Sarah woke up alone with a surprisingly clear head. It was the first time in months she could remember waking without the pounding behind her eyes and a sore body. She’d gone to the pub earlier than usual the day before, and though she vaguely remembered falling a lot, she was fairly certain she got to bed early. She watched from her bed as the day dawned, a faint taste of vodka on her tongue. Her window slowly brightened and an April breeze rattled the pane. She felt like going for a walk, and wanted coffee instead of the usual morning glass of wine.
She dressed and walked to the nearest coffee shop. As she sat at a table by the window with her vanilla latte, she looked at the London tube map on her phone. Perhaps she would go somewhere in the city today she’d never been before. After only living in the city for six months, there were lots of places to choose from. She spotted the Angel tube station; she’d never noticed it before. Images of angels in renaissance paintings filled her head: Gabriel, Michael, and…those were the only ones she could remember from Catholic school.
Angel. She turned it over silently on her tongue. It sounded bright, regal even. Different from the London Sarah knew: grimy, split by a dirty river. London was the place she chose to escape from her parents in Richmond, and she had no problem letting that grime, transported by booze and sex, consume her. In fact, she encouraged it. She needed to be filled by them. They were the only things in her life that could tamp down memories of Neil, and she needed those to be smothered. No one should have to remember a dead brother, a best friend, especially one who died in a pointless, dumb war.
It took almost an hour to get there from her neighborhood in Denmark Hill. She got out of the tube at Angel and immediately saw the flower seller, who smiled at her as he handed a bouquet to a customer. She decided to buy some on her way back. She walked past a queue for the cash machine, businessmen and women taking out money for lunch at a pub, or a sandwich from Sainsbury’s. A crowded pub called The York had a few chairs and tables outside on its sunken patio, where she contemplated sitting. Inside, Sarah saw a man gesturing wildly, splashing his half empty beer on the wooden bar. The bartender and other listeners raised their eyebrows and backed away slowly, as if moving too suddenly would alert him to his own drunkenness. He must have let his one-drink-at-lunch rule slide, like Sarah often did. A few weeks ago, she’d spent a five-hour lunch at her local before being carried home by the bartender who’d just finished his shift. Sarah made the mistake of thinking he wanted to come inside, and she’d fallen trying to kiss him. Thinking of that day, she blushed and instinctively touched her right elbow, which had broken her fall on the concrete.
Continuing down a side street, she saw a man sitting on the cobblestones wearing the tattered clothing of a clown well past his entertaining days. He strummed a guitar, and a tambourine strapped to his foot jingled with every tap. It felt good to be walking around, the cool spring air grabbing Sarah’s scarf and pulling it above her head and into her face. She turned left and crossed the high street. Walking into a two-level shopping centre, Sarah saw the silver angel’s wings in the middle. People stepped around them as if they were avoiding an obstacle, but she couldn’t see anything else. She climbed the stairs to the upper level and sat on a wooden bench outside of a Thai restaurant. Sarah crossed her legs underneath her and looked at the centre below. A couple hugged as they walked, and a little girl waddled a few feet in front of them.
She didn’t want to be like this, unpredictable and unreliable, a bad daughter to the parents that only wanted her to be okay. But she was determined to keep Neil in her mind, which meant the pain would always be there. It only seemed fair, for her to have this heaviness. She’d felt it since he’d left a year ago, smiling and waving as he boarded a plane in his uniform. He said he’d be back soon and they’d make plans for next summer. Neil’s regiment would let him off for a few weeks, the perfect amount of time for Thailand.
Since they were children, it had been a refuge to think of Thailand. When their parents fought, Neil had kept Sarah distracted upstairs with tales of elephants and the beach. When their grandmother died, he’d printed a photo of Angkor Wat for her to keep in her pocket so she’d have something to do with her nervous hands. It was as real a place as their backyard or the supermarket. As they grew older, and their parents’ relationship still wavered, it was the one plan that Sarah could rely on completely.
Then her dad had called with the news. She’d cried for three days, and Thailand began to blur through the tears. The only plans Sarah made now were to find a pub as quickly as possible. She’d been able to keep up her job for a few months after—answering phones in a telecom call center didn’t require much concentration—but soon, her colleagues and boss could smell stale beer and cigarettes on her. She began to come in late and leave early, unable to sit past 4 pm without a drink. Her hours at work waned, and they let her go. Sarah didn’t put up much of a defense. She calculated she could go a few more months on her savings, then she would have to start looking for another desperate way to earn money.
Absorbed in the sight of the angel’s wings, her eyes moved over them as if their iron feathers might suddenly start moving. She repeated over and over in her head: ‘with Angels and Archangels and all the company of Heaven.’ It was the only phrase she knew about angels. Maybe one would talk to her. They always seemed understanding; the ultimate messenger, no judgments. No, they wouldn’t talk to someone whose most recent memories were alcohol-infused, dark, and prickly.
Her parents had moved on—or seemed to, anyway—and were eager to show it by hosting a huge Christmas party. Her mother had guilt-tripped her into coming. It was the one time since she’d lost her job that she wished she still had it, just as an excuse. But without it, Sarah found herself in Rochester on the 23rd of December, smoking on the back porch while her parents’ friends laughed garishly inside.
‘It’s been almost a year, Sarah,’ her dad had said when he tried to get her to join in.
‘Makes no difference,’ she said to the flowerpot next to her.
‘You don’t think we miss him?’ The lump in Sarah’s throat grew. ‘But Neil wouldn’t want you to live this way. And frankly,’ he rubbed the back of his head, ‘we’re worried about you.’
‘Don’t. I’m fine.’
She knew they were trying to help, but she couldn’t let them. They wanted her to get over it, to climb over the wall of grief that had been built in front of her. But Sarah knew that if she did that, she’d be separated from Neil’s memory forever. She wasn’t ready to loosen her grip on him.
‘Why don’t you stay here for a while after Christmas,’ Dad had said. ‘We could make your favourite foods, go ice-skating. All the things we love.’
She’d only shaken her head and lit another cigarette. Sarah couldn’t bear their kindness, their love, when Neil wasn’t there to share it. It wasn’t right, and she didn’t know why they didn’t see that. Early on Boxing Day, Sarah sprinted away from Richmond and spent the rest of the week in a bar. On New Years’ Day, she woke up in her flat with a 45-year-old man next to her that she didn’t remember meeting. That was the first time her flatmate, Marci, said something about her drinking. She said she wasn’t judging, but sleeping with men twenty years older was not the kind of thing she wanted in her home. And that she just wanted to remind Sarah that she let her stay there for almost nothing as a favour to her mom, who was Sarah’s mom’s best friend. Sarah focused on her cigarette while she endured this lecture, forcing herself to remember that she would have to move back home if Marci kicked her out.
As the last light faded from the shopping centre, Sarah watched a pair of pigeons fly up from the ground to the first level where she sat. They reminded her of Richmond Park, which was close to her parents’ home and where she and Neil would go when their parents needed some time to ‘talk,’ aka shout at one another. Sitting on the bench, her sober mind focused on a memory that she wished she didn’t remember. He was so clear in her thoughts it made her ache. It was a weekend two years ago when they’d both come home from uni. They were walking in the park, the azaleas and camellias in full bloom. They covered the landscape in different shades of pink, red and white. Sarah told Neil about the rumours that her boyfriend had slept with another girl.
‘Forget him, Sarah,’ he’d said.
‘But I think I love him.’ She touched the top blooms of an azalea bush.
‘You don’t love him,’ he said, bouncing over a small tree root. ‘I know that because love doesn’t make you feel bad.’
Sarah thought about that for a moment.
‘Listen,’ Neil said, ‘you know how in football matches, you think that they’re stretched out way in front of you, and you can’t imagine how you’re going to get to the end of it because it seems so far away?’
‘Have I ever played football?’ Sarah asked, raising an eyebrow.
‘Alright, no, but you know what I mean.’ His blond hair blew in the springtime breeze. ‘You’re scared to death to start playing, because you’re nervous, the other team looks good, and the stadium is filling up. But the clock starts and you don’t really have a choice, do you? Then time sort of speeds up, and before you know it, the game’s over before you can say Lionel Messi.’
‘I’m not seeing the point.’
‘The point is, Sarah Bear,’ Neil punched her in the shoulder, ‘that life is too short to be worried about the game. You have to enjoy it while you’re in it. So quit wasting time being miserable and questioning yourself.’
A tear rolled down her cheek as the Angel’s wings blended in to the twilight. She wiped her face on her scarf and got up, remembering the flower stand. She approached the stand and the vendor smiled. Choosing a bouquet of white roses and hyacinth, she watched him wrap them in brown paper that crinkled with every turn of the bouquet. He circled lace around the middle of the paper and secured it with twine. Blonde fringe fell across his eyes while he worked, and when he gave them to her, his smile made her return one. She took them and handed him a tenner.
‘No, don’t worry,’ he said.
She frowned, still holding the money out to him. ‘What do you mean?’
‘This is on me, darling,’ he smiled as Sarah’s confusion grew. No one had ever bought her flowers before. ‘Everyone needs pretty flowers to look at. Sometimes they can bring us back to life.’
‘What are you talking about?’ She mumbled as she put her wallet back in her purse.
‘Neil,’ he said.
Sarah snapped her head up. ‘What did you say?’
‘Oh,’ she shook her head. ‘Sarah.’
‘Now these need water straight away, so go home and take care of them.’
‘I will.’ She surveyed his stand again. ‘Your flowers are beautiful.’
‘Thank you,’ he said, smiling. ‘They’re temperamental, you know, flowers are. They need constant care and attention. If not, they begin to die.’
‘But all flowers die eventually.’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but that doesn’t mean they don’t bring happiness to us while they’re living. I think it’s why they’re on this earth.’
Sarah looked again at the bouquet in her hand, and could picture them on her coffee table, the living room bathed in light. ‘Thank you.’
‘Alright, luv,’ he said. ‘Come see me again.’
She descended the escalators and got on a train, resting the flowers in her lap. Sarah remembered she didn’t have a vase at home, so made a plan to stop at the Sainsbury’s near her flat. They wouldn’t last forever, but she would put them in water and savour them while they did. It’s what Neil would want.
About the author:
Jennabeth Taliaferro is a homegrown Texan currently studying creative writing in London. She loves traveling, walks in Regent’s Park, Borough Market, and all the coffee shops in Whitechapel. Among many others, two of her favorite TV shows are Downton Abbey and The West Wing.
Photograph © Peter Jozwiak