Hear the Angels Weeping

Douglas Bruton



It's your first love that messes you up and spoils you for every other love that comes after. It's your first love that breaks your heart, or worse tears it out from your body and leaves behind a hole through which you can forever hear the angels weeping. It's the one you never recover from, not ever.

A nurse moved around his bed checking the readings on the various monitors and recording them on a clipboard chart that she replaced at the end of his bed. She flashed a sharp torch into each of his eyes, holding them open with the heavy upward push of her thumb against his eyelid. Then she smiled vaguely at him and departed without speaking. She was the older nurse, mean with her words, never still enough to pass the time of day with him.

From where he lay he could just see the clock on the wall. He checked the movement of the black hands around the face. It was all that he had to measure his time by, that and the meals that arrived at intervals throughout his day, meals he never ate. He counted the slow faltering handclap of time. Not long left, he said to himself. It was not as unpleasant a thought as it once was.

His lips were dry and his tongue sticky in his mouth. He couldn't lift his hand to reach the plastic cup of water that the nurse had helpfully left on the table in front of him. He couldn't do anything now, except slowly turn his head - first one way and then the other.

On the side of the room furthest from him there was a large window running the whole length of the wall. He could see the tops of houses and grey clouds scudding across the sky. Sometimes he caught a glimpse of a solitary bird, its wings outstretched as it glided across the emptiness. Sometimes he heard the impatient noise of traffic jammed up on the road that was beyond his view.

Opposite him there was an empty bed. It looked new. The pillow was a perfect envelope of softness, the sheets turned back with a mathematical precision, the blankets tucked in with a sharp neatness. Above the bed hung a white board that still bore the name of the last occupant, a Mr Jennings. He had never met Mr Jennings so was free to imagine a companion of his own invention. His Mr Jennings was grey-haired and frail. He smiled across at him from time to time, and nodded his head. One day Mr Jennings would speak. He hadn't worked out yet what he would say.

There was a cupboard on wheels beside his bed. Shoes he would never wear again were stored in the bottom and clean socks and pyjamas had been arranged on a narrow shelf. There were no cheerful cards on show, no bowls of uneaten fruit and no flowers to remind him of the world beyond the hospital doors. All that sat there, propped up against an empty tumbler, was a single photograph. They thought it was a picture of his dead wife and that displaying it where he could see it would bring some sort of comfort to him in his hours of loneliness on the ward. They were wrong on both counts.

'She's lovely. Was it taken before you were married?' That's what the young nurse had asked, the one who had held his cold hand in hers on that first full day in the ward. He couldn't speak. All he could do was nod. The picture, carefully wrapped in a sheet of grey-white tissue paper, had fallen out of his wallet when she had hung up his clothes. She turned the picture over and read the name written on the back: Elizabeth. 'Shall I put Elizabeth here where you can see her, Mr Adler?' Again he nodded.

Elizabeth watched him as he had once watched her. If he turned his head to its furthest limit he could stare into her eyes, could see the blue that was there. It brought it all back. His eyes filled up and his lashes hung heavy with unspilled tears.

He tried to say her name. His dry lips moved but made no sound.

They had been at school together, he and Elizabeth. She had been in the class below him. He knew her because they lived in the same street. Sometimes on his walk to school she was ahead of him and he watched her, watched the way the light caught in her hair, the way her hair lifted and fell with the movement of her shoulders as she walked. He couldn't help it, it made him smile; it made him smile then and it made the corners of his mouth lift even now.

'Elizabeth,' he mouthed again.

She was the one he had imagined when he first practised kissing his own reflection in the mirror. She flitted through his teenage dreams, sometimes just a little out of reach, sometimes so close it smothered his sleep and he woke up gasping for breath.

He blinked back the tears and tried to focus on her face in the picture. Her hair was long and the colour of new straw. She had brushed it back behind her ears. She smiled at him from the picture so that he could just see the white of her teeth between her parted lips. She was maybe thirteen or fourteen when the picture had been taken. Her brother had stolen the photograph for him, slipped it out from the pages of the family album and sold it to him for the price of a packet of cigarettes. She didn't know that he had her picture in his wallet even on their first date together.

The young nurse came in, the one he liked.

'Good morning, Mr Adler.'

His name was James. He wished she would call him James.

'And how are we this morning?' she said.

She gave him her full attention when she talked to him. He liked that. So many people talked at him or around him these days.

He smiled in response.

She leaned across him, brushed his thin grey hair back from his eyes and dabbed away the tears that had leaked onto his cheeks. She was close enough that he could smell the perfume she wore. It smelled of spring, he thought.

'You sleep all right?' she said. He tried to nod. His eyes blinked instead.

She bent to check the bag of urine hanging at the side of his bed. She looked at his chart, performed some mental calculation and wrote in the result. 'You need something? A drink, perhaps.'

He blinked again and she raised the white plastic cup to his mouth. She cradled the back of his head with her hand, supporting his neck so that he could just lean forward. He sipped at the cool wetness, let it slip over his tongue and slide slowly to the back of his mouth. He smelled her again. She lowered his head back onto the pillow, said he should rest and was gone.

He held onto the perfume she left behind, breathed it in and let it carry him away to another time.

They were lying on a tartan blanket spread out on her back lawn. It was almost summer. He lay on his back, his eyes tight closed. He could feel the sun on his eyelids, like a red pulsing flame. He could hear the drone of an insect close to his ear, a bee perhaps, and beyond that the sound of Elizabeth's laughter. He did not move.

'You look beautiful,' she said to him.

'Handsome,' he corrected her.

'No, beautiful, like a Greek marble statue.'

She leaned over him from behind his head and kissed him. Her lips pressed upside down against his and then she pulled away. He didn't open his eyes. It was like dreaming. 'Girls are beautiful, boys are handsome,' he insisted.

'What girls are beautiful?' she teased. 'What girls are you thinking of, James Adler? Tell me now.'

'You know what I mean,' he said.

Elizabeth began listing girls they knew and after every name she asked him the same questions over and over: 'Do you think she's beautiful? Is she the one you mean?' It started as a game. They laughed at each name on her list. Then she wasn't laughing; then she was crying. He could hear the catch in her voice. He opened his eyes. She was sitting with her back to him. He reached one hand out for her and pulled her to him. She folded into his embrace, limp like a doll.

'It's you, Elizabeth,' he said. 'It's always you, always has been and always will be.'

She smiled through her tears. 'Promise?' she said. He had promised.

The young are careless with their hearts, gift them easily to those they love. He loved her, loved everything about her; the way she sucked at the ends of her hair when she was lost in thought; how she would sit on the floor with her legs crossed and her knees drawn up to her chin; the perfect bow that her lips made when she sulked. He could still see her when he closed his eyes, could still hear the sound of her laughter. He carried all this with him, wrapped in white-grey tissue and hidden where no one could find it. He had never let it go.

A phone began ringing in the ward sister's office. It was a harsh and insistent noise. He began counting the rings. Suddenly the noise was snapped in two. He listened a moment to one end of a telephone conversation, the sister's voice muffled behind the glass door of her office. His eyes closed and he drifted into a light sleep.

She is still there in his dreams, still a girl with hair like straw and eyes like pieces of the sky. He holds her close, a celluloid embrace, her face turned to the side and her ear pressed against his chest as though she is listening for his heart. He can smell her hair and the shampoo that she uses. He can hear her breathing fall in step with his. His hand is at the small of her back, just under her loose blouse. Her skin is warm to his touch. He will never forget that touch. 'It's always been you,' he says.

The clack clack of the ward sister's shoes on the linoleum floor broke into his sleep. She shouted an order at one of the nurses.

He refused to open his eyes, yearned to drop into the dream again.

Somewhere someone let slip a metal bowl. It clattered to the floor making a noise like a child hammering without rhythm at a tinny drum. Then the phone was ringing again.

He looked at Elizabeth's picture. It was yellowed at the edges, the corners rounded and worn. It was roughly creased on one corner, a crackle-glazed corner of blue sky. He had tried to press it flat between the pages of a heavy book. The fourteen-year-old Elizabeth was dressed in red and yellow, her head on one side as though she was looking into the sun. The sky behind her was blue, a too perfect blue, a blue that made you distrust the other colours in the picture.

He remembered a sky just like that. It was the summer they made love and made believe that they were in heaven. They had climbed up into the loft space of his mother's house. There was a narrow skylight window. He'd propped it open with an old shoe. They could hear the children playing in the street, their squeals and laughter carried upwards on the summer air. He dragged a faded red and white striped mattress underneath the window so that they could lie together and look up at the imperfect rectangle of perfect blue.

'We could be in heaven,' she said.

The air was warm in the loft and smelled dry and musty. She curled into the crook of his arm, her hand just under his shirt.

'Heaven is wherever you are,' he said.

She reached up and kissed him.

He began unbuttoning her blouse. She unbuttoned his shirt.

'No one will come?' she said.

He shook his head. She sat up, folded her arms behind her back and unclipped her bra.

She shrugged free of the thin straps and pressed herself against him.

'I shall remember this moment forever,' he said.

'Really?' she said.

‘Expect when I'm old and grey and lying on my death bed, this will be the memory I shall carry with me when I go.'

She unfastened his trousers and slipped her hand into his shorts. He snatched at the air in quick gasps.

'Make love to me,' she said. He moved on top of her. The blue sky was in her eyes. It was just like heaven.

He kept her picture in his wallet even after she had moved away. She got a job with a travel company and they saw each other less and less. Looking back it did not make sense; looking back he could not understand how he had let it happen, how he had let heaven slip through his fingers so easily.

The young nurse was back beside his bed. She looked down into his face. There was an unfamiliar furrow in her brow, a knot of concern. The light was going from the corners of the room and a high-pitched whine filled his head. He thought of angels weeping.

'Can you hear me, Mr Adler?' said the nurse. She was holding his hand, like she had done before. Her lips were moving as though she was speaking to him, but no words came out.

'Squeeze my hand as hard as you can, Mr Adler, as hard as you can, please.'

Elizabeth married a young man from France. Before the wedding he wrote her letters confessing his unbroken love for her. They came back unopened. He hurt deep inside. That's when he noticed the hole where his heart should have been.

He had to remove Elizabeth's picture from his wallet after he married. He folded it in crisp white tissue paper and hid it in a book at the back of a cupboard. He replaced her picture in his wallet with one of his wife. Then when she died it was Elizabeth that he thought of again; it was Elizabeth's picture that he returned to. He peeled back the white-grey tissue to reveal the yellowing picture of the girl who still had his heart.

The hospital room was dark now and the noise of angels weeping was the only sound.

Mr Jennings, grey-haired and frail, nodded across at him. He still couldn't decide what the old man should say. Then there was no time left for words.

©2006 Douglas Bruton

Douglas would love to hear what you think of his writing - email him now