Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Necessary Evil

The heavens opened with a roll of thunder and the rain started. Sands stood by the side of the road waiting for a car to slow down and pick him up. The rain wasn’t making the heat any more tolerable. Instead it just collected at the nape of his neck before trickling down his back, mingling with the sweat. Of all the places he’d ended up, this had to be one of the most irritating. But he couldn’t look at it like that. Once you got started down that train of thought things got progressively more aggravating and that wasn’t the point.

He moved to turn the collar of his coat up before remembering he’d done so when the last bout of torrential rain had started a couple of hours ago. Right on cue, a lorry sped past, its front tires slicing directly through the puddle in front of him. The water arced upwards and covered him like a coat of paint. He would not get annoyed. That was the wrong way to go about things.

There was the car. A green Land Rover. Its headlights were on full beam, causing him to lift his hand to shield his eyes. As he did so, he unclenched his fist and extended his thumb. The car slowed, and the rear passenger door next to him was opened.  He shook as much water from his coat as he could and climbed inside.

A small blonde girl that was a good year too old for the pacifier in her mouth was staring at him. Her eyes were wider than seemed possible for her round miniature face, and she clutched an empty plastic juice cup in both hands.

“What are you doing?” asked a woman’s voice from the front seat. He knew the question wasn’t directed at him.

“What, he was out there in the pouring rain!” replied a man’s voice from the driver’s seat. “You say you’ve never seen me do something that’s not for me, here you go! An act of bloody charity!”

“I can’t believe you,” she replied, her voice hoarse. Sands knew they’d been arguing for some time before she turned in her seat to face him. He saw from the mascara trails running down her cheeks that she’d been crying too. “I’m sorry, Mr…”

“Mr Sands,” he said. The woman didn’t seem to care.

“…but I think….”

She was cut off as the car pulled away from the curb and back into the road, faster than it should have done.

“For Christ’s sake, Les. I can’t believe you, I just can’t,” she said, turning back to face the driver.

“I know you can’t believe me, you keep telling me. Every bloody day you tell me the many ways in which I’m an unbelievable disappointment to you, and you know what? I’m fed up with it. I’ve had enough, Sarah. I don’t need to hear about what a terrible fucking person I am. I’m not exactly sure how you’re capable of judging that.”

“Can you please not bring that up again?” she asked. She was crying again now. Sands turned to look at the child. She was still staring up at him. It was obvious that her nappy hadn’t been changed in some time. Sands sighed. He would not get aggravated.

“Oh, I’m sorry, so you’re allowed to reel off all the ways in which I’ve failed as a husband and a person but I’m not allowed to talk about all the times that you’ve fucked up? How you’ve failed me over the years?”

Les turned to face his wife. Sands saw the rage he’d seen a thousand times before. “Can’t I talk about that?” he shouted.

“Please, watch the road!” she screamed, and reached for the wheel. Les’ right hand shot out and struck the woman across the face. She cried out in pain, her outstretched hand flailing. The rest happened very quickly. The man could feel the car drifting across the lanes. He saw the headlights of the lorry. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

When he opened them again he was upside down. Sands didn’t turn to look at the child but he saw the pacifier and the juice cup. He undid his seatbelt and grunted as he fell against the roof of the car. He picked his way out, ignoring the unnatural angle of the wife’s neck. He stood up, testing his arms and legs gingerly. Nothing that a few minutes and a walk wouldn’t fix.

He saw Les standing in front of the car. He was staring at the shattered windshield, the spray of broken glass. The rain was creating pink puddles around his feet. The front of his throat flapped open and shook as he spoke to himself.

“I should be dead,” he muttered. Sands nodded.

“Well, you are.” He patted him on the shoulder and grimaced as he felt the broken pieces of bone in his arm find each other and start to bind. Les looked up at him.

“What are you…Why would you say that?”

Sands took a deep breath and summoned patience.

“I know it’s a lot to take in, it always is. Every time. We’ve been doing this for the last six months, Les. On and off. But every time you find it hard to believe and I...You know what happened. You killed your family, Les. And you died with them.”

He watched as the glimmer of recognition started in Les’ eyes. He watched the usual range of emotions, the predictable combination of confusion, shock, regret, despair, and finally, rage. Every time Les reached that final stage Sands knew that they would have to go through it all again.

“You bastard. You did this to us, you bastard. What are you, some kind of devil?” he asked. Les was growing faint; the car with the two corpses had already disappeared.

“No, for the thousandth time. I’m not a kind of devil. You can tell because I’m trying to help.”

But Les had already gone, and Sands was talking to himself.

The rain had stopped. There was no blood on his coat, and there were no longer any breaks or tears in his body. Physically, he was as good as new. He had an hour or so to wait before Les reached the final stage of his journey again. His brother Berith was in the area. Seeing him might do him some good. It might help to put things in perspective.

He wasn’t exactly surprised a pair of headlights appeared from around the bend and a dark blue Mercedes appeared. He might not be that close to Berith anymore but brothers are brothers. Sands smiled as the car pulled to a sudden stop inches away from him. He walked around to the passenger side and climbed in.

Berith sat, grinning at him. He looked well, dressed in a dark blue suit and tie.

“Sandalphon. You look terrible. Get in, there’s a café just up the road.” As he pulled his coat inside the car and closed the door, Berith cackled. “Course, you’d know that. How long have you been stuck on this road now?”

“Six months. Not that long.”

“It is to them.”

With that, Berith drove in silence until they reached the roadside café. He’d always liked having the last word, and evidently that had not changed.

The café was nearly empty but the waitress managed to make their presence seem like an imposition anyway. They sat at a booth in the corner. Sandalphon ordered coffee and a full English breakfast. Berith looked amused asked for a cup of tea.

“Full English? Seems a bit much for you, you lanky bastard. Aren’t you supposed to abstain from things like delicious animal fats?”

Sandalphon grinned. “I’ve been out in the rain for six months. I’m a bit peckish. You haven’t turned vegetarian have you?”

Berith shook his head and looked around for an ashtray before clicking his fingers.

“Smoking ban. Gives us longer to do our thing, eh?” Sands nodded and thanked the waitress as she brought over their drinks.

“So, Berith. What have you been up to?” he asked. “I know you don’t have the same structure that we do.”

Berith grinned and spread his hands expansively. “The usual. Chatting to people, convincing them that the way they’ve been going about things isn’t exactly right. Or maybe they’ve been doing exactly the right thing and just need to keep doing it. Same old, same old. A bit boring really.”

“Yes, I imagine it would be,” replied Sandalphon, and was met with a snort in turn.

“Oh come on, you’re going to sit there and tell me that you’re not finding your work utterly repetitive? This coming from the one who’s been stuck with the same family for the last six months?”

It was Sandalphon’s turn to shrug. “I suppose it is a bit repetitive. It would be nice if they could take the message on board a bit quicker, if they could understand what it is we’re trying to do.”

Berith slurped his tea and leaned in closer. “Right, explain it to me again. When exactly will you stop having to escort this miserable prick through the last moments of his life?”

Sandalphon kneaded his fingers and cricked his neck. “When he stops being angry at us and realises it’s his own fault. Every time, right before the end, he turns to me and asks if I’m a devil. Completely missing the point. It’s not torture; we’re trying to help him.”

Berith giggled into his mug. “As if we would come up with a torture that boring. Repetition works for a bit but it’s so dull keeping it going. Can you imagine us lot having the patience to dish out the exact same punishment over and over again?” As Sandalphon opened his mouth to interrupt Berith held his hand up “I know, I know it’s not punishment. Still, I’d have a word with the man upstairs if I were you, tell him that you’ve got some fresh ideas. I could help you out with some suggestions.”

Sandalphon smiled across the table. “Ah yes, because going to the man upstairs with fresh ideas worked so well for you and all your friends. No thank you, I’m very happy with where I am. Always have been.”

“As am I. But don’t you find it a bit galling that here we both are? With one major difference. I mean, I fell, and I’m roaming pretty much as I please. You’ve still got your wings and you’re stuck in the same loop.”

“You’ve still got wings.”

“Yes, but they’re not the same as yours. Covered in shit most of the time, and they’re on fire. No, I miss the nice, clean white feathers. What I wouldn’t give to have those back. But no, burned off in the fall, and grown back wrong. Still it’s not like we can use them here, anyway.”

It was true, but it was difficult to remember in the heat of the moment. When Sandalphon had come to earth in the 1950s he’d crossed the road into the path of an oncoming bus. In his panic, he’d attempted to spread his wings and fly away and had merely resulted in spreading his arms, creating a flat surface for the bus to hit. His body had healed quickly but the embarrassment lasted a lot longer.

“That can’t be the only thing you miss about heaven, the wings,” he said. Berith was getting under his skin. He had known that it would happen. It was how they worked together, picking away at each other until it was time to get back to work. Neither bore the other any particular grudges.

“Of course it’s not. I mean, I love being here. Any chance I can get to be away from down below, I grab it. And sometimes I’ve got to go down there for business or to check in but I’m pretty much my own man as long as I’m towing the company line.”

“I assume the company line is the same as it ever was?” asked Sandalphon. He knew the answer.

“Of course it is. If you’re asking if I would change the company line, then yes, maybe I would. There are some days where I see someone and I think, ‘Maybe I should help this person. Maybe this person needs my help. Maybe convincing him to gamble his wife’s savings away before telling him that sticking his wife’s head in the oven is the best way to not feel guilty about the gambling isn’t the right way to go about things.’ But then, that’s what you’re there for isn’t it? You lot get to do that, stop them putting each other’s heads in ovens. I mean, technically you’re helping this car crash guy, right?”

“There’s no technically about it,” he replied quickly. “Yes, I’m helping him.”

Berith sighed and leaned back, stretching his arms along the top of the booth. “It doesn’t always feel like that though, does it? I bet it doesn’t when he calls you devil.” As Sandalphon opened his mouth to reply, Berith held his hand up again. His ability to halt interruption was renowned, and deeply irritating.
“No judgment, I know how you feel about all this. The boss man called the tune, and you dance to it. Right?”

Sandalphon smiled. “Right.” Simple jibes like this were easier to take in his stride. “What tune are you dancing downstairs?”

Berith gave him a toothy grin back. “We polka.”

“You do miss it though, don’t you? Heaven, I mean.” He wanted to score at least one more point before he left, one more for the road. Then he could go back and watch Les kill Sarah, the nameless child, and himself again.

“Yes. I would rather never go back to Hell at all. It’s easy to get used to the idea that there are some things that actually can’t be set on fire when you’re up here. But wouldn’t you rather stay here and get some pudding than go back out there and wait for that idiot to come past and kill his family again?”

And there was the question that finished their chat. Sandalphon got to his feet and pulled an old twenty pound note from his wallet.

“You’re not going to wait for your fry-up?” Berith asked.

“You eat it. How much longer are you in town for?”

“Why? Fancy meeting up for another chat?” Berith replied. Sandalphon shrugged, and got another smile in return. “I’m around her for another couple of months, then they’re moving me around a bit. Maybe America. Never a challenge, but it’s always fun. When’s your next sabbatical up in Celestial Heights?”

“When I’ve finished,” said Sandalphon. Berith traced an imaginary tear down his cheek and picked up a napkin.

He walked the journey back to his spot on the side of the road. He moved to turn the collar of his coat up and remembered that he had done so countless times before. He pulled his coat tighter around him as the heavens opened and the rain started again. Like clockwork.


Hello there,

Right, this week's story is a bit of an odd one. Hope you liked it. I wanted to do something a bit different, non-horror. Plus I've been very annoyed this last week as something I was hoping for didn't pan out, so it's maudlin and depressing. Sorry about that.

Writing about angels and demons is something I've been wanting to do for ages but it's tough to find a tone. I'm not sure whether I got it right, but I liked writing them. Their names are from Wikipedia, so yes, a HUGE amount of research went into it. I chose Berith because he stirred up trouble, and Sandalphon because he hasn't been used in Supernatural (to my knowledge). Interestingly, Sandalphon is apparently the angel who assigns gender to children in the womb. Also, he may be called Sandalphon because he wears sandals. Wikipedia is a font of information that may or may not be true. Love it. 

Because I'm grumpy, have two Belle and Sebastian songs this week!


  1. Hey Jonny, it worked just fine for me, as ever.

    Sandalphon was also the name of an angel from Mike Carey's "Lucifer", of course. To borrow a phrase from Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's "Good Omens", he didn't so much fall as vaguely saunter downwards. And he's a lot darker than in this story.

    I did like this, though. I can't say that it does what it sets out to do as well as, say, "Good Omens", which has the same pally relationship between an angel and demon as a central plot arc, but then there wasn't anything wrong with it, and both characters were fun to be around and didn't feel false. I wouldn't mind seeing more of this world, either, if you ever felt like doing more, so that's a good sign from my perspective.

    Sorry about the latest round of disappointments. Here's hoping it's all worked out for the best in the long run, eh? See you in Brum!

  2. Hey David,
    Ah, yes Lucifer! Sandalphon was indeed in that one. I've actually never read Good Omens, so that has to be one of the few Neil Gaiman things that I haven't actively been inspired by/ripped off repeatedly, but it sounds good.
    Yeah, I'm not really sure how I feel about it. I'm not sure how much either of them have changed. I just wanted them to have a slightly awkward chat, but it doesn't really build towards anything and maybe it should. I might write another conversation between them in which decisions are made!
    Thanks for the commiseration, hopefully indeed. See you in Brum!