Sunday 18 March 2018

Painting the Wings of Angels

 By Cath Barton  

a tot of whisky

Alfie has brought home something wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. He puts it on the kitchen table.

You probably won’t be able to lift it,” he says with a beatific smile. My nine-going-on-thirteen- year-old golden boy.

What on earth do you mean?” I say. And then going to lift it I find that it’s true, the parcel’s too heavy for me.

What the?” I say.

He picks it up by the string between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, as easily if he’s lifting a piece of paper.

Hang on, Alfie,” I say. “Put that down a minute.”

He does and I go to pick it up again and I can’t. And he, again, shows me he can. Easily.

So what is it?” I say.

I knew you’d be wondering,” he says, with that same disarming smile. “It’s a tin of paint. It’s not that heavy, you just don’t have any strength Mum.”

I frown. I’m tired.

It’s for my wings,” he says. “Mr King says I’m to be an angel in the school play. The nativity play,” he adds, unnecessarily, because what other play would they do at bloody Christmas, for God’s sake, what else do they ever do, even with a new teacher who must be crazy or at best thoughtless if he sends children home with heavy tins to paint the wings of frigging angels which if they’re going to do it at all they should surely be doing in school time in a room where it doesn’t matter if they spill the bloody paint on the floor or get it on the furniture.

I don’t say any of this of course I don’t. I do try not to swear in front of Alfie.

Made of gold is it then, this special paint?” is what I actually say and I really don’t know why there’s no good reason and I know it sounds facetious but I’m tired. So tired. It wears me out, this bringing-up-a-child-on-your-own business.

Ha, ha, very funny Mum,” he says, and goes off to his room, swinging his light-heavy parcel by the string.

Mind you don’t get paint on the carpet,” I yell up the stairs. And go and pick up the mess he’s left behind him just coming into the house.

There’s a knock on the front door at that moment and when I open it there’s no-one there. I stand and look up at the hill for a minute or two. There are shapes in the clouds, they could be angels with the setting sun shining on their wing tips. A big bird flies across the field between the house and the hill. It’s the barn owl, a white ghost, fetching food for its babies. It’s beautiful, and I stand there for a minute and breathe it all in. I feel better as I turn back into the house, but I know it won’t last.

I make supper for my baby, though of course he’s not a baby now, never will be again, the days of innocence are behind us. I call Alfie when the food’s ready and he comes clomping down the stairs and stands in the doorway of the kitchen. My glasses steam up as I take the hot dish from the oven and make him seem to shimmer. Then they clear and he’s still shimmering. He looks completely gold. I blink and he’s not gold at all. Sometimes I worry about myself.

After supper I tell Alfie he can play on his Xbox for half an hour and I pour myself a stiff whisky. Drink it while I do the washing up. I’m doing this most nights now.

Before he goes to bed Alfie tells me that he’s painted the wings. But he’s not going to show me he says, I’ll have to come and see him in the play if I want to see them. There’s no sign of anything like wings in his bedroom and I can’t think where he could have hidden them though there’s a smell of something like marzipan. I wonder if he’s been sniffing whatever was in that tin.

The next week there’s a parents evening at the school and I get a babysitter for Alfie and make myself go.

Mr Davies not able to come?” asks Mr King.

He should know that Mr Davies never comes because Mr Frigging Davies has not lived with us since Alfie was two and the school are well aware of that and Mr Sends-Children-Home-With-Tins-of-Paint King should have made it his business to find out about the circumstances of the children for whose welfare he has responsibility.

No,” I say, “it’s just me.”

He tells me how well Alfie is doing in school. I say that I was a bit surprised about the paint and he pretends to be surprised too.

Paint?” he says.

I’m feeling really tired and all I really want is to get home so that I can pour out a couple of fingers of whisky, it gives me strength albeit only temporarily and perhaps I should start taking the anti-depressants again too though you’re not supposed to mix them with alcohol and

What paint?” he’s asking. “We would never send a child home with paint.”

So I ask about the play and he laughs and says they haven’t thought about it yet but what a good idea, Alfie would make a brilliant angel, he’s got such a beatific smile.

And now I have to face the truth about that parcel and wake up to the fact that the drug dealers are at the school gates and it’s probably too late for Alfie already and I want to cry and confide in Mr King even, but there’s a queue of other parents and he’s smiling in a distracted kind of way and saying how nice it is to meet me and that he hopes Mr Davies will be able to come with me next time and then he’s stretching out a hand to the woman behind me. It’s only ever the mothers who come you’d think they’d realise but oh no.

When I get home Alfie’s watching TV with the babysitter. She snaps it off as soon as I walk in the room.

What were you watching?” I ask.

She is evasive and Alfie is giggly and I think I can smell the marzipan smell again and I go all cold inside as I realise she must be the dealer oh my god and I don’t know what to say so I say nothing and Alfie goes quiet but I am so tired what can I do I just don’t have the strength.

I don’t mention the wings again. Or the paint.

When I get up in the night Alfie is standing in the doorway of his bedroom. He’s gold, pure gold. I blink and he’s a little boy and I want to cry because he isn’t going to be my little boy much longer and I can’t cope but I mustn’t cry in front of him so I smile and turn him round and bundle him back into bed.

I’m sitting on the sofa. I don’t know how long I’ve been here or what time it is. The whisky bottle is on the little table next to the sofa. Nearly empty now. And I’ve got the pills in my hand and I’m jiggling them. I hear an owl hoot and that makes me smile. And I think about my boy and his angelic smile and I know I’m not going to take them, those pills, not today, because tomorrow is another day and somehow we’ll get through, my golden boy and me.

About the author  

Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in Wales. Her novella The Plankton Collector will be published in September 2018 by New Welsh Review. Cath is on the 2018 Literature Wales Mentoring programme, working on a collection of short stories inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch. @CathBarton1

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