There’s a lot of them about at this time.
Along with the cribs and holy families, stars and shepherds, Magi and assorted animals – not to mention the robins, lit up churches shining across the snow, reindeer, stage coaches, drunken mice and yule-tide logs – here they are, singing, blowing the occasional quaint instrument or just standing around looking decorative. Not often flying in fact – perhaps even the most credulous find it hard to imagine those wings extended and in action, least of all in a windy night sky. But they’re certainly around.
Yes, the angels.
Angels – those hybrid creatures like the centaurs, combining – quite unrealistically, even if desirably – elements of different creatures. How on earth could that horse body support the upper half of a man instead of its own, properly balanced, head and neck?
And imagine the massive pectorals required to provide the downward pull on those necessarily huge wings! Yet, at least since the winged Nike of Samothrace, those wonderful winged beings have flown and flourished.
The old gods needed messengers. And to cover the vast distances, they need feathers and powerful wings – even if they’re only little turbo additions on the heels. As for angels – they should be endowed with white wings, wide and strong like… we imagine our ancestors looking around – like, a swan’s wings. Which is of course how angels are presented, represented, in many a stained-glass window, illustrated bible and Christmas card.
And the successor to the old god (who took it upon himself to turn into one of those swans to impregnate a special girl) - naturally, he too needs messengers. So he has his angels, and it seems they're never so important as at this time.
Perhaps it should not surprise that the conventionally-depicted angel survives in this day and age of viruses, artificial intelligence, memes, genetic manipulation, micro implantation and barely-credible rapidly-developing communication techniques. We might well think that there are now much more effective ways of transmitting a message. But who wouldn’t respond to the beautiful form of a Renaissance, Pre-Raphaelite, Victorian (not to mention earlier and later models) traditional angel as a welcome messenger, or source of comfort?
Despite living in Devon for many years, Kate retained her strong Glaswegian accent. I knew her well, as I’d looked after her husband with his chronic obstructive airways disease for a long time – and he did need a lot of looking after. A life-long smoker, he became increasingly short of breath and incapacitated. Kate had to do more and more for him as time passed.
In the later stages, I found myself visiting. I’d sit on the little sofa across the room from him, the TV between us, often in silence as he found talking difficult. I remember one late afternoon in December with the light failing, that shrunken form in his high-backed armchair almost disappearing. Then as I turned to look away at the dark screen, I became more conscious of his shape (a recognised physiological phenomenon due to the distribution of the eye’s receptors). I looked again directly at him. Was he there? More light had faded, so it was even harder to say, and he remained silent.
Just then Kate appeared at the door, abruptly turned on the light and rebuked me for sitting in the dark. That was the sort of person she was.
He died soon after. I found myself visiting again, this time to offer condolences – GPs were able to do such things then. It was after my surgery, and once again dimpsey, as they say down here. Kate and I were next to each other on the little sofa, opposite his now definitely empty chair. She got up to make us a cup of tea. When she came back, I stopped her turning the light on. As we sat there together in the darkening room with no need to say anything much, I recreated my earlier experience, looking away at the screen, then back again at his chair. Was there someone there – or not? I could imagine the form, almost see it there in the shadow. But of course I knew there was nobody.
And then – non-believer as I am – I was surprised by what she suddenly said, and the extraordinary moment that followed, in which I could actually feel the warmth of her joy.
I’ve tried to put this into a poem, as it seems to deserve it. It may not be a very good poem, but poetry has the power to recognise a significant moment, create and protect a special place, gives certain permissions, like not worrying too much whether something may or may not have actually happened and – hey, how else can you talk about angels?
Have a Happy Christmas!
Look there they are, on either side
to see them best don’t look direct
then you’ll see – one’s tall
the other’s short they’re wearing gowns
they’ve wings they’re standing still
behind his chair as if in talk
though I cannot hear a thing
they’ve gone again.
Did you see?
On either side of the empty chair
and behind – no one to see
of course. But she had seen them
there conversing. Now
they’ve gone as well as him.
She said I do not know
what you believe in.
A sort of question.
Nor do I.