Then the Angel was gone, taking the burnished air with him and leaving darkness to settle around Sibyl’s bed. She could have sworn she heard the echo of his footsteps diminishing to nothing. Did angels wear shoes? Didn’t they just take wing to realms of glory?
“Where am I? Where am I?” Sibyl hoisted herself upright in fright. Or thought she had. The ditchwater light of a January morning filtered into the space around her. “I thought I was in Heaven!”
“Not exactly,” smiled Nurse Julia, spruce and sprightly. “You’ve had a good night, went out like a light, so I hear.”
“I saw an angel.”
“’Course you did, Mrs Ritchie. It’s the only qualification for a job here!”
Sibyl submitted to having her pulse taken. “Where am I?” she asked again, feeling unwontedly feeble and foolish.
Nurse Julia was silent for a moment, concentrating on her task. “You’re in Addison’s Hospital, Mrs Ritchie. You came in last night after....a bad fall.” She was jotting something down on a clipboard.
“Are they my records?”
Nurse Julia nodded. “Have to keep a close eye on you, see what’s going on.”
“In biro? He won’t like it in biro. You want to use a proper fountain pen!”
Nurse Tasmin, apparently needing to consult her colleague before going off-duty, came to Sibyl’s bedside. “Hi! You lookin’ lots better today. You sleep well?”
“I saw an angel,” repeated Sibyl mistily.
“It talked to me... Went off through the wall. Over there! Didn’t you see it?” The patient began to exhibit distress and some of the old tension pinched her mouth, the features buckling under the heat of her inbred zealotry. Her body seemed to be trapped in a straitjacket which had the effect of blinkering her sightline.
The little filippino shook her head. She fidgetted around the bedside cupboard. “Not angel, Miz Ritchie,” she beamed. “Your daughter! Look, she leave this..."
Sibyl inclined her head in a slow, wearisome way towards the cloth-framed photograph, subject unknown, she had once surprised on Annabel’s landing, bowered by a leafy pot plant. A flight of associations was playing tag in her brain. A spectre, half-tame, half-wild, brushed against the underside of reason. She had a notion of déjà vu. Her whole visage remained bleak and expressionless. “No,” she said slowly. “That’s not her. Her name is Annabel.”
Annabel was larding her face with cold cream and tissuing off the greasepaint in a rush. The elation which had built up on both sides of the footlights was punctured when the announcements had been interrupted and were hastened to a close. A cascade of incidents ensued which produced the scalp-prickling certainty that not only had her mother attended the performance as Dolly Fielding’s guest, but she had suffered some kind of cardiac trauma and had been rushed to Addison’s Accident and Emergency Unit. Sibyl, obsessive to the end, had managed to steal the show’s thunder and skew the pivot of attention away from the winners of prizes and the plight of the terminally ill.
Abandoning a flabbergasted Dolly at the stage door and enlisting someone to take care of her, Annabel jumped into her car and sped through windswept streets, frustrated by red lights all the way to the hospital. By the time its gliding doors had ingested her and she had made enquiries and been told to await the doctor on duty, Sibyl had been removed to a quiet side ward on another floor, out of earshot of off-the-street feuds and domestic casualties causing a rumpus near the lobby.
“Well, Mrs Lovelace, what can I say?” said the harassed young houseman. “Your mother’s no longer in her prime...”
“But how is she? What happened?”
“She’s fairly stable, doing well in the circumstances. Her hip is broken in two places and she’s sustained a stroke. We think there’s been a recent heart attack...”
“You mean...not tonight?”
“No, probably sometime during the last week or two. You weren’t aware of any symptons, no chest pain? No nausea? No confusion?”
“No, not a thing! I’m sure she’d have mentioned it,” said Annabel, suffused with guilt at her cowardice in shelving exposure to Sibyl’s haranguing script. “She’s apt to describe her ailments in minute detail.”
“There’s commonly a measure of intuition about the more critical ones. Patients are sometimes in denial, inclined to pass off the warning signals. They don’t like to dwell on death or admit they’re losing control.”
Annabel looked haggard now that the shine had worn off the evening. Her fingers swept back her disarrayed mane and her unfastened trenchcoat was slipping off one shoulder. “May I see her? Has she....has she asked for me?”
“She’s quite heavily sedated, Mrs Lovelace. Yes, you can see her, just don’t expect too much.”
From the first bud of memory, it had been Annabel’s downfall to hope for ‘too much’ of her mother. If her thoughts had ever run upon the closing instalment of Sibyl’s days, they were nothing like this. She had wanted the light to break in, a New Testament metamorphosis crowned with scenes of reconciliation. Eventually, sheer logic prevailed: there could be no reconciliation where there had been no hygienic bond. The best that could be hoped for was mutual tolerance. If only there had been a sibling to alter the political balance and absorb some of the interest!
As she paced the wide corridors, an army of past incidents stormed her mind, but the sight of her parent speechless behind an oxygen mask and under blankets humped over a cage brought to mind a wounded raptor. There was no end to the pathos leeched by a temperament bound to confound itself. The digital pulse of the heart monitor told its own story of a grim clutch on existence.
Annabel drew up a chair. “Mum, can you hear me? Mum, it’s me.”
The old woman’s eyes were mica slits and the skin around one socket darkly scored by a bruised cheek. Across her face was a peculiar diagonal furrow suggesting a sword-smite from civil conflict. “You’ve taken your time,” she said in an anaemic tone.
“Not my lucky night. Red lights all the way.”
“Annabel won’t be coming, that’s for sure. They won’t let her sort in here.”
Annabel’s blood ran cold with the familiar sense of exclusion and felony which had blighted daughterly feeling since the year dot. She was about to say: Mum, it is me. It’s Annabel, your daughter. But a sixth sense made her hold back.
“They check your records,” muttered Sibyl. “She won’t do here.”
“Oh? Why’s that?” Just as she had exploited any narcotic thread in the yarn between them over the years, Annabel seized the chance to ply with the momentum now.
“Gone to the bad. Babylon.”
“That’s a long way off..”
“I knew there’d be angels...”
“You’re in the right place.”
“They can’t find God. He’s gone for a kip.”
“Well, I expect even God needs to put his feet up occasionally!”
“Good thing you remembered your lamp. No oil in mine.” Sibyl retreated behind closed lids. There was a lot of activity under the crepey skin, as though she were watching a video. She began to make a soft pining sound quite unlike her usual cantankerous mantras. “Annabel’s...out of reach...”
“I don’t tell her...about the sins...unto the third and fourth...”
“I’m sure you have told her, Sibyl,” said Annabel tiredly.
The old lady was showing signs of vexation. “No! She’s no idea...about her Dad…”
Stunned, Annabel waited. Had her mother known about Edwin’s sweetheart, after all, and about the tragic drowning of Jenny and little Jeannie in the Don?
“...about her real Dad.”
“Her real Dad?”
“His...his cousin?” Annabel hazarded after a precipitous pause.
“Bruce, that’s right. I’ve had to answer for it!”
Annabel, sitting utterly still, spent a captive breath. Her thoughts raced while she tried to assimilate the information. She could not for the life of her imagine how it had come about. Was Sibyl rambling? No, Annabel was fully persuaded she wasn’t! There had been a magnetic pull between herself and Bruce, an Emmaus-like warmth within. He had been generous and welcoming, so cheered by her visit. He knew. Or thought he knew. She bit back tumultuous tears.
“Why didn’t you tell her?” she couldn’t stop herself blurting out. “You might have told her after Edwin died. She had a right to know.”
“I’m a Christian! I had to keep the truth from coming out!”
The blast of anger on Annabel’s tongue turned immediately to ash. What a price Sibyl had paid for her sclerosed heart! And what a price she had extorted from others to see it supported! Her long internment in morbid shade had been thick with dread, her God an ironic Jehovah laying in wait to set the axe to the root of the tree. If he was not to be assuaged, he had to be outwitted. He had to understand that she was an innocent abroad, else she’d be accused of double-dealing.
The cardiograph, transcribing a burst of activity, fell into a steadier rhythm. All those years! Had Edwin uncovered the truth? Even if he had, he would have looked upon it as a necessary atonement for his own misdeeds. Was it why he had been so ready to crush any whisper of perceived delinquency in Annabel? Was it also why they had been unable to ‘gel’? Had his disaffection with his cousin been provoked by more than the disgrace of Bruce tethering himself to a divorcee? Poor Edwin had not featured in any context since the tragic affair of his youth and had probably judged that he had no right to do so. Nevertheless, he had shored up the breaches with a firm resolve to see his sentence discharged.
The ‘light’ Sibyl had so desired for her daughter had broken upon her! Annabel was not distressed by her ‘third person’ status. It was in keeping with her lifelong covenant with Sibyl who had held her at a strenuous remove. Claims had been made on the ‘you’ when the perception was intractably ‘she’. The sum of ‘you’ and ‘I’ would have been ‘us’ (an unthinkable concession in Sibyl’s terms when Annabel was Annabel) whereas ‘she’ could be relegated to ‘them’. Annabel began to think that the whole of Creation must be constructed on a system of overlapping triangles whose unstable corners begged the safety of interdependence.
As she tiptoed down this thought-path, the very air about her shimmered with change. Sibyl appeared to be tangled in some trance-like adventure, her closed off face describing a gamut of responses. You could almost believe she was on another line and that her conversation with Annabel was blending into some much higher Conversation, out of ordinary time. Annabel’s being was borne up on wings of peace, tremulous as a dove imparting the lifeforce to its mate. That eternal Third Presence was no more than a rumour away, its embrace more devotedly loving than any mother.
At length, Sibyl slipped towards slumber. Finding her feet, Annabel transferred the photograph that had been in the theatre dressing-room from her bag to the drawer unit beside her mother’s bed.
“Goodbye, Mum,” she whispered. “I’ll bring flowers in the morning, though you were never good at accepting gifts.”
Causes Rosy Cole Supports
World Vision, International Prison Outreach, Salvation Army, Emmaus Project, Poor Clares, DogsTrust, BUAV (against animal testing) WWT (Wildfowl &...