Painting the Wings of Angels
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 ten-going-on-fifteen-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, ruffling his hair.
“I knew you’d be wondering,” he says, with his disarming smile. “It’s a tin of paint. It’s not that heavy, you just don’t have any strength, Mum.”
I frown. It’s true that I don’t have any strength. 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.
I think I hear a knock on the front door but 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; he’d be at secondary school next year. 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, looking dishevelled, socks half-off. My glasses steam up as I take the hot dish from the oven and through the clouded glass he’s a blurred shimmering shape. Then the glass clears and he’s still shimmering. He looks completely gold. I blink and he’s not gold at all, just an ordinary, dishevelled small boy. Sometimes I worry about myself.
After supper I tell Alfie he can play on his Xbox for half an hour. He goes up to his room 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 finished painting the wings. But he’s not going to show me he says; I’ll have to come and watch him in the school play if I want to see them.
When he goes off to school next day he’s not carrying anything special. There’s no sign of anything like wings in his bedroom and I can’t think where he could have hidden them. The tin of paint is there though, sitting on the sheet of brown paper it had been wrapped in when Alfie brought it home. I prize off the lid and look inside. It’s still a quarter full and it’s true, the paint looks like molten gold. I’m tempted to dip a finger in there, to smear the paint on my skin, just a little, just to see. But I don’t. I seal up the tin. When I pick it up I’m surprised how heavy it still is. I take it downstairs and put it in the cupboard under the stairs, on the floor.
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, pretending to be shocked now. “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.
Suddenly I want to cry and confide in this Mr King, to ask if he realises how hard it is for a single mum. But there’s a queue of parents behind me 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 don’t know what to say so I just give her the money and Alfie waves her off with more giggles and scampers off upstairs before I can ask him anything else. I was going to mention the paint but I’m so tired what can I do I just don’t have the strength.
I don’t sleep so well, haven’t done for a long time now. I get up in the middle of the night and 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 gently turn him round and bundle him back into bed before he wakes up.
In the school nativity play two months later Alfie is the angel Gabriel. His wings are white.
“What happened to the gold wings?” I ask him afterwards.
He says there never were any gold wings, what on earth are you talking about Mum and please can we go home and have pizza now, like you promised.
Alfie helps me make the pizza, twirling the rolled out dough on his hand just like a professional chef. I want to ruffle his hair, but he’s eleven now and he doesn’t like me doing that any more.
After he’s gone to bed I pour myself a large whisky, but before I drink it I look in the cupboard under the stairs, look at the place on the floor where I put the tin of gold paint. There’s nothing there.
There are things in life that make no sense. And moments when you can decide to make things different. I pour the whisky down the sink. We’ll take it day by day and somehow we’ll get through, my precious golden boy and me.
Cath Barton is an English writer living in Wales. Her prize-winning novella The Plankton Collector is published by New Welsh Rarebyte. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, is out in September from Louise Walters Books. Painting the Wings of Angels is from her collection of stories The Garden of Earthly Delights, inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch.https://cathbarton.com@CathBarton1