a second, then he shook himself upright, stubbed out the cigarette, and rallied himself to a vestige of order. When he was set upon something – when he had his orders – he was formidable.
“Then down we shall go, little devil.”
They got dressed. His wings were crumpled from all the sitting but he did not notice. He was scruffy these days. But there was something of intent now in his eyes. As was customary, he led the way.
They left the apartment, took the stairs. They passed the surly man from No. 13 on the second flight. He grunted, lumbered past. He was carrying bags whose contents could not be deciphered. They wove through streets. They did not speak. On the verges of Flatiron they encountered abruptly a warehouse, which seemed to loom out of the darkness like it had not been there before. From within came the muted sound of noise and glow of lights.
“Are they having a party?” she asked. Her Angel padded softly on.
“They are always having a party.”
There was no lock upon the door of the warehouse – it seemed anyone could enter. It was a tall vast upward stretching plank of a door – and as she craned her neck to see how high it stretched, she saw the words scrawled across the lintel:
FIRST KNOW WHO YOU ARE
TO DESCEND IS EASY; TO GET BACK UP AGAIN, THERE’S THE RUB
“Come,” said her Guardian. “You cannot loiter at the gates of The Below.”
They went in.
It was bright, misty. There were bodies. People were dancing – there was music – they were writhing, laughing, caressing – or…no – she couldn’t make it out. The thin slip between pain and pleasure was so hard to discern. She was disappointed. This looked like a thousand parties she had been to. This was just another anodyne crush for an uninspired soul.
“This is not Hell,” she said. “This is just like all the rest.”
“Patience,” he murmured softly. “You are in deeper than you think.”
The smoke and mist enveloped them. His body became a shape moving through the vapours. Suddenly he seemed distant, impossibly far.
“Stop,” she cried. “Come back. Stop. Michael – Michael.”
And as she stumbled forwards, her hands outstretched, feeling blindly through the fog, she found a face turning towards her – it was round and pale and wore a smile and a vicious bolt ran through her as she realised she recognised that face.
She let out a scream – but it was swallowed in the mist, which now seemed blue and thin and victorious. No sound emitted, as if she was a TV turned on mute. Her knees buckled in horror.
Thomas – her old friend – her schoolfriend – she had not seen him for years – older now but still she knew that face – a thousand vivid memories where thundering through her eyes – the trees and the woods, him in shorts and school and her, with her knees scabbed and bleeding beneath her pleats from the gravel bracken of the playground; and here was his face now, his adult face as she had not known him, descending, descending, descending upon her with a terrible unflinching smile.
She felt a hand on her arm, then she was in his grip.
“Come on,” he said – and his voice was stern – the fierce Angel she had seen once or twice, and never cared to see again. “Come on, it’s time to go.”
“Come on now.”
She was staggering. Her legs had lost their muscles. “I saw him – there. What is he doing here? Does that mean…?”
“Come come,” he said, more softly now. “Come come.”
They came to a door. She fell upon it in relief. But instead of finding the dark street of outside, she found herself in a a small cool cellar-like room, shrouded in darkness.
She looked ahead. There was a table. Plain, draped with a simple cloth. Three martini glasses, laid out next to one another. In each was a measure of coloured liquor, still and smooth as a lake.
The Angel went to the one on the left – the smallest glass. It glistened as he picked it up – its liquid was a thin sheen of metal-like blue.
“Drink,” he said.
She shook her head. “No, Michael – I don’t want to -”
He pressed it upon her. “This isn’t a drink. This is Lethe.”
“What? I -”
“Drink and you will forget.”
She saw the face, felt the throb of her heart once more and the pounding in her head and the tremor of her knees. She drank.
As she fell she felt the glass plucked from her grasp, and in the same swift movement the Angel’s arms closed around her. She felt herself lifted up, and was loosely aware, before the liquid claimed her completely, of his mangy wings brushing the edge of her lolling cheek.
“Sleep little one,” she heard his voice say. “Tomorrow is always a new day.”