Fiction: Deus Ex Machina (1998)

People say that everyone has a Guardian Angel. I don't object to that. It is the way they say it. The way they use it as a synonym for luck, or some other chance process. I find it demeaning to be reduced to a metaphor. However, given that literal manifestation, spectacular miracles and all the rest of it have been banned since the dawn of the Age of Reason, what can I do?

Of course, the phrase "Guardian Angel" is an example of the worst kind of folk theology. I'm not about to correct it here, since to do so to the satisfaction of a modern mortal audience would take several hefty tomes of scholastic argument. Even then, without favourable reviews and a large marketing budget it would not be read. Life is short and art is long, as some pagan put it, though he wasn't thinking of my kind of life when he said it.

I'm also not about to ruin my prose by placing "Guardian Angel" in inverted commas every time it appears. Suffice it to say that terms such as deva, household god, tree-spirit, fetish and even pooka or leprechaun convey some aspect of what I'm doing here. I am immaterial, powerful, and quite hands-on in my approach. At one point we were all hopeful that some human would manage to complete the project of a Synthesis of All Religions, which would have explained all this without me having to bother. There were some diligent Germans, but the chance of success fell off some time ago, and attempting it seems to have gone out of fashion since you lot finally invented computer games.

So, Guardian Angel it will have to be. Obviously you have questions. Yes, there is a God. Yes, he passeth all understanding and no, he absolutely did not make man in his image. That was a piece of Hebraic vanity which has caused untold mischief through the ages. Take it from me as one of the Heavenly Host, God is far weirder than even the fastest-whirling dervish or most strung-out stylite has ever imagined. Yes, we angels do dance on pinheads, and the usual number we fit on is one-hundred and seventy six for a standard gauge pin. This is not because of some restriction in size. As I say, we are entirely immaterial. It's just that for pin-head dancing, one-seven-six just feels like the right number. Call it tradition.

On the question of organised religion, as far as we're concerned church is entirely optional. We say yes to rituals, penances, fasting, sacrifice - go ahead. But none of them are more effective than others. Sincerity is important. We appreciate that. But all these jihads and crusades, these isms and schisms, arguments over how many fingers to make the sign of the cross with, or whether to have images or smash them up, that's all way off the point. Basically, do what you like. Hang out. Take drugs. Sleep with each other. We want you to have fun, but for heaven's sake just try to be nice. You wouldn't think that was a lot to ask.

If you look in one of the wiggier books of medieval angelology, you'll find mention of me. Otto of Vaucluse, in his Liber Argentum (Leyden: Leyden University Press, 1312) describes my particular host as "somewhere below the archangels but still in the major dispensation league". Athanasius Hermeticus, the sage of Dresden, was granted a vision of the whole lot of us while he lay prostrate one day in his cell. Sadly his description (De Rerum Ignotum) is a little colourless, since poor Athanasius was always better at meditation than writing. The anonymous 13th century Magister of the Mendacia Lingua, author of the Dictum Sapientae, gives my actual name, which I'm not currently at liberty to reveal. The Magister (whose own real name was, incidentally, Pablo) should have known better than to go bandying around that kind of privileged information. No surprise he ended badly, burnt at the stake after an ecclesiastical court found him guilty of holding heretical opinons concerning the sexual habits of the apostle Paul.

But all this is off the point. I am a Guardian Angel, and from the moment of her conception I have been looking after a young woman called Christina. Since the first proteins folded themselves into shape in the first cells of her embryo I have observed her with perfect, complete, angelic attention. As each filament of bone grew in her spine, each corpuscle of blood emerged in the miniature sac of her heart, I looked on, rapt and content, my Being fulfilled in the act of watching over her.

As is well known, God moves in mysterious ways. One of the most mysterious is His system of classification. To get technical for a moment, not everyone does have a Guardian Angel. Some people share. While not being entirely infinite, we angels do have extraordinary powers and capacities, so this is not such a bad deal for the sharers as first appears. Indeed there is a whole town in the Southern United States who only have one angel between them. This is not some kind of heavenly snub. They get excellent service. And there is a logical method to the assignment of angels. However it is the Deity's method, and manifesting His filing system is something God is particularly averse to doing.

So I look after Christina. Just Christina. I find my purpose in the vast, almost luminous love I bear for her, a love which is in its turn, just a reflection of the implausibly humungous love which God bears for her, same as He bears for every living thing. Christina is twenty-eight years old. She has chestnut-brown curly hair that she wears long, in a kind of cloud which haloes her head as she walks. This causes other people to turn and watch her. She does not know this. Secretly she believes she is plain. This is partly because she has an unfashionable body, fuller and more womanly than is sanctioned by the style leaders of her particular place and period. But Christina is beautiful. Extraordinarily, achingly beautiful. The hollow of her navel, the line of her collar bone, the tiny pattern of whorls and grooves in her skin - I have observed all these come into being, and they are transcendant in their loveliness. She is sexy too. But then, I would say that.

Christina wants to be a poet. That is, she wants to be a published poet. She writes poems, has done since she was thirteen years old. They are very good, though that is not something she knows either. Christina doubts. She spends most of her day doubting, wracking herself with worry over her talent, her looks, her future prospects. Recently she has been wracking herself over her relationship with a man called Robert, who is worthless and has made her very unhappy. So unhappy in fact, that Christina is wondering whether she wants to die. right now she is in the bathroom of her friend's London flat, holding a bottle of tranquillisers, examining its label in front of the mirrored bathroom cabinet.

The bottle holds a great fascination for her. The smudged printing on the label helps her make a decision, reminding her as it does of school reports and council tax forms and other things she associates with impersonal, bureaucratic fate. To imagine her death Christina always thinks of it as abstract and inevitable, perhaps even as happening to someone else. So the formal printing confirms her suspicion that her time has come. In a few moments she will unscrew the bottletop, pour out a handful of pills, fumble with full palm and tooth mug and tap, scattering pills like seed onto the hard porcelain basin, and finally swallow a gulp of tepid water and a gulp of bitter-tasting pills.

That's where I'll come in.

Christina looks at her face in the mirror. Her eye make-up has run and she thinks she looks like a panda, with her two dark circles and stained cheeks. Her image of pandas comes more from drawings in children's books than film or photos, and she has never seen one in real life, because the day her father took her to the zoo, the pandas didn't come out. In Christina's head, pandas always have the hint of a smile as they snack on a bamboo shoot, because that is the way the children's book illustrators drew them. Always a hint of human emotion. And so she smiles, to make herself look more like a panda, just for a moment in front of the bathroom mirror before she tries to commit suicide.

I know every inch of Christina's body and mind, each sensation, each mood. I know every one of her likes and dislikes, her favourite band, the place on her neck where she likes to be touched when a man is kissing her. I know the exact strength she likes her coffee and the words her grandmother whispered to her in the hospital just before she died. I also know the effect the handful of bitter pills will have on her physiology after she swallows them. I know every name of every chemical Christina will synthesise as each complex molecule of each pill starts to bond with receptors in her weary, stricken brain.

I certainly know far too much about Robert. Robert has a lot to answer for. At the book launch, he used a chat-up line on Christina which was old years before Boccaccio employed it in the Decameron. It is, in fact, a line which appears in variant forms in the literature of seventeen different cultures, including a version on a tenth-century runestone in Norway. And she bought it! Robert followed up his ancient chat-up line with a series of pushy, sleazy moves in a taxi and, over the course of several subsequent weeks, a further series of outrages which Christina told herself were passionate and exciting. In fact, during the nine months and seventeen days which ended yesterday, when Christina caught him booking a Caribbean holiday for himself and his other girlfriend, she thought Robert was amazing.

Robert was mainly amazing to Christina because he was a published poet who had won an award. Christina thinks Robert is witty, soulful, tormented and brave - in short, a genius. I think Robert is a cheap, pompous, arrogant fool, who stole most of his best lines from a Manchester poet he tutored on a Summer school ten years ago - a poet to whom, incidentally, Robert gave a 'B', telling him if he worked hard he might one day find something worth keeping. Robert is truly a sly, devious bastard. He is crap in bed too, though that is something Christina has been too lost in her fantasy of poetic love to notice, or at least to notice that she has noticed. I mean, it's not even as though he is good-looking.

I watch Christina swallow the pills. The face she makes is the same 'nasty taste' face she has made since she was four years old, a cascade of tiny tightening and relaxing muscles that is as familiar to me as the gesture she makes afterwards, a hand fluttering to her curly hair and brushing it with three fingertips. It was this gesture that made a young Frenchman called Hervé fall in love with her last year, in a café, in Paris. Christina had gone to Paris on her own, to pick up the pieces after a disastrous affair with a worthless-but-published man called Richard. She was sitting in the café nursing a citron pressé and trying to remember the lyrics to her-and-Richard's song, which she didn't know had also done time as Richard-and-Wanda's song, and Richard-and-Gaby's song. Trying to remember, her hand fluttered up to her hair.

Hervé was also a poet, and hence stood a good chance of gaining Christina's attention, though by nature he was shy and unpublished. Still he took his courage in both hands and tried to talk to the beautiful foreign woman.

Unfortunately his English was poor, and Christina was too full of thoughts of Richard to decipher what he was saying. She shooed him away, mistaking him for yet another of the legion of Parisian chancers who had tried to pick her up that afternoon. This was a shame, since she and Hervé would have been an inspirational couple. I have little doubt they could have shaped up as a Great Love. Instead Hervé dutifully pined away in his garrett and Christina carried on floating around at poetry readings, ready to get picked up by creeps like Robert. Without the equanimity one gets from total prescience, knowing that sort of thing would make you sad.

Christina slumps down on the toilet seat, leans her head against the side of the basin, and shuts her eyes. Behind them, benzodiazepine molecules are nestling into her brain, shutting out all the worry and stress, chemical fingers smudging the delicate lattice of her thoughts, suggesting sleep, darkness, an ending. Against her cheek Christina can feel the constrasting sensations of cold porcelain and warm, fuzzy cloth, the collar of her favourite black sleeveless fleece. On the other side of the bathroom door, there is nobody. Just a sitting room with a coffee table on which sits a full ashtray, an empty bottle of vodka and a melted tub of icecream. Paulette is out. Everybody is out. There is no one here in this flat with Christina, who came here to cry last night away on Paulette's sofa, under the spare duvet which smelt of other people.

As Christina loses her grip on consciousness and slumps to the floor, there is, just audible, the note of a well-tuned car engine in the street outside the flat. That is as it should be. This evening, as Christina worked her way through her bottle of supermarket vodka, exploring a chain of vodka-based memories which start with an unfortunate experience in a cinema carpark aged sixteen, I have been busy elsewhere, working behind the scenes to produce an alternative ending to the narrative my charge has created for herself. For the task, I have been using that greatest of labour-saving devices, the computer.

Computers are wonderful. Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, John Von Neumann, even Bill Gates - all great favourites of mine. Since the marvellous machines penetrated every area of human society, my job has become considerably easier. You will of course find angels at work in all forms of technology, especially those which humans find complicated or hard to understand, like video recorders and fax machines. But the PC is the real centre of supernatural activity in the modern world. In an era when (due to trends in celestial politics it would be otiose to discuss here), miracles and overt manifestations of superhuman power have been banned under a strict convention, the scope for angelic intervention is severely limited. We do very little carrying aloft on shoulders, appearing bathed in golden light or other flashy stuff these days.That is a shame, but every true artist can turn restrictions to positive use. There is a certain beauty in minimalism, and my own preferred aesthetic is semiconductor-based.

In this case, to alter fate I have restricted myself to moving nothing larger than electrons. Specifically, I altered the charge of half a dozen selected spots on a tiny sliver of treated silicon in the Central Processor Unit of a PC which sits on the desk of an Estate Agent called Suzie. In this way I changed some ones into zeros, and some zeroes into ones, half way through the operation of a tricky date-calculation algorithm. My little nudge set off, domino-like, a cascade of instructions that made a single minor alteration to Suzie's diary software. This morning, she arrived in work to find that an appointment she remembered as being for mid-afternoon was in fact scheduled for early evening. She found she would have to stay late at work and show Mr Harakami the flat at seven tonight, or in other words, about five minutes from now. Paulette Conolly is keen to sell, and although a little small, she thinks the place might suit Mr Harakami's needs.

Naturally, I have performed a similar operation on Harakami's personal digital organiser, which really is a superb piece of engineering. So light, so compact! Now both agent and client believe they must have misremembered, and have made arrangements to meet three hours later than they expected.

The beauty of working with computers is their votive quality. As far as Estate Agents and Cartoonists (for this is Harakami Yukio's profession) are concerned, the dull grey boxes which take up such a prominent place in their lives might as well function by animal magnetism, or focusing cosmic rays. They are profound and mystical objects, things of whim and prophecy which require complete deference. Suzie and Yukio propitiate their machines, asking for fault-tolerance, viral absence and continued bug-free living and working. When dealing with the divine, human fallibility is thrown into sharp relief, so neither of the two has thought to question whether their computer has 'got it right'. They just obeyed. This is why Angels find these machines so useful. They are the tools which replaced apparitions and holy relics.

Duly, Harakami Yukio and DeBrett Suzie are making small talk as they walk up the stairs towards an encounter with Christina's unconscious body, now picturesquely draped on the bathroom floor, the empty Halcion bottle in the sink leaving no doubt as to the cause of her indisposition.

Paulette told Christina that she'd be back late because she was going out with Clive to talk things over. She told Christina that the Estate Agent was coming, and asked her to make sure the place was reasonably tidy. All this went in one grieving ear and out the other.

Christina has spent her afternoon making a mess. There are sodden tissues, discarded jumpers, empty fag packets, the fall-out from several comfort snacks, and at least a dozen scribbled-on sheets of paper, relics of her attempt to tell Robert what she thought of him, in free verse.

Suzie's first thought as she steps brightly into the living room and spies the detritus of Christina's day of depressed camping-out, is anger. Some people conspire to make her job particularly difficult. But there is no choice, she must tough it out, and so she smiles wanly at Yukio, who smiles wanly back. This is not because he is angry at the state of the flat. He is simply experiencing a sense of déja vu. He has stood in this place before, breathing this very stale, smoky air with its undertone of something else, of a smell he wants to catch, to keep and savour. The smell of a person.

Just before Suzie steps trepidly over Christina's abandoned duvet and utters the fateful words "and this is the bathroom", Yukio has an impulse to stop her, to give himself time to prepare for what is on the other side of the door. He will never understand why this is. But he finds he is not surprised to hear the sound of screaming. Yes, at the sight of Christina's body Suzie screams, a response conditioned by thousands of hours of televised police procedural drama. Bodies in bathrooms say 'crime scene' to Suzie, and by the time Yukio pokes his head round the door to find out what has upset her, she is already half-plunged into a nightmare of masked axemen and running down corridors.

Christina is looking good, which certainly wasn't her intention. She has fallen into a pose reminiscent of several major works of Japanese and European art. An Ophelia. A swooning Hokusai courtesan. It also happens to be a pose in which Yukio sometimes draws his manga heroines, especially Lola Blue (of Tokyo Blue Squad 2000), who often acts as the screen on which he projects his fantasies of ideal womanhood. This is all very convenient - not my doing at all I hasten to add, but nevetheless perfect. Of course, unlike Lola, Christina doesn't have eyes the size of dinnerplates or the figure of a pre-teen elf, but then Yukio is not very experienced with three-dimensional women.

So Yukio is struck first, not that there is a corpse in the bathrooom, but that it is the corpse of a beautiful woman. Marvellous, if a little perverse, and very much in line with manga aesthetics. So much lies in that crucial first impression. By the time Suzie runs back into the living room, yelling extravagantly, Yukio has already inserted Christina's unconscious form into that mental list of "things that make the heart quicken" which every human carries somewhere inside themselves. Most people's lists are unconscious, unexplicit, but every so often Yukio writes his down, in the manner of the tenth century Japanese courtesan Sei Shonagon. "The line of ink flowing from a fine-nib pen, the neon lights of the Ginza at night, a Time Crisis high score, the beautiful dead girl with the cloud of chestnut hair ..."

Yukio crouches, and deftly takes Christina's pulse. It is so slow and faint that his enquiring fingertips almost miss the tiny ebb and flow. But she is alive. The realisation leaps in his chest like a bird.

"Call an ambulance" he shouts to Suzie, unnecessarily. Still convinced that she has fallen into the plot of a slasher movie, Suzie is attacking the phone, calling everything from the police to an F-14 airstrike. Ten minutes away, a siren is already dopplering through the evening streets. Yukio experimentally slaps Christina's face a couple of times. She does not respond, and it makes him feel bad doing it, so he sits down next to her on the bathroom floor and pulls her head onto his lap. This is how the ambulance crew find him. They take a look at the empty pill bottle, and inject Christina with a stimulant, which gets things going again, heartwise, but doesn't quite bring her back to consciousness. Yukio decides to accompany her to the hospital. He gets into the ambulance, and spends the journey staring at the girl's face, which, now it has a plastic airway stuffed into it, is not looking as perfect as it was.

Nevertheless, Yukio is entranced, and every so often gives her limp hand a meaningful squeeze. Back in the flat Suzie is chain-smoking Christina's cigarettes, waiting for Paulette to come back from telling tedious, boring Clive that he is now tedious, boring and single.

What else is there to say? My work is done for the day and, in purely artistic terms, everything has gone swimmingly. There was a purity of form and intent which I find particularly moving.Content with this as a statement, I can refrain from intervening again for some time. Once again I shall settle back to observe, my concentration absolute, my love for Christina undiminished. It will be interesting to see what happens. Yukio has his work cut out. Manga cartooning is not poetry. Japanese and English emotional registers are not always compatible. Christina is difficult, impetuous, far more articulate in her own language than he in his, and, these days at least, pretty screwed-up. But stranger couples have been made, some of them by me, and like Hervé, Yukio improves with acquaintance. I hope he realises he is a lucky man. He is being given an opportunity. His face will be the first thing Christina sees when she wakes up. To her, it will look like the face of an angel.

This story was first published in Vintage New Writing 8, edited by Tibor Fischer and Lawrence Norfolk