David Jordan is a writer and musician from Cork, Ireland. He has an MA in English from UCC. He blogs at shadowoftheglen.wordpress.com
John Frost and the Angel
Murph remembered the first time he heard that there was an angel in town.
He had been sitting near the ATM machine at the end of Bacon street, close to the heart of the metropolis. Sitting with his legs folded and his back resting against the marble wall of the building the bank was housed in. Sitting and meditating on the empty paper cup before him.
He didn’t know much about Buddhism and meditation. All he knew was that concentrating on the paper cup somehow calmed his demons. It didn’t make them go away, it just quietened them.
He would focus on the paper cup and try to put all thoughts out of his mind. It was difficult. Impossible really, if you thought about it. But he enjoyed it. Enjoyed the distraction and the challenge. And he was getting good at it.
He had reached a semi-trance state in which the yellow band around the cup intensified and the object became gilded in gold. And he was no longer looking at an empty coffee cup. He was looking at a chalice. The holy grail. Didn’t they say the mind was a palace?
He had been a voracious reader before he dropped out. Sometimes he missed the books. Sometimes when passing the city library, he would look at it and be tempted to go inside and read something. It would be warm and quiet in there. He could find a nice cosy corner and sit down with a book in his lap. Maybe a Jane Austen or a Dostoyevsky. Or, if he wanted something lighter, a Stephen King perhaps. Or maybe he could read up on Buddhism. The leather of the chair would squeak as he settled into it. He would smell the musty aroma of old paper. The smell of words. The smell of knowledge. The smell of the magic. He would feel the weight of the book in his lap. Like a bar of gold. But inevitably he would pass by. Books were not a part of his life anymore. He was a drop out. An exile. He didn’t belong there.
He had sat there meditating on the paper coffee cup. Then there was a strong gust of icy wind. It lashed at him and broke his trance. It was so cold. He pulled down the cap he was wearing by the peak, so that his eyes were in shadow and his vision half obscured. He jerked at the blanket that was around his shoulders and shivered. It was so fucking cold. He picked up the paper cup and looked inside. It was empty. Not a cent. He put it back down before him. Calmly. Indifferently. His hands shaking. The cup was empty. Not half full. Not half empty. The cup was empty.
Maybe he’d have better luck tomorrow. Maybe he would get a break. Maybe he would…But you didn’t think about tomorrow when you were on the streets. And you tried not to think about the past. All that mattered was the present. How you were going to feed yourself. Where you were going to sleep that night. That was probably why meditation appealed to him. You concentrated until all thoughts about the past and future were fled. You concentrated until all dreams and desires were dissolved. Until you felt nothing at all. You concentrated until you saw the holy grail and the holy grail was empty.
He had his demons. Not heroin. Not alcohol. Unlike many of those on the streets, he was clean. But he had his troubles. Like anyone else. Except most people managed to avoid the precipice. They got around it. He was just one of those poor devils that had fallen through.
He had his demons. Right now, the biggest demon he faced was the cold. The biggest demon any of them faced. It was the heart of winter. The shivering season, someone had once said to him with a grim smile, before taking another swig from the bottle. Yes, the shivering season. He could envision the demon. A tall, ice-man strutting the streets. A smile frozen on his face. His ice hair standing up in spikes. He had even given him a name. John Frost. It sounded like fantasy but to Murph and others like him, John Frost was as real as you or I or anyone else, maybe even more so. When you felt that cold. That relentless bitter cold, then you knew it was for real.
Again, his trance was broken. He looked up and saw Joe standing there, smiling at him. Joe was in his fifties. He had a lived-in face. Full of character. The kind that artists liked to paint. And it was a kind face. His bright blue eyes radiated intelligence and warmth. But he had the body of a younger man. Lean and poised and full of rest. In his right hand there was a bottle wrapped up in a brown paper bag. It rested against the thigh of his right leg. Sometimes he reminded Murph of Michelangelo’s David. The way he stood. But he was as tough as old leather.
‘Any news?’ Joe asked.
‘No. Same ol same ol. Freezing my balls off.’
‘Same here. Is it just me but are the winters getting colder?’
‘They are,’ Murph said. ‘And the summers are getting hotter. Global warming.’
‘Hmm. That’s what I thought too but nobody seems to be talking about it. Other than those who say it’s a myth.’
‘They’re wrong,’ Murph said. ‘Nobody wants to talk about it because they can’t face up to reality. It’s just swept under the rug. People are good at that.’
‘Ay,’ Joe said and looked away into the distance.
‘Got any cigarettes?’
‘No. You?’ Joe said and they both laughed. Joe looked away again. There was a hint of a frown on his face.
‘You seem pensive,’ Murph said. Joe nodded slightly. ‘What’s on your mind?’
Joe sighed and said, ‘I met the Big One earlier. He was raving about some girl. Some girl who was walking around the city and caring for us. He said she was like an angel. That she had the touch of an angel. There were tears in his eyes.’
Charlie, or the Big One, as he was often called, was the most respected bum in the city. Everyone in the community looked up to him. He was both handsome and wise. A man of few words but when he spoke everyone listened. He was like their king. Murph was acquainted with him and he couldn’t deny that the man had presence. But there were no airs about him. He was quiet and reserved. Intelligent and hard to read. Which, Murph guessed, only served to heighten his appeal.
‘Doesn’t sound like the Big One,’ Murph said.
‘No, it doesn’t.’
‘Maybe he was high?’
‘The Big One doesn’t get high,’ Joe said, in a matter of fact tone. He was still looking into the distance.
Murph shrugged and said, ‘maybe he changed his mind.’
Joe shook his head slowly and said, ‘no. He wasn’t high. There are signs… He sounded so sincere.’
‘Well, if he wasn’t high then maybe he just cracked. It can happen to any of us.’
‘Maybe. But so suddenly? I mean he was fine yesterday.’
Murph shrugged again and tugged at the blanket around his shoulders.
‘Bad things can happen quickly,’ he said.
‘Do you believe in angels, Murph?’
‘I do actually.’
‘Yes. Guardian angels.’
‘Even after everything you’ve been through?’ Joe said.
‘Yes. Even after everything I’ve been through.’
‘I don’t,’ Joe said.
‘What do you believe in?’
‘A life without fear.’
‘What’s to be afraid of? We’re at rock bottom. There is nothing more they can do to us.’
‘So, you think this angel might be real?’ Joe said and turned his head to look directly at Murph. His eyes sparkled.
‘No, I don’t. I think it’s far more likely that the Big One has cracked. But there is always hope, Joe. There’s always hope.’
‘Yeah, I know. That’s what I’m afraid of,’ Joe said.
The two men parted company. Murph returned his attention to the paper cup. He tried to meditate but found that he couldn’t. Thoughts of angels and demons flew about his head like pigeons stuck in a loft. So, he tugged at the peak of his cap, pulled the blanket tighter around him and shivered. There was nothing else to do.
The next time he met Joe it was like talking to a different man. He had been sitting at the fountain in the centre of the city, rolling a cigarette, when he sensed someone approaching him. He looked up and there was Joe, bottle in hand and smiling.
‘She’s real, Murph. I just saw her,’ Joe said as he approached.
‘Who’s real?’ Murph said.
‘Oh that,’ he said dismissively and returned his attention to the cigarette.
Joe grabbed his wrist and squeezed. Murph saw the thick veins on the back of his hand and the little bird tattoo on the flesh between thumb and fore finger. He looked up at him again.
‘You need to hear this,’ Joe said.
Murph assessed him for a few seconds. He saw there were tears in his eyes. ‘Go ahead,’ he said.
‘You were right. I was wrong,’ Joe said. ‘There’s an angel in the city and I just met her.’
Murph saw that the man was serious. ‘How so? How is she an angel?’ he said.
‘Her touch. She touches you and…’
‘You have to experience it for yourself. There are no words to describe it.’
‘Try,’ Murph said.
Joe started to cry. He covered his face with a hand. His shoulders shook. ‘I can’t,’ he managed to say. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘What does she look like? Does she have wings?’
‘Please, Murph. Don’t make fun of me,’ Joe said.
‘I wasn’t. Tell me what she looks like.’
‘She’s a beautiful young woman. A mixed-race woman, I think. She might be half Black. She has an aura. You can see her coming.’
‘Did she say anything?’ Murph asked.
Joe looked down and started to cry again. ‘She said…she said, “I care”,’ he managed to say.
‘I care? That’s it?’
‘You don’t understand Murph. You have to experience it for yourself. Remember you said to me that there is always hope? You were right!’
‘I don’t like the sound of this,’ Murph said. ‘I don’t like the state that she’s put you in. I don’t like any of this.’
‘Don’t be sceptical, Murph. You said you believed in angels.’
‘Angels act in a subtler way than this. Whatever she is, she’s no angel.’
‘Ok, then maybe she’s a saint. Could you live with that?’ Joe said.
Murph laughed and said, ‘Now saints I definitely don’t believe in.’
‘Maybe it doesn’t matter what she is,’ Joe said. ‘Maybe all that matters is that she makes you feel again. I’ve been numbing myself against the cold for such a long time that I forgot what it was like to be alive. It’s like being born again.’
Murph nodded. ‘Ok, I’ll watch out for her,’ he said. There was a grim note in his voice that Joe detected.
‘It’s best to just accept it, Murph. She was sent here to look after us and…and…’
‘And what? Save us?’ Murph said. He shook his head slowly. ‘Remember what happened the last time someone tried to do that?’
‘What will you do?’ Joe sounded worried. ‘You won’t hurt her, will you?’
‘No. I’m more concerned about what she will do to me. You are not yourself, Joe.’
‘You’ll know. When she finds you. You’ll know what I’m talking about,’ Joe said.
He didn’t have to wait too long before he saw her. He was sitting on the steps of an old dark grey building on the Mall. Across from him was a bus stop and shelter. He watched people waiting. Watched them get off and on the buses as they pulled up and left frequently. Nobody paid him any attention. He was used to this. It didn’t bother him too much. In fact, it even had its advantages. You could look at people and they ignored you. Not just look at them but really observe them. Their expressions and their behaviour. The way they stood. The way they smoked. The way they chatted. The way they walked. He could look at young women as they sauntered by. Breasts, legs and asses. And nobody even glanced at him. Not one disapproving look. Yes, being a ghost had its advantages.
He saw her approaching him. He knew instantly that it was the angel. She had the aura that Joe had talked about. A golden aura. It seemed to flicker and waver and dance about her. She walked slowly toward him. He could see that her hands were clasped together at her breast, not in prayer, just in the way that women do. She was looking at him and he could feel her look. He felt bliss awaking in his chest. And his eyes started to well up.
He got up and ran.
He ran as hard as he could. He could feel her eyes on him all the time and that blissful feeling in his chest, making him cry. When he stopped to catch his breath, he looked behind and there she was, walking calmly toward him, her hands clasped. She smiled at him and he thought he would collapse. But he didn’t. He turned around and bolted for his life.
So, he ran through the city and no-one gave him a second look and all the time the angel pursued him. Every time he looked behind, she was there. He thought of the film, Terminator. Where the machine pursues Sarah Conner relentlessly. This made him laugh out loud. He would have been a sight if anyone was looking. This was another advantage of being on the streets. You could run, and nobody gave you any trouble.
As he ran he thought about the church on Lincoln Street. If he could make it there he might be safe. At least for a while. He would be off the streets. Maybe the angel would leave him alone if she saw him enter a house of God. But as he approached the church he had an idea that he had been heading there all along.
He pushed the heavy wooden door and it opened with ease. Inside he was met by darkness and quiet and the smell of candles and incense burning. He looked around. The place was empty.
He walked quickly down the central aisle towards the altar, trying to catch his breath. When he reached the end of the aisle he turned left and sat down heavily in the last pew. He sat there, recovering from his exertions. His breathing sounded strange in this place. In the silence. Almost like an offence. He looked behind him and was relieved to find that there was no sign of the angel.
There was a large crucifix on the wall directly across from him. The crucified looked down at him. Sadly. Benevolently.
He meditated on the statue for a time. When he felt recovered and calm enough he said, ‘I came here to talk to you.’
Jesus said nothing. Just continued to look at him with that sorrowful countenance, under the thorns.
‘Why did you send her? The angel, I mean.’
Jesus didn’t answer.
‘You’d better talk to me. I’m going to sit here until you do. I’ll sit here all day if I have to.’
‘Why did you send her?’ Murph said more forcefully.
‘Yeah, that’s just about your answer to everything isn’t it. To suffer in silence. Why don’t you come down off that cross and help us out? Be a man and do something, instead of just hanging there.’
‘What are you afraid of? Do you think the same thing will happen again? That you’ll be crucified again? Have you such little faith in humanity?’
‘Ok, if you can’t do anything, can you talk to your father?’ Murph said. ‘He won’t listen to us, but He might listen to you.’
‘I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then. Why do you say no to everything? Why do you say no to life? You’re so negative. Why don’t you say yes once in a while?’
‘You know, it’s funny. I don’t believe in you and yet here I am talking to you. Why can’t you return the gesture? I mean, I’d guess you don’t get many people talking to you. Not like this. You know. Out loud,’ Murph said. ‘It’s ok, I won’t tell anyone what passes between us. It’ll be strictly confidential. Just you and me.’
‘Ok. So, you won’t talk. But maybe you’ll listen. Here’s the deal. We’re screwed. All of us. Everyone on the planet. We need your help. Now. Understand?’
‘If you won’t talk, please at least give me a sign that you heard me. Anything.’
‘You know, a lot of people have lost faith in your priests and your church. But they haven’t lost faith in you. They think you are a great guy,’ Murph said. ‘Why don’t you do your job and save us? Be a man. Come down off the cross and help us out.’
Murph sighed. ‘Ok. So, you won’t talk, and you won’t listen. All you’ll do is just suffer in silence. How very strong and manly of you.’
‘That’s right. Keeping it all in. Isn’t that how us men are supposed to conduct ourselves? Bullshit. You know what you need? I’ll tell you what you need. A girlfriend. Someone to talk to.’
‘She could help you with your mind. Plus, you’ll be a much better role model if you’ve lived with a woman.’
‘I’m serious. Why not? I mean you’re a good-looking guy. Beards are back in fashion. So why not? I’ll bet a lot of woman would admit to having a crush on you in their younger days,’ Murph said. ‘Anyway, that’s all beside the point. The point is what are you going to do about this angel? If you did, in fact, send her.’
‘I saw the state she put Joe into. I heard about what she did to the Big One. She almost got to me. You must know that we don’t need religious ecstasy. We don’t need angels. We don’t need pity and we don’t need prayer. What we need is action. And change. What we need is fire. Promethean fire.’
‘No? Well, ok, we’ll just have to do it without you, then.’
Murph got up from the pew. ‘Let me know if you change your mind,’ he said to the crucified. He started to walk toward the aisle, but he stopped after a few steps and turned around to face the statue again. ‘You can find me in the City Library. With a good book.’
He turned around again and walked down the aisle toward the door of the church, beyond which John Frost awaited him. And possibly an angel.
© 2019 David Jordan