“Are you an angel?”
“Excuse me?” I glance around the shop. An elderly couple stand by the prescriptions counter and a pregnant girl in a tartan mini-skirt — barely more than a child herself — is checking out the cold remedies. We’re not exactly busy, considering it’s early January and the sales shoppers are out and about on the High Street, looking for bargains.
“Are you an angel?” the voice asks again, this time accompanied by a gentle tug on my sleeve. Looking down, I see a small girl staring up at me with an expression of utter joy.
“Hello, sweetheart.” I put down the box of special-offer shampoos. “What makes you think that, honey?”
“You look like a pretty angel. But my mummy says angels are only in heaven.”
My own mother has certainly never compared me to an angel. In fact she frequently tells me that long blonde hair is unbecoming on somebody of my age and situation. She just can’t bring herself to say the word divorced, as if it might somehow be catching. She still calls Ian her son-in-law – in fact, she still calls Ian more often than she calls me.
I crouch down so that I am at eye-level. She’s a pretty little thing, dressed in cheap denim leggings and supermarket trainers, her hair in two bunches. She has pierced ears adorned with plastic ladybird studs.
“Where’s your mummy, sweetheart?”
“Buying something to make her better.” She points to the pregnant girl — teenager — across the shop. That figures. She must have been all of fifteen when she had this one and is already well on the way to the next.
“And what’s your name?”
“Moira Martin. I’m three,” she says proudly, then claps a hand over her mouth. There are sudden tears at the corners of her eyes. “Mummy says I mustn’t tell my name to strangers.”
Moira. The name catches in my mouth, dry and sharp. For a moment I am transported back four years and I am holding my own Moira in my arms. She’s wearing a sleepsuit with tiny pink rabbits on it and she’s five weeks premature and so light: only three pounds and ten ounces. Three pounds, ten ounces and stillborn.
“But I’m not a stranger,” I say carefully. “I work right here in this shop.” Her mother isn’t paying any attention to us and if I wasn’t here, little Moira would probably be out in the street by now, underneath a bus. Mummy wouldn’t be shopping then, would she?
“What’s your name?” Moira asks directly.
“It says my name right here,” I say, pointing to my name badge. “Angela. Your mummy should –”
“So you are an angel!” She jumps up and down. “I knew you were!”
Her mother looks up at the outburst, smiles slightly and takes the box she is holding to the till. I wonder what kind of parent lets her child out of sight — one with a nose-stud perhaps? She has a lip-ring too.
My Moira would be older than this girl. She’d have bunches too, tied high with pink ribbons. Ian and I would take her to the park, to the swings on a Sunday afternoon, before feeding the ducks and then home for a roast dinner. Ian and I would still be together and we’d be a real family. But I couldn’t forgive myself for whatever my body had done or not done, and I don’t think Ian could either. Irreconcilable differences, the divorce papers said, but really they could just as easily have said one word. Moira.
And I wonder whether this might be my Moira. Am I being given another chance to be the mother I was meant to be? I have money; my share of the house has been earning interest these past years, waiting for an opportunity for me to start my life again. I have a passport and I have my Moira’s birth certificate. My purse and keys are in my pocket.
“Can you keep a secret?” I whisper. We are still alone and the door is so close.
She nods, eyes wide. “My mummy says you should never tell a secret.”
“This one is special, because you must be very special to have seen that I’m an angel. Nobody else knows.”
Her mouth opens to speak, but she just reaches out and touches my hair. Her hands and coat are grubby and stained with chocolate, but I don’t mind. I will buy her new clothes, new toys and a new life. We will be happy, Moira and me.
“Would you like to see the other angels?” I stand up slowly, taking her hand and edging towards the shop door.
“Will my daddy be there?”
“We’ll talk to daddy later,” I promise. But as we get to the door, there’s movement behind us and the pregnant teenager is with us, a plastic bag in one hand. Up close, she looks softer, more fragile, although her hair is showing dark roots and her make-up is harsh and unforgiving. She has a cold.
“Has she been bothering you?” The girl sniffs and wipes her nose on her coat sleeve. “She never stops talking.”
“Mummy!” Moira jumps up and down again. “The angel lady is taking me to see daddy.”
I point at my name badge apologetically, unable to speak.
“I’m sorry.” She shakes her head, but seems upset. “She’s too young to understand.”
Again I say nothing. What is there to say? For a moment, my life had possibilities, but minutes pass and time moves on.
“Her daddy died last month,” the girl continues. “Car bomb in Basra. I tell Moira that daddy’s in heaven with the angels now, but she still thinks he’ll be home next week.”
And I wonder if I have this all wrong. Maybe I was never meant to be a mother after all. Maybe what Moira really needs is a grandma.
Debbie Bennett is a middle-aged boring civil servant with a secret life as a writer. She’s worked in law enforcement for over 25 years, in a variety of different roles, which may be why the darker side of life tends to emerge in her writing. If she makes enough money selling books, perhaps she’ll be able to afford counselling instead.