THE BOY WHO WASN’T IN LOVE | Martin Feekins Saturday 16 August Anew girl moved into old Mr Gellan’s flat today. It’s less than a week since he was carried out on a stretcher after that heart attack or stroke or whatever it was. Mum and me hadn’t even known he was dead. Mum said that was typical, we lived on top of each other in these blocks, but barely knew each other. Which was true, but Mum’s the worst for not mixing. (If you’re reading this diary, Mum – and I know you do read it, because this flat’s not big enough to hide anything – then yes, you’re the worst. Don’t act offended, it’s nothing I haven’t said to your face.) Mum had some excuse with us living at the end of one of the legs of the X, so we only had a neighbour on one side, and it had always been Mr Gellan, who kept himself to himself, and the flat beyond his was empty. Yeah, we live in the Letters. X marks the shit, Mum says, but all the Letters are bad. Back in the ’70s some architect had the idea of building blocks of flats in letter shapes, so there was V, W, X, Y and Z. The arse end of the alphabet, Mum said. I was sitting on the chair when the new girl came up the walkway. The chair was tubular metal with a stripey plastic seat. We leave it out so we can enjoy the view from the fifth floor over the concrete courtyards to Y and Z and the city beyond. No-one bothers to steal it. A couple of times kids have thrown it over the balcony, but it’s so light even a five-storey drop doesn’t damage it. I would sit there and dream of getting out, and now I really am going. (Mum, I have to. I love you, but you’ve got to let me go. I’ll call every day, like I promised, and when I start to make my way I’ll get you out of this place.) I’ve got an interview on Monday with a charity that works overseas, building schools, digging wells, that sort of thing, which I can do. Up until now, the city has been my only horizon, but soon… That was what I was thinking when I heard the girl’s footsteps. She was about my age, maybe 18. She was carrying a baby in a sling on her front and a rucksack on her back. She unlocked Mr Gellan’s door. It didn’t look like she was going to speak, but it can be difficult when you’re new. I said hi and that my name was Pete. She said hello, then stepped over the threshold. I asked if she was moving into Mr Gellan’s flat and said we didn’t know whether he was dead. She said she was and he was. She was about to close the door, so I quickly asked her and her baby’s names. I thought maybe she hadn’t heard, then she smiled and said she was Angie and the baby was Che. The baby looked at me grumpily. Maybe he had wind. Then Angie shut the door behind her. I’m finishing this diary entry in bed and wondering if Angie is settling in all right. I never used to think about Mr Gellan, but it’s weird to think she is just the other side of this wall. (And Mum, I am not “mooning” over her, like you said earlier – and who says mooning anymore? – and I’m not in love with her or anything stupid like that. A: anyone who looks like her probably already has a boyfriend and B: I’m leaving soon, so it would be pointless. And C: she’s kind of scary, and so is her baby.)
Sunday 17 August There was loads of noise from next door last night, banging and voices, like maybe Angie had company. There was a hum rising and falling, so the whole thing could have been on the telly. I hardly slept, partly because of the noise and partly because Mum kept coming into my room to complain about it. I wanted to see if Angie was all right, but Mum stopped me. What if she had a knife? she said. What if I got stabbed and left her all alone? Which was a dig, of course, about me leaving to do charity work. Next morning, I went outside to the chair for some quiet. Angie was leaning against the balcony, Che on her hip. She didn’t turn until I said hello. Her face was bruised, dark under her right eye, while the rest was drained of colour. I suppose I must have looked shocked. Oh this, she said, and touched her cheek. She said she had been moving furniture around, you know, getting the flat how she wanted it. (Maybe Mr Gellan’s furniture came as part of the deal.) She said she was accident-prone, always bumping into things and falling over things. Always had been, it was no big deal. She hoped the noise hadn’t kept me awake. I said it must be worse having a baby, waking up in the night. Che looked at me like he knew what I was saying and didn’t agree. Angie took a moment to answer. Oh, Che, she said, no, he’s a little angel. I asked if she would like to rest in the chair, but she said no thanks and took Che back into their flat. That was disappointing, because I would have liked to get to know her better. I sat in the chair and looked at the city and thought about building a school in a strange land and whether you could take a baby with you. Which was a stupid thought, because why would I want Angie to take Che to do that? Why would she want to? She wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t want her to. It was stupid. Later, I went inside and re-read my literature about the charity. I wanted to be ready for tomorrow. Mum scowled when she saw what I was doing. I’m writing this at crazy o’clock in the morning. It’s been another night of noise from next door. There was definitely a man’s voice and that rising and falling hum again, which I realised I’d heard in the background for a few days now, but this was louder. I wanted to go round. Mum wanted to call the police, which I didn’t want, so we made a deal. We’d give it one more night. If there was another night of noise, she could call the police. Mum said Angie must be a whore and/or a junkie. (Who says junkie anymore?) Anyway, Angie isn’t, and even if she is, nobody sets out to be a prostitute or a drug addict. You can’t condemn people for that.
Monday 18 August I aced the interview! They want me to go in a week! I wanted to share the news, but there was no point sharing it with Mum, she wouldn’t even pretend to be happy for me. I wanted to share it with Angie, even though I hardly knew her. But she was my age, so she would understand how exciting it was, and she might have similar aspirations. But I’d be leaving in a week and might never see her again. It was natural to feel sad about that, I suppose. I mean, all those years living next door to an old guy, then suddenly there’s someone my age, but I leave before I can get to know her. It’s not… It wasn’t… Look, I’ve said it before, I don’t love her. Love at first sight is stupid. I mean, she is attractive, of course. Even yesterday, with a black eye and looking exhausted, she still had a kind of glow to her. Back at the flats Angie was leaning over the balcony holding Che, like the day before, except she looked worse. Her right hand was bandaged and the side of her face was scratched. The black eye had turned puke yellow and she looked even more shattered than yesterday. I didn’t know what to say. I might not have said anything, just slinked into the flat like a coward and hated myself, if she hadn’t said my name in such a tired voice. I asked what had happened. Remember, she said, I’m the accident-prone girl. She said she had cut her hand with a knife. I asked about the scratches. She laughed and said she had done them herself, forgotten how long her nails could get. I didn’t believe her, but I didn’t want to not believe her. She apologised again for the noise. I said it didn’t matter, but I couldn’t leave it at that. I said I’d heard a man’s voice and was everything all right? She said it must have been the TV and she would keep it down. Then I blurted out that if she needed any help with anything she only had to ask, any time. She gave me a tired smile, but I think there was, you know, affection in it, and said thanks, but there was nothing for me to worry about. After that, I didn’t know what more to say – and Che was giving me the evil baby eye again. Crazy o’clock again. Loads of noise again next door. It sounds like fighting and there’s at least one man’s raised voice. I pulled the phone out of the socket to stop Mum calling the police. Good job she’s too old-fashioned to have a mobile. We might have to call the police, but if they’re involved Che could be taken away from Angie. I’m going round to Angie’s now.
Tuesday 19 August Today has been… I don’t know, the strangest day of my life. In some ways it has felt like the last day of my life. In some ways the first, but right now, mainly, it feels like the last. When I went round to Angie’s on Monday night red light was pulsing through the curtains and from a gap at the bottom of the door, and beneath the sound of voices that persistent hum rose and fell in rhythm with the light. I shouted Angie’s name, but no-one replied, so I tried the door. It was locked, but something was wrong in there so that wasn’t going to stop me. I landed three or four hefty kicks. It flew open and I tumbled into a scene I could not believe. The glow I’d sensed around Angie before was real now. She shone. She was on the far side of the room and facing her, with his back to me, was a man in a shiny suit. He held Che above his head in one red-gloved hand, his fingers wrapped around the baby’s throat, choking him. A whirling red vortex stretched from floor to ceiling, filling one corner of the room, like something out of Doctor Who. That’s where the pulsing light and the hum came from. It was madness, so I focused on the one thing I understood. I shouted at the man to put the baby down. Everyone turned to look at me. Angie said get out, this wasn’t my fight. The man wasn’t a man. He had livid red eyes in a livid red face, bony ridges that were almost horns on his forehead, his lips spread into an impossibly wide grin and his teeth were like needles. And that wasn’t the weirdest thing. That was when Che said in the voice of a grown man: I am not a fucking baby, I am a fucking cherub, and she is a fucking angel, and this monstrosity is a fucking – That was when talons extended from the monster’s fingertips and punctured Che’s throat, choking off his words. The monster threw Che across the room. There were tiny wings on Che’s ankles, but they didn’t help him fly. Let’s finish this, said the monster, in a voice like sandpaper. It advanced on Angie. She grew bigger, her glow intensified and wings unfurled on her back – big, white, feathered wings. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I flung myself between the demon and Angie and yelled: Leave her alone! The demon’s grin almost split its face in two. Oh look, it said, the little mortal is in love with the angel. No, I said. I don’t know why I still denied it, except that loving her seemed more stupid than ever. She was out of my league when I thought she was human. Now it turned out I was living next door to an angel. Christ, it was like a ’60s pop song. I think the demon’s expression was meant to convey mock concern. So, you don’t love her, it said. No, I said, and I was going to tell it to keep its hands off her anyway, but I didn’t get the chance. In an instant, its talons extended. One set pierced my chest around my heart and the other the side of my head. There was no blood, just so much pain, and it felt like it was inside me. It lifted me off my feet and spun me so my back was to the vortex. Angie might have said something, she might have attacked the demon, but I couldn’t focus on anything beyond the pain and the vortex pulling at my back. It was a door and I could feel what was behind it: terror, despair and loathing, all desperate to come through. Inside my head the demon said: Sweet denial, such a small thing, a simple white lie to protect you, perfectly understandable. But it’s enough. All lies are sin, and I’m grateful for this one. It’s enough to let me claim you, to take you down and corrupt your frankly revolting goodness. The doorway sucked at me. The red pain in my head and heart joined the pulsing red of the vortex and the hum thrummed in my blood. Then Angie rose up behind the demon, spreading her wings and suffusing everything in her glow. She said: Do you love me, Pete? There was no time left for denial, so it all poured out. Yes, I loved her, of course I did. I had loved her from the moment I saw her, but I had denied it for stupid reasons, because I wasn’t worthy of someone so beautiful and because I was scared that if she loved me back I would have to sacrifice my dreams of escape. As I confessed my love, a weight lifted. The demon’s grip and the pull of the vortex loosened. The demon said: Damn you, angel. And Angie said: You can’t damn me, or him. Then her light overwhelmed everything and it felt so good to be in love. I woke up this morning in my own bed. Angie sat on its edge, cradling Che. Mum brought tea and fussed over me. After she left, I gave Angie a look that was intended to express all my questions: a great big WTF? Angie put Che down and he paced the room. It was comical, but I was glad the little fellow was all right. I said so. I’m one tough fucking baby, he said. Angie had told Mum I had saved her and Che from an old boyfriend. Then she had turned on the charm and Mum now loved her. This was easier to believe than the truth. The flat next door housed a portal between this world and Hell. It had always been there, but building the flats around it had given it a physical presence and demons on the other side had found it. When I pointed out it had taken them 40 years Angie said that was the blink of an eye if you had eternity. That put my love for her in perspective. Heaven had known it was there. Mr Gellan had been Heaven’s watchman, but when demons came he had been killed. Angie and Che had been despatched to battle the incursion. Angie said I was a godsend. I was a good person, pure. The demon latched onto my denial of my love for her, but once I’d admitted that, the purity of my heart – these are her words, OK? I’m embarrassed writing them and I don’t feel pure, but anyway – the purity of my heart sealed the portal. I asked why she couldn’t do that. She was an angel, she must be pure. That gave Che a laugh. You didn’t fight demons for eternity without becoming tainted, he said. They had more battles to fight, Angie said, but if I stayed pure I could hold the portal shut. The word that hit me was “stayed”. I was so close to leaving. If I stayed, my horizon would be the same grey skyline forever. That’s what I would be protecting, that and the kids who threw the chair over the balcony – and Mum. I’d do it. What choice was there? I’d do it for them all, but mostly for Mum. Angie had already told Mum she would be moving on, but had suggested I take her flat, because she thought I might be staying after all. I would be on hand, but would have my own space. Mum thought that was a great idea. I asked Angie her real name and she said she preferred that I think of her as Angie. I said she couldn’t love me. Would that stop me loving her? she asked. I shook my head. Besides, she said, don’t be so sure. She kissed me. An angel kissed me, and I would live on that kiss and for that kiss for the rest of my life.
Wednesday 20 August The first day of the rest of my life…