JOHN LAWRENCE (1819-1871)
John Lawrence would sometimes say that he was the first of his family to settle in Australia, but that wasn’t true, not quite; in 1803 his uncle, also called John, had been transported there for stealing beehives. The second John Lawrence never made mention of this, though he must surely have known about the incident, but it wasn’t as if he would ever have had to meet him or his branch of the family – his unhappy namesake hadn’t adapted well to life in exile and had died, without issue or prospect of issue, many years before his nephew had even been born. When John Lawrence spoke at the Victorian Acclimatisation Society – of which, of course, he was a founding member – of his great pride that he was the first of what he hoped would be a long line of Lawrences living in Australia, he meant that he was the first who had chosen to live there, and had done so with energy and with commitment and with drive, and had survived.
And it had been hard work, but it had paid off. He embraced the opportunities that Australia offered him, to stand on a new land and reinvent himself, to no longer be wee Johnny Lawrence but someone more imposing entirely, a new man, with new characteristics, and a new moustache grown and kept trim the months at sea, and a new decisive way of getting things done. He wouldn’t have amounted to much in Edinburgh, the best he might have expected a clerk like his father – but he didn’t want to be a penpusher, he wanted to work with his hands, and on something he could call his own. To build a life, not just drift through one, and to feel it was being built, properly built, solid and real and his, brick by brick, day by day.
And so he left behind the cramp and smog of the city with real joy – and it wasn’t a home he was abandoning, it was too dark and too stifling ever to be a home. Home now would be a place as far away as he could imagine, and it’d be a thing made from scratch, and on his own, and if he wanted to find love or companionship, then he’d have to find them there or make them from scratch too.
He found that home. And against the odds, he went and found love too. Now in his forties he had a certain degree of power, and a lot of wealth, and was living on an ever growing estate at Winchelsea, a little west of Melbourne. He had prosperity; he would say he was prosperous; he would say he was happy, and that he expected his happiness to prosper. He had in Elspeth a wife he loved, and who loved him in return, and who seemed to him the most beautiful angel in creation, and who was patient and kind and put up with him when he periodically swung from bouts of uncontrolled enthusiasm to what they both termed his ‘black moods’. He had six children, Thomas, Mary, Elizabeth, Caroline, Henrietta and Little Elspeth – and if five of them were girls, what of that? He liked girls, and so long as he had one son, he was content. And he had acres and acres of land, more than he knew what to do with.
It was, he would admit, only hard at Christmas. He still had a nostalgia for Scottish Christmases, dark and snowbound things, in which families toasted themselves round roaring fires, and presents were opened, and games were played. The Christmases at Winchelsea were hot, so hot it sometimes seemed to Lawrence he couldn’t breathe through the wall of it. Elspeth had only visited Scotland once, to visit John’s brother in the early years of their marriage, and she hadn’t liked it, and she had complained about the cold and the damp – and that had been in July, she had no idea what he was missing when he stood out on his estate on Christmas Day, squinting at the sunshine, fanning himself some little air, bemoaning the loss of something she thought sounded perfectly horrid. He would laugh at her then; she could laugh him out of his moods; they might go indoors and play with the children because it was Christmas, after all; they might even lock themselves away and make love, it was, after all, Christmas.
Elspeth had died in the spring of 1859, and that had been sad. But John Lawrence had to look after his children, and they had to look after him, and together as a family they got through the grief and made peace with the loss. And it was only as it neared Christmas, as he felt that pull towards a country he now barely knew and was sure he wouldn’t even recognise, that Lawrence sank into depression. Elspeth had known the signs of the black moods and how to avoid them – the children, for all their efforts, could only make things worse; and he lost his temper with them, threatened to punish them for the most trivial things, made Little Elspeth cry – and when he did that, of course, his heart creased up in anguish, but he couldn’t help it, couldn’t say the right things to make her feel better, he couldn’t find that little part of him that would feel better for doing so. And for the first time, as he stared out on all those dry hot acres, full of animals and vegetation that seemed still so foreign to him, he thought about returning to Britain. To give up on Australia, to bring the long joke to its punchline, to go home.
He wrote to his brother for help. And at great expense he had shipped over all sorts of things that would remind him of Scotland. Sparrows, starlings, thrushes, half a dozen hawthorn bushes. A plethora of rabbits. And, in the biggest crate of all, twenty-four young angels, all healthy and wide-eyed and fertile. On Christmas Day itself, as a treat, he allowed his children to open up all the crates. They didn’t know how to react to the array of animals and plants that had never been seen in Australia before, and meant so little to them. He gave the crowbar for the largest crate to Little Elspeth herself – “You’ll like this,” he promised her, and winked – and Little Elspeth grabbed it with both hands, and set upon the wooden box, although it had to be Thomas who actually broke it open. And inside there they were, all huddled together, as if for warmth though it was a boiling hot day, as if for protection though they were quite safe. Their wings were closed around them, and they blinked beatifically in the sudden light. Little Elspeth’s face beamed with pleasure. She thought they looked sweet.
Angels were never meant to live in Australia. That’s the bald truth of the matter.
The damage caused in consequence of the actions of John Lawrence, that Christmas of 1859, is now almost incalculable. But, in fairness to the man, had he wanted to bring a slice of Britain to his Australian home, in the angel he couldn’t have chosen a better symbol. The angel was the very emblem of the British Empire; it was fish and chips, King Arthur and Shakespeare and Good Queen Bess, the British bulldog, the British flag, the British way of life; there was something fundamentally noble and decent about the British angel that seemed to represent the nation’s very core values. And it was widely believed, if you cut an angel in half, it’d bleed out red, white and blue – in spite of the fact that all experiments on the matter proved overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The irony was that when the angels first came to Britain they were roundly hated, and commonly called the ‘Feathered Frenchies’. This was because during the height of the Napoleonic wars they had always been seen to circulate the French armies in battle, and it had become widely known that they had sprung from nowhere, wings and all, in the cities of Paris and Rouen and French-occupied Cairo. But of course the angels weren’t to blame, and they had no political agenda, or any agenda of any kind whatsoever – they were simply doing what angels always did. For all of history they were known to flourish only within the nation that was the most pre-eminent power in the world. That they were now deserting France and flying to the shores of Britain in droves was a turning point; that it was Britain’s turn to rule the waves; really, the coming of the angels was a Godsend to be welcomed with open arms. The people still didn’t like them, though, with their flapping wings and their shiny haloes, and those smug happy-sad expressions always on their faces – and after news reached the shores of the victory at Waterloo, in jubilant celebration thousands of angels were stoned to death in the streets.
But as the nineteenth century wore on, and as Britain tramped its boots ever more confidently all over the world stage, so the angels only proliferated. Britain alone had the angels, because Britain alone deserved them – and ambassadors from distant, inferior lands would visit and look upon the winged beasts with frank envy. And in 1877, as Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, it wasn’t just her homegrown subjects crowding around her in celebration, but thousands of angels too, keeping close as they could to God’s own favourite, laughing and clapping and smiling so wide, and cheering that ick-ick-ick noise they always made.
It was estimated that by the turn of the century there were ten million angels living in Britain. And it was no drain upon the economy, because they only appeared to eat sunlight, and they didn’t take up much space folding themselves up ever so wee. Most families in the country, no matter how poor, kept an angel or two. Overseas, other nations would say that this is what made Britain truly Great – that even the peasant stock could afford their own servants. The angels were pets to the children, could help around the house with all manner of menial tasks, would act as mute companions to the elderly or infirm – and would perform all without complaint or weariness. It is said that at Sandringham House Edward, Prince of Wales, kept ten thousand of them, with regular supplies brought in whenever old ones got tarnished or damaged. He said they amused him. And they were good to hunt.
In the spring of 1861 Thomas Lawrence turned sixteen and reached manhood, and he had done so without the tender upbringing of a mother – a matter which his father privately regarded with some astonishment, and more publicly boasted of as a personal achievement. And in honour of the event it was decided to throw a party to celebrate. John Lawrence would invite the members of the Victorian Acclimatisation Society (committee only), and their wives, and the sons who were old enough (Thomas’ friends, surely?), and they would eat and drink on the Friday night, and then early on the Saturday ride out on to the estate, and not return til dusk, and bag as many angels as they could, and see if they could set a new estate record.
For his birthday John Lawrence gave Thomas the full hunting pink – proper, too, shipped all the way from Scotland, and sold on Princes Street – and he bought him a gun. Thomas thanked him, and the sisters congratulated Thomas, and Little Elspeth, still so small, clapped her tiny hands in excitement.
And at the dinner the night before Thomas was the centre of attention, and drank port, and was made to give a speech, and made to smoke a cigar. And all the men clapped him on the back, and told him he was one of their number now, and all their wives told him what a handsome fellow he had become, and one or two of them even flirted in earnest, and at both sets of compliments Thomas blushed bright red and said nothing.
The next morning Thomas didn’t come down to breakfast, and his father had to go and find him. Thomas was in his bedroom. He had changed into hunting dress, and looked every inch a British gentleman. He was staring at himself in the mirror and had turned a shade of green.
“Are you all right?” his father asked.
“I’m all right,” replied Thomas.
“I was nervous the first time as well,” said his father. “I think I threw up behind the trees, ha! And I was much older than you, this was in my twenties, it was a long time before I was invited to a hunt. You’re better than me, son, in every way.” He pointed out how proficient Thomas was on horseback, he loved his horse, didn’t he? And he knew Thomas liked guns; why, didn’t he remember that time when he was a little boy, maybe he was twelve or so, it was after Elspeth’s death, at any rate – and he’d taken down his father’s rifle, and was pretending to shoot his little sisters, and was making them cry, and how his father had had to belt him within an inch of his life? John Lawrence laughed. And Thomas Lawrence said he remembered. “Well, then,” said his father, “I know you like guns.”
When Thomas left the house, his jodhpurs so new they hadn’t even creased yet, his boots shining a perfect black, everyone applauded. He got up on to his horse. The bugle sounded. Everyone rode out into the open fields. And the weather was good that day – it was warm, but not too warm, and if you galloped hard enough the breeze could even be refreshing. And the angels were in gamesome mood! “Ick-ick-ick!” they’d call to each other; they’d peek out from behind trees, and wave, and laugh, as if this were all some strange game of hide and seek, “ick-ick-ick!” And they didn’t want to make it too hard for the hunters. They never flew more than a few feet off the ground, though they could surely have escaped had they wanted to, risen high up into the air and into safety; no, their huge white wings stay folded by their sides; it was as i they thought anything else wouldn’t be sporting.
John had killed six angels, and was in his element, when a friend asked how the birthday boy was doing, he hadn’t seen him for a while. And John realised he hadn’t seen him either – at the start, Thomas had seemed right in the thick of the action, but now he’d disappeared. And so John abandoned the hunt and rode the estate for a good half hour, letting go so many opportunities for fresh kills, he was that concerned his son was all right. And eventually he turned and rode back to the mansion.
There, outside the stables, he found Thomas. Who was sitting on the horse. Just sitting there, making no attempt to dismount, and staring off into space.
“What’s wrong?” asked his father.
“I’m just tired. I’m taking a breather. Go on without me.”
“Everyone’s wondering where you are.”
“Go on without me, father.”
John said, “Your mother would be so proud of you, if she could see you now. To see what a man you had become. Come back to the hunt with me.”
Thomas said nothing to this. John rode closer. And saw that his son was crying.
“Stop that,” said John. “Stop that. Stop it. Hey. Stop it. Stop.” And he cuffed Thomas, and it was only meant to be a little cuff, just little, just something to buck his ideas up, but it was harder than he’d thought, and had Thomas not been in the stirrups he’d have surely been knocked off his horse to the ground. “Stop that.”
And John said, “Your mother would be ashamed. Why, your sisters would do better than this! Little Elspeth would do better. Oh, this is a poor performance, boy. Your mother would be ashamed, and I’m glad she’s not alive to see this.”
Thomas said, “I wish you had died instead of her.”
John thought about that. He kept his composure. Though he felt that had he not too been so firmly stirruped, he might have fallen from his horse. “Do you as you wish,” he said. “If you want to be a child, so be it.”
And he rode away.
Presently he heard hooves behind him. He slowed so his son could catch him up.
They went into the fields together, without saying a word. There was no one in sight. The other hunters must have chased their quarry right to the other side of the estate. And John doubted there would be any living angels to be found here now. On the grass there were the broken bodies of so many, their faces mostly frozen in that same expression of smug piety, and some of them had their wings raised in front, as if to ward off the bullets, as if as one last futile pose of defiance.
“There’s one,” said Thomas suddenly, and he said it quietly, and John admired him for that; he could hear the excitement in his son’s voice, but he was keeping it close, keeping it within.
“It’s yours,” said John. Thomas nodded.
The lone survivor was picking through the corpses of his fellows. Bending over them, as if looking for signs of life. As if trying to work out why all his friends weren’t moving any more. “Ick ick ick,” the angel clearly said. It hadn’t even seen the Lawrences; John thought the angel must be an idiot.
And then there was an explosion, and the angel seemed to dance, just a little jig – and there was a little spray of blood as it fell over the body of one of its fellows.
“You wounded it,” said John. But Thomas wasn’t listening for the moment, he’d turned, he was trying to retch to one side. John looked at him there, dry heaving, and nothing was coming out, “ack ack,” said his son, “ick ick,” said the angel. “It’s only wounded,” said John, “you’ll have to finish it off.”
John got down from his horse. Thomas stared at him in some confusion, then nodded, then dismounted too.
They both walked over to the wounded angel. It grinned up at them, without accusation. It actually presented them its chest, so that they could appreciate the hole that had been blasted through it – look what I’ve got! the angel seemed to say. And then it started dabbing at the hole with a wing, and the feathers were staining a dark horrid red.
“Put it out of its misery,” said John. Though the angel didn’t seem to be in any misery, grinning away like that.
Thomas lifted the gun. But, “I can’t,” he said.
“Not that close,” said John, “for God’s sake, the recoil will take you off your feet! Step back.” Thomas stepped back. “Raise the gun again.” Thomas raised the gun. “Shoot.” “ I can’t,” said Thomas.
“Ick,” said the angel, sympathetically.
And then it died.
“See? I didn’t need to,” said Thomas. “I killed it once. I didn’t need to kill it again.” And his face broke into the biggest smile, and he looked so relieved, like a little boy.
“Come here,” said John. And Thomas did so, quite docile now. And the smile of relief had a bit of triumph to it now, and was that a swagger in his walk? And John wasn’t sure what to do with him, whether to hug him, whether to cuff him once more, cuff him round that stupid smiling face, knock him clean off his feet. “Come here,” said John again, but there was no need, Thomas was already there, as close as could be.
Then John bent down. And broke a feather off the angel’s wing. And dipped it into the still gushing wound. And daubed the blood over his son’s forehead.
“There,” he said, and his son thanked him.
History has not been kind to John Lawrence, and it’s undoubtedly true his actions had an effect upon ecology that was nothing short of catastrophic. Some commentators point out that in the same year Lawrence had his angels brought to Australia, Charles Darwin published his ‘Origin of Species’, which made great inroads to our understanding of the adaptation of animals. And even if we accept that Lawrence was unlikely to have read the work, or be aware of the latest scientific theories on evolutionary matters, surely he should at least have realised that angels breed? If you put twenty-four angels into a big box, and you give them nothing to do for a few months of transit, what else do you think they’re going to get up to?
He soon learned what now must seem obvious. That serene angels working as servants or childminders, kept busy by their duties, have no time for matters of the flesh. But leave them to their own devices, give them freedom, give them the opportunity to get bored, and it’s another matter entirely. Bluntly, this new strain of Australian angels fucked like rabbits.
By 1866 more than fourteen thousand angels were shot on Lawrence’s estate alone. And the worst of it was that the new angels were hungry. At home they’d been content to feast only on sunlight. But in Australia they seemed perfectly attuned to the dry warm landscape, and there was nothing to stop them exploring the limits of their own appetites, no matter what form those appetites might take. They ate the grass, they ate the crops, they ate the indigenous wildlife population. They ran rampant over the countryside, chewing down upon every bit of greenery and vegetation, cutting off the food supplies of other animals and leaving them to starve. The rabbits that Lawrence had had shipped over had no chance to establish themselves, and died out within months. Within a couple of years the farmland surrounding Lawrence’s estate had to be abandoned to a scale of 3120 square miles (8080 square kilometres); by 1886 the angel infestation had spread as far north as Queensland; by the end of the century they were busy at work devastating Western Australia and the Northern Territory. They couldn’t be hunted fast enough – all landowners were urged to gun down as many angels as possible for the common good – and the angels didn’t care, the angels just carried on smiling, and no wonder they seemed happy as they were slaughtered in their droves, they knew there were still thousands more being born to weigh against the hundreds being shot, they knew the angels were the dominant species now. The speed with which they colonised Australia was the fastest population growth of any mammal in global history – and their rallying cries of ‘ick ick ick’ soon became hated and feared across the land, as insistent as the chirrups of a cricket, as pious and sanctimonious as a hundred thousand quick-breeding monks.
In 1883 the Angel Nuisance Act was passed in New South Wales, which could put a child in prison for six months for letting its pet angel loose into the countryside. By 1907 construction was completed of the largest angel proof fences, running at 715 miles (1150 kilometres) long. It had only limited success; most of the angels worked out that by flapping their wings they could just fly over the top of it. But it meant that the Australian government could feel they were doing something useful.
What is most astonishing is that John Lawrence himself seemed unrepentant of the crisis he had caused. He died in 1871, perhaps before the population boom had reached epidemic levels, but he could hardly have been ignorant of what was happening under his nose, with his own estate being at the very epicentre of it all. Maybe he never understood, and maybe it’s as well; some guilt is just too much to bear.
When the British Empire began to falter, its angel population began to falter too. The rise of Nazi Germany caused some confusion, with angels suddenly uncertain whether to settle in London or Berlin. And though the Allies won the war, the British Empire was lost in the upheaval. The angels began to disappear. The Australian angels, though more vulgar than their forebears, were nevertheless all of British stock, and they began to disappear too. These days there are still angels to be seen in Australia, but they are now a rarity, largely isolated to the outback, or kept in zoos, and a population that peaked at almost four hundred million at the beginning of the 1940s had dropped to only a few thousand by the end of the decade. The effect their sudden absence had upon the Australian ecosystem was devastating, of course, with whole hosts of animals and vegetables, no longer fed upon by the angel predators, now allowed to proliferate unchecked. Stoats, rats, guinea fowl and kangaroos now range free across the whole country, and even within the bigger cities like Sydney and Melbourne there now need to be armed patrols to combat the mass influx of koala bears. But the blame for that, at least, can hardly be laid at John Lawrence’s door.
Today, of course, the angels fill America; they jam the subways; they work as waiters and busboys and long haul truck drivers; they squat in shop doorways at every turn, grasping paper cups and begging for money, smiling, chittering out their ‘ick ick ick’s. They are the byproducts of empire, and the responsibility of that empire. But the Americans are smart. They know what to do with them.
One evening, a few weeks before Christmas, John Lawrence felt lonely in his big mansion, and when he felt lonely he felt hungry, so he went to the kitchen to make himself something to eat. And there she was, the biggest angel he had ever seen, and she was picking at his leftovers.
He goggled at her. “What are you doing here?” he said.
The angel said, unhelpfully, “Ick ick.”
The estate was run over with angels now; he was on his own, there were far too many for one man to cope with. They jammed the fields, even his garden sometimes; once in a while they’d come up to the window and press their faces against the glass, so that their noses splayed wide and he could see up their cherubic nostrils, and he’d have to bang against the pane and shoo them away.
But this was the first time one had come into the house. “Stay here,” he said to the angel. “All right?” And he backed away slowly to the door. “Ick,” said the angel.
By the time he returned with his rifle, and he was as fast as could be, he thought the angel would have escaped. But there she was still, eating his scraps, utterly unconcerned by his return. He pointed the gun at her. She turned to look at him. She put her head to one side, frowned. Frowned not in irritation, but in an almost amused confusion.
He lowered the gun. “Do you want something to eat?” he said. He went to the larder. He put some biscuits upon a plate, pushed the plate towards her, tried not to get too close in case he scared her off. She wolfed the meal down, biscuits and plate and all. “You really are hungry,” he said.
He made them both a sandwich. She had finished hers before he had barely started, but that was no matter, and in a way he felt they were still eating together.
“You’ll have to go now,” he said. And he opened the door. “Go!” he said. “Shoo! Shoo!” The angel blinked at him, looked at the open doorway, and the darkness of the garden beyond, looked back once more, blinked. How could he get her out? He could hardly push her. He didn’t want to touch her, those feathers were caked with dust and soil, he imagined that most nights she slept under a bush.
“Do you want to stay here?” he asked.
When he went upstairs she followed. “I hope you feel comfortable here,” he said, just to make conversation, and he felt ridiculously like he was some sort of bellhop leading a lady to a hotel room, and the angel looked about incuriously at the paintings lining the staircase wall, and paid no attention to the particular quality of his carpets. and he thought she could at least look a little impressed or grateful or something. He showed her into the guest bedroom.
“I don’t know whether you lie down to sleep,” he said, “or stand up, or…?”
But the angel collapsed straight on to the bed, and as she did so she opened up her wings to full span, easily ten feet from side to side. And John had to back away to give her room. “Well then,” he said. “Well then.” And then he added, “You’re beautiful.”
The next morning he brought her breakfast. He tapped on the door nervously. “May I come in?” he asked. It wasn’t as if she could reply, so he entered after giving her ample time, if she required it, to make herself as decent as she might want. She was still laying spread-eagled on the bed. She didn’t stir. He thought she might be dead. He wondered what to do if she were. He had disposed of dead angels before, he’d just put them on a bonfire, but that was out there, outside.
He came back later in the day, and she was still unmoving, but the breakfast had been eaten. So he went downstairs to make her some lunch for when she woke.
And that night he was in his study reading a journal, and she came in, she didn’t think of knocking, she had left the bedroom and he was startled. “Hello,” he said. “Hello!” He felt strangely excited, and a little afraid. He tried to read the expression on her face, but all she did was blink at him, what could you read into a blink? And then she shook herself, just once, and the now dried mud fell off in clumps. “Would you like a bath?” he said, and he felt his mouth go dry.
He filled the tub. Nice and hot. At first the angel just stood in the doorway, didn’t know what he intended, and he had to wet a sponge and press it to her, and the feathers stuck together and the angel frowned. But she got the idea – she came to the water – she sniffed at it – she put one foot in, stood there, half in the water, half out. And she seemed quite content as he rubbed at her body, as he got harder and more confident with each stroke, he wasn’t hurting her, she wasn’t going to cry out – “Ick ick ick,” she said – and he smoothed down her wings, down her hair, down her chest.
Bathing the angel was soon the highlight of his day. He affected an almost scientific coolness to it – “Wash time,” he’d say, “time to get you nice and clean,” – and he never smiled as he patted down her body, as he found new contours to it, as he put his hand deep within the feathers so he could give her a really good scrub. And she affected the same sort of passionless disdain. Sometimes she didn’t even look at him. Sometimes she even yawned. – He thought it was an affectation anyway, he liked to imagine it was.
Every day he thought she would leave; he was certain she’d be gone by Christmas. But Christmas Eve came, and he brought her breakfast – eggs Benedict, something special for the holidays – and there she still was, and she didn’t play dead any more, she’d greet him with a gentle little squawk. “I should give you a name,” he said. “Would you like a name? Shall we pick a name for you?” But he couldn’t think of anything, or not anything suitable at any rate, not anything that didn’t make him blush with guilt, how ridiculous he was being! And she had no names to offer.
In the evening his son Thomas came to visit. John would rather have seen one of his daughters, but they had all married long ago, and they had spread all over Australia away from him, Australia was really such a big place. “Hello, father,” said Thomas, and clapped his father on the shoulders, and said, “Well met, well then.” Thomas came every Christmas, and always with his wife Charlotte in tow, and now it seemed with their baby daughter as well. Charlotte would rarely speak, but she simpered quite prettily, and John assumed that’s why his son had married her. Baby Elspeth hadn’t developed a personality yet, but she looked just like her mother, and John fancied if he looked upon the face closely enough he could see the makings of some future simpering there too.
And Thomas helped himself to a cigar and a brandy, and he poured his wife a little wine, and she gave a mute half-curtsey in response, and Baby Elspeth began to cry. “Happy Christmas, father,” he said, and took his favourite armchair.
“And to you,” said John.
John had hidden the angel in his own room. And he had told her she mustn’t come out. He hoped she could understand him, and he thought she might, sometimes he looked into those big bird-like eyes of hers and felt she knew what he was thinking before he did. He had locked the door behind him, but he worried that the angel might batter it down anyway, those big wings could smash through anything.
“That’s quite a vermin problem you’ve got out there, father,” said Thomas. “We passed a dozen of them just approaching the house, and we halloed at them and shooed at them, and they didn’t bat an eyelid! You mustn’t let them run wild, they’ll take advantage. But I brought my gun. We’ll go hunting tomorrow.”
And that night son and wife and baby retired to their room. And John didn’t dare go to his, he sat downstairs in the armchair and hoped that his angel was all right. And there at last he slept, and his dreams were all about feathers, and breasts wet with soap.
The next day his guests got up early. He had on his hunting gear, and so had Charlotte. Charlotte fetched a spare horse from the stable; she saddled up, and placed Elspeth on her lap. “Are you taking your daughter hunting?” asked John, with surprise. “The sooner the better,” said Thomas. “Too many people sentimentalise them to their children. But I shan’t, and nor shall Charlotte.”
They all rode out then, as a family, as a close loving family. Thomas gunned down a dozen angels easily. “Have at you!” he’d cry out, and “Take that!”, and “Merry Christmas!”, and he’d laugh. Charlotte gunned down some angels too, but she wasn’t a good shot, she only killed four, and then only with flesh wounds – and after she’d tried her very best she’d smile at her husband, and Thomas would smile back, get off his horse, and bludgeon the wounded angels with his rifle butt. Elspeth giggled and gurgled. “Come on, father,” said Thomas, “put some effort in!” So John shot nine or ten himself, but really, his heart wasn’t in it.
Thomas brought back the finest of his kills to the house. “That’s a good plump one,” he said to his father, “that’ll be good eating.” He laid it out on the kitchen table, and clapped John on the back again, as if it were the finest Christmas present.
John had thought his visitors would set off for home that evening. But after his fifth brandy Thomas yawned and said he was too tired, they’d leave in the morning. So they all stayed another night, and once more John slept in his armchair. And at the dead of night he stirred from a nightmare; he went upstairs to his room, he pressed his ear against the door to see if he could hear the angel breathing.
“Well, goodbye, father,” said Thomas the next day, after too long a breakfast, and shook his hand.
“Goodbye,” said John.
“A merry Christmas, and a happy New Year.”
“Goodbye,” said John. And he shook his son’s hand once more, and kissed his daughter-in-law on the cheek, and waved at the little baby who wasn’t even looking at him. And they were gone, they were gone, he was free, at last, they were gone, and he hurried upstairs.
He unlocked the door. He thought the angel would be on the bed. She wasn’t. She was against the far wall, and had huddled down, and her wings had retracted, and she’d made herself ever so wee. “I’m sorry,” said John. “I’m sorry. Are you hungry? Let me feed you. Let me bathe you. I’m sorry.”
And the angel turned to him, and she looked so very sad, and she leaned in, and gently licked his cheek.
He closed his eyes to it. “Please,” he said. “I’m so tired.”
And he got into bed then, as dressed as he was. And the angel got in next to him. And her feathers made him warm, and so he took off his shirt, and that wasn’t enough, so he took off his trousers too. “Please,” he said, “please,” and he didn’t even know what he was asking for any more. And there was nothing he could do with her, she wasn’t a woman, she wasn’t, she was an animal, he knew that, she was a beast. No, he could only dream of that – but he held her, and she held him, and that was enough.
“Please,” he said. “I want to fly. Fly me home.”
He kissed her then, just the once, and her lips tasted of blood and salt.
“I love you,” he said.
And she didn’t respond, she couldn’t respond. “I know,” he heard, and she folded her wings over his mouth, and pressed his nose shut, and the feathers were really so very soft.