Alasdair’s Angel

Alasdair’s Angel was listed for the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday prize, and published in the anthology Shorts 5 (2002).

To read the first draft of Alasdair’s Angel (aka Summer in Hell) click here.

Alasdair’s Angel

Cathy McSporran

Alasdair tried to explain: it was his salvation that had come about, on that day, the day it all happened – the hottest day of the year.  But the doctors just said: The scissors.  How did you get hold of the scissors?

            So Alasdair told them about going to check his pigeon-hole.  He had been late again; but the College in its wisdom had located the staff pigeon-holes in the Chemistry building, so he had to cross the road to pick up his mail, and now he would be later still. 

He didn’t care.  It was too hot.  His wife’s separation papers were a thick warm wad in his breast pocket.  He had tried to read them when they arrived that morning, but the words had begun to squirm on the paper like insects.  He would look at them again later, in his break-time, perhaps.   When it was a little cooler.

From his pigeon-hole he took a long Jiffy-bag marked STATIONERY OFFICE, and tipped it into his hand.  Luckily for the skin of his palm, the scissors slid out handle-first.

Stationery had got it wrong again.  He had asked for paper-scissors – but these were steel shears, twelve inches long, sharp and gleaming.   Later he would reflect that it was asking for trouble, giving out things like that to a man who had to work with Billy Innes.   At the time he just put the scissors back in the Jiffy-bag, and headed out into the hot white daylight. 

The street was baking.  Only the roaring traffic stirred the blood-warm air.   Rave music thumped from the open window of a Jeep.  A scarecrow figure on the corner, whose gaze Alasdair had learned to avoid, whispered about ‘spare change’.  Alasdair crossed the road, skin already prickling, and went down the shaded side-street.

It was quieter here, and cooler.  He passed the post office and the baker’s and the chip shop.  Only when he was outside the corner shop did he look up, to see if the little girl was there.

She was.  Every morning of the school holidays she stood there, under the awning outside her parents’ shop, a child about five or six.  She was immaculate as ever, gold sandals gleaming, long black hair brushed till it shone.  Most local kids wore shorts and T-shirts in shrieking acid colours; this little girl was dressed, as always, in a miniature version of the shalwar kameez her aunts and her mother wore.  Today her outfit was white cotton, fresh as a crocus.

The girl was eating a big green apple.  Her parents’ shop sold sweets of all kinds, but Alasdair had never seen her eating any; perhaps she had a sugar problem.  She held the apple carefully in both hands.  When she saw Alasdair her face split into a big grin, mushed apple pushing between her teeth.

Every morning this kid smiled and waved as if she were delighted to see him.  She was the only person, nowadays, who could be relied upon to acknowledge his existence.

There was a flash of peacock-blue behind the girl, as Mrs Ali came to the door.  She eyed Alasdair dubiously; there was something about Alasdair’s large bulk and morose features – particularly since the Prozac had made his face heavy and jowly, and his Easycare shirts begin to strain at the buttons – that made parents regard him with suspicion.  Mrs Ali drew her daughter inside, and Alasdair walked on.

He crossed through the blaring traffic, and turned into the College’s concrete square.  It blazed in the sun like whitewash.  The ‘ornamental lake’ (a pond scooped out of moulded concrete) was brown and shallow today.  Alasdair scurried from one patch of shade to another, into the Admin Building.

The lobby was dark and cool; but when Alasdair opened the door of his own office, the stuffy heat took his breath away.  The light was as bright as if he’d wandered outside again.  The Registry was all windows, each with a Venetian blind permanently jammed at the top.  It had never been roomy; but this was Admissions season, and piles of application forms teetered on every spare inch of worktop.  All summer the forms would stack higher and higher, leaning tipsily against cabinets and printers, and flapping into flight if anyone was stupid enough to switch on the fans.

Christina and Rachel, already stripped down to tank-tops, were tapping away at their keyboards.  They glanced up at Alasdair; one of them  – Christina? – mumbled a greeting as he went past.  Otherwise, they ignored him.  The girls had worked in the Registry only a few months; to Alasdair they were not as real, somehow, as the two older women they’d replaced.  Lately he had started to forget which was Rachel and which Christina, although they did not look alike.

Before Alasdair could boot up his computer and try to look as if he’d been there for hours, Hugh Pirrie emerged from the side office marked ‘Registry Manager’.  When he spotted Alasdair, his vague smile became fixed. ‘Alasdair, ah – can I have a word with you?  I have a meeting now, but – about twelve?’

Alasdair nodded dumbly.  Hugh Pirrie disappeared again.  Alasdair sat at his desk, letting the Jiffy-bag clunk down onto the surface.  The scissors slid out.   Right on cue the main door was kicked open, and Billy Innes backed into the room.

Christina and Rachel looked up at Billy and smiled, as he dumped the armfuls of copier paper on his desk.  The sleeves of Billy’s Warehouse shirt were rolled up, and his youthful face was flushed, but heat and exertion did not seem to trouble him much.  His dark hair was perfect.  His long-lashed, rather girlish eyes were bright and clear.  Parents never watched Billy with suspicion; he looked more like a children’s TV presenter than an office clerk.

‘Morning, Alice,’ Billy said, to Alasdair.  ‘Or afternoon, I should say.’  His eyes met Alasdair’s for a moment then flicked away.  Something about Alasdair – his polyester shirts perhaps, or his clown’s-wig red curly hair, or his wide mournful face – seemed to offend Billy very much.

When Alasdair didn’t reply Billy added shortly, ‘File system’s down again. We need to produce the graduation reports today, in case you forgot.’

Alasdair turned to his computer.

The student files should be in his directory.  But they weren’t.  Perhaps the College network manager had moved them.  Alasdair dialled the Computing extension.  It rang and rang.  After a while Alasdair put the phone down, and stared at the blank space on his screen.  He didn’t know what to do.  He was so hot.

Beyond the monitor, he could see Billy settling down to open a vast pile of mail.  He was looking for a distraction; and Alasdair knew what that would be.  ‘You’re looking rough there, Alasdair,’ Billy announced.  ‘Out last night?  Out clubbing?’

One of the girls giggled.  Billy was encouraged.  ‘No?  In with the girlfriend then?  Up all night giving it whay-hey?’

Rachel pulled a face, maybe at Billy’s crudeness, maybe at the thought of Alasdair having sex.  Then she said, ‘Alasdair, any chance of those reports now?’

Alasdair stood up.  His head hurt; he would go out, sit by the lake.  There was always some fresh air there, surely he would feel better… ‘I’m taking my tea-break,’ he announced, and left the room, closing the door on the mutterings behind him.

When Alasdair emerged into the College square, he found that the ornamental lake was on fire.  Some Chemistry students had poured on something black and oily, then dropped a lighted match.  The air shimmered over the flames.   The square smelled of burning tar. 

Alasdair sat on a concrete bench.  There was no fresh air here, not a whisper.  But at least he was out of the office, so he pulled out the separation papers and found a pen.  He’d already decided he would not try to read them.  He would just sign them and send them on their way.  

But the jagged line that appeared by the cross was nothing like his curving signature.  He smoothed the paper out on the bench, tried again – a spiky A, then a long flat line.  He scored it out, tried again, and again.  But still his proper signature would not come.

The Chemistry undergrads had taken to their heels, pursued by security guards.  A group of girls were laughing uproariously.  Janitorial staff appeared, shouting for buckets of water.  Alasdair sat amidst it all, his face scorching.  He shut his eyes, but he could still see the fire.  The concrete all around, the high buildings, even the sky, were all burning.

When Alasdair returned to the office, he found it was after two, and Hugh Pirrie was waiting for him.  ‘Come into my office, please, Alasdair.’  Alasdair followed him in, Billy Innes whistling a funeral march behind him.

The tiny office was even stuffier than the main Registry.  Alasdair sat down and watched Pirrie launch into his prepared speech.  ‘Alasdair, I’m sorry, but I have to give you another formal warning.  Your timekeeping has not improved… and – ah – your attention to detail has been slipping, quite badly.  The application files are full of errors.  I’ve had to rework them myself.’

No wonder they’re full of errors then, Alasdair thought.  But he said nothing, and watched a cloud of black smoke rise past the window.  Someone had put the lake out.  Eventually he heard Pirrie say, ‘Alasdair, are you still – happy in this position?’

Alasdair wanted to laugh.  Yes, he nearly told Pirrie, he was overjoyed.  His wife had left him, apparently because he hadn’t grown enough as a person; and once he had dreamed of writing verse about angels in their flight, but instead he was writing Data Management reports for a second-rate college.  But he said,  ‘I’ve just been a bit distracted lately.  I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.’

‘Very well.’  Alasdair took this as a dismissal, and left.

Billy and the girls watched him coolly as he went to his desk.  He began to search the computer network again, but after a moment realised he couldn’t remember what he was looking for.  He ended up flipping randomly between directories, trying to look busy.  His burning face eased at little, but his head still ached and ached.

The Registry clock showed three-fifteen, but the day was stoking up rather than getting cooler.  Alasdair, giving up on the network, found himself staring at Christina – a lock of her bright blond hair had come loose and was brushing against her bare neck.  But then Christina looked up and met his eyes; her look of furious disgust sent him hurriedly back to his computer. 

Billy, of course, had noticed.  He was dealing with another mountain of mail, and his vicious boredom was growing.  ‘Still no new girlfriend then, Alice?  No?  That’s not good for you.  Going without.  Bad for the health.  Rachel should know, she never goes without, do you Rache?’ 

‘Shut your face,’ said Rachel, smiling. 

‘You should get yourself a new woman, Alice.’  Billy was watching him with wide, mocking eyes.  ‘Or a new man, whatever turns you on.’

Alasdair turned his back on his tormentor.  Billy was quiet for a moment – probably planning a fresh line of attack – so everyone heard the hum of the printer turn into a long tortured squeal, followed by silence. 

‘Printer’s down, Alasdair,’ said Rachel, as if it were all his fault. 

Alasdair’s head was still throbbing.  The mechanical shriek had left a whining sound in his ears.  Closing his hand around the big steel scissors, he advanced on the silent printer and used the scissors to prise up the lid.  Warm air puffed over him.  He pulled out some crumpled sheets of paper, closed the lid and flicked the switch a couple of times.  Nothing. 

Behind him came Christina’s voice – or was it Rachel? no, Christina – with the indignant snap of one at the end of her patience.  ‘Alasdair, I need those data files today.  Where in God’s name are they?’ 

‘I can’t find them,’ Alasdair said.  He dragged the printer away from the wall and opened the back.  There was no paper in there.  The printer was hot as an oven.  The scorching heat had come back to his face. 

Christina got up angrily, and flounced into Pirrie’s office.  A moment later she returned; ‘Hugh says you’ve to get those files right now.’

‘I can’t get them.’  Alasdair took the roasting machine in his arms and heaved it around again.  Sweat trickled down his forehead.  He used the scissors to lever open the bottom tray.  ‘The system’s broken down.’ 

‘Give it one of your Prozac, then,’ Billy said quietly but clearly. 

There was a hiss of breath, laughter or shock, from one of the girls.  Even Billy, sensing perhaps he’d gone too far, fell silent. 

Sweat was running into Alasdair’s eyes.  He couldn’t see.  He stood like a dummy, still poking the scissors into the machine.  He was thinking to himself: It’s over.  There’s no more.  It’s over. 

Then his eyes cleared, and the whine in his ears cut off.  Alasdair began to move quickly.  In two strides he had crossed the room to Billy’s desk.  The scissors glittered in his hand.  Rachel or Christina screamed as he raised them high over his head and brought them down. 

The blades thudded into place, bang on target.  Billy leapt back, half-stumbling over his chair, shrieking and swearing.  His face, Alasdair noticed with some satisfaction, had gone grey and shiny.  He looked as if he was going to throw up as he stared down at the long shining scissors, still clutched in Alasdair’s large hand, their points embedded in the fake pine veneer of the desk. 

Billy backed up against the wall.  He was still cursing, in the same high-pitched voice.  Rachel-or-Christina screamed again.  Alasdair was vaguely aware of Hugh Pirrie appearing in his doorway and stopping dead. 

Alasdair let go of the scissors.  They teetered and fell with a clatter.  Alasdair looked at them sadly.  He couldn’t even do this right.  If he’d planted them in Billy’s chest, then… well, that would have changed things forever.  There would have been screaming, and blood.  There would have been sirens and radios and overpowering hands.  They would have taken him away, and he would have been surrounded by fear and awe and revulsion forever.  Things would have changed. 

Instead, he was still here.  Still in hell.  Nothing had changed.  He was afraid that any minute, someone would burst out laughing.  So he left.  Pirrie backed away from him as he went past, but it was of little comfort. 

Alasdair left the College square.  The sun grilled him like a piece of meat.  But it didn’t matter.

He knew now what to do.  He would go home, tidy things up, and then he would take all the Prozac at once.  The sleeping-pills too, just to be sure.  He had tried for so long.  He couldn’t try any more. 

It was a relief, to have made up his mind.  But still, he wept as he turned the corner into the side street.  For his family and his friends and, mostly, for himself.

He cried, but no tears came.  His eyes stung with salt he could not wash away.  But soon it wouldn’t matter, he told himself.  And that was for the best.  It was all for the best – 

‘Mister.  Mister.’ 

He stopped, confused by the light voice, aware of no-one nearby.  He looked into a pool of shadow under the shop awning.  Whiteness floated there, cool blue-whiteness like snow.

He stepped closer, blinking hard.  It was the little girl, standing outside her parents’ shop watching him.  After the long dry day, her hair was still shining and her white clothes were still spotless.  In one small hand she clutched the neck of a clear plastic bag, as if she were taking a goldfish home from an old-fashioned fair.  But there were no fish in the bag – it seemed to be full of bizarrely huge glacier mints, clear colourless cubes. 

The child’s deep brown eyes were bright and curious.  ‘Are you feeling poorly, mister?’ she said. 

Alasdair tried to speak.  His throat was parched.  ‘I’m hot,’ he whispered at last. 

The little girl nodded.  She took one of the cubes out of the bag.  Water dripped from her hand, Alasdair noticed; the squares in the bag were swimming in water.  ‘Here y’are,’ the girl said. 

Alasdair knelt in the pool of shadow, his head level with the girl’s.  ‘Open wide,’ she ordered. 

Alasdair opened his mouth, and shut his eyes.  The girl placed the ice-cube on his tongue. 

At first, it was like burning.  Then his tongue and mouth were numbed.  And then cold water began to trickle down his throat.  Alasdair swayed slightly as it reached his stomach.  He felt the chill seep into his blood, and spread all around his body, lastly to his burning aching head.  His skin cooled.  His sweat began to dry. 

At last the water rose to his eyes, and the salt was washed away.  He opened his eyes, and saw the little girl smiling happily at him.  He put his arms around her and drew her close, burying his face in her thin shoulder.  He felt her hand, still damp and cool, patting at his back.  She said something, to Alasdair, or over his shoulder into the shop – he didn’t understand and didn’t try.  He just cried and cried until the soft white cotton was soaking. 

Even when a woman shrieked somewhere behind him, he didn’t stop.  Not even when angry male voices were all around him.  Only when a fist struck his head did he let the girl go, so she wouldn’t fall down with him. 

Then the rough hands he’d imagined were dragging him away.  The furious voices still babbled.  Pretty soon there were radios, too.  And sirens.  Lots of sirens.


with thanks to Willy Maley