Jo Hewlett

    To the casual observer, it might appear that the life of 
Miss Violet Pitt was humdrum, if not actually boring. 
She had lived all her life in the solid, middle-sized house 
where she had been born, in a pleasant, seaside village. 
    But Miss Pitt had a secret: she had seen an angel!
    It had happened one beautiful, sunny morning in early
 summer, in the year 1902, when she was seven years old.
    She was walking through the village with her mother and 
her older sister, Lillian. It was such a beautiful, warm, 
drowsy day; the bees were humming and the lilac, 
swaying gently in the breeze, was giving off a heady 
perfume. Violet walked more and more slowly and fell behind her mother and sister.
    Looking up into the clear, blue sky, she saw the angel balanced on one corner of the square, church tower. The angel was wearing a long, white robe, with wide bands of golden ribbon spiralling around it. For some reason Violet knew that the angel was female, although she felt this was an odd thing to believe, as all the angels she had ever heard of in the Bible seemed to be male. The angel was too far away to see her face, which was just a pale oval, but her golden hair streamed out in the light, summer breeze.
    Violet stared at her for some moments with her mouth open. She looked round to call her mother and Lillian, but they were too far ahead, and when she looked back the angel had gone.
    Violet hurried to catch up with the family and immediately tried to tell her mother about the angel.
    Mrs. Pitt patted her indulgently on the head. “My goodness, Violet, what a wonderful imagination you’ve got!”
    “No, no, Mummy, I truly, truly did see an angel! I’m not making it up!” asserted the little girl, her face glowing red with excitement.
    But, by this time, Mrs. Pitt had stopped to pass the time of a day with a neighbour and was no longer listening.
    Violet hurried after Lillian and started to tell her about the angel, but her reaction was even worse than her mother’s had been! Lillian stared at Violet with the amused disbelief of an older and wiser sister, and when the younger girl persisted with her story, Lillian started laughing, and, running on ahead, she jumped out from behind a tree, flapping her arms and shouting:
    “Look. Look, I’m an angel!”
    Violet gave up, and didn’t try again until the next time she went to Sunday School. She felt sure that Miss. Meadowbank, being a Sunday School teacher, would know all about angels. In fact, Violet remembered that she had quite recently told them the story of the angel visiting Zechariah to announce the coming of John the Baptist. Surely, she would understand?
    Miss Meadowbank did not understand at all! Her reaction was even worse than Lillian’s had been; she got very red in the face and told Violet not to tell lies. When the child persisted that it was true, her teacher said she was a wicked, blasphemous girl and made her stand in the corner with her back to the room for the rest of the lesson.
    Violet was not stupid. She didn’t tell anyone else what she had seen – but she never forgot! The thought of the angel was very comforting to her as she went through her life, especially in times of trouble. She would have found it difficult to explain exactly why the thought of the angel gave her such happiness. She was not a conceited person, and it never occurred to Violet that the vision had appeared especially for her. She thought that, probably, the angel had been engaged on some mighty, cosmic plan, and had paused for a moment for a rest, balanced on her toes on the corner of the church tower. Perhaps she was just looking round and enjoying the beautiful sunny day, as Violet herself had been.
    Life went on much as usual in the sleepy, seaside village until the outbreak of the First World War, and after that things were never quite the same again.
    Lillian and Violet had fallen in love with two brothers, Robert and George Bowden, both soldiers. Lillian and George got engaged first. Violet, as befitted the younger sister, waited to make her own engagement to Robert official until he had saved enough to buy her a ring. In the meantime, he drilled a hole in a sovereign and put it on a gold chain for Violet to hang around her neck. On his last leave, they held hands and walked on the beach talking romantic nonsense, making plans and being very happy.
    The worst week of the sisters’ lives came a few months later when, in the space of just three days, they heard that both Robert and George had been killed in a dreadful battle in Belgium.
    These two deaths were just the first tragedies in a terrible tide of disaster and misery which flowed through the village. Nothing like it had ever been experienced before. The local battalion had been almost completely wiped out, and scarcely a family had escaped without the loss of a brother, husband or son.
    Many stories were told by the men who had survived, telling of the angels they had seen flying over the battlefield of Mons. Violet wondered if her angel had been there, and if she had wept for the sadness and waste of it all. It was at this point that she tried once more to talk to Lillian about the angel, believing that her sister might get some comfort, as she herself did. But Lillian just looked at her in dazed incomprehension, with blank, tear-washed eyes, through lids sore and puffy with weeping. Violet finally realised that she was the only one who could get comfort from the angel.
    On the first occasion that Violet ventured out into the village after these dreadful events, she saw Mrs. Bowden, who should have been her mother-in-law, walking down the street towards her. She was dressed in black from head to foot; her face was dead white, her eyes like stones, and her expression was one of abject misery. She looked at Violet but did not see her until Violet put a tentative hand on her arm. Mrs. Bowden turned to her then and they both tried to speak, but no words came, only a great flood of tears. Then Violet threw her arms around the older woman and they clung together, weeping uncontrollably, oblivious of onlookers.
    Time went by, and life went on in spite of everything.
    Violet taught piano at the village school and Lillian taught French. Lillian was the clever one and, Violet would say, the practical one. The less charitable people in the village would say ‘the bossy one’! Certainly, she took all the major decisions about their life together. They had always been very slim girls, and as they grew older they both became amazingly thin. In fact, to the naughty little boys in the village school they were known as ‘The Bottomless Pitts’!
    When their parents died, the Miss Pitts continued to live in the house, and when, some years later, Lillian died very suddenly of a heart attack while weeding the garden, Miss Violet continued to live there alone. She was fairly happy, and the memory of her angel always sustained her. As age increasingly took its toll, the arthritis in her hands forced her to stop giving piano lessons, and she could no longer play the church organ, but she still took her turn in polishing the church brass, arranging the flowers and tidying up the piles of rather battered hymn books.
    One morning, returning home tired but contented having helped to arrange the Harvest Festival offerings, her simple faith in the eventual rightness of things received a severe jolt. She found that her house had been broken into!
    It was a terrible mess: her private possessions were scattered everywhere; the ormulu clock was gone from what she still thought of as her father’s study; her mother’s Dresden shepherdess was missing, and so was her Aunt Clara’s silver teapot. But, worst of all, Robert’s sovereign had gone! Violet wept bitterly. She almost always wore the sovereign around her neck under her clothes and, just for once, she had forgotten it and left it on the shelf by the washbasin in the bathroom.
    After a few weeks the burglar was caught, and Miss Violet went along to the court to have a look at him; she had never seen a burglar before. When she caught sight of him her anger melted away; he was just a boy, young and silly. She learnt that he had been brought up in an orphanage and had never experienced a loving family as she had done.     She ended up feeling really sorry for him and visited him in prison. She took him a bag of home-made fudge; he would really rather have had cigarettes, but had the grace to thank her politely and swallow his disappointment.
    The burglar’s name was Albert Binnings, and when he came out of prison, Miss Violet allowed him to work in her garden, and managed to persuade several of her friends to do the same. So, although it wasn’t a proper job, he was kept pretty busy and had enough to live on.
    To start with, he knew absolutely nothing about gardens. There had been no garden at the orphanage and he scarcely recognised the difference between flowers and weeds! Miss Violet patiently started to teach him the rudiments of gardening, largely because she felt guilty about imposing him upon her friends. After a while, he became quite skilled and was a real help to her as her arthritis worsened.
    The police recovered the ormulu clock, and Miss Violet was grateful, but would far rather have had the sovereign; apart from a few letters it was the last thing she had had to remind her of Robert.
    Miss Violet took to inviting Albert into the kitchen for a cup of tea when he had finished in the garden.
    The new vicar, Mr. Martin Minty, was a large and muscular young man, a splendid example of the church militant. He had both boxed and rowed for his University, and was known as ‘Extra Strong Minty’ to the village children. He considered Albert to be a thoroughly bad lot, which, of course, in many ways, he was.
    “I don’t think you should let that young man into the kitchen!” he admonished Miss Violet. “He might easily hit you over the head, or steal something.”
    “He has already stolen everything he wanted, and paid the price!” retorted Miss Violet, rather tartly. She was quite shocked at the vicar’s attitude, particularly as he had delivered a most moving sermon on the subject of Christian forgiveness only the previous Sunday!
    It was some months later, on another beautiful sunny morning, in the seventy-eighth year of her life, that Miss Violet saw her angel again.
    She was walking slowly up the cliff-side path and looking out over the sea, when she suddenly saw the angel, hanging in the empty air. She was wearing the same white robe with the golden bands as before, but this time she was close enough for Violet to see her face. It was a face of absolute perfection, so heart-catchingly beautiful that Miss Violet gave a sharp, involuntary cry and threw out her arms to the lovely vision.
    She did not notice that her feet had left the ground. Some strange magnetism drew her up as if on strings – up, up, up into the clear blue sky towards the outspread arms of the angel. The wind on her face finally made her aware that she was flying, but she was neither surprised nor afraid.
    The sudden disappearance of Miss Violet Pitt might have gone down as one of life’s unsolved mysteries, but for one strange thing; there was a witness to her disappearance – Albert Binnings!
    Albert didn’t see the angel, but he did see Miss Violet fly. He had paused on the cliff-top on his way between one gardening job and another, and had decided to sit down on the grass, with his back to a rock, to enjoy his simple lunch of bread and cheese and a bottle of beer. He saw Miss Violet walking up the cliff path towards him and had just stood up to greet her when she had quite suddenly turned, walked to the very edge of the cliff, given a cry, opened her arms wide and sailed gracefully into the sky!
    Albert had heard the expression ‘rooted to the spot’, but, until this moment, had never fully understood its meaning. He found himself quite unable to move. He stood on the cliff-top, clutching his bottle of beer, his eyes popping and his jaw unhinged! He watched, as Miss Pitt, her arms outstretched and her long, black dress billowing out in the wind, appeared to get smaller and smaller, disappearing into the distance until she was just a tiny speck of black in the clear, blue air, finally gone completely in the silent sky.
    Albert had no idea how long he had stood there unable to move; it might have been five minutes or it might have been an hour. At last he pulled himself together sufficiently to realise he must tell somebody what he had seen. The nearest house was the vicarage, and he stumbled up the path like a drunken man and knocked on the door.
    A pert housemaid in crisp white cap and apron opened it, staring at him with considerable disapproval.
    “And who do you think you are?” she demanded. “Knocking on the front door and fetching me all the way up from the kitchen! I’m not employed to open the front door for the likes of you!”
    Albert was still staring at her speechlessly when Mr. Minty arrived to see what was going on.
    “It’s Miss Pitt, sir!” Albert managed to gasp, finding his voice at last. “She’s flown away – off the cliff!”
    The vicar brushed past the housemaid and seized Albert by the shoulder.
    “What are you talking about?” he demanded. “What have you done to Miss Pitt?”
    “I haven’t done nothing, Mr. Minty, sir – she just stretched out her arms and flew away!”
    Mr. Minty was having none of this. Still holding Albert firmly by the shoulder, he propelled him down the road towards the Police Station, where the duty sergeant, Clement Rudge, was dozing quietly behind the desk, working his way through a large bag of marshmallows. He swallowed hastily when he saw the vicar.
    “Something has happened to Miss Pitt,” announced Mr. Minty, in tones of the deepest foreboding. “It’s my opinion that this wicked man,” (and here he shook Albert’s shoulder), “has pushed her off the cliff!”
    Sergeant Rudge stared at Albert in some consternation. He had a more kindly view of humanity than the vicar, and could not bring himself to believe that Albert would murder his benefactress; indeed, why on earth should he do so?
    By degrees, he extracted the extraordinary story from Albert, a process made more difficult by constant exclamations of disbelief and deep suspicion from Mr. Minty. Sergeant Rudge gradually worked out what he believed had happened.
    Miss Violet was a little wisp of a woman, who couldn’t weigh more than a bundle of twigs; she had obviously missed her footing on the edge of the cliff. To throw out her arms and give a cry was a very natural reaction in the circumstances. She always wore rather long, voluminous skirts; the wind from the sea must have buoyed her up, giving a momentary illusion of flight. Albert was clutching the bottle of beer from his lunch, and it was Sergeant Rudge’s opinion that he had probably had a few more. He certainly looked inebriated, staring at the Sergeant with slack jaw and goggle eyes.
    Martin Minty was guiltily aware of an unworthy thought: the will was going to be a problem – Miss Pitt had left money for the refurbishment of the wheezy, old church organ, and the replacement of the rather tatty hymn books.
    “I suppose if she has, unfortunately, fallen over the cliff, her body will be washed up somewhere along the coast?” he surmised, looking at the Sergeant for a reassuring answer. The policeman swallowed a piece of marshmallow before speaking.
    “Can’t be sure, vicar! There are some tricky currents round that point.     Remember the ‘Mary Anne’ that went down last February? The only things we found were a lifebelt and the skipper’s cap!”
    While they considered the problem, Albert slipped quietly away.
    After his experience with the vicar and the policeman, he never told anyone else what he had seen, but he never forgot, and hugged the secret to himself to ponder over.     Albert knew that for some reason he had been vouchsafed to witness a great wonder, and for all the rest of his life, in moments of unhappiness or anxiety, the memory of his vision consoled him greatly.