I believe in angels – and I saw one recently

He was disguised as a homeless man in a Warsaw restaurant

Michael Harding. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Michael Harding. Photograph: Brian Farrell


I was staring at witches in a shop window in Tralee last week. Vampires and zombies and green rubber devils, and a black hand reaching up from the floor with a gold cross and chain hanging on its dead fingers. And that was all just in one shop.

Farther down the street there were more cobwebs and so many windows full of orange and black plastic and grim pumpkins with nasty faces that I realised Halloween was just around the corner – that great American festival of anxiety when people celebrate the macabre possibility that evil is erotic, random and probably lurks beneath the bed.

It was all so American that I decided to slip into a burger joint for some food. I asked for chicken and chips but the boy behind the counter said he didn’t accept laser cards.

“There’s a cash machine round the corner,” he said, so off I went and returned later with €20. He took my order again, but said it would take 15 minutes to fry the chicken leg.

I waited among a cluster of fat teenagers, wearing what looked like pyjamas in a variety of pastel colours, their bodies stuffed to the gills and their cheeks bulging like bloated fish.

Maybe they are zombies, I thought, returned from the dead, like hungry ghosts they cannot stop eating. Or maybe they are reincarnated fish, who slither around burger joints like bottom feeders at a sewage pipe. But I don’t believe in zombies or witches or any other malignant creature that the unconscious mind invents.

Homeless disguise
Instead I believe in angels – and I saw one recently in a cafe in Warsaw. He was disguised as a homeless man in a restaurant. I ordered tomato soup. The waitress wore a white trousers and top. She looked like a dentist’s assistant and she made the homeless man a latte.

A woman with long grey hair had her nose stuck in a laptop near the window. The homeless man sat close to her. His hair was like a floor mop.

He had extremely long nails on his right hand and his jeans were ripped from hip to knee, exposing the white marble flesh of his thigh. But it was the fingernails that gave him away, long manicured nails as though they were blackened by life on the streets.

Pop music was pumping from speakers on the ceiling and it irritated him. He began talking to the air and waving his arm, which irritated the computer woman. She frowned over her black-rimmed glasses a few times but said nothing.

He persisted. Eventually she spoke. I don’t know what she said, but it seemed both respectful and firm, as if she was talking to a kid brother.

He became quiet again and sullen. The grey-haired woman returned to her laptop. Then he began again, manifesting furiously at the air. I guessed he just didn’t like the pop music.

Eventually the waitress spoke into his ear and he got up and took his latte and walked out with great dignity. Nor did she charge him for his drink. His fingers surrounded the coffee cup like a claw, but not a zombie’s claw, more like a broken angel’s claw.

It was a beautiful hand and I could imagine the nails plucking strings on a guitar, or maybe a harp. Maybe he played in an orchestra or a jazz band long ago, and just got too fond of alcohol, or drifted away from his loved ones and then lost everything.

Now he walks the streets of Warsaw, sleeps in shop doorways and gets a few free coffees from kind waitresses.

As he left though he looked at me and that’s when I realised he was an angel. It’s not that he was trying to teach me anything. He was just there, a beautiful creature who deserved my respect.

Accidental moment
Angels are like that. They appear without reason. They have no message. They just open the universe to us in an accidental moment.

I spoke to the laptop woman when he was gone and she said it was a pity about him because “many of them don’t survive the winter snow. The harsh weather sweeps them away.”

I thought of him for weeks. Even in Tralee, as the fat zombie children huddled around their paper boxes of chicken bones and chips, and I wished he was there for them, that they could see beyond the plastic pumpkins and the veil of cobwebs that hung from every wall.

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