The Angel comes to Aziraphale one night when he is by the Atlantic Ocean. It is a starless and moonless night, the kind he prefers now, and the air is still and cold. He is sitting on a concrete bench overlooking the pebbly beach and the quiet, gentle waves. There is some peace here, and he is close to numb. Then the Angel arrives, right in front of him.
The light is blinding in its purity. In fact, it would blind a mortal creature.
Thousands of years have passed since manifesting before another angel with your lights on high-beam came to be considered impolite. Of course, the Angel was out of circulation then, and either doesn’t know or doesn’t yet care about modern celestial etiquette.
Aziraphale’s eyes take a moment to adjust. The outline of the Angel is visible, a body with proportions that would put the Vitruvian Man to shame. Then the cascade of burnished copper curls woven with an array of gemstones, the Midas-gold eyes, the face white and smooth and delicate as Eden’s first arum lily blossoming at Aziraphale’s feet. Mother-of-pearl dust gleams across sleek shoulders draped in the cobalt silk of a robe that shimmers to the Angel’s toes. The wings extend in perfect proportion, feathers neat and diamond-radiant, whiter than those of the peaceful dove released by Noah from the Ark.
If any mortal could have borne witness, without their eyes bursting into flame, to the Angel in this state of grace, they would have been transported into an ecstasy that would linger throughout the rest of their earthly lives. Aziraphale just feels a bit sick, like he’s eaten a slice of pâté de foie gras left out too long in the sun. But he doesn’t want to be rude. It isn’t the Angel’s fault, after all. ‘Hello,’ he says. ‘How, er, lovely to see you again.’
‘Greetings, Principality Aziraphale, former Angel of the Eastern Gate.’ The voice is like honey-sweetened thunder. ‘From my perch in Heaven I sensed your grief, so I have come to offer you solace and consolation.’
Aziraphale tries to smile, tries to speak. He finds that he can’t look at the Angel any longer, his gorge rising as it has done only a few other times, notably several hundred years ago when he found himself in a Tuscan village stacked with bloated bubonic corpses. He’s aware that the Angel smells of frankincense, sunshine on fresh hay, loamy rich soil and cinnamon jellybeans, but it might as well be the stench of putrid maggot-ridden flesh.
He swallows. ‘Oh,’ he manages to mutter, ‘that’s, that’s awfully nice of you, really it is. Terribly thoughtful. Yes.’ He pulls a linen handkerchief from his sleeve and wipes his sweaty face, taking whiffs of Tesco laundry gel until his nausea gets under control. Then a flash of hope—stupid, but still it’s there and he must ask the question. ‘Just wondering, can everyone in Heaven sense my grief? Or only you?’
‘All creatures throughout Heaven, Hell and the Earth can sense it,’ says the Angel. ‘The global rainfall has increased, but fortunately no flooding has resulted as yet.’
‘Ah,’ says Aziraphale. ‘Right.’ The thought of them all gloating up there and down below, he can hardly stand, but the thought that he is spreading misery and potential natural disasters instead of love and joy to the mortals is even worse. What kind of a creature is he? His wings are still white, his eyes still blue, but surely it’s only a matter of time.
‘Our siblings told me,’ says the Angel, ‘that your punishment has been carried out and that everything has been set right. You are free to continue in your role on earth.’
Aziraphale forces himself to gaze up at that perfect, blessed, holy face. And he detects a hint, a smidgeon, of a troubled brow. It looks almost familiar. It looks almost—
‘Do they know you’re here?’ he says, a minor miracle keeping his voice even.
‘Yes,’ says the Angel, with a reassuring smile of pearly teeth, ‘of course. They said it was acceptable for me to visit you, in order to offer solace and consolation. They are concerned for you and asked me to wish you all the best. Gabriel, in particular, wants you to know that—’
‘How nice of them,’ says Aziraphale mildly. He has come to a decision. ‘Well, this has been a spiffing chat, and I feel very much consoled. My grief will soon no longer be detectable, so good job.’
The Angel just keeps standing there. Why won’t he flap off? His golden eyes have sharpened, his stance hardening. ‘That is a lie, Principality. Your grief has enlarged rather than diminished during the course of our conversation.’
‘Oh, well, you know, it’s just like ripping off a bandage,’ Aziraphale says with a shaky, hopefully not-too-hysterical laugh. ‘You’ve helped me face reality, made me buck up and all that, and now I really must be off.’ If the Angel won’t leave, Aziraphale will, although he had hoped to linger by the sea.
He is readying himself to make the leap back to the flat, when the Angel asks, his voice softened to a melodic lilt, ‘What is the cause of your grief?’
Aziraphale gapes. ‘What?’
‘What is the cause of your grief?’ the Angel repeats, infinitely patient and wise and understanding in a way that grates on Aziraphale’s senses like a thousand fingernails scraping down a very large chalkboard.
‘The … the cause?’ Aziraphale splutters. ‘My good fellow, you must be well aware of what … How are you not aware?’
‘I can sense that you have suffered a great loss,’ says the Angel, ‘but I am not aware of the specifics. Our siblings told me that you had befriended something called a “demon” from a place called “hell”, an action forbidden in this era because demons are “evil”, and so you were punished. I slept for so many millennia that it will take some time for me to learn the new ways of the universe. What was your punishment for fraternising with this demon?’
Fraternising. The word alone is almost too much, but fortunately Aziraphale is still strong enough to miracle his memories away as soon as they intrude. He’s also ever so grateful that he doesn’t need oxygen. And he finds himself struck by pity for the Angel, this alien creature from a time long ago, this beautiful stranger to the world who might never get on top of things, not really. Of course, Gabriel and the others will surely never allow him to experience anything that might taint his fresh-as-the-driven-snow purity—except this little chat with Aziraphale, because the chance to rub it in was just too delectable for them to resist.
Aziraphale stares into the Angel’s eyes and steadies himself to leave. ‘Well,’ he says shortly, ‘if you must know, I lost my best friend.’
He is gone through the ether, back to the flat, trying to tamp down his grief enough not to cause a hurricane.
In the flat, a few days or weeks later, Aziraphale tends to the plants, assessing the dampness of their soil. He prefers doing this in the mortal way. He recently found out what the Internet is and has been tentatively using it to teach himself about the care and feeding of plants, along with the maintenance of classic cars. Could he, he ponders as he tenderly strokes the leaf of a drooping peace lily and urges it to buck up, could he somehow obtain hellfire over the Internet? Might demons sell it in a marketplace there?
That is a dangerous line of thinking. They’re all dangerous, though. The road to hellfire is paved with his good intentions, his desire not to drown the earth, but the further he travels down that road, mentally, the more he thinks of—well, of course, he has to think of—but he can’t. He can spend days on end in the flat, coddling the plants, playing the vinyl collection at a low hum, drinking the alcohol, and touching things: the velvet of the hideous throne-chair, the crisp jet-black bedsheets, the sharp edges of tables, the stack of papers he has gathered from every nook, cranny, booby-trapped secret compartment and accessible storage dimension, the cold stone of that crude statue, the smooth carved wings of that sentimental souvenir from 1941, and, his greatest find, the closet stuffed full of real human clothes, accessories and jewels dating back at least a hundred years. He can wrap himself in those clothes and lie on the bed, breathing in the Tesco laundry gel, another human affectation, with other scents beneath. He can check on the Bentley in its secure underground parking space, shine its paint and metalwork with the slow effort of his hands until it’s blood-warm, get into the back seat, curl up and lie there for days. But he just can’t bring himself to think.
Which means he can’t read books or any of the papers. Aside from the Internet, made safe by its clinical electronic buzz and sans-serif fonts, he hasn’t been able to read anything at all. It’s not that he doesn’t want to, it’s that he can’t follow more than a few words while he expends most of his energy attempting to control his mind. Handwriting is particularly difficult, unravelled yarn that loops across the comforting blank spaces of a page.
Another curious symptom of Aziraphale’s condition is that food no longer has a taste. He has nibbled on several of his favourite items, and they’ve all registered on his tongue as dry, plain Weetabix; in other words, edible sawdust. And alcohol tastes like a duck pond.
He knows that he is experiencing what modern psychiatry has dubbed ‘anhedonia’, and what the poets have for a long time known as ‘melancholia’: everything that once brought him joy has lost its savour.
How odd, to have feared almost this precise situation for thousands of years, but never to have expected, deep down, it to happen. Never to have mentally prepared for it the way he should have, the way that mortals do. Perhaps the broken-glass slice of pain at merely contemplating this situation should have been enough to clue him in, to let him know it would be unbearable.
Aziraphale realises he has been sitting on the throne-chair for some time, possibly days. It’s dark, rain falling steadily against the tall windows, droplets trailing down, down, sparkling against the streetlights. The plant mister is cradled in his lap, and his extremities have all gone entirely numb. He could stay here until the end of time.
Then the Angel comes to him again, filling the flat with excessive illumination.
‘Oh, hello,’ Aziraphale says, as politely as possible. ‘Would you mind, if it’s not too much of a bother, turning that down?’
‘Turning what down?’ asks the Angel, glancing around.
‘Your light,’ says Aziraphale. ‘It’s awfully bright. I don’t mean to criticise, but I really must let you know that manifesting before another angel in this state is no longer de rigueur—I mean, it is no longer considered acceptable behaviour.’
‘Oh.’ The Angel frowns slightly, and his starlike beams diminish until they are a warm, buttery glow. His robe is silver today, and a white-gold tiara of sapphires glistens in his perfect, glossy ringlets. ‘Is this an acceptable level of radiance?’
‘Yes. Yes, quite. Well done, dear boy.’ Aziraphale tries to smile, tries to seem pleasant and welcoming. ‘Feel free to tuck away your wings, too, so they don’t catch on anything,’ and the Angel does, sweet and unquestioningly obedient as a golden retriever pup.
None of this is the Angel’s fault. He didn’t ask for this. He doesn’t even know what’s going on. Usually Aziraphale would feel some kind of tenderness for such a helpless, friendless, innocent creature, but under the circumstances—well, he’s ashamed of himself, but aside from pity he only has an awful, crackling spite. And those rotten tides of disgust, like the oldest excrement-blackened waves in the deepest sewer tunnels, unsettling and nauseating. Still, he absolutely refuses to be rude.
‘I have not told the others of this visit,’ announces the Angel, with what might be a hint of uncertainty. ‘They believe I have come to London solely to feed hungry children and tend to an ailing elm tree.’
Ah. Aziraphale is a tad stunned, as though he just lightly conked himself on the head against an overhanging bookshelf, but he carries on. ‘You came to visit me of your own free will? You … you snuck out of Heaven? Is that what you’re saying?’
‘It’s your grief,’ says the Angel. ‘It doesn’t trouble our siblings, because after millennia of watching over the earth they have become somewhat immune. But I had never sensed emotions of this kind before. And yours are overpowering.’ The Angel clutches his head in both hands, and his voice has lost its tint of honey. It almost sounds—well, he almost sounds like—but it can’t be. It is simply the sound of a freshly shucked Angel with his first ever headache. When the Angel lowers his hands back to his sides, his face is serene, his golden eyes calm and determined. ‘I have decided I must help you, however I can, for both our sakes, and for the sake of the mortals and the earth.’
‘I see,’ says Aziraphale, quietly. ‘And how do you propose to do that?’
‘I will be your friend,’ the Angel says, bright, soft, without a single ill intention.
‘Yes.’ The Angel extends his hands, the slender fingers tipped with round coral-pink nails, clearly expecting Aziraphale to seize them in gratitude. ‘You may confide in me, Principality, and I will guide you out of your grief.’
Aziraphale simply can’t help it—he bursts out laughing. ‘You? You, of all creatures?’
The Angel’s hands droop, and there’s hesitation in his eyes. The same slight darkening of his brow that Aziraphale had noticed before.
Oh, get a hold of yourself, for Heaven’s sake.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says, taking a deep breath, wiping his eyes, ‘it’s just, if you only knew.’
After withdrawing his hands, the Angel fidgets with the fabric of his robe, his eyes lowered. ‘I see. I am not welcome here. I have displeased you.’ The way his voice drops, and the textured edge to it, like an uncut stone, and the ember-heat of it—
‘No, no,’ says Aziraphale and gets to his feet. He wants another chance to clasp those hands. Pathetic, weak, but then why should he be anything but? ‘No, you haven’t.’
‘It is because you are angry, then, at our siblings. You have not forgiven your punishment, and I remind you of their retributive actions.’
‘Yes!’ He’s relieved, thrilled really, that he doesn’t have to tell the truth, to explain anything. And surely it’s close enough to the truth, anyway. There’s an element of truth.
‘But they will not help you with the burden of your grief,’ says the Angel, meeting his eyes again, ‘while I desire to make an attempt.’
It sounds simple, neat, clean. Surely it could not be any more complex and thorny.
Aziraphale doesn’t want the Angel to leave, because of those glimpses, those remnants, that blasted hope-is-a-thing-with-feathers. And he doesn’t want to wound this lonely, naive being of pure light and harmony. Yet his body revolts and pours loathing out as sweat, stoking flames beneath a cauldron of nausea, putting his heart through its paces until he miracles it silent, but even then there’s a pounding pulse within him, a panic, begging him to make the Angel go away.
‘Please, give me the courtesy of a few days,’ he says. ‘Let me think it over.’
‘Very well,’ says the Angel, ‘three days,’ and is gone.
One diamond-white feather remains, drifting to caress the stark grey floor. When Aziraphale bends to pick it up, when he takes it in his numb fingers, his body is suffused with warmth and love and peace until, disgusted, he crushes the feather in his fist.
But then he settles it back on the ground, smooths it, strokes it, leaves it be. Sits cross-legged beside it, keeping vigil.
Sometime later, after the sun has risen, set and risen again, he runs the tip of his left index finger along the curved spine of the feather. He thinks of ink as it spreads through blotting paper, tendrils leaching, consuming, overwhelming. Now the feather is onyx with a hint of agate, the lustre of obsidian. Now it could be from Noah’s raven.
Aziraphale puts it in the breast pocket of his jacket.
As promised, the Angel returns on the third day. Aziraphale is sitting on the edge of the bed, a long black woollen coat clutched on his lap.
A few hours ago he removed it from the closet for the first time—he had only just begun to look through the piles of winter-wear at the back—and felt a rectangular lump in an inside pocket. It bent slightly in his grip, rustled faintly when he released it. Clearly a thin trade paperback, perhaps poetry or a novella. He could smell it through the wool and the cologne: poor-quality paper, glue, ink, all from about fifteen years ago. With his heart stilled, his eyes closed, he laid the coat on the bed and slid trembling fingers across the merlot-red silk lining, rubbed his thumb along the opening of the pocket, gentle, before he stooped over the coat, holding the collar to his face, breathing in, pressing his forehead to the soft wool. He sat on the bed and pulled the coat into his arms, cradling it to his chest.
Now the Angel has manifested in the room, wings retracted, radiance on low-beam, and is staring at Aziraphale with concerned curiosity, as though he has a mysterious rash on his face. Aziraphale hasn’t moved. He just needs a bit more time to collect himself, that’s all.
‘Is this your dwelling place?’ the Angel asks, after another few minutes have passed.
Aziraphale finds his voice. ‘No.’
‘But you are residing here?’
‘Yes.’ He clutches the coat tighter. ‘I need more time to think. Possibly a month or so, maybe a year.’
‘Your grief has now caused minor global flooding,’ says the Angel, sounding like a stern headmaster. ‘Our siblings do not appear particularly concerned, but the mortals are worried that something called “climate change” is happening earlier than expected.’
Aziraphale registers this. ‘Have any …’ He clears his throat. ‘Have there been many casualties?’
‘No human casualties as yet,’ says the Angel. ‘But many other creatures have lost their lives: thirty-seven mammals and seventeen reptiles. Some were companions to humans, who are saddened by their loss. Would you like me to list them by species?’
Reptiles. Companions. ‘No, please don’t.’ His head is pounding. He rubs his eyes and dampens the pain with a miracle that leaves him exhausted and beautifully numb. ‘I suppose it can’t wait, then, can it?’ First, he will find a way to reassure the Angel. Then he will look at the book—that will be the last thing to look at here, or anywhere. He can’t face oblivion until he at least knows the title of the book.
The Angel’s gaze is steady and compassionate, and he tilts his head like an elegant waterbird as he nods. Damn him to Heaven. Bless him to Hell.
‘I will make every effort,’ Aziraphale says, ‘to end my grief as soon as possible. You have my word.’ He stares up at the Angel and tries to appear unflinching, his chin high, jaw set, shoulders back, as though he knows exactly what he’s doing. And he does, doesn’t he? It shouldn’t be too hard to locate some hellfire. He’ll start with the Internet, as planned; he’ll ask Newt for advice on marketplaces. Yes, that should be easy enough.
The Angel says, ‘It will be physically impossible for you to cease mourning until you acknowledge the source of your grief and discuss it openly with a friend. There are five stages of grief, and I am certain that you are still in the first stage, denial. I have been reliably informed that the word “denial” does not refer to a major river in Egypt.’
Aziraphale chuckles. ‘I see you’ve been dipping into the self-help shelves at Waterstones. Or have you come across the television personality who calls himself Dr Phil?’
As soon as the words leave his mouth, he realises they were a mistake. They make him think of a small boxy television in the corner of the servants’ quarters, two hideous beige pleather armchairs, bony stockinged feet up on the faded embroidery of an ottoman, a plume of smoke from a thin white cigarette in a silver-tipped ebony holder, the bark of a laugh at the bald American moustachioed man lecturing a teenager on the screen.
You really shouldn’t smoke in here.
Why the Heaven not?
We could get the sack!
They would never! That boy is a menace, they rely on us to keep him from pulling the heads off kittens.
And whose fault is that?
He’ll end up on this show one day, the way things are going. If the world doesn’t end, that is. This Dr Phil fellow will sort him out. Not one of yours, is he?
I haven’t heard of him, and I very much doubt that the son of the US ambassador would—
Shh, angel, it’s just getting to the good bit.
Please, my dear, would you put out that infernal cigarette? The smoke gets in my eyes.
Oh, fine! Fine. Can’t have any fun with you around.
Aziraphale’s eyes are watering. ‘Oh,’ he says, not sure where he is. The flat—right. The bedroom. Where is—? Oh, the Angel, of course. That blasted Angel.
‘It might help if you discuss the source of your grief,’ says the Angel, who is still standing there before him, patient and kind yet stern and commanding, as nauseating to Aziraphale as a radioactive isotope is to a mammal.
‘Ah, the source of my grief,’ says Aziraphale, while he observes that very thing. ‘Right, well, as I said, I lost my best friend, and I would prefer not to discuss it further.’ With what he hopes is an aura of dignity and fortitude, Aziraphale sets the coat on the bed beside him, gets to his feet and walks towards the door.
And then finds that he can’t move. He can’t even blink. Oh, fuck.
The Angel is standing in the doorway. ‘You will not leave this room until we’ve had a discussion.’
Aziraphale’s mouth can move again, then his throat, his lungs, his entire face. Nothing else. He coughs. He forces himself not to shout, not to curse and threaten, but he can’t hide his simmering fury. ‘This is not sporting, old chap.’
‘I don’t know what that means.’
‘It is blatantly unfair. Uncalled for. Rude and … and very mean-spirited.’
‘Tell me about your lost friend. Or would you like it if humans begin to drown?’
The Angel’s eyes widen with alarm, and there’s a flicker of pain.
Good, serves him right.
But it doesn’t. Because, Aziraphale has to remind himself yet again, this isn’t the Angel’s fault. And the Angel is just trying to help.
‘I do apologise,’ says Aziraphale. ‘That was unkind. Your heart is in the right place.’
The Angel looks puzzled, mouth downturned slightly. That mouth. That same mouth, but unlined, lips fuller, pinker. That same jawline—well, almost, it’s slightly more square. Those cheekbones but perfectly symmetrical. Everything symmetrical and smooth and pure and calm and wise. Oh, how Aziraphale loathes him. ‘I don’t have a heart.’
‘It’s a figure of speech!’
‘Tell me about your friend.’
‘Fine.’ Think of the children, the elderly, the ill. Think of the rosy-cheeked babies in their cribs. Think of the helpless guinea pigs and bunnies and doves; think of the reptiles, the snakes, in their temperature-controlled habitats, as the water cracks the glass, as it pours in. Seventeen times. Swollen bodies turned belly-up. You can’t kill kids. Shame burns Aziraphale from the soles of his feet to the roots of his hair. He gulps. ‘Very well. This flat was my friend’s dwelling place. Everything in here belonged to him. We had known each other for six thousand years.’ Oh, it aches. ‘Is that enough for you?’
‘No. Can you confirm he was the Serpent of Eden?’
What an odd way to phrase the question, like a dirt-digging journalist in a live interview. ‘Did our siblings discuss this with you?’
The Angel shakes his head. ‘I went into Gabriel’s office while he was out adding gold to a statue of himself in Budapest. I looked through your file.’
That’s … interesting. But of course, the Angel has not yet grown jaded and is strongly motivated to assist the mortals, and he must have realised by now that Gabriel and almost all the other angels, certainly all those in power, will be no help with that.
‘You formed an arrangement with this demon,’ says the Angel, ‘the details of which I am now aware. Over the centuries, this arrangement somehow made you immune to the effects of hellfire, while the demon was made immune to holy water. After the two of you helped to avert the most holy and sacred war to end all wars known as Armageddon, our siblings spent some time devising an appropriate punishment.’
‘Eight months,’ says Aziraphale. ‘Six days, ten hours and forty-seven minutes.’ He closes his eyes, almost all of his attention focused on blocking those memories from the bookshop that morning—the sight of Gabriel and the others in their finery, the triumph on their faces, in their voices, the realisation, the agony, his wretched begging. Oh please stop, leave us alone, please, I know I’m a terrible angel, make me Fall, push me into the pit, or you can burn me up, the hellfire works again, please let me step into the pyre, you’ll see.
‘I assume your punishment involved the destruction of the demon, but I am not aware of the details,’ says the Angel. ‘The description was redacted from your file and labelled “Highly Classified” with a red stamp.’
How ridiculous. But Gabriel has always harboured a special fondness for the US government, particularly the Republican Party in recent years.
‘Thank goodness for that,’ says Aziraphale. ‘Now please, if you don’t mind, release me. I am quite uncomfortable being held like this. It is not at all agreeable to me.’
‘No,’ says the Angel, his voice pitilessly sweet and soothing. ‘Not until you tell me more about this demon, Anthony J Cr—’
‘Stop! Have mercy!’ Aziraphale pleads, sweat dripping into his eyes. Power surges through him, not enough to break the Angel’s hold but enough to make Aziraphale’s body rattle against it, tiny cuts opening up all over his skin, red and stinging. ‘Please.’ Oh how he hates to beg, especially now. And how humiliating to beg before this perversion of the natural order, this abomination from Plato’s world of ideas, this unlovable monstrosity.
‘Oh,’ says the Angel, releasing him, ‘I apologise. I didn’t realise that was possible.’
‘I’m sure there are a lot of things,’ Aziraphale huffs, healing all the tiny cuts with an abrupt wave of his hand, ‘that you don’t realise are possible.’ He feels oddly energised, slightly manic, perhaps swept up in the equivalent of a fight-or-flight response.
‘I was just trying to—’
‘There’s nothing for you to do here. I want you to leave. Now.’
‘But we must find a way to—’
Divine wrath spills out, from Aziraphale’s eyes, his mouth, his fingertips, the ends of his hair. He feels the electricity cut off throughout the block of flats. Hears the car alarms blaring from the basement. ‘Be gone! Away with you! Get thee hence!’ When the Angel doesn’t disappear, Aziraphale screams in his face, ‘Fuck off!’
The Angel, stricken-eyed, is gone with the smell of ozone. No stray feathers this time.
Aziraphale sinks onto the edge of the bed beside the long black woollen coat. Electricity soon returns to the building, the alarms silenced. ‘Right,’ he says, panting, wrapping his arms around his soft, quivering body, ‘that showed him.’ He thinks of making himself a nice strong cup of cocoa, then remembers it would only taste of soggy Weetabix.
A few minutes or hours later, he’s still there, staring at the coat. Why is he staring at the coat? Oh, that’s right. He strokes the lapels, traces the seams and cold-steel buttons, bites his lip to keep from saying anything to it, as a few times he has caught himself calling the clothes silly endearments. He slides his hand into the pocket of wine-dark silk, closes his fingers around the paperback and draws it out, takes it between his hands, bends close to it as though it might whisper to him. Helpless, hopeless, he gazes mesmerised at the book, running one thumb up and down its wrinkled spine, the other along the rough-edged, dog-eared pages.
Eventually he is able to read the main words on the front cover. It’s Sputnik Sweetheart, the English translation of a short novel by the popular Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Fifteen years ago Aziraphale had heard of his Kafka on the Shore from a potential customer as she was being swiftly shooed from his shop, and out of curiosity—he loves Franz Kafka’s oeuvre, particularly The Trial—had obtained a copy. He’d enjoyed it well enough but had, as was his wont, moved on to something quite different, deciding to revisit Murakami at a later date. Then Kafka on the Shore had not-so-mysteriously vanished. The tomes he’d just finished reading had always had a tendency to do that, and back in the early nineteenth century he had finally figured out why, and so of course he had never brought it up and always left them out in the open, on the edges of furniture. He was surprised not to find them here, but perhaps they had been donated to various charities, or left at tube stations or on bus seats, tempting humans with the joys and sorrows of free knowledge.
It seems Sputnik Sweetheart is the only book in the flat. Aziraphale presses his lips to the wrinkled front cover, then the back with its torn-off corners, then the spine. He’s doing it again, those awful soppy words pouring from his mouth like treacle, darling, beloved, sweetheart, while his eyes remain dry. In fact, his whole body feels dry as tinder. He tries very hard to read the blurb, straining his eyes and all of his powers to puzzle it out, but the words are akin to a line of ants marching across the worn cardboard.
Aziraphale opens his own jacket—which has become rather grubby and frayed, not that this matters—and creates a paperback-sized pocket into which he places the book.
Now he just needs to call Newt for some advice about the Internet.
Some hours later there’s a knock at the door. Aziraphale is watering a few of the plants, humming to himself, having taken care of business online. It turns out there is a nifty corner of the world wide web known as the Dark Net, or so Newt had dubbed it, and of course hellfire had been readily available in a marketplace there, for the right price.
‘Er, if you don’t mind me asking, why do you want to know about this?’ Newt had asked, sounding as uptight and anxious as ever despite all the sex he’d been having.
‘Please don’t trouble yourself, young fellow,’ Aziraphale replied with a hearty chuckle. ‘I just need to purchase a small occult item, merely a trifle, that I haven’t been able to locate through the usual channels. Toodle pip!’
Now it’s simply a matter of waiting for the demons to set up the hellfire in a safe and secure location and to message him with the details, which they’ve advised will be accomplished asap, definitely by close-of-business within five working days. These demons must be run off their feet and tails with orders: they have a five-star rating and very positive reviews, so he doesn’t doubt that they will be punctual.
Rap-rap-rap. Aziraphale glances at the door. Rap-rap-rap. ‘Who is that,’ he mutters, ‘tapping at my chamber door?’ He smirks and continues to water the viper’s bowstring. ‘’Tis the wind, and nothing more.’ Rap-rap-rap. Perhaps it is a neighbour asking around about the electrical fault and the car alarms, or a delivery person with the wrong address.
By the time Aziraphale has finished with the plants, after bestowing a kiss on each one and telling them how lovely they are, how they are unique and special and adorable, and holding up ever so well, the knocking has ceased. Somehow, a slender brown paper package has been slipped beneath the door. Square-shaped, it could be a book, a box of chocolates or a stack of vinyl records. But there’s no gap—the place is much too well built for that, totally soundproof, sealed watertight with miracles—so the package couldn’t possibly have fit.
Might the Dark Net demons have mixed up his order, despite their positive reviews? Could the hellfire somehow be contained in this inconspicuous object? He wills it safe to touch and to open, whatever it contains, then gingerly picks it up and goes over to the throne-chair, ripping the brown paper as he walks, letting it rustle to the floor like shed skin. He sits on the chair holding a volume bound in plain navy-blue leather, perhaps a sketchbook or a journal. On the front a pink post-it reads, in elaborate, golden, flawless Enochian script, Please forgive me and accept this gift as a token of friendship. It was difficult to obtain.
Aziraphale is surprised not to have any trouble with Enochian, but it must be like the Internet, somehow safe, perhaps because he hasn’t needed to read it for thousands of years.
What if this book only contains modern languages, though? What then? Would he ask the Angel to read it to him? Actually, that isn’t a bad idea: it would keep the bugger occupied.
He opens the book. Oh, it’s a photo album.
Stares down at the two black-and-white photographs on the first page.
Closes the book.
Opens it again. Stares at those photos, then turns the page, then the next, and the next. Drinking his fill, always so greedy.
Aziraphale’s deadly sins are counted out on long, skinny fingers, black polish gleaming on nails sharp as talons. ‘Let’s see. Sloth, definitely. Gluttony, well! Envy, wrath and pride, I’d say so. What am I forgetting? Greed, of course! That just leaves …’ A smirk, maroon lipstick smudged from the wineglass. Yellow slit-eyes concealed that evening, protected. ‘Well, I don’t suppose you’ve ticked that last one off yet, have you, angel?’
Oh, but Aziraphale had—that is, if ‘ticked it off’ can be used euphemistically. More than ten thousand times by then, he had ticked it off. He had become quite an expert.
The surveillance photos are poor quality, faded and intrusive. They are also incredibly beautiful, like the first sunrise, like the first rainfall. Aziraphale traces his stubby, pathetic, southern-pansy fingers over those hapless creatures in their period-appropriate costumes. How stupid they were, those hereditary enemies, especially that angel. How gorgeous that demon was, in all his guises, but what an utter fool to waste his time with that angel, to put himself out on a limb for someone who clearly wasn’t worthy of his attention.
Someone who had reminded him, quite recently, that he used to be an angel.
That undeserving person actually said, You were an angel once.
That person also said, May you be forgiven.
Aziraphale had almost completely forgotten about that. He needs to forget again, right away, and so he takes every ounce of his energy and builds a wall in his mind, and then—
When he comes to, he is lying belly-down on the ground beside the photo album, which is thankfully intact. Sensing a presence in the room he rolls onto his back, ready to defend himself as best he can. He raises his head to see a vibrant figure in a sparkling emerald robe.
‘Oh,’ he says, flopping back down. ‘It’s you again.’
‘You called for me,’ says the Angel.
Aziraphale puts his hands over his face, presses gently on his aching eyelids. ‘No, I did not.’
‘You sent out a beacon through the ether, calling for me.’
Aziraphale is growing indignant. ‘I did no such thing!’ He sits up, takes the album in his arms, gets to his feet and says, ‘Thank you for this gift, it’s much appreciated, and I bear you no ill will. Now, please, if you don’t mind, can you—?’ He was about to say, morbidly, let me rest in peace, but then he recalls an idea he had earlier. ‘Can you do me a small favour?’ He reaches into his jacket and pulls out Sputnik Sweetheart. ‘I’ve been getting the most hideous headaches—grief does that, you know, a common symptom—and so I’ve had trouble concentrating. Would you mind, awfully, reading some of this to me?’
The Angel nods. He takes Sputnik Sweetheart and opens it up, flipping through it, seemingly scanning it with his 24-carat eyes. ‘Someone has marked these pages by folding them. Was it you?’ When Aziraphale shakes his head, the Angel says, ‘On each folded page, some text is underlined. Shall I begin by reading those sections?’
Aziraphale sits back on the throne-chair, the photo album in his lap, and tries not to seem too eager. ‘Yes, please. At random, if you wouldn’t mind.’
The Angel does not ask to be seated. He stands with perfect posture as though about to sing Alleluia with the heavenly hosts, the novel cupped in his hands. His radiance brightens a tad, but not too much for Aziraphale’s sensibilities.
‘And it came to me then,’ the Angel reads, in his honey-thunder voice, ‘that we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.’
Aziraphale winces. Oh, that hurts. Nothing could hurt worse than that. ‘Another one, if you please.’ Just one more, to cleanse the palate.
The Angel closes his eyes and flicks through the pages. Is that the end of his tongue poking from the corner of his mouth as he concentrates on a miracle, forcing the book to give him something that will please Aziraphale? Surely not.
‘No mistake about it,’ the Angel reads. ‘Ice is cold; roses are red; I’m in love. And this love is about to carry me off somewhere. The current’s too overpowering; I don’t have any choice. It may very well be a special place, some place I’ve never seen before. Danger may be lurking there, something that may end up wounding me deeply, fatally. I might end up losing everything. But there’s no turning back—’
‘Stop, please,’ says Aziraphale. Tears are running down his face. ‘That’s quite enough for this evening.’
‘Actually, the time is four fifty-two in the morning,’ the Angel tells him.
Aziraphale takes out his handkerchief, wipes his eyes. ‘Thank you very much,’ he says. ‘I wish you could understand what that means to me.’
‘The time of day?’
‘No, my dear.’ He feels genuinely fond of the Angel for the first time. ‘The quote from the book. I mean, I knew. I suppose I had always known. But this is as close as I will ever come, you see, to hearing him say those words.’
‘Your friend, the demon?’
The Angel closes the book. ‘But our siblings have told me that demons don’t feel love.’
‘Well, they’re wrong.’ Aziraphale’s heart flutters, his eyes moistening again. He dabs at them. ‘Utterly erroneous. Morally wrong too, if you want my opinion.’
The Angel’s brow wrinkles more than Aziraphale has yet seen it—and what a delightful sight that is. Aziraphale feels positively drunk on it.
‘I do not mean to be impertinent,’ says the Angel, ‘but how have you not become a demon yourself?’
That’s a very astute question. ‘I have absolutely no idea.’
‘It must all be part of the Ineffable Plan,’ says the Angel solemnly.
‘Indeed.’ Aziraphale stands up, yawning, and sets the album down on the desk. ‘Well, I rarely sleep, but I’m about to make an exception. Feel free to pop back tomorrow or the next day, whatever suits.’
As Aziraphale turns towards the bedroom, the Angel gives a little cough. ‘Principality,’ he says, ‘I request your permission to remain here until you awaken.’
Aziraphale’s eyebrows are almost at his hairline. He gets them under control before he turns back to the Angel. ‘Not a problem at all. But why would you want to be in this gloomy place with a melancholy outcast?’
‘I wish to read more of this book,’ says the Angel. Is there a defensive bite to his tone? ‘And to examine these plants, and the furniture and so forth. Out of curiosity, I would like to see how this demon of yours lived.’
‘Stay as long as you please and look at whatever you like,’ Aziraphale tells him with a smile. ‘Ciao.’
The Angel returns the smile with the full force of celestial joy, and Aziraphale rolls his eyes as he heads into the bedroom. The poor creature, doomed to eternal perfection, isolated and bright as the star systems he once created.
Had there been a hint of envy, though—a hint of sin—in the Angel’s voice, when he had said, this demon of yours?
Not everyone belongs to somebody; not everyone is that fortunate. For example, Gabriel will never be that fortunate. He will never love like they did. Come to think of it, has any pair of creatures ever been as fortunate as the two of them? Six thousand years together. Still, not long enough to avoid regrets. Or perhaps immortality was actually the source of their problem, because Aziraphale had, for the most part, taken it for granted.
When he gets into bed, he twists the black top-sheet into a long, thin coil, then wends it round his arms and legs. He closes his eyes and tries to delude himself. Perhaps he is not alone. Perhaps they will be reunited.
How can someone as clever as you be so stupid?
A commotion in the bookshop. Bleary-eyed, Aziraphale stumbles downstairs to investigate, calling out, ‘My dear, did you knock over a shelf again? I do wish you wouldn’t drape yourself over everything. It’s alright when you’re a snake, but you really mustn’t—’
In the shop stand Gabriel, Michael, Uriel and Sandalphon. Crowley is on his knees between them. A circle has been drawn on the floor, binding and silencing him; he must have walked right into it through the front door. He’s dressed in skinny black jeans, a black leather jacket, and a black T-shirt, perhaps his new favourite, printed with the rather phallic Andy Warhol banana. Of course Crowley is also wearing his sunglasses, unable to reach up to remove them, but Aziraphale knows him well enough to read the message in the rest of his face: Run!
What an absolute twit. Aziraphale will scold him for this later.
‘Good morning, Aziraphale,’ says Gabriel, grinning his most sanctimonious grin. He glances at his wristwatch. ‘Bit of a late start, isn’t it?’
Aziraphale straightens his stripy pyjama top and glares at each of his former superiors. ‘To what do we owe the pleasure?’
Michael is holding a large book with thick white paper, bound in what looks like pure gold. ‘We come with joyful tidings, Principality. Blessed news.’
Uriel is smirking. ‘We have all agreed to forgive your demon boyfriend here.’
Aziraphale watches one dark eyebrow as it arches above a black lens.
‘Sorry … what?’ Aziraphale splutters. ‘Forgive him, you say?’
Gabriel nods. ‘This demon, Anthony J Crowley, formerly the Serpent of Eden, will be forgiven and restored to his place as an Angel of the Lord.’
Something about this is terribly, horribly wrong. Aziraphale’s skin breaks out in goose pimples, the hairs standing up on the back of his neck. He keeps his eyes on Crowley, who seems just as confused and disturbed. If only the bastards would take off those infernal sunglasses, let him see Crowley’s eyes. ‘And what precisely does that mean?’
‘This filthy, corrupted, befouled demon will be an angel again,’ says Gabriel, his grin widening. ‘Exactly as he was before he began to doubt the Ineffable Plan.’
The penny drops.
‘You see,’ Gabriel continues, ‘we did some research, put on our thinking caps, held a brainstorming pow-wow with highlighters and a whiteboard—and, voh-lah, we came to this fantastic solution.’ He bends down to give Crowley a hearty slap on the shoulder.
‘Wait …’ Aziraphale tries to walk closer but of course they’ve frozen him in place, all of them willing him not to move.
He can break out of it. They can’t hold him for long. A wave of power rises up in him, crashes through his body, shaking the whole shop.
But Michael is reading a few lines of Enochian from the book, and in a matter of seconds it’s over. Just like that.
Crowley is forgiven. Crowley is ascending. A sphere of white light where he knelt, hovering inches above the floor, sparking and crackling, marbled with rainbows.
The angels release Aziraphale, and he slumps, power seeping from his skin, useless, pointless. Hard to draw enough breath to speak. ‘But, but you can’t just—you didn’t —’
His former superiors are radiant with triumph, patting each other on the back. They ignore Aziraphale while he hears himself begging them impotently to give him another chance, to take him instead, put him into the hellfire, anything.
Now in Crowley’s place stands the Angel. He fills the room with sickeningly bright light and a stench as sweetly corrupted as daffodils laid over rotten flesh. Those golden eyes blink a few times, dazed as though he just took a nap in a sunlit meadow.
In one great flash, the heavenly host are gone.
Aziraphale is alone on the floorboards, a chilly breeze rattling the window frames, the rumble of late-morning traffic outside. He’s damp and nauseated, his mind cracked open, not sure what just happened, but still calling for Crowley, calling and calling and calling.
Someone or something is howling in agony. Oh, Aziraphale feels sorry for them, he sends them his very best, but he does wish they would put an end to that awful racket.
Finally, silence. He cracks his eyes open. Darkness. He’s on a comfy mattress. The room smells of laundry gel, familiar cologne and hair products, wine and whisky and tobacco, and organic dark chocolate.
A warm grip on his shoulder, shaking him alert. ‘Aziraphale?’
He clasps the beloved hand. ‘Oh, my dear, thank goodness, I had the most terrifying nightmare. I haven’t had a dream that bad since the fourteenth century, when I couldn’t find you again in Italy, and there was so much holy water being splashed about, remember?’
The hand tightens on his. ‘Principality Aziraphale, you were screaming in your sleep.’
Chilled to the core, Aziraphale pushes the monster away and scrambles off the side of the bed, landing in a rumpled, sheet-tangled heap. ‘Fuck.’
‘I apologise,’ says the Angel from where he remains cross-legged in the middle of the bed. But he doesn’t appear contrite. ‘I did not intend to startle you.’
It’s all too raw and undignified. ‘Get out of here,’ Aziraphale snaps. ‘Give me the opportunity to compose myself.’
‘As you wish,’ says the Angel, and vanishes—into another room or back to Heaven, it doesn’t matter, or at least it shouldn’t matter one whit.
In the ensuite, Aziraphale straightens his clothes and splashes his face with cold water. His eyes look bruised; his face is sallow, his hair slate-grey and greasy. He’s wasting away like a Victorian heroine. He’d rather not cease to exist in this state, so he performs a few miracles—no need to worry about going overboard now—and looks almost good as new, except that his eyes seems as glassy and hollow as those of a porcelain doll.
Rain is still pounding against the windowpanes, and lightning streaks and shimmers across the purple-black sky above London, accompanied by rolling booms of thunder.
Aziraphale finds the Angel seated on the throne-chair. The only illumination in the room emanates from his skin. In a row on the desk before him are four neat stacks of paper, scrawled in a jagged cursive of mingling squid-ink and blood-red.
Oh dear. Aziraphale had forgotten all about those pages.
‘You slept for two days,’ says the Angel. ‘I finished Sputnik Sweetheart, a puzzling tome, then I read your demon’s writings and sorted them into categories. I also learned how to obtain discordant music from those clever black discs—’ He gestures at the vinyl collection. ‘Have you ever listened to the Velvet Underground?’
Aziraphale, speechless, keeps glancing from the Angel to the papers to the vinyl and back again. Is he fooling himself into thinking that the Angel’s hair has dulled and seems slightly tangled? Is he imagining that the gold in those eyes has dropped a few carats?
The Angel gestures to the first stack of paper. ‘Those are the poorly crafted beginnings of memoirs. Each time, your demon gave up after a few pages.’
That dove-white hand taps the next pile. ‘Lists of food, with dates, sometimes places. I’m not sure why. And the stack next to it are all drafts of letters to the editor about various socioeconomic and political issues. Quite wicked, really, the way he would provoke the humans about the humiliation of Brexit, the mistreatment of refugees, and the failure to act on climate change.’
The Angel hesitates, eyes flicking to the side. How thin are his pupils? ‘Those—’ he points to the fourth and final pile, and the largest by far ‘—are your demon’s love letters.’
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Love letters, most of them unfinished. I’ve read them all twice.’ The Angel’s smile is ostensibly beatific, but there’s a hint of something in its shape and in his eyes, something dark and deep, knowing, as though they’re back in Eden and he has an apple pip caught in his teeth. ‘Perhaps the reason you have not Fallen is because you speak the truth, Principality Aziraphale. Verily, your demon did love. These letters are the proof.’
‘I see,’ says Aziraphale. He wants all the details, yearns for them. But he only wants to hear them from a forked tongue. ‘Actually, you know, those letters sound rather private. I don’t think he would have wanted anyone to read them, even me.’
‘You said that I could stay here and look at whatever I liked,’ the Angel responds, plaintive, childish.
‘No harm done,’ says Aziraphale. He walks closer until he’s standing right beside the Angel, the star-bright warmth of him, his sun-kissed smell that is no longer as revolting. Maybe, after another few thousand years, this could be close enough to the real thing.
Aziraphale hates himself for that thought. Would burn himself to ash for that alone.
For now he carries on, looking down at the papers. He will never know their contents. That’s alright—he had the opportunity for several decades, and he let it pass by. ‘I’ll incinerate them,’ he says, raising a hand as he readies himself to will it so.
The Angel’s fingers clamp down around his wrist, a force blocking him. ‘No!’
Then the Angel is clasping his hand again, offering consolation and solace as per bloody usual. Aziraphale shakes him off and stalks away. What does it matter if these papers survive for all of Heaven and Hell to ridicule? Let them be published in the Celestial Observer. Let them provide aeons of hilarity.
Aziraphale gets lost in his mind for a few minutes. He winds up beside a window, staring out at the rain.
‘I must ask you something,’ the Angel says as he approaches Aziraphale.
Their reflections waver like discorporated spirits, subverting the Angel’s symmetry and playing with the length of his nose, the contours of his face, until Aziraphale has to look away or he’ll weep.
‘Well, go on, ask your question,’ he says. ‘Spit it out.’
‘Did you return the romantic love of your demon?’
Aziraphale jolts, shocked. ‘That’s … that’s deeply personal.’
‘You describe him as your best friend,’ the Angel presses, and for some reason Aziraphale can’t bring himself to move away. ‘You grieve for him enough to drown the world. Yet his letters to you are filled with his frustration, insecurity, rejection, jealousy, seemingly unrequited attraction. And in Sputnik Sweetheart, he underlined these two sentences: Of course it hurt that we could never love each other in a physical way. We would have been far more happy if we had.’
‘I don’t—I can’t—’
The Angel touches his face, strokes his cheek with a rose-petal thumb. ‘I know nothing of physical love,’ he says. ‘I cannot understand how those letters have affected my corporeal form with such intensity.’ He leans closer. He smells of strawberry tarts and the unfurling of leaf-buds. ‘Perhaps you couldn’t love a demon, not like that, but do angels ever kiss one another on the mouth, Aziraphale? Is that the custom in this age?’
Aziraphale is shaking his head, yet he is frozen, a mouse hypnotised by an eagle.
But then the Angel pauses, stiffens. He puts his hand over Aziraphale’s breast pocket. Slips his fingers inside.
‘Steady on,’ Aziraphale gasps, shoving him away. ‘What on earth are you doing?’
The Angel is holding a black feather by its quill. ‘This is mine,’ he says. ‘I left this here in the hope it would help to console you.’
Aziraphale is silent.
‘Why did you turn my feather black, Principality?’
Aziraphale maintains his silence. He is a hopeless liar, when confronted.
The Angel is twirling the feather, a mixture of fear and admiration and disgust playing over his face, turning it ugly, calculating, then making it beautiful again, serene and glorious, then a grimace, and it grows harsh, sneering. Familiar enough that Aziraphale could swoon.
‘Because,’ the Angel grits out, ‘you would like for me to Fall, in order to replace your demon and to punish our siblings for whatever they did to him.’
‘What?’ Aziraphale squeaks. ‘No! I … I just touched the feather and it turned black, you see. How silly of me.’
‘I know he had black wings. How he wanted you to caress them. Groom them.’
Blood rises to Aziraphale’s cheeks until his face is burning, probably splotched red and white. He forces it to fade, to cool off. ‘Well, um, I—I didn’t know about that.’
‘But you knew about his wings.’
‘My dear boy, I knew him for six thousand years! He was everything to me. My other half. The better half.’ Aziraphale is finally starting to get a grip on himself. ‘I turned the feather black, yes. But he can never be replaced.’
‘You have been corrupting me. You sent a beacon to ensnare me.’ The honey-thunder voice has become pure thunder, trumpets, clashing cymbals. ‘You asked me to read about the false, tainted love of a demon. You have tempted me, fiend. Polluted my mind.’
‘I am not a fiend, I am a fellow angel, and you said yourself that his love was real. Now stop all this nonsense this instant.’
The Angel is blazing white and hideously good. So self-satisfied and sanctimonious and precious, butter wouldn’t melt in his peach-blossom mouth. ‘I understand why our siblings cannot tolerate you. Farewell forever, Principality Aziraphale.’
The Angel makes a point of whitening his feather before he flaps off.
Alone again, Aziraphale continues to stand by the rain-spattered window. He lets himself remember, now. He lets himself remember everything. For the last time.
The plants will be picked up by a removal service and sent to live with Anathema and, presumably, Newt, although Aziraphale believes she could do better.
Then the Bentley and all the worldly possessions will be sold at auction for charities.
Except for the papers, which will be incinerated after all, tucked beside the novel in Aziraphale’s much-expanded jacket pocket.
Six thousand years is a lot more than most people get. Along with a great love.
When it is time to go, Aziraphale doesn’t take one final look around the flat. He doesn’t shed another tear. He wills himself to the derelict warehouse in Bromley that has been guaranteed safe and secure.
In the next moment he is standing at the edge of a vast room with a high ceiling that leaks and rattles beneath the heavy fall of sleet, water dripping through shattered windows down walls coated with rust and grime. His nose wrinkles at the smell of decayed petroleum, of toxic industrial chemicals, of rusted steel, of rotten weeds and rat corpses.
At the centre of the room, a column of hellfire is merrily crackling away. It lends a tropical heat to the cavernous space, which would otherwise have been morgue-cold.
Millennia have gone by since Aziraphale observed hellfire so closely, so intimately. The flames are smooth and sinuous, crawling up through the gloom, flickering tongues of sulphur and crimson around a core dazzling as an atomic flash. They radiate the acrid depths of rage, the heady incense of lust, the unquenchable embers of curiosity, and the bitterness of disappointment and loneliness. There is also, Aziraphale is certain, the tang of ash that sheds from a heart caught up in a conflagration of love.
He has prepared himself for agony, but not of this kind—not an obliteration that welcomes and tempts and cajoles him, that invites him into its embrace.
The demons from the Dark Net have outdone themselves. And their fee? Why, merely himself, of course: he promised them that if they gave him hellfire, he would destroy an angel, and they could put it in their report to head office.
All he has to do is summon the nerve to walk into the pyre. Then the rainclouds will clear up, and he will be—
‘Aziraphale, stop,’ says the Angel, his voice booming to the furthest, grimiest reaches of the warehouse.
‘Oh, bother,’ Aziraphale mutters.
He realises that, curiously, the Angel is standing to his left-hand side, although angels always manifest to the centre or the right. Aziraphale had believed this to be an innate quality rather than a matter of etiquette. But it’s neither here nor there.
Turning to the Angel, he asks, ‘Whatever happened to “farewell forever”? You’ll never succeed in Heaven if you chop and change all the time.’
‘I worked it out,’ says the Angel, in a resolute tone that makes the floor shudder.
‘Ah. Jolly good for you.’ Aziraphale casts his gaze into the shadowy corners of the room, afraid the team of demons might be lurking. Two angels for the price of one—what a bargain. ‘Listen,’ he says, ‘I appreciate that you came to let me know about your epiphany, and probably to stop me from destroying myself, but you should leave because it simply isn’t safe. And you must understand by now that my grief is never going to end, so neither will those floods.’
The Angel seizes him by the shoulders and stares into his eyes. ‘Aziraphale,’ he says slowly. ‘I said, I figured it out.’ He takes the melodramatic step of unfolding his wings, as though a display of power could ever prove a point … Wait a moment, hold on.
The Angel’s wings aren’t pure white anymore. They are piebald as a magpie.
‘Fuck,’ Aziraphale hisses, glaring at them. ‘Do you have any idea what Gabriel and the others would do to you if they saw—?’
‘Oh, I know exactly what they would do,’ says the Angel, just as emphatically.
‘Aha, so you dug out your own file.’
‘No, I told you, I figured it out for myself. I’m not totally stupid.’
Aziraphale’s eyes fill with tears, his own beatific smile beaming now. ‘No, not totally.’
‘There’s just one last thing I need to do,’ the half-Fallen Angel mutters, glancing at the pillar of flames. ‘I would prefer to retrieve my memories and my form. And I would rather not be shoved into the pit of fire this time.’
Aziraphale frowns. ‘But—how do you propose to—?’
The Angel pecks Aziraphale on the lips. ‘Wish me luck.’
‘Wait—what? What are you—?’
But Aziraphale knows exactly what the Angel is about to attempt.
‘Stop this right now!’ he shouts, reaching out, grappling—with empty air.
The Angel is already in the hellfire. It billows around his dark shape.
‘No!’ Aziraphale screams. ‘Damn you!’ He stumbles closer to the flames, sweat-drenched and panting, his eyes watering, eardrums ringing. He raises a hand to shield his gaze and tries to peer into the white-hot core of the pyre. Is that the fluttering of charred wings? His eyes sizzle in their sockets, and his shrivelling tongue tastes of lapsang souchong. He turns away, blinking furiously. Hot blood trickles from his ears.
Aziraphale is expecting a group of demons to swoop from the corners of the warehouse and hustle him into the fire. Or, worse, nothing will happen: the flames will die down, the demons will send their scheduled clean-up crew—
‘Bit hot in here, isn’t it, angel?’
Aziraphale sinks to his knees and, half-blind, raises his blistered face. Approaching him, serpentine, is a tall, dark, scrawny silhouette with sharp angles and molten eyes.
And the name rises like a benediction to his lips. ‘Crowley.’
He is enfolded in soot-black arms and held, warm and steady. He breathes in. Leather and cologne, sweat-salt and dark chocolate, charcoal dust and Tesco laundry gel.
‘Oh, my darling,’ he says, and passes out.
‘What happened to the bookshop?’ Crowley asks from the end of a bed. The sheets are black and crinkled. Crowley isn’t wearing his sunglasses. He has willed his hair long again, its burnt-carmine curls spilling to the shoulders of his Andy Warhol T-shirt.
‘The bookshop?’ Aziraphale says, then groans as the pounding in his head echoes throughout his body. ‘Oh, what a wretched hangover. Why didn’t I sober up already?’
‘Angel, it isn’t a hangover,’ says Crowley, and suddenly the headache goes away.
‘Thank you, my dear, you’ve made it much easier for me to think.’
They’re on Crowley’s bed, their clothes giving off the taint of hellfire smoke. The room is quiet and lamplit and warm as a sun-drenched rock. Aziraphale props himself up against a few pillows, and Crowley, who is wearing black satin pyjama bottoms with his T-shirt, moves to sit next to him. Somehow they are holding hands. In his mind, Aziraphale gradually pieces together fragments from the past few … the past several … Has it been months? Could it have been years?
‘Can you tell me what happened?’ Crowley asks eventually. ‘You see, bit of a problem, I can’t remember bloody anything. Except I was about to be “forgiven”, but I was having trouble concentrating because I couldn’t move, and that wanker Gabriel butchered le langue français and touched my shoulder—I’m going to eviscerate him, just you wait, entrails will be flying everywhere.’
‘Yes, dear, only he doesn’t have entrails.’
‘Oh, he will. Anyway, don’t know what happened after that, then I woke up in a lovely little patch of hellfire. So, angel, you’ll have to fill me in.’
Aziraphale makes the mistake of beginning with, ‘Well, you died,’ and then he bursts into very loud and embarrassing tears. So much for the stiff upper lip. He wraps his arms around Crowley and latches on to his long skinny body like a sloth, at first fearful of being peeled off and told to keep his limbs to himself, then incredibly relieved when he recalls that Crowley wrote him a whole stack of soppy love letters, presumably with depictions of erotic wing-grooming. Sure, Aziraphale has written a sonnet or two and, yes, one epic poem, but they are all very tasteful—well, except the final stanza of the poem, but he erased it from existence; he wouldn’t have left it lying around the bookshop after his untimely demise.
‘And what happened to the shop?’ Crowley asks, when Aziraphale has calmed down somewhat. ‘I tried to take us there, didn’t find anything. Kind of a … nothing.’
‘I simply folded it up and put it in interdimensional storage,’ says Aziraphale, his voice muffled by the designer T-shirt because his forehead is pressed to the centre of Crowley’s chest. ‘You had died there, and at the time I was still in the—what did he call it?—first of the five stages of grief. Denial isn’t a river in Egypt and all that. You know, from Dr Phil.’
‘Of course,’ says Crowley, in that mocking way where it’s clear he doesn’t understand, though Aziraphale’s explanation was surely comprehensible. ‘And who, pray tell, is he?’
Aziraphale laughs against the T-shirt, then breathes in Crowley’s delightful scent. ‘He was you, as an angel—that is to say, the you from before you began to Fall. Perfect, holy and divine. Flawlessly beautiful and proportioned, the most objectively gorgeous creature I had ever laid eyes on. A Platonic ideal. Pure white skin, silken copper hair, golden eyes, fabulous robes.’ Aziraphale is ashamed to hear the hatred and revulsion bleeding into his voice—such mean-spirited ingratitude, after the Angel sacrificed himself to save both of them.
Why has Crowley gone all tense? He pulls away and leaves Aziraphale bereft and grasping for him to return. Yellow eyes narrowed, mouth tightening. ‘You’ll missss him, will you? He ssssoundsss ssssspiffing.’
‘No. How could you think—? Oh, no, can’t you tell? I despised him. I’m sorry to say, I loathed him. Well, until he began to become slightly more like you. He even started to Fall, all on his own, a few feathers turning lustrously black and so forth.’
Crowley’s scowl has transformed into an impressed sort of smirk, his eyes softening. ‘So, you tossed him into the hellfire. Good for you.’
‘Oh … well, it was more complicated than that.’ Aziraphale doesn’t want to spoil the mood. A half-truth will do for the moment. ‘It was a … mutual decision.’ He reaches up to trace Crowley’s sharp nose and chin, the creases around his mouth and across his forehead. Crowley leans in to the touch. Is he purring? ‘Without you, I couldn’t read books anymore. I couldn’t taste anything. And I may have caused, well, just a smidgeon of global flooding.’
Crowley’s eyes widen and his pupils narrow, the yellow spreading right to the corners. He’s probably recollecting the Ark and all those poor children. Not to forget the unicorns—Crowley has never moved on from the unicorns; he brings them up at least once a century.
Aziraphale hastens to clarify. ‘It didn’t kill anyone!’
Crowley’s eyebrow lifts in arch scepticism.
‘Well, a few animals,’ Aziraphale adds guiltily, ‘but I didn’t know about it at that time. It was quite an accident. You see, I was distracted by being a widower.’
‘A … widower?’ Crowley gapes at him as if he’s just given away the flaming sword for a second time. ‘You do know the meaning of that word, angel?’
‘I’ve been literate and reading almost constantly for several millennia, so you can make an educated guess, dearest.’ Aziraphale runs a hand through Crowley’s thick rust-red hair and smiles up at him, and then they’re kissing for the first time. It couldn’t be more splendid.
There’s a rustling in Aziraphale’s jacket pocket.
‘Whaassss that?’ Crowley asks against his mouth.
‘Just an old book,’ says Aziraphale lightly, as he wills the jacket into another room.
They’re looking into each other’s eyes. Aziraphale wonders how long they can stay in this bed together, trying absolutely everything that will give them pleasure. But first he needs to tell one more truth.
‘I’m in love with a demon,’ he confesses, ‘so an angel simply won’t do.’