Authors: Dyan Sheldon
A new dawn
slowly seeps into the early spring sky, but the town of Jeremiah is still asleep and dreaming. Its curtains and blinds are closed, its doors all locked. The streets and the sidewalks are empty and silent. Which is not to say that no one stirs. A solitary dog trots purposefully through the centre of town. A cat sleeping in the window of the barber’s shop opens its eyes, stretches and yawns. A light goes on in the apartment over the hardware store. And, just outside the town limits, two figures suddenly appear, as if they’ve materialized out of the thinnest air. And perhaps they have, for they certainly look like no one else in Jeremiah.
The young man is dressed in sharply creased beige slacks and a dark green blazer with a cornflower in the buttonhole. He wears a tie. The young woman is dressed in worn, vintage jeans and a T-shirt with the portrait of Frida Kahlo with a monkey peering over her shoulder on it. Her hair is peacock blue. His is dark, but a little too long and parted in the middle. They are Otto Wasserbach and Remedios Cienfuegos y Mendoza. The rising sun bounces off the mirror polish of Otto’s shoes and makes the tiny silver stars in Remedios’ nose and ears shine. Except that they both look to be the same, indeterminate age, they are so dissimilar that it’s difficult to believe they’re actually together.
“Well, here we are!” says Otto with the brightness of a cheerleader urging on a losing team. And, in case his companion hasn’t seen the large metal sign at the side of the road, reads, “Welcome to Jeremiah – Population 7068.” A small frown creases his perfect features. “It really should be seven thousand and seventy, now.” Otto is something of a pedant.
His companion, however, is not. “Show a little mercy, will you? We’re not moving in. We’re just visiting. Temporarily.”
Temporarily but indefinitely.
“We don’t know how long we’ll be here,” corrects Otto. “It may be for quite a while.”
Remedios groans. Suffering Samaria, she certainly hopes not.
“Oh, I don’t know…” Otto gazes into the distance to the tree-lined main street with its raised sidewalk and attractive storefronts, the windows gleaming, the awnings folded up for the night. The dog is just disappearing around the Methodist church. “It doesn’t seem so bad,” he says. He brushes something from the sleeve of his jacket. “It looks rather pleasant, if you ask me.” A real, old-fashioned town.
Remedios rolls her eyes. “Well, I didn’t ask you,” she snaps. “And if you ask
, what it looks like is a very long day in the desert.” Probably buried up to your neck.
“No, it doesn’t. It’s peaceful and it’s attractive.” As sunlight falls over Otto, he almost seems to glow. “Far from the cares and tears of the world…”
“Spare me.” Remedios is still snapping. “You sound like a psalm.”
“And you sound like a doubter.” Which is something she’s going to have to get over. Challenging situations demand a positive attitude, and the current situation – he and she working together – is nothing if not a challenge. Otto gestures to the thickly forested slopes that loom up around them. “What about those mountains, Remedios? And those trees! They’re glorious.” He takes a deep breath. “Just smell that air.” He smiles and the morning brightens perceptibly. Locationwise, this is the best assignment he’s had in centuries. “You know, I do believe I’m going to like it here. I believe I’m going to like it very much.”
Remedios scowls and the sky dims. “Well, I’m not.” She isn’t that interested in trees and mountains, or even in peace. She’d much rather be on the
. With plenty to do. “What are we supposed to accomplish
?” Her gesture doesn’t take in the inspiring landscape, just the pristine, well-ordered road on which they stand. “They don’t even have litter.”
Otto’s sigh is as soft as the beating of a butterfly’s wings. “You know what we’re supposed to do here, Remedios. It was made extremely clear.” He might add “again”, but doesn’t. “We’re here to guard and guide.”
“Guard and guide…” parrots Remedios in a childish voice. “What are we? FBI agents? Boy Scouts? Cops?”
But they are, of course, none of those things.
“No, Remedios,” answers Otto in his patient, literal way, “we’re angels. We—”
“For the love of Lachish, Otto, I do know we’re angels.” She’s been one for millennia. And a very good one, too, even if she has to say so herself – which, at this point in time, she apparently does. “It was a rhetorical question.”
“I know that,” says Otto – who didn’t. “But you don’t seem to understand that guarding and guiding are what we’re meant to do. That’s our job. We have rules.”
Remedios makes a face. Ten Commandments for mankind, but a hundred rules for divine beings.
“And the primary rule,” Otto goes on, “is that we help, nurture and support. We can influence, but we’re not supposed to interfere.”
Remedios makes a so-what? face. It’s not as if they can’t interfere. They have powers a magician can only dream of – from being able to do a thing by simply thinking it to turning back floods or armies; from shifting shape to stopping time.
“But we can’t use our powers willy-nilly,” says Otto. “We can’t just alter the course of human events.”
This, of course, is a dig at Remedios. Remedios isn’t too keen on guarding and guiding. She sees herself as part of the life force, not as a celestial policeman, and is easily drawn into people’s lives and problems. No matter how complex or difficult. No matter how impossible to solve. If she were a plumber and not an angel, she would rather try to mend the hole in a dam than fix a leaking radiator. Over the centuries, Remedios has ministered at thousands of wars, accidents and disasters, started revolts and uprisings, and stopped purges and pogroms. For her, ending up in Jeremiah is like moving from Paris to an asteroid. But, of course, she is not here by choice. She is here because of her very long history of doing more than she has to – or more than anyone wants her to. God may have infinite wisdom, but that doesn’t mean that He also has infinite patience. In her last mission, Remedios went too far, even for her. She was supposed to help the residents of an English village in their fight to stop the government demolishing their houses for another runway, and instead she lead them in a demonstration that shut down one of the busiest airports in the world for ninety-six hours. She is here to learn self-control. There are to be no more grand gestures or dramatic interventions. No more getting carried away. No more sticking her nose into things that don’t concern her. Forget the flood; just fix the leak.
There are no small problems
, she was coldly informed,
only small angels
“Oh, don’t you go putting all the blame on me.” Remedios has finally stopped snapping and is snarling instead. “Let’s not forget that you’re here because you messed up, too.”
“I didn’t mess up.” Otto certainly never brought global air travel to a standstill. He never even started a very small revolution. “I just tend to be a little disconnected.”
“Yeah, right,” says Remedios. “I heard it’s more like Absent Without Leave.”
Otto’s problem is the opposite of Remedios’. Otto is an angel who likes order. That, he believes, is his job: to create and maintain order. Not to carry messages between Earth and Heaven like a mailman: the seraphic express. And definitely not to shake the box.
Remedios, however, likes chaos. Energy, matter, heat and space. Colliding planets and shooting stars. A soupy swamp one day and a green-blue world teeming with life the next. Bam, whizz, pop, fizz – that’s what Remedios likes; to mix things up and see what happens.
Otto prefers to know what will happen. He sees safety in systems. Miraculous Methusela, there are only Ten Commandments; think how much better the world would be if people actually followed them.
So, while Remedios can’t stop herself from getting involved with humans, Otto likes to keep his distance. He much prefers other species. You know where you stand with killer whales; but people are much more difficult to deal with. They complain a lot about Acts of God, but if you ask Otto, it’s the Acts of Man that cause most of the trouble. When people aren’t being irrational, they’re being deceitful. Or treacherous. Or greedy. Or violent. And if they’re not actually dangerous, they’re probably totally useless. No wonder the world is filled with so much unhappiness and suffering. Otto doesn’t mind straightening out a misunderstanding or giving someone a shove in the right direction (indeed, he not only offers sound financial advice, he’s extremely good at finding lost things), but when he’s asked to intervene in a real crisis, he never quite succeeds. Suffering and cruelty, injustice and hypocrisy, thievery and opportunism – all these things upset him so much that he winds up paralysed by depression. The incident that lead to Otto being in Jeremiah is a perfect example. He was sent into a combat zone to sway hearts and minds, and instead was so horrified by what he saw that he simply disappeared. It was days before he was finally found on a remote Scottish island, surrounded by sheep. No wonder he likes Jeremiah; on the Richter scale of misery, Jeremiah never goes above one.
“Remedios, I really don’t want to discuss this any more. This is a new beginning for both of us.” Do well here, and who knows how they might be rewarded. Otto has dreams of being assigned to the Andes, so close to the sky that he walks in clouds. “Let’s just do the job we’ve come to do.”
“It’s not a job,” she gripes. “It’s more like a hobby.” Knitting while the world cries out for hope and help. “Besides, I’d much rather work alone.”
“And I wouldn’t?”
But that, of course, is not the deal. The deal is that they work together. Partners. A team. Her habit of acting first and thinking later balanced by his habit of thinking first and not acting at all. Together, goes the reasoning, they make one perfect angel.
A car passes them, and then another.
“We’d better get a move on.” Otto points not towards the town, but to the north. “We don’t want to get there after everyone else.”
Remedios’ day just got worse. Glory Hallelujah, the school! She forgot about the school. As a further challenge – or downsizing – they’ve been stationed at the high school.
“I don’t see why we can’t look after—”
“Don’t start again,” says Otto. “You know what you were told: there are no small problems, only small angels.” And with that he sets off up the road on the right.
Shuffling behind him, Remedios glances back at the town sign.
Welcome to Jeremiah
, it says.
Two, possibly three, of those ironies for which life is famous
is a beautiful day in Jeremiah. The sky is clear and blue, the sun is big and bright, and there is a breeze as gentle as Heaven’s breath. It’s a breeze that carries not just the chemical smells of civilization but the scents of forest, sea and desert as well; not just the electric noises of human occupation but also the timeless singing of the world. This is the kind of day that makes you want to climb a tree, run through a shower of blossoms, paddle in the breaking waves – or just sit on a hillside, listening to the planet going about its business. A day to make you glad to be alive. Yippee! Though it has to be said that there is no particular
joie de vivre
in room 07W of Jeremiah High on this particular afternoon. This is the last class on a Friday. Everyone wants the day to end.
No one wants the day to end more than Gabriela Menz. Gabriela glances at her watch and then looks back to the front of the room, where Mr Sturgess is finally finishing off a lesson so long and boring that even by his standards it should win a prize. Geesh. The bell’s going to go in about two minutes, and he’s still writing. (Gabriela is not writing, because she knows she can get one of the boys to photocopy his notes for her – as per usual.) Gabriela’s sigh is as soft as cashmere. Just because she doesn’t have to get to another class doesn’t mean she isn’t in a hurry. She happens to be in a really big hurry. Her mother’s picking her up to take her to the airport, and Gabriela has to change and reapply her make-up before she goes out to the car. Mrs Menz gets totally unreasonable about being kept waiting (just possibly because it happens so often), which means that if Gabriela wants to talk to Mr Sturgess she’d better do it now. Even though he has his back to her, Gabriela raises one slender arm, the gold rings and bracelets shining against her tanned skin. “Mr Sturgess?” she calls. “Mr Sturgess? Can I ask you something really quick? It’s really important.”
Edward Sturgess’ sigh is not as soft as cashmere, it’s as sharp as a snapping twig. He’s been teaching a long time. So long, in fact, that if it were any other voice interrupting him like this, he would ignore that voice and continue writing. If the voice persisted (as these voices always do) he would slowly swivel around with a sarcastic look on his face and ask what’s so important that it couldn’t wait a few minutes. Isn’t it obvious that he’s trying to get this on the board before the bell rings and they all stampede for the door like a herd of frightened cattle? “This had better be good,” he’d say. “At the very least, I hope God’s just warned you that the world’s about to end.”