At exactly the appointed time, the door rattled as she entered. Her eyes were moist, her mouth turned down, her tread heavy and slow.
She sat on the table, pulled up the back of her shirt, and said I want you to remove this.
The angel was beautiful and surreal in blue and gold and red: the face was serene and blessed, the wings so finely wrought they seemed in flight. A wonder: the genuine work of an absolute master.
I took out my phone.
Her voice was a command: no pictures. I put my phone away.
It will, I said, take some time. Months. Maybe a year.
Not for me, she said. I do not have long. So every 7 days, starting today.
It will itch, I said, and make blisters, but you must not scratch. Weekly sessions are not on, believe me. The skin has to heal. Itch upon itch would drive you progressively mad.
She replied, that is not possible. I do not itch and I cannot be driven mad. Her tone was level, as if speaking an absolute truth to a child. She lay face down on the table. Now, please start, for I have much else to do, other people to see.
I thought, she will change her mind when the itching starts. But my hands were shaking as I fetched the laser.
Poised and ready, I felt I was about to commit a sacrilege. I asked again, are you sure? And added, as I always added: once started, it’s like time: irreversible.
Yes, she said, and although I could not see her face, I knew she was crying.
Slowly, carefully, I started low, thinking to leave the beautiful face to last.
She told me the angel was a gift for her partner and, when he saw it, he wept and laughed, bounding around like a newly released gazelle.
The laser flashed, burning the skin and reducing the dye to a memory. I was sure she would not be back in a week.
After she left, I locked up, sliding the bolt into place and turning the key in the padlock. That evening my son came round, his face soft and pleading. I gave him money and a hug and we ate together.
In seven days, at the appointed time, she returned. Without a word, she once more exposed her back. No scars, no blisters, just smooth skin, as calm and untroubled as a sphinx, the reduced angel floating high above the base of her spine.
She said, I told you; I do not itch, and I will not be driven mad. She lay down. Now, please continue.
I worked upwards, ever upwards, scything through the delicate, intricate colours, following the slight variations of tone and shade, always aware I was destroying perfection.
She told me of a distant safari, where vultures swooped and soared under a blood red sun. And as she spoke, her voice became progressively lighter, gliding high.
That evening, my daughter called to make her yearly offer. She said, Dad, you’re getting old. I worry about you not managing on your own. Retire and come and live with us, let me look after you.
I thought, as I always thought, of her beautiful children and kind husband; I thought of the tastefully decorated attic room, and of getting up two, often three times a night, to clumsily descend steep steps to the bathroom and I thought, as I always thought, of the destruction of my established routines. So I said, as I always said, I’m fine really, I’m coping well, but thank you for the offer.
Exactly a week passed and in the next session, I slowed down, the pace of obliteration becoming a trickle. I ached for these warm, intimate sessions to continue forever.
She spoke of children, their children, of the sadness when they left and of the joy when they returned: many children, it seemed, and I was unsure if they were adopted or even if they existed, for, to those that create them, imaginary children are real.
As if sensing my doubts, she smiled and said, your hand is slower this week.
However hard I delayed, the erasure could not be stopped, and soon all that remained was the head, suspended between two great wings.
I said look, look now: this is perfect, a pure balance, beautiful and sublime. We could stop here.
She said, but you said the process was like time: irreversible. a quick smile as she stood and left, and I forgot, as I always forgot, to ask for payment.
Before next time, I wished to eradicate the old man smell and bought new clothes and took care in washing my wrinkled skin. But then I slipped on spilled water and spread a purple-black bruise down my leg.
She said, you’re limping. I said it’s nothing and, my hand steady, demolished the left wing.
She told me of how he fell ill, and of her long nights alone and how sometimes she would drive far into the hills so she could scream at the moon.
I said, now it is unbalanced, just the face and one wing.
She smiled and said, you’re working quicker. Please, make it symmetrical.
My laser crackled and the right wing vanished.
Just the head remained, high on her spine, between smooth shoulder blades.
I took a breath and said, it is so, so beautiful, but we could finish now, if you wish.
Her eyes were both warm and distant. She asked, do you want to finish?
I could not reply, and she said, so, next week then, and left.
On the morning of the last session, before I woke, my children appeared like ghosts, insubstantial and pale and I waved to them, as if I were on a train.
She came, as she always came, at exactly the appointed hour. I said, please, no more: it is a perfect, glorious likeness high in the center of your back. But she said no, now it must be gone.
Painstakingly, carefully, bit by bit, I deleted that noble image.
And as I did, she spoke of death. Of his shrinking to a hollowed-out shell, a stick figure with arms of bone and an emaciated face. She talked of when he closed his eyes, said no more, and took his fragile last breath.
She told me of the funeral, of the mourners dressed in black, but she had put on her most vibrant clothes and an extravagant hat.
My soul became infinitely sad. I said, your back is clear now, I have removed the angel. Only the memory remains.
She sat up, positioned her back to my mirror and took a hand mirror from her bag. See, she said, I come prepared.
She studied her twice reflected, unblemished skin. Her voice was pleased, saying perfect, you have done well, thank you. She looked around, as if seeing for the first time and said, I see no customers so, what now, for you? Will you be alright?
I told her I was retiring, that she was my last client and felt compelled to add, I’ve had a good life.
She grinned and said, me too, packed in a businesslike fashion and went out into the cold damp street, where the walkers strode quickly, avoiding each other like ships at sea.
I closed the blinds, and, with a thick black felt tip pen, added ‘until further notice’ under the ‘SHUT’ of my open/shut notice, and hung it on the door.
The pavement felt hollow and cold beneath my feet. My fingers clumsy, I raised the lapels of my coat and turned the key, to hear the lock click home for the last time.
She hadn’t gone far: I could see her maybe 15 yards away, silently watching for me, and my heart gave a lift.
I set off towards her, but she turned away and began to hurry, her feet twinkling like fairy dust. I ran too, my old lungs gasping.
She half turned and held out her hand. Stumbling, desperate, I grasped her cold fingers as she drew me softly into the air.
I looked down. On the pavement was a figure, a fallen body, familiar but alien, with concerned, hesitant figures circling like bats.
She lifted me, her great white wings spreading, her voice now a timeless thought: it’s time to take you back.