Johnny has difficulty getting over losing the love of his life, when a stranger arrives at his front door…
By Sean Cottrell
I grew up with Johnny Cross and believe me no more honest man walked the face of the earth. So, the story I am going to tell you is true because Johnny told me himself.
There wasn’t enough living on the family farm to give two men a livelihood so, he took himself over to England. He was handy with tools and had no difficulty getting work on the buildings there and when his parents died he came home and took over the farm and he had his work cut out there for him I can tell you, his poor father, God rest him, had let it go somewhat.
Then he set his cap at Margaret Dempsey who was a distant cousin of my own. In fact I had my eye on her myself but while I was pondering the pros and cons of such a thing he stole her from under my nose. In any case it wasn’t too long before we were sitting down to the wedding breakfast and there was a look of love, peace and contentment about the pair of them that would gladden your heart.
They’d been married about five years and everything in the garden was rosy when one Saturday morning Margaret sent him off to town with a shopping list a mile long. He was loading the car with the essentials when he was persuaded by some lads to go for a quick drink. One drink led to another and it was hours before Johnny set out for home. On the road home he smiled, thinking of how Margaret would tease him for his stay in the pub. He arrived to find his beautiful wife stretched out an the floor, icy cold. The doctor said she’d had a massive heart attack.
Now, there is such a thing as the grieving process but Johnny took this to extremes. He moped around the house. He milked the cows, went to the creamery and did the bare essentials to keep the animals alive and well. The same could not be said for himself or the house. Several of the neighbouring women came and tried to feed him and maybe do a bit of straightening up here and there to help him out but, they soon gave up due to his rudeness. By now he was a ragged individual, isolated and lonely. He’d lost so much weight the clothes hung on him and he never smiled. It was as if the old Johnny had retired and was not interested in making a comeback.
As his friend I thought I should be able to help or at least be a sympathetic listener, but I was quickly made aware that, not only was I out of my depth, I was no longer welcome in a house where once I was always sure of a cup of tea and a friendly chat.
Johnny swore the house was haunted. He claimed to hear thunder most nights, even on nights when there was frost being laid on the ground. He claimed to hear lots of people talking at night but he couldn’t see any of them.
Betwixt and between, the poor man was getting no sleep at all.
He went to see the priest who assured him there was no such thing as ghosts and it was all imagination, but he was persuaded to visit. He said a few prayers, scattered some Holy Water here and there to no avail.
It was about a year later that Johnny answered a knock on the door. There was a beautiful young lady there, tall, slim, blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. She was wearing a spotlessly clean white dress with a narrow belt and gold coloured sandals which matched the belt.
“God bless all here,” she said. “Is the woman of the house available for a minute.”
“There’s no woman here,” Johnny told her and he set about closing the door in her face.
“Then I’ve come to the right house,” she said. “Could I trouble you for a drink of water. I have travelled a fair distance and I’m parched.”
The right house? What did she mean by that? But, he’d refuse nobody a drink and he headed for the kitchen. She followed and as his search for a clean glass proved fruitless she took over and rinsed out a cup and filled it with water.
She raised her eyebrows at him, silently asking if he wanted a drink, but, on getting no response she drank about half, then sat down.
That left Johnny standing in front of her and if he thought that was a superior situation he had another think coming.
She was cool out altogether, you’d think she owned the place. Johnny, being a naturally quiet man, and respectful of women, wondered how he was ever going to get her out of the house.
“I have been told you needed help in letting go of your grief,” she told him.
Johnny reared up at that. “In God’s name woman, who are you?” he wanted to know, “and what brings you to my house with your offers of help. I don’t need any help. And I’ll grieve in my own way if you don’t mind. Now get out.”
She made no move but cast her eyes around the kitchen. Johnny’s eyes seemed to travel the same route hers were taking. He noticed, almost for the first time, the chaotic state of the place and he suddenly felt ashamed to be caught amid such dirt and grime before a stranger. For the first time since he buried Margaret he felt self conscious about himself and mortified by the way he treated people who tried to help him.
“Of course. No help required,” she said, the words dripping sarcasm.
She stood up and turned to go, gave him a lingering look over her shoulder and began to walk slowly to the door. When she got there she turned and said, “Johnny, if you do not accept help you will join your Margaret much sooner than you should.”
“Hold steady a minute,” Johnny called. “Come back here and explain yourself. How do you know so much about me and Margaret and what kind of help are we talking about here?”
She took a couple of steps forward and put a hand on Johnny’s arm. “If I told you everything I know and how I know it, you wouldn’t believe me. So, let us take a little time and work together to brighten up this lovely house. There will be time enough for explanations later.”
She ordered Johnny out of the house. “You have chores to do out there,” she told him. When he returned the place was gleaming like never before and there was a wonderful aroma of cooking. The table was set with the good china, and a smell of meat cooking. On the table were all kinds of fancy cakes and buns. It was like a child’s birthday party. The place was filled with the smell of fresh bread and spices. Johnny was ordered to clean himself up and when he returned to the kitchen, his face was shaved and shining and his wedding suit on him.
The dinner was the best he’d had since Margaret departed. She poured the tea, took a freshly baked scone, added a layer of butter and a good dollop of jam and placed it on his side plate.
Whatever else he could say about her he had to admit she could cook.
When the meal was finished, -mind you she didn’t eat too much herself – she settled back in the chair.
“Now Johnny,” she said. “The first thing we have to do is go to the graveyard and lay flowers on the grave and you can talk to Margaret and tell her how you’re are doing and wish her well too.” They did that and Johnny did indeed feel a bit better on the way home and there was more of a spring to his step than usual. Back at the house, the visitor lit the fire and settled into a chair by the warmth. Johnny sat in the opposite side.
“Now Johnny, I think we’ve done enough for today and it is time I was going, but I’ll leave you with a thought. Do you believe in angels?”
“I suppose,” Johnny said, wondering where all this was going. “Sure we’re all supposed to have a guardian angel.”
“Indeed. Goodnight Johnny. Sleep well.” Before the poor man could say another word she was out the door.
Next morning when he got up there was no trace of herself. He began to wonder if it was all a dream or a delusion. He did the necessary chores and went indoors and there she was. He had no sooner taken his cap off when she slapped the full breakfast in front of him.
“Now then,” he said, when he could eat no more, “Last night you said something about angels. What was that about?”
“We have to be accurate. I asked if you believed in Angels.”
“And I said I did.”
“Johnny, I am an angel. At least I was an angel.”
This had to be blasphemy. Johnny stood up, ready to throw her out of the house if necessary. She just sat there and smiled at him.
“Before you decide, let me tell you my story. There are many angels and some are envious of those souls who can go to earth and live a life where they have free will. Only a very few are allowed to do this. I am one who wanted to come here. I’m afraid I made such a nuisance of myself that they agreed to let me come here provided I could find a soul who had passed over and was unable to get on with the process because they were hindered by somebody on this plain holding them back.
“I don’t believe a word of it,” Johnny told her. “I’ve never heard such rubbish in my life. You’re some kind of trickster.”
It was at this point I arrived on the scene. I needed to borrow his tractor as mine was out of commission.
“The very man,” Johnny said. “Come and listen to this yarn. She says she’s an angel,” nodding his head in her direction. “Can you imagine?”
She told us how she came to this earth and how she met Margaret and then came to see Johnny.
“You see,” she said. “I have one year to make an impression here and one year to decide if I want to stay. Johnny is grieving and although it is severe he is also beset with guilt for being in the pub while she was breathing her last.”
“Can you believe that?” Johnny asked me.
“I can. She must be an angel to have got this place back to what it was the last time I saw it. But where she comes from I don’t know.”
At that she listed a whole load of things that were known only to himself and Margaret, and then followed it up with a list of escapades Johnny and I had almost forgotten. She made believers of us.
Of course, even in an out-of-the-way place like Johnny’s farm it was impossible for a young woman to arrive, cook and clean without being spotted and questions being asked and of course it reached the ear of the parish priest who took a dim view of what was occurring.
I happened to be there when he came to read the riot act to Johnny. Now I have seen strong men brought to their knees when Fr. Dunne got on his high horse but Johnny stood his ground and even went as far as telling him to mind his own business until he was certain of his facts.
While the priest was in the house there was no trace of herself, more’s the pity. I’d have liked to see the two of them argue it out.
After that Johnny moved her in as a housekeeper. Tongues wagged in the parish but most people got on well with her and she was a friend to anybody needing a helping hand and it was no surprise when it was announced that Johnny and herself were to be married.
One day when I called in, Johnny asked if I would be his best man. Of course I agreed. The upshot of it was they were married and in due course had a little girl and what else could they call her but Angela.
Johnny no longer had a need for the Grief Angel but she was invaluable to some folk in the vicinity who had difficulty in letting go of loved ones. Many people referred to her as an angel, not realising how close they were to the truth.