Richard was nine years old when he first brought home the angel. Her name was Annabella Stick. She chose the name herself because it sounded pretty but solid. She didn’t have wings, he said. She was still growing them. He saw the glance that passed between his parents as his mum dished up cottage pie, and he didn’t care.
When she thought he was out of earshot his mum said, ‘It’s unusual at this age, I grant you. I’ve been expecting it for years.’
His dad, who’d stopped sailing when his right hand stopped flexing, went to the pub.
His sister Beth called him a freak and ate the last slice of Richard’s birthday cake.
His brother Will, with whom he shared a bedroom, snuck him out of the window and on to the V-shaped roof where all the big kids smoked, and gave him a puff of his joint. ‘Your brain’s already tripped,’ he said, as they smudged the stars with dirty great clouds of smoke.
Annabella Stick the angel, stayed with him through senior school, her wings growing large pure swan-like feathers when he took a punch in his left ear for Brendon Bates who had Asperger’s, and spreading even higher and wider when he deliberately dropped the baton in the 400 metre relay so that Tommy Li who had scoliosis, could beat him to the finish line.
Convinced their paths were destined to intertwine, he kept his distance from little Suzie Bradshaw. His own path was so well-lit, he could already see the intersections where Suzie would bump into him, each time a little taller, a little more experienced, a little less admired. His brother Will however, older and more popular than Richard, with a path that shimmered like a motorway in the summer heat, developed a few secret habits along the way that he insisted on sharing with his kid brother. On Richard’s eighteenth birthday, when the pills he’d taken turned Annabella Stick’s wings blood-red and his heart to jelly, she cradled him through the night, waited for him to wake, and told him three things before she left.
‘Go outside and see the world, Richard. Protect the people you love,’ she’d said, scattering him with fragile feathers. ‘Grow your wings and fly.’
Thirty seconds later and he’d have missed it. The phone sliding out of view beneath the duvet as he came in. The echo of a smile that wasn’t meant for him. Bare legs folding beneath her like he’d not watched her sleep last night.
Thirty seconds. A few more indecipherable words from Psycho Med when he stopped him in the High Street; another foodie joke shared over the deli counter with Sally Jones, his favourite lady in Asda; a quick check-in on old Ted’s gnomes as he passed by his front wall. A heartbeat and he’d still be whole.
‘What’s in the bag?’ Suzie nodded at the carrier in Richard’s hand.
He tightened his grip. ‘Sticky toffee pudding. It was reduced.’
She glanced away, slid her legs over the side of the bed and pulled his T-shirt down to cover her thighs. Her hair, darker now than in school, honey-coloured, still smothered her shoulders and inched towards her waist, made her look like a teenager despite the dark smudges beneath her eyes and the tattoos on her arms. ‘So, what’s for main course?’
And he couldn’t help himself. He smiled. ‘Macaroni cheese. I’m making the cheese sauce from scratch, Sally told me how. I bought plain flour and everything and borrowed a dish from my mum.’
‘Right.’ She sat back down on the end of the bed. Apart from the two plastic foldaway chairs pushed under the half-moon table screwed to the back wall, there was nowhere else to sit. There wasn’t much room to stand in the bedsit either and if they tried to make dinner together, they’d be joined at the hips.
‘You do like macaroni cheese?’ He was unsure now. ‘I can rustle up beans on toast. I’m a whizz with a tin opener, you know.’
She shook her head and he pretended she didn’t roll her eyes at him. ‘It’s fine.’
‘I was going to pick up flowers for you, but they were a bit, you know,’ he shrugged, didn’t want to say expensive.
‘I didn’t know what flowers you liked. My mum likes carnations, but I didn’t see any. Only roses, red roses, and, well, they’re for Valentine’s.’
She studied him then. Unsmiling. And for an instant they were back in school, Richard sliding the single wilting red rose into Suzie’s tray when he was supposed to be tidying the glue pots. She’d known all along that it was him. He could see it in her eyes.
‘It was okay, that you believed it was Jonno. I knew it would happen anyways, at least that’s what I told my mum would happen, and she said, “Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye,” in her Scottish accent that she loved to drag out of the closet and pretend was hers when it really only belonged to her dad. My Papa.’ Richard sucked in air. Told himself to stop chatting shit.
He released the carrier onto the counter, wiped his palms on his jeans. He took a pint glass left by the previous tenant, from the cupboard, filled it with cold water from the hot tap and placed it on the table before he remembered he didn’t buy flowers. She was watching him, so he left it there like it had some place to be.
‘Job for you.’ He handed her a rusty cheese-grater and the remains of the cheese from the fridge and lingered over the bottle of Asti borrowed from his mum, missing the way Suzie rose slowly, holding the grater by her fingertips to avoid any contact with her baby-pink acrylics. ‘What?’ he faced her and smiled. ‘You do know how to grate cheese.’
‘Give me some credit,’ she said.
‘Sorry,’ he shook his head, his fringe flopping over his eyes. He needed a haircut. ‘I just thought. I don’t know what I thought.’ With a blunt knife he scooped butter into a small saucepan and turned on the hob. He couldn’t remember what order Sally had told him to prepare the dish. Was it: pasta first and then the sauce? He should’ve paid more attention, he thought he had, but it was difficult to concentrate now with Suzie wearing his T-shirt, her denim shorts and vest hanging above their heads, drying on the makeshift washing line. They looked slimy. He can’t have rinsed them properly and the more he studied them the more he thought he could smell the damp, like potato peel, oozing across the room.
Yesterday, she’d been alone on the bench overlooking the harbour when he spotted her. Earphones in, she didn’t hear him. Jumped when he tapped her shoulder. ‘Sorry,’ he’d said, hands held in front of him so she’d know he wouldn’t touch her again. ‘Hey.’
Suzie stared at him; eyes large with tears.
‘Richard. Richard Hope-Michaels, or HP sauce. Daddy’s. St Bon’s school.’ He raised his eyebrows at her, but she tipped her head back, closed her eyes, swallowed. He saw the bruise on her neck. Saw the colour bleeding through the makeup on her cheek. ‘Wait there. Don’t move,’ he said.
He ran all the way to the local Coop, knowing he’d catch little Andy on backshift; he owed Richard a favour after the whole ‘possession of illegal substances’ situation. When he returned, chocolate Cornetto in his hand, she was on her feet, bag over her shoulder. ‘Here,’ he said. She made no move to take it, so he added, ‘It’s what we give my sister when she needs a hug. Ice cream.’
She smiled then. Took the treat from him and unwrapped it.
‘Can I sit with you?’ he asked.
‘No.’ His heart fluttered and then skipped when she said, ‘Let’s walk, Richard Hope-Michaels from St Bon’s school.’
Two hours later, his lips dry and cheeks aching, he suggested a cup of tea at his and had to stop himself from jumping with joy when she agreed. Suzie wanted to talk. And eat. And sleep. And that’s exactly what Richard allowed her to do, no interference, no judging, a big grin on his face when he imagined how he’d tell his mum the following day. ‘Guess what! Suzie Bradshaw slept in my bed last night!’
But he’d put too much flour in with the butter and it wasn’t blending with the milk, and he’d not put enough water in with the macaroni so it was sticking to the bottom of the pan, the air clotted with the smell of singed pasta. His forehead was hot. His fingers shaky. And Suzie had grated a mountain of cheese so now there’d be none left for him to have cheese on toast for his breakfast. ‘That’s enough,’ he said.
She stared at him, right through his eyes and into his soul. ‘You didn’t say how much you needed.’
‘I know. I thought you knew.’
She sat back down on the bed, stroked her phone beneath the duvet. He wanted to ask her who she was messaging but his brain cells were tapdancing around his skull and confusing his fingers and Sally had said this dish was super-easy, but she lied.
They ate in silence. Well Richard ate, he’d not had a thing since breakfast and his jeans would be around his arse if he didn’t fill his belly, and Suzie made tiny sandhills with her pasta and stared at the tines of her fork.
‘You’re quiet,’ he said, his voice making her jump.
Tears squeezed onto her lashes like tiny snow-globes he thought. He reached for her hand, but she snatched her fingers away before he could make contact. ‘Don’t think bad of me,’ she said.
‘Why would I think bad of you? I…’
Her chair scraped backwards, scuffing the rug into clumsy ridges. ‘Don’t,’ she said. She reached for her clothes, his T-shirt riding up and exposing black lace. ‘I can’t stay. I have to get back. Jonno’s waiting.’
His eyes searched for her phone, invisible beneath the mountain of duvet. It had always been Jonno for her.
In primary school show-and-tell, Suzie had produced a bronze medal she received for Best Junior on the Nursery Ski Slope. They were nine, and Richard’s angel about to make an appearance. Miss Simpson, to Suzie’s tightened shoulders, had enquired about the different kind of snow in Lake Tahoe and it was Jonno who yelled, ‘Yeah, Miss, it’s yellow,’ to sniggers from the boys and eye-rolling from Suzie’s friends.
After, on the playground when Richard approached her from behind, intending to cloak her embarrassment with kind words, Jonno had spotted him first and pointed, called him a perv, and there’d been that look, like it was he, Richard, who’d pissed on her snow. And later, Valentine’s Day, when she discovered the wilting red rose he’d left in her book-tray, it was Jonno who walked out of school with his arm around her shoulders, his fingers sneaking towards her tits, his mates shuffling along behind them hoping he’d ditch the girl and head to the rec for a kick-around.
In senior school everyone knew they would be together. Destined for Prom King and Queen. If you knew them, you wanted to be them. So, when Jonno got caught sending dick-pics to Lilly Fisher, it was like a fairy-tale with the wrong ending. Suzie was seen sharing her earphones in the languages-corridor with Jonno’s best mate Zol. She stopped wearing Jonno’s coat and wrapped Zol’s Burberry scarf around her neck instead. She wore shiny red Doc Marten’s to school even though the headmaster set her detention every night for a week and her mum came in and complained. Coloured the ends of her hair witchy-green. But summer of year ten was pre-written, inevitable. They got back together at the rec where, rumour had it, Jonno took her virginity up against the twisted old oak tree Richard had climbed as a kid.
No surprise her bruises couldn’t keep her away now. They were wired together, Suzie and Jonno, like there was an unseen current passing back and forth between them.
Richard stacked their plates without scraping them, said, ‘Have pudding before you go. Please.’ He removed the packaging, placed it in the microwave on a cracked white china plate. ‘Is this microwavable?’ he addressed Suzie’s back. ‘I wish they’d tell you what’s microwavable and what isn’t. How is anyone supposed to know?’
She escaped to the bathroom he shared with the bedsit next door and returned wearing her own clothes. His T-shirt she left on the end of the bed. He stared at the revolving pudding, counting down the seconds. Ping.
‘Do you have ice cream?’ she asked.
He waited on the balcony while she applied makeup. It was more walkway than balcony, linking his bedsit and next door, and reached by the Gothic wrought-iron staircase that wound around the outside of the house. The building was crumbling but if you squinted over the roof of the Tesco Extra across the road, the sea stretched all the way to Ireland. Or the moon.
With his coffee he swallowed the pills bought earlier from Psycho Med. Tried to dim the pain in his heart, and in his shoulders. He twisted his neck from side to side, blinked to still the confusion of colours above the water at the end of the road. The fishing boats were fuzzy like his tongue, he thought. Shit that coffee must’ve been scalding.
He wished she wouldn’t leave. He didn’t want her to leave. Go back to Jonno, with his fists and his dick-pics. But, he understood, she was never really here. He closed his eyes, circled his shoulders. He wished he knew how to save her. Wished he’d been there sooner, where she might’ve noticed him beneath the oversized knitted sweaters and the home-trimmed fringe.
It’s an angel’s flaw, his mum always said. ‘Wrong place, wrong time.’ She never explained how she came by this information, but he’d accepted it as the truth. ‘Stick ‘em in the right place and there’s no crap left to fix.’
Suzie appeared behind him, all pink lipstick and wide eyes. She stood on tiptoes, kissed his cheek. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered.
He stared at the lights floating on the boats as she left. Watched the patterns like a kaleidoscope, twisting and spiralling, concentrated on the white pain in his shoulders, tried to imagine that she wasn’t running downstairs to the courtyard. Around the wall to the road where the BMW was parked up, out of view, with the engine running.
Away from him.
Go outside and see the world, his angel said. Protect the ones you love. Grow wings and fly. He’d done none of these things. He’d hibernated and slept, listened to rock music and played X-box. Closed his eyes and waited for Suzie to come to him. As the water blurred, a sparkling mirror of lights, he knew where he’d gone wrong. See the world, she’d said. Not travel the world. You needed money to do that, and Richard had never had money. Probably never would have. He sucked in the salty air, the peace that living so close to the water had always instilled in him, and he understood that this was his world, however badly he’d treated it. He opened his eyes wide and the world came into focus.
He couldn’t let Suzie go. Glancing down at her long bare legs, he saw the little girl starting primary school, blonde hair in a thick rope down her back, sparkly pink rucksack over her shoulder, wide eyes bright and accepting because she understood the world she was born into. Her purity of heart deserved better than the endless cycle of fights and lust and popularity she’d accepted as her lot. And he had to protect her.
His shoulders erupted with white-hot pain and, head down, he clenched his jaw as his wings broke free, unfurling and folding back in on themselves, heavy with the weight of a thousand glowing feathers.
Richard placed his right foot onto the lower rung of the railings. It was easy if you didn’t second-guess it, didn’t stop to weigh up the options. Left foot on the top bar, he barely breathed before he jumped.
Another thirty seconds. One mouthful of pasta chewed and swallowed, one sip of Asti to wash it down, one more glance at the messages on her phone and she’d have missed the snowy-white feathers from his broken wings as they scattered at her feet.
Denise wanted to write books when, aged four, her dad read The Song of Hiawatha to her. Her novella Devil on Your Back was published by Salt in 2014. More recently, she was longlisted for the 2019 Bath Novel Award with her YA crossover novel I am Winter.
Image via Pixabay