1890 – 1897
"What a silly thing love is!” said the Student as he walked away. “It is not half as useful as logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not going to happen, and making one believe things that are not true…”
Aziraphale looked up from the page and gazed thoughtfully out the window at the snowflakes gently falling from the gray January sky before continuing with the tale.
The Student had believed that the girl he loved would return his affection if he’d brought the red rose for which she asked. He’d searched for one in vain. The nightingale, touched by his plight, had sacrificed itself – all night long it had sung of love in its crystalline voice, creating a rose dyed red with its own blood by piercing its heart with a thorn. But what is a flower worth versus the jewels of another? The girl had cruelly rejected the Student, and he’d tossed the rose into the gutter before returning alone to his cherished dusty books.
Aziraphale closed the small volume, a first edition with cheap binding acquired by chance with a bulk lot of books. He’d originally intended to shelve it immediately, without further review, among a collection of children’s stories. It was the kind of book he could sacrifice without regret to a particularly stubborn customer, like one throws a piece of gristle to divert a predator from its intended prey. But the hours seemed to drag, and the angel felt unable to concentrate on anything meatier. So he’d finally sat down behind the counter and delved into the previously unexamined collection.
The author’s name was not unknown to him. Oscar Wilde. Wasn’t he the one who’d recently written The Portrait of Mr. W. H., which a customer had recently tried to sell back to him? The man had asked a pittance, eager to rid himself of a book from an author with a dubious reputation. How dare he suggest that Shakespeare had addressed his passionate sonnets to a particular young man of great beauty! In response, Aziraphale had set the book on the counter and, with the tips of his fingers, pushed it back toward its owner, offering a polite but firm refusal.
It was the same author; he was sure of it. However the sulfurous portrait the client had painted fit poorly against the references to Christ in The Selfish Giant, another tale in the collection. The man seemed an interesting paradox, in addition to having a pleasing pen.
Aziraphale was pulled from his reflections by the entrance of Arthur Conan Doyle.
“Good day, Mr. Fell!” he called energetically, brushing a few flakes of snow from his coat. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to buy something this time.”
“To what do I own the pleasure of your visit, then?”
“I just happened to be walking past your shop and I thought you might want to join me tonight at Lady Gregory’s for dinner.”
“I’m honored, but surely Lady Gregory aspires to worthier company at her table than that of a humble bookseller.”
“On the contrary; she is eager to meet you. You know how she loves history, and I lauded your inexhaustible supply of colorful anecdotes to her. Are you otherwise busy?”
No. He had no previous plans. It was the third Saturday of the month and, until a few decades ago, Crowley and he had had a standing appointment to exchange updates on their respective projects.
After the Reign of Terror, he and the demon had left France to settle in London. They’d gotten in the habit of holding this little meeting twice a month. They had quickly concurred that it might as well take place in a fine restaurant and – why not – be followed by an evening at the theater or opera.
After about ten years of this pleasant routine, the angel had received a letter in which the demon informed him he was taking a leave of absence, with the intention to sleep as long as possible, and a request to Aziraphale that he not abuse the advantage given to him. The cold, impersonal tone of the missive had left Aziraphale puzzled.
He didn’t understand. For sure, some of their discussions had grown heated because of irreconcilable differences, but on the whole, their relationship was cordial and even friendly. After all that time they’d lived in France – the Gévaudan and then the Revolution and its unforeseen consequences – they were friends now, right? At least that’s what the angel had believed, even if neither of them had said it aloud. The evenings they’d spend together had always been enjoyable, in his opinion. Even though… upon reflection, Crowley had acted a little odd their last few times together. Had Aziraphale done or said something to upset him? He searched his memory and came up empty.
After all, Crowley had always been a bit strange and he’d surely feel much better after a long nap. And if not, Aziraphale could ask him about it later. Anyway, it wasn’t like he could do something about it. He didn’t know where the demon lived. He’d never been invited over. And even so, it wouldn’t be polite to wake him to ask him questions. That would be totally uncalled for. Whatever had happened, it could wait until the end of his nap, which couldn’t last that long.
But years had passed. If something had happened to the demon, the angel would surely have been informed by his superiors about a replacement. There was no reason to worry. Absolutely none. Crowley must still be asleep, that’s all.
What Aziraphale needed was something to keep him busy. The trivial, inconsequential competition he’d had with Crowley since the Arrangement had been an entertaining diversion. Whenever he’d reported a perfect move, he could almost see the demon’s eyes gleaming through his smoked lenses and hear the cogs in his brain turning to devise an even more ingenious counter-move. He was so creative! Invariably, at the next meeting, Crowley would respond with something that Aziraphale would then have to top.
But what is the point of developing clever maneuvers with no one to appreciate them? Aziraphale had quickly grown bored, contenting himself by perfunctorily completing the routine missions assigned to him. But why was he complaining? It was almost like he was on vacation, too. He had plenty of time to read. Wasn’t that what he’d always wanted?
He’d taken the opportunity to refine his methods to discourage customers. More than once, he’d thought that Crowley would be proud of him.
One day, he’d seen an ad for classes by the famous magician John Maskelyne. The idea had tickled his fancy. He’d signed up and attended the classes regularly. Through practice, he’d gotten rather good. What other angel could boast of doing magic without supernatural powers?
There was something else that angels never did, but he had always wanted to try: to dance. He’d located a gavotte class in the back room of the Portland Club where, officially, the gentlemen only played whist and bridge. It had amused him for a few months until once again, he thought he’d gotten rather good at it – and he’d grown weary of declining unambiguous propositions.
And then, the velocipede had become popular in England. Aziraphale had made a point of learning to ride, because Crowley would demand a report on all things new upon awakening. If he’d been present, there was little doubt the demon would have made fun of his first few clumsy attempts.
But he’d still not made an appearance. Could someone really sleep that long? It had been almost a century. A mere grain of sand when one is immortal, thought Aziraphale. Yet every day seemed like a year.
Twice a month he forced himself to go to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, attend operas at Covent Garden, and discover new restaurants. Sometimes he went alone, and sometimes in the pleasant company of an acquaintance. But it wasn’t the same. No, he definitely didn’t look forward to those evenings with the same anticipation as before.
He was preparing an excuse to decline Arthur’s invitation when the latter glanced over the collection on the counter.
“What a coincidence! Oscar will be there tonight. A fascinating character, especially if you take the trouble to get to know him beyond the poses he loves to assume. Oh, I’m afraid I’ll have to take back my promise. How much do you want for this book?”
“I’m afraid it’s not for sale,” the angel responded, placing a possessive hand on the volume. “But if you wish, we can discuss its theme at dinner tonight.”
Aziraphale was making conversation with Lady Gregory when a guest made a grand entrance into the salon. Tall and robust, he was dressed with great elegance. His long face exuded gentleness and keen intelligence. He was one of those people who is not immediately attractive, but oozes charisma.
The angel didn’t doubt for a moment that this thirty-some dandy was Oscar Wilde. As their eyes met, a glimmer of curiosity flashed in the writer’s, before their hostess stepped forward to greet him and he turned his head with regret. His reaction astonished Aziraphale. Usually, his rather non-descript human guise precluded notice, which was a significant advantage. Occasionally his gaze caught the attention of humans. Most of them shuddered uncomfortably, as if they felt scrutinized to the depths of their souls. But he’d discovered he could mitigate this effect by wearing spectacles, which had the added benefit of perfectly complementing his characterization. Only Crowley knew he didn’t need them.
He automatically pushed them up his nose as Arthur Conan Doyle approached with Oscar Wilde in tow.
“Oscar, permit me to introduce to you Ezra Fell. He claims to be a bookseller, but it’s a shameless lie. Rather, he’s a collector, and one with exquisite taste. I have proof that he was reading you just this morning. Mr. Fell, this is dear Oscar Wilde. Aesthete, scholar, and the sharpest wit in London.” Arthur gave Oscar an affectionate smile. “He’s proclaimed himself to be a creative genius and has managed, I don’t know how, to make everyone believe it. In reality, he has written as few books as you’ve deigned to sell. I hereby declare that you two are a pair.”
Aziraphale and Oscar laughed and shook hands.
“That’s just it,” explained Oscar. “I’ve been very busy making my life a work of art. Having said that, Arthur, know that you won’t be able to foist this wicked reputation of a usurper on me for long. I intend to honor the book contract that Mr. Stoddart gave me, same as you. How is yours coming along?”
“I finished The Sign of the Four a short time ago. Lippincott’s Monthly is expected to publish it next month. And you?”
Oscar’s smile weakened a bit, and he sighed.
“I’m not as far along as I’d like. The ideas are there, but I feel like I’m missing something. And my office doesn’t inspire me. Constance does her best to keep the children from bothering me but… I need a quieter place.”
There was something in his low languid voice that was absolutely fascinating. The graceful way he waved his hand as he spoke was reminiscent of Crowley.
“And what is your story about?”
“About art. And influence… and temptation,” he added darkly.
Oscar visibly reveled in Aziraphale’s interest.
They were seated side by side at the table.
“Ezra means helper, if I’m not mistaken,” Oscar said smoothly as he sat. “Are you the one helping?”
“I do hope so.”
“A Hebrew name. Are you Jewish?”
The angel offered a cryptic smile.
“To simplify things, let’s say I was raised in the Jewish faith but now claim all the religions of the Good Book – as imperfect as that sobriquet is. After all, it’s all the same God.”
“What a deliciously seditious idea! It would horrify my Protestant father!
The dinner was most pleasant. Oscar was obviously a regular at these social events where his brilliant mind and clever phrasing enchanted the guests. He spoke with passion of the Greek philosophers and seemed delighted to listen to Aziraphale’s anecdotes in kind – “It’s as though you knew them personally!”
Whether the conversation was about painting, history, fashion, or the latest in London gossip, Oscar was witty and flamboyant. He displayed a certain level of cynicism that would have done Crowley proud.
It had been a long time since Aziraphale had had such an enjoyable evening.
There were rarely any customers in the late afternoon, a time when Crowley had habitually dropped by the shop. The tinkle of the bell gave Aziraphale an irrational whiff of hope. He hurried out of the back of the shop.
It was Oscar. Wrapped in a fur coat, he stood motionless in the bookshop doorway. His head inclined toward the slanting beams that streamed through the dirty window, in which dust particles danced a slow ballet.
He greeted Aziraphale with an affable nod, as if the dinner the previous week had made his presence quite expected. He followed the light to the bindings it was illuminating. Head bowed, he perused several shelves with an interested air. With a connoisseur’s knowing smile, he flicked his finger against the spine of Huysmans’s Against Nature.
“You have many wonders here,” he finally said in a low voice.
“Are you looking for something in particular?“ queried Aziraphale, nervously aware that he’d be unable to refuse him a book.
“The pleasure of an interesting conversation, to be honest. I’ve just spent two hours staring at a blank sheet of paper and I can’t stand it anymore. So for once I’ll resist temptation, although it’s totally contrary to my nature, and not attempt to buy your treasures. I definitely don’t want to be lumped in the same category as your unwelcome customers.”
Aziraphale breathed a sigh of relief and smiled.
“A cup of tea?”
The back room was as gloomy as the rest of the bookshop, and just as piled with books – those which ordinary customers were not allowed to see. It was just a tad more comfortable, with a kitchenette, a table, two chairs and a sofa, on which Aziraphale invited Oscar to sit while the water heated to a boil.
When he turned, tray in hand, his visitor was scribbling feverishly in a small notebook. The angel sat down and let him finish.
“A few sentences that came to my mind all of a sudden…” explained Oscar as he closed the notebook. He admired the intricate design on the delicate porcelain cup and gently sniffed the tea’s aroma. “A vintage piece,” he commented. “I have been collecting them for years. I have a passion for beautiful objects. Likewise for clothing in beautiful fabrics.”
It was a lifestyle of which Crowley would have completely approved.
“Some may think me superficial, but…” Oscar paused, as if hesitant to complete the thought.
Vain. That’s what Aziraphale had always thought of Crowley. It wasn’t surprising for a demon. With a look, he encouraged Oscar to continue. The latter seemed to consider, then continued.
“…but many people underestimate the importance of Beauty to heal the soul. Surrounding myself with all these delightful treasures is a means of forgetfulness, modes by which I can escape, for just a while, from fears that seem to me at times to be almost too great to be borne.” Oscar took a sip of tea. “Do you find that strange?”
Aziraphale realized he’d hesitated too long before answering.
“Let’s say you’ve given me food for thought.”
“I’m delighted to have done so. I think one can never ask too many questions. We accept too many ideas without really thinking about them. I mean, right now I’m working on an essay about Art, and…”
Art, politics, society… nothing, indeed, escaped the writer’s sharp questioning. Aziraphale had grown to enjoy this sort of discussion and added or countered with delight. He felt revived. Especially since Oscar never addressed the uncomfortable question of the Divine Plan.
The bottle of wine that had succeeded the tea had long been empty when Oscar looked at his watch with astonishment and stood to leave.
“I feel motivated to write. If you allow me to waste your time again, I’d love to come back. I find this place very inspiring.”
“You could write here,” Aziraphale surprised himself by proposing. “I’m not open often and there aren’t many customers. As for me, I spend most of my time reading. You won’t be disturbed.”
And so it was that Oscar came every day to sit at the table in the back room and add a few pages to The Picture of Dorian Gray.
He usually arrived mid-morning, sometimes later, often with a bouquet of fresh flowers that he set near him in a vase. He said he needed it to write. He wrote until late afternoon, only interrupting himself for a quick lunch with Aziraphale, where they discussed everything and nothing.
The rest of the time, the angel quietly went about his business in the shop or read on the sofa. He was astonished how easily he accepted this presence in the bookshop – he, who had never tolerated anyone for long. Aside from Crowley, obviously. Sometimes, immersed in his book, Aziraphale would sense a gaze on him and turn, expecting to see the demon instead of Oscar.
When Oscar left, always as the same time, Aziraphale would walk him to the door to lock it behind him. It was not uncommon for Oscar to get into a cab with someone opening the door from the inside, or to find a young man waiting across the street. The men were never the same.
When Oscar was not writing, he meandered among the books with evident pleasure. One day, Aziraphale found him in front of the valuable Bibles that took up a large portion of the back of the shop. He had his back to him, a volume in his hand. The angel immediately knew which book when Oscar said, “A feather for a bookmark? How charming. I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s beautiful!”
Aziraphale struggled against an overwhelming and irrational urge to snatch the feather from his hands. Only he could touch that feather!
“But why mark the Song of Songs?” asked Oscar.
In the lack of an answer, he turned around. After seeing the look in Aziraphale’s eyes, he carefully replaced the quill between the pages and returned the Bible to its shelf.
“Please excuse me. I didn’t mean to pry.”
A few weeks later, Oscar declared that he had completed a satisfactory first draft, and would like Aziraphale to review it before editing. The angel, who had not wanted to seem openly curious, responded that he’d like nothing better than to read the manuscript, which had daily grown thicker under his roof. Oscar entrusted it to him as one might entrust a newborn child, and went home, leaving Aziraphale to his reading.
The beginning of the novel reminded him of the Garden of Eden. Dorian’s soul was pure until he was led astray by Lord Henry’s tempting words, whom Aziraphale could not help but imagine as Crowley. Under his influence, Dorian vowed that the portrait would bear the burden of the years and their troubles in his place. It was he who’d urged Dorian to surrender to desire, corrupting him a bit more day by day. Aziraphale easily understood the fascination of the young man with Lord Henry, who’d shown him the world in a different light.
Dorian did have a few crises of conscience, but why should he stop? His fresh-faced innocent appearance was welcomed everywhere, while the secret horrors he committed affected only the portrait. All he had to do was hide the painting where no one would see it. Including himself.
And Oscar had perfectly captured the dynamic: the student eventually surpassed the master. Because what had Lord Henry really done in the end? Nothing. It was only words. It was Dorian who’d broken Sybil Vane’s heart and pushed her to kill herself; it was he who’d assassinated Basil, the painter who had adored him and created the portrait.
Each of us has heaven and hell in him. Yes, Oscar had understood everything. Everything was a question of choice. Free will. Aziraphale couldn’t wait to give the novel to Crowley to read! He was anxious to hear his opinion on… He had foolishly forgotten, for a moment, that he was doomed to wait – how much longer? He irritably turned the page.
The ending, without a doubt, was going to be controversial. Dorian was never really punished for his actions. The portrait ended up horrifying him and, in seeking to destroy it, he caused his own death. But the public would undoubtedly expect an unequivocal moral, which Oscar was careful not to deliver. In the common world of fact, the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded.
As a representative of Heaven, Aziraphale would have preferred a less ambiguous message. But that wasn’t the reason he felt uncomfortable closing the manuscript. The novel was captivating and beautifully written, but it almost felt as if some of the words had been directed personally at him.
He knew he’d changed since arriving on Earth. He’d been influenced by the humans among whom he lived. By Crowley. Even the Arrangement bothered his conscience less and less. He avoided scrutinizing himself carefully, just as Dorian avoided looking at the portrait. But lately he’d felt something different, something confusing, and he wasn’t exactly sure what.
Dorian had said that the book Lord Henry had given him – it wasn’t difficult to recognize it as the novel by Huysmans – had poisoned his mind. Aziraphale had the same impression, as if reading the Picture had spotlighted the dark corner where he’d carefully relegated the feeling of not being the virtuous angel he claimed to be. Perhaps never had been. An undefined fear clenched his heart.
He stood up and scanned the room for… ah, yes, there was an urgent need to reorganize the bookshop! The customers were starting to find things too easily.
He’d just finished placing the history books in random order, interspersing them with the crime novels, when Oscar returned the next day, arriving slightly earlier than usual.
“So? What did you think?”
Aziraphale handed him the manuscript, torn between keeping it and being glad to be rid of it.
“I was… very impressed. Your style is admirable. And you depict so subtly the manner in which Man vindicates his conscience! I have a friend…” an acquaintance? “…who is an expert in this matter and would definitely agree with me. I’m sure he would love your novel.” Oscar accepted the compliments with a reassured and delighted smile. “But… I fear that some may not forgive you for denouncing the hypocrisy of English society. Your story may be scandalous.”
“All the better! There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
In the days that followed, Oscar started to rewrite his text, marking passages and adding paragraphs. From time to time, he would read a sentence aloud to judge the effect, regularly asking Aziraphale’s advice. He was even happier than before, as if finishing the first draft had relieved him of a heavy burden. Often, he set the manuscript aside for hours to talk, as if he wasn’t really in a hurry to finish it.
It was the beginning of May. The lilacs that Oscar included in his bouquets filled the bookshop with a heavy scent. Oscar began to stay longer and later into the evenings.
One evening, he put down his pen and closed the manuscript with a definitive gesture. He declared it was finished and this deserved a celebration. He invited Aziraphale to dine at Brown’s Hotel, which the writer habituated.
It soon became a weekly ritual, pending the verdict of Mr. Stoddart. And then of course, came visits to the National Portrait Gallery, afternoon strolls through the Crystal Palace exhibitions, and Sunday concerts at Royal Albert Hall. All these new facilities were wonderful! Crowley would have loved them so much. And the railroad, and the subway, and the electric lights that now lit the banks of the Thames! Everything was moving so fast now! He was going to regret missing all this. His slumberous retreat was such a stupid idea!
Oscar even convinced Aziraphale to go see some of Shakespeare’s plays. He had avoided them for a long time, because there was always a moment when Crowley would inadvertently start to recite the verses in a whisper, his melancholy air unmistakable even in the low lighting of the theatre. It never failed to cause a peculiar twist in Aziraphale’s stomach.
He discovered he appreciated the performances better in Oscar’s company. He felt a twinge of guilt, and shrugged it away. After all, he wasn’t the one who had selfishly abandoned the other.
When Aziraphale returned home, the bookshop now seemed too big and too silent. He couldn’t concentrate on what he was reading. He was reduced to walking in nervous circles or sitting on the sofa for hours, doing nothing but listening to the monotonous tick of the clock. His days consisted of waiting for outings with Oscar. Only he was able to assuage the angel’s inexplicable lethargy.
On a warm July afternoon, the writer burst into the shop, allowing the apricot-colored light of London’s summer to stream through the open doorway. Magazine in hand, he cried out, “He censured it! Stoddart dared to cut my text! He claims that Basil’s love for Dorian was too explicit! That this kind of thing is only tolerated when it’s discreet, and I should try to avoid attracting attention if I don’t want to risk two years at forced labor!” He was sweaty and out of breath. Aziraphale insisted that he take off his jacket, sit down, and accept a glass of cold water. “He said he was already taking enough risks. That the novel is good, but immoral. What idiocy! There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”
He got up and started to pace the room in a state of agitation that worried Aziraphale. He interrupted Oscar’s path and grabbed him by the arm to force him to stop, using his angelic powers to calm him down.
“Oscar, the Picture is marvelously written. You know it; I know it. A few less passages will not prevent the public from recognizing your talent. I deplore censorship as much as you, but do not lose sight of the end goal: You’ve been waiting for this moment a long time.”
“Yes. Yes, you are right. Thank you, Ezra. For everything. I was right about you from the start. You’ve really helped me.”
The angel had not pulled back his hand. Oscar’s eyes shone, caught in his gaze. Aziraphale saw his eyes move toward his mouth. He did nothing to prevent the kiss. He’d thought about it himself more than once.
Yet, he did not feel what he had imagined. There was something not quite right about the kiss, as if the scene had been well-written, but the roles had been misassigned.
He pulled away from Oscar, who opened his eyes with a puzzled expression and murmured, “I thought this is what you wanted.”
“I’m sorry. I thought I did too.”
Oscar sighed resignedly.
Really? How so, since Aziraphale himself did not understand?
“I had a feeling why you talk so much about your friend even though he’s not here...”
“I don’t talk about him that much…” Aziraphale protested weakly, to keep from absorbing what Oscar had said. He realized his denial sounded feeble, and Oscar sadly continued:
“You love him.”
A bee had slipped into the bookshop. It buzzed in a lazy spiral, then landed on a book to rest. Aziraphale watched it with that strange interest in trivial things that one develops when he is stirred by a new emotion that cannot yet be expressed, or a terrifying thought that suddenly seizes the brain.
In spite of himself, Oscar’s words slowly wormed their way into his mind. Words, mere words, have a terrible yet subtle magic. Nothing is more absolute than words, because they give definition to what has previously been formless. Name a hitherto intangible shadow, an elusive feeling – and one creates a reality from which there is no escape.
Aziraphale understood now. How could he have missed it earlier?
“Does he know?”
Oscar’s question seemed to bring him back to earth.
“He knows nothing about it. He will never know anything about it,” Aziraphale vehemently declared.
“Because I cannot love him.”
“Because of this monstrous law?” Oscar accepted his lack of answer as confirmation and continued fervently, “They can’t stop us from loving, Ezra.”
Oscar’s words had affected Aziraphale as Lord Henry’s had affected Dorian: they’d revealed things about himself that he’d prefer to ignore. He tried his best to forget them. He’d done it before. He excelled at this game.
Without a doubt, his idleness had given him strange ideas. An angel doesn’t ride a bike, dance the gavotte, or pull rabbits from a hat. An angel doesn’t fall in love with a demon.
He was going to concentrate on doing his job, making changes for good. Yes, that’s what an angel should be doing.
But he couldn’t travel through London without passing in front of at least ten places that made him think of Crowley, in a new way that he didn’t know how to handle.
Spending more time with Oscar was probably a bad idea. The latter wasn’t insistent when Aziraphale began to decline his invitations, and didn’t seem to take offense. Instead, they exchanged letters of fond friendship which never revisited what had happened.
In April of the following year, the writer sent Aziraphale a luxurious first edition printing of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The cover was exquisite, embossed with a stylized gold pattern. On the title page, Oscar had written a personal dedication. The wide margins, in the new style, made the novel appear longer than it actually was.
Even so, Aziraphale noted while carefully leafing through it, the narrative had been enriched with the addition of several eloquent passages. He made it a game to find the differences and reread the entire novel. He was relieved to discover he was able to appreciate it without the disquieting reaction of his first reading. It was a good sign.
In February 1892, he received two tickets for the St James’s Theatre with a note from Oscar stating nothing would please him more than to see him at the premiere of his play Lady Windermere’s Fan. Aziraphale finally felt he could accept without contingency. He tossed the second ticket with hardly an afterthought.
The play was excellent, full of wit and clever phrases. Aziraphale was surprised to hear himself laugh, a familiar sound rediscovered after a long absence. In spite of this fleeting thought, he enjoyed the performance. Until Act III, and Lord Darlington’s poignant declaration of love to Lady Windermere:
Yes, I love you! You are more to me than anything in the whole world… I offer you my life – my whole life. Take it, and do with it what you will... I love you – love you as I have never loved any living thing. From the moment I met you I loved you blindly, adoringly, madly! You did not know it then – you know it now.
Aziraphale’s throat tightened. He felt like a complete and utter fool.
But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely – or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.
That our two sides in their hypocrisy demand, corrected Aziraphale bitterly. And an angel has no choice.
He stared as the scene played out, mesmerized, but at the same time, his mind miles away from the plot. Lord Darlington, rejected, decided to leave England.
For one moment our lives met—our souls touched. They must never meet or touch again.
The force with which Aziraphale’s hand gripped the armrest was proof enough he understood the other reason he would never tell Crowley of his feelings.
He tried to focus on the play, but only the thunderous applause from the audience signaled him it was over. He had no idea how it had ended.
Concealing his turmoil the best he could, he made his way to the reception that followed the performance to congratulate Oscar. The latter, intoxicated as much by success as brandy, was accompanied by a handsome young man whom he introduced as Lord Alfred Douglas. They seemed very intimate.
Bosie, as Oscar called him, immediately left Aziraphale with a bad impression. He looked so much like the description of Dorian Gray that it was striking. And a bit alarming, considering the author had confessed to Aziraphale that he’d written the character of Basil with himself in mind – not Lord Henry, as others had assumed. If Aziraphale’s foreboding had simply been because of the similarity, he’d have shrugged his shoulders and been careful not to interfere. But Bosie’s soul appeared to him so twisted, he could not help but pull Oscar aside.
“Oscar, please don’t take what I’m going to say the wrong way but… I’m worried about you. You shouldn’t be so open in public with this boy. You know it’s dangerous.” He hesitated. “And he seems a bit…”
Oscar interrupted him with a serene voice. “Don’t think that I don’t know it. But I can’t help it. He is my temptation. And the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.”
He should have insisted. But Oscar waved aside his concern and murmured, “I think you should do the same, Ezra. You look so sad. You need to tell your friend how you feel.”
The angel took advantage of Bosie’s interruption to leave the theatre and disappear into the night.
He walked through fog barely pierced by the gas street lamps. Lost in thought, he suddenly stopped and glanced up at the shops. He found that he had passed his own some distance, and, frowning to himself, turned back. He unlocked the door and leaned heavily against it once it shut behind him.
This evening had only served to further muddle his thoughts. Lord Darlington, Sybil Vane, and the Student were dancing an infernal sarabande in his head. Look what our feelings did to us, they mockingly clamored. He remembered the impersonal message the demon had left him. What kind of response could he expect if he confessed his feelings?
He rubbed a palm against his sweaty forehead. What if he wasn’t able to hide how he felt when he saw Crowley again? He had been waiting a long time for the demon to awaken, but now he was dreading it.
He had to leave. He had to go someplace where nothing would remind him of Crowley. He had to forget this madness.
In order to do that, he had to clear his mind of the incessant thoughts that agitated him. All those things that he wished he could say to him.
Perhaps the best way to rid himself of them would be to set them on paper. Write a letter to Crowley, then set it on fire. Since Oscar’s words had helped wrench this love into concrete existence, destroying the words that now obsessed him seemed an appropriate ritual.
He marched to the back of the shop, lit the oil lamp, and rummaged through his writing desk looking for a sheaf of paper. He grabbed his pen, sat in the same place where Oscar had written the Picture, and filled one page after another with a wall of black.
You know it now.
As he wrote those last words, he felt a little better. He stared at the letter, scarcely recognizing in the feverish characters his usually neat and careful handwriting. Then he removed the globe from the lamp and held the letter to the flame. The heat began to scorch the corner of the sheets.
With a stifled oath, he jerked the epistle away and pitched it on the table. He sat frozen, his back stiff, his hands trembling. Then he replaced the globe on the lamp. He collected the pages, folded the letter, and slipped in into an envelope. He stood up painfully, as if all the thousands of years of his life lay on his shoulders, and walked over to conceal the envelope in the copy of the Picture, shelved with the other Wilde first editions between the Bibles and the books of prophecy.
Perhaps one day…
The following day at dawn, he locked the bookshop and left for French Indochina.
Life there was radically different than in London. Time passed differently, spun between the mugginess and the monsoons. Nothing was familiar, and that was exactly what Aziraphale needed. After glancing at a calendar, it was difficult to believe he’d already been in Saigon five years. The century was almost over and the dawn of the next was an opportune symbol for him to start over with a clean slate. His crisis would see like a distant nightmare, especially if he wisely continued to avoid thinking about it.
It was by chance, while in conversation with a newly-arrived French colonist, that Aziraphale learned Oscar had been sentenced to prison two years earlier for homosexuality, and had just been released. He’d exiled himself to France.
The vessel on which the traveler had arrived left the very same day, ten days early, and with an unexpected passenger on board. Through the luck of exceptional winds, less than a month later it docked in Marseilles. Aziraphale hurried north.
He picked up Oscar’s trail in Berneval-sur-Mer, where he was living under a pseudonym. The angel stood in the sea breeze that softened the September heat, hesitating for a moment in front of the cottage door before daring to knock. At the sight of Oscar, Aziraphale’s heart sank. His exhausted air and his reddened skin and damaged teeth were witness to how terrible life in prison must have been for him. But, as usual, his dress was impeccable, from his light linen suit to his hair, which was now dyed.
The author smiled, visibly moved, and gave him a lengthy embrace. While preparing tea, he asked Aziraphale a thousand questions about his recent adventures and lauded the French seaside with excessive enthusiasm.
It was only when they finally sat face to face, steaming cups between them, that Aziraphale finally asked, “What happened?”
Oscar added sugar to his cup and thoroughly blended it in.
“Bosie’s father openly accused me of being a sodomite. I sued him for defamation. No, don’t look at me that way! It was a mistake, of course but… but I lost my mind. I didn’t want him to hurt Bosie any more, and he convinced me to… well. What’s done is done. I lost. The prosecution decided to prosecute me instead. I received the maximum punishment allowed for people like us. After a few months at hard labor, I got sick and they had to transfer me.” He spoke in a detached tone, as if all this had happened to someone else. But with a sigh, he added, “I still can’t believe they used my own works against me. They even used a verse from one of Bosie’s poems, The love that dare not speak its name, to condemn me.”
They’d used literature against him. It was the most odious of treasons.
Aziraphale held Oscar’s hands in his own.
“And why France?”
“When I was accused, everyone turned their backs on me. Except for a few close friends, including Robbie, of course. That dear angel has not stopped helping me. When I was released, I became a pariah. I even tried to enter a monastery. I had converted in prison. But, they refused me.” He laughed, a slightly strangled sound. “So, here I am!”
Straightening up, he ran a hand over his hair, and picked up his cup. “But, I’m fine. With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy? I’m not yet done for. Whether they want to or not, the English will still hear about me. I’ve started writing again.” He gestured toward a manuscript further down the table. ”I’ve just finished it. I think I’d like you to read it, Ezra. Just like old times.”
Oscar went out on the terrace, leaving Aziraphale alone with the manuscript. The Ballad of Reading Gaol, read the script on the title page. It was a long, ballad-style poem. As typical, Oscar was defending someone lower than him – a death-row inmate he’d rubbed shoulders with – but his own suffering was palpable in every verse. Aziraphale had to stop several times to wipe the tears that blurred his eyesight.
When he rejoined Oscar outside, he could offer only a wordless hug.
“I’m sorry,” he finally managed to say. “You were wrong about me. I didn’t help you at all. I left town and I let you down.”
“There’s nothing you could have done.”
Aziraphale turned to gaze over the garden, no longer able to look Oscar in the face.
“But if…” Oscar started hesitantly, “…if you wanted to do something for me today…”
“Anything! Name it!”
“I… I saw Bosie a few days ago. I would like to move with him to Naples. But I don’t have a penny to my name.” He laughed, embarrassed. “If you could…”
Aziraphale’s expression must have been transparent because Oscar quickly added,” I know what you’re thinking. But I can’t go back to England. I’m not even allowed to see my children…” His voice broke, but he recovered. “He’s all I have left. I need him. I know I shouldn’t, but I have never stopped loving him. You, of all people, should understand…”
“That’s all behind me now,” Aziraphale asserted in a more acerbic tone than he’d intended.
Oscar offered an inquisitive look and sighed, leaning against the railing.
“In that case, you are wiser than I. But I prefer to repent a sin rather than regret the loss of a pleasure.”
Aziraphale covertly looked him over. Oscar had obviously not fared well in prison. How much time did he have left? The odds were infinitesimal that Bosie would stay by his side until the end and care for him, but what right did Aziraphale have to deny him that chance?
In the days that followed, he assisted Oscar in his preparations and brought him as much money as he could without attracting notice.
On the day of his departure to Italy, Oscar waited with impatient anticipation, and for a few hours he appeared as young and happy as he’d been at their first meeting. This was the image Aziraphale wanted to remember.
“And what about you? Will you return to Saigon?”
Aziraphale had thought about it during his nights in the guest room of the chalet. The mere idea of returning to Indochina was exhausting. He missed his bookshop. But… what if Crowley had awakened? Well, it could be an opportunity to prove to himself that what he’d said to Oscar was true.
“I’m planning to return to London.”
Oscar hugged him with a smile.
“It was good to see you again, Ezra. Your presence has reminded me of many fond memories. You haven’t changed a bit.” He joked, ”Time has no more hold on you than it did on Dorian Gray.”
Dorian had escaped the passage of time, but was saddened by the destruction it caused to beautiful things. Aziraphale had often shared that feeling with Crowley. Works of art were reduced to dust. Cities became ruins. And the humans you loved died.
He gave Oscar one last long look. He took his leave with two premonitions. The first, that this was going to be the last time he’d see him. The second, that people would speak his name for centuries, and in that way, he’d achieve immortality.
It had been five minutes since Crowley had spoken. He’d not drunk a drop of his brandy, which he slowly swirled in his glass. Despite the sunglasses, Aziraphale knew that his friend was examining him closely.
“What?” the angel finally asked.
Crowley continued to turn his glass without responding. Finally, he set it down and rested his chin on his folded hands. He confessed in a voice halfway between astonishment and slight annoyance, “I don’t understand. You seem to have taken the loss of your books rather well.” He leaned forward slightly. “Who are you and what have you done with Aziraphale?”
His joke was a feeble attempt to cover a certain anxiety.
The angel looked down at his hands and said lightly, “I don’t have much use for books of prophecy now, anyway. And collecting the Bibles was an amusing hobby, but…” He shrugged.
Crowley tilted his head to one side. He wasn’t going to be satisfied with this answer.
This wasn’t the way that Aziraphale had intended to broach the subject. And certainly not here, at the Ritz with other diners present. He wanted to see Crowley’s eyes. Those beautiful eyes that he’d rarely seen in the last century, since Crowley had shown up one morning, crossing the threshold of the bookshop as if nothing had happened – as if he’d left only the day before and not a century ago.
He had sauntered in with his usual smile of feigned assurance and that little lock of hair that always fell across his forehead, just as before. Aziraphale’s heart had jumped in his chest. He preferred to blame it on surprise. Crowley had looked cheerful, but a bit more reserved than before. A little distant. It was probably for the best. It made things easier.
In light of what had happened yesterday during the Almost-Apocalypse, Aziraphale realized he must have misread many of Crowley’s pretenses. They should have had this conversation a long time ago. He was not going to postpone it further.
He took a deep breath. Then he continued, resolutely, “They were only books, after all. I could have lost something much more valuable yesterday.” He looked pointedly at Crowley.
The demon opened his mouth, hesitated, then closed it again. He finally mumbled, “I thought you loved those books more than anything in the world.”
From his frown, Aziraphale guessed that those were not the words he intended to say, and already regretted it.
“There was one I cared about more than the others. It was sitting right in the middle of the counter when I entered the new bookshop. An old book restored exactly as it was. In short, it’s the only one left from my collection.” He smiled. “That boy knows everything about us.”
“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Crowley guessed intuitively. He must have read the surprise in Aziraphale’s eyes, because he added, “It’s the only book you never let me touch.” He let a moment pass.
“Do you miss him?”
Was there a hint of resentment in his voice?
“And why that book, precisely?”
“Through that book, Oscar helped me understand something important. And inside it was a letter that has been waiting a long time for you to read it.”
Aziraphale had always thought he’d be nervous when this day came, but his voice was sure and certain.
For years, he had smothered what he felt. He had managed to ignore every gesture and phrase of Crowley’s whose meaning could be misconstrued. But sometimes, late at night, his weakness would overcome him and he’d have to suggest to Crowley it was time to be going. And Crowley had always gotten the hint.
He had fulfilled every mission, executed every order. And even if mentoring the Antichrist hadn’t been part of his duties, he’d been countering a directive from Below, as Crowley had rightfully pointed out. It was what any respectable angel would have done.
Yesterday, Crowley had run into the flaming bookshop looking for him, and had held the angel’s hand in his when they’d thought it was all over.
Yesterday, Aziraphale had acknowledged he could make his own choices. He no longer needed to pretend to be someone else. He was at peace with who he was.
“I’m ready today,” he simply said.
Crowley remained perfectly still. Was he even breathing? His cheeks had flushed an adorable shade of red, as if he wasn’t sure if he might have misunderstood.
Aziraphale touched the letter with his fingertips, safe in the inside pocket of his jacket. He didn’t pull it out. He didn’t need to; he could recite it by heart. His hand returned to the table and gently reached out for that of his friend.
In the middle of Berkeley Square, a nightingale uttered its crystalline song before joyfully taking flight over London.