Aziraphale didn’t mean for it to happen. But he couldn’t say he regretted it for a moment.
He’d only recently stopped being Brother Francis, but living in London full-time again had made him miss the countryside, so he’d gone for a little day trip to a nice little village to just enjoy the peace and quiet of nature again. He thought he’d spend the day wandering around, maybe have cream tea at a café, and/or buy a pastry from one of those lovely little village bakeries, then head back to the city and spend the evening reading in his bookshop.
He hadn’t counted on Greta.
It was only a little miracle. The car had been going far too fast for a country road (it’s a limit, not a target – just because it’s national all round here doesn’t mean you can actually drive at 60mph down tight, twisty lanes), and the angel had simply made sure he was suddenly in the right place to grab the woman’s elbow and move her out of the way, whilst also catching the large box she had been holding.
“Oh, thank you, young man. Goodness, that was close. I’m terribly sorry to put you out of your way. Thank you.”
Aziraphale smiled, and told her it was fine, and that he hoped she had a lovely rest of the day. But she caught his arm as he turned to leave.
“No, no, I must thank you properly. I insist. Do you like chocolate cake? My baking group made some yesterday, you should have some.”
He’d accepted, and escorted her home. The box, it turned out, was full of various balls of wool in an array of bright colours, because Greta was preparing for her knitting group’s next project – a child’s jumper with a rainbow on the front, which they had each chosen a recipient of in their own families. Greta didn’t have anyone the right age for the pattern, so she was helping make a duplicate for Doris’ twin granddaughters.
She talked about knitting and baking with Aziraphale for hours, and then when the tea and cake was finished she invited him over next week for the baking group. He warned her he might not be able to make a regular appearance, his, uh, job preventing him from always knowing where he was going to be far in advance, but Greta insisted anyway.
The group was amazing. They met every Wednesday after lunch, and chatted and baked for hours until they all had a cake to bring home and had eaten an entire one between them, along with copious cups of tea.
There was Greta, who it turned out was the youngest of them by far, embracing early the little-old-lady-hood she’d been born for. There was Charlotte, who everyone called Lottie and who blushed when she was called by her full name, despite that being what she had introduced herself as. And there was Doris, who lived for gossip and adored talking about anything and everything like it was the most important thing in the universe. When she realised that Aziraphale lived in Soho, Doris had immediately asked about her grandson, who Aziraphale hadn’t heard of but was apparently a minor celebrity in certain London circles, and who the angel promised to look up to see how he was doing.
He enjoyed the company. Now that he and Crowley weren’t seeing each other every single day, like they had when they’d been caring for the Anti-Christ, Aziraphale felt lonely in a way he hadn’t really for a long time. He still saw Crowley, of course – they checked in on Warlock every week together to make sure he was still doing ok, counting down the months until the Apocalypse together – but it wasn’t quite the same as spending every lunchtime together in the garden, every other evening in the gardener’s cottage, every day off talking together about anything and everything. The baking group helped fill that little void of sociability.
And then Lottie suggested he go to their knitting sessions, too, and Aziraphale beamed.
“Oh, well, I’ve never been too good at knitting, but I’d be happy to come along anyway.”
“We’ll teach you! There’s some of that rainbow wool left over, you can use it to make a scarf!”
“That sounds lovely, dear. Of course. I accept.”
Crowley didn’t mean for it to happen. But, if he was honest, he couldn’t say he regretted it.
“Oh, thank you, dear!”
It had been a thoughtless miracle, making the car swerve at the last minute. He had made up for the accidental slip into goodness by shouting and swearing loudly at the driver, who had given him two fingers in response and carried on as if he hadn’t just almost killed somebody.
Crowley had hoped his language would have driven the little old lady away, but she seemed unfazed.
“Honestly, people around here should really watch how they drive. It’s so dangerous! But you told him. Thank you, young man.”
Crowley, who was neither young nor a man, grunted in reply. But when she reached for his arm, he silently escorted her home as requested. She fumbled for the keys in her bag, and he subtly made sure she found them quicker. For his own sanity, of course. Not to help her.
“Are you around here long? Come over tomorrow, there’s a good boy. I’ll have tea and cake ready for you, to say thank you. One o’clock? Yes, splendid. See you then!”
And she’d scarpered with amazing speed, shutting the door in his face before he could say no. Well, then. He supposed he’d have to go.
What Kitty had neglected to say, however, was that she would not be alone the next day.
She had come to the door with a kindly smile on her face, looking like the loveliest, most innocent, tiniest little old lady in the world. She had thanked him again, taken his jacket, and led him into the living room. Where a whole gang of little old ladies was waiting for him.
“So this is your knight in shining armour!” one of them cried, and Crowley turned in shock to look at Kitty. She was smiling, a devious little grin, and he glared at her, which only made her smile wider.
“Yes, he is, the sweet thing! Made sure that horrible driver knew exactly what he’d done wrong. Now, dear, what cake do you like best? We have chocolate, Victoria sponge, coffee and walnut, or those little French Fancy things that Lettie brought.”
‘Lettie’ was a sharp-looking woman sat by the door to the kitchen. She grimaced at her name.
“I wouldn’t, if I were you. They’re terrible, a rip-off brand because I didn’t have time to make any, and not a patch on Mr Kipling’s.”
“Well,” Crowley said, stuck now so figuring he may as well make the best of it. “I’ll have some coffee and walnut then. But a Fancy on the side, so I can see how terrible they really are.”
Apparently this was the right thing to say. Lettie beamed and softened immediately. She stuck out a hand.
“Leticia, but my friends call me Lettie. So can you, if you’d like.”
“Anthony J. Crowley. I’ll respond to Anthony, but my friends call me Crowley.”
The demon shook the offered hand. And then the rest of the room dissolved into noise as the rest of the old women introduced themselves, none with the same formality as Lettie.
He was handed his tea and cake by Kitty, and then directed to a floral footstool. The room started cooing over him, saying how wonderful he was for helping Kitty out, how much he reminded them of their grandchildren, how lovely it was to have a nice young man around. He wondered sulkily how long he would have to endure this.
And then the doorbell went, and Kitty let in an ancient woman dressed in bright orange corduroy trousers and the brightest hot-pink woolly jumper Crowley had ever seen.
“Oh, you must be the one who swore blind at the driver who almost killed Kitty. Good to meet you. I’m Gertie.”
Huh. Maybe this won’t be too bad after all.
Aziraphale slotted into the group perfectly. He was one of their own – the clothes, the nails, the attitudes, all signs of a perfect candidate for the knitting and baking groups. He knew how to pour the tea properly. He always knew how to cut the cake slices the exact size that each of them wanted it. He knew where to find all the gossip about Doris’s grandson, and he knew which of it was true and which was not. They all enjoyed laughing at the more absurd things people came up with.
“So, young man,” Lottie said eventually, after Aziraphale had been irregularly attending the baking and knitting groups for a couple of months. “Tell us about yourself.”
“Well, um, you know about my job, of course. Lots of travelling, lots of reports to give to Head Office, that sort of thing. It’s all very intense.”
“Not about your job, about you.”
“Oh. Um, well...” Aziraphale didn’t quite know where to start. He had cover stories, of course, but that felt a little wrong for this group of earnest old ladies who just wanted to know how he was.
So he started with books. That seemed easiest. He told them about his private collection, his love of first editions. Someone mentioned Shakespeare, and then Aziraphale was talking about the Globe, the importance of seeing the plays performed, rather than just reading them.
“I mean, the comedies, for example,” he carried on, the whole group listening intently, Doris looking like it was only her arthritis that was stopping her from taking notes. “These days, a lot of the jokes go over people’s heads when they read them. The language just isn’t used anymore, and it’s not as funny. And you get none of the physical comedy, nothing of the actors’ expressions and actions, and it really is a terrible shame that that’s how they teach them in schools, because there’s so much the children miss out on.”
“Yes,” Lottie cut in. “My grandson is studying ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, and I told him it was my favourite Shakespeare, and he groaned and said it was awful!”
“Exactly! You should take him to the Globe, they do wonderful performances there, he’d enjoy it so much better. And understand it more, too. I remember when I took my friend to see that one – well, not friend, more of an acquaintance, a work colleague, I suppose – and he loved it, laughed out loud for so much of it, it was wonderful. It’s such a lovely thing to be able to do with somebody, go to the theatre. And Shakespeare especially, because there’s so much range to every play...”
Aziraphale continued talking, and the women continued listening and knitting, but they had all exchanged looks the angel had missed, and they were all thinking the same thing. This is new. This is interesting. This sounds like gossip.
The next baking session Aziraphale turned up to, Greta casually mentioned the man that he’d spoken about last time.
“Oh, he’s not my friend,” Aziraphale had said quickly. “We work together, or, well, against each other, I suppose. He’s in the, um, rival company to my own. We have to spend a fair bit of time together, but it’s all business, it’s all... opposing forces, and all that.”
Greta caught Doris’s eye.
“Do you know,” Doris put in slyly. “My granddaughter said the same thing when I asked her about the woman she’d been talking about. They’re married now, you know. It was a lovely ceremony. Lots of pink and rainbows everywhere.”
Aziraphale went bright red and stopped talking for a while. Lottie smoothly changed the subject and let him sit for a while, mixing the cake a little more firmly than was strictly necessary.
He skipped the next couple of meetings, but when he eventually joined the knitting group again, it was like nothing had been said. Which meant that when Crowley inadvertently came up again at the next baking session, Aziraphale unwittingly launched into a long discussion (or, more accurately, monologue) about this unnamed ‘rival’. And all the old ladies looked at each other with glee, because here’s a whole new well of gossip as-yet untapped.
From then on, every session, about halfway through, they managed to turn the conversation to wards Aziraphale’s ‘work acquaintance’, and the angel launched into his latest problem with or story about Crowley. The others all absolutely loved it.
Not that Aziraphale actually noticed that this was what they were doing. But the meetings turned into a sort of therapy session for the angel, who was able to talk at length about everything Crowley, and the women lapped it up. This was the best gossip they’d had in months, even with all the information Aziraphale’s been getting on Doris’s grandson. And so it continued.
“So, young man,” Lettie said eventually, a few weeks into Crowley’s regular appearances at Kitty’s. “Tell us about yourself.”
“Oh, there’s not much to tell,” Crowley said easily. “I live in London, don’t do much at weekends, just work and sleep, mainly.”
“Oh, surely not!” Kitty said. “Man of the town like you, you must get up to all sorts of exciting things. What’s it like in London these days? All sorts of parties and events on all the time, I should think. And you must have so many friends.”
Crowley shrugged non-committally. Not really. Just one.
“Anyone special in your life, dear? No girlfriend or wife around for you?”
The room went silent. Gertie was glaring hard at the offending speaker.
“Lettie,” said Ethel warningly. She was the silent one in the corner, the fastest knitter of the lot, and she only spoke when it was important or necessary. Now she was staring daggers at Leticia.
Crowley tried to smooth away the tension. “Nah, not really my thing.”
“Oh!” Lettie had the good grace to look a little ashamed. “My apologies for assuming...”
“Not at all. Don’t worry about it.”
The group moved on quickly to discuss something else. Crowley felt a little awkward about it, but it was hardly the first time this had happened in his long life, so he focused on drinking his tea and staring, fuming, into his cup every time they called him ‘sweet’ or ‘nice’ or ‘lovely’.
The next session, though, he didn’t get off so easily.
“So, who’s this young man you’re so enamoured over?” Gertie said brightly.
Crowley fairly spat out his tea.
The others were all looking intently at him. Ethel was knitting, but her beady eyes looked at him kindly, almost apologetically, over the needles. Gertie never had been one for beating around the bush.
“Your young man. Don’t think we haven’t noticed. You’ve mentioned him a couple of times.”
He had, actually, and that was the worst thing. He thought he’d been getting away with the little mentions of ‘that one time at the Globe’ and ‘when we met for drinks to discuss work’, but apparently Gertie and Ethel had been hoarding these moments in their memories. And after what happened last time, clearly they’d caught the others up, too.
“Uh, well, err...” he spluttered around for a bit, but they were all there, looking at him expectantly, and he couldn’t really get out of this now, so, well...
He sighed. And then he went for it.
“He’s... Well, for a start, he’s not mine. We’re not together. I know him through work, and we’re at, uh, rival companies, so it would all be a bit awkward if that started up anyway. But, uh... yeah.”
Kitty beamed. “Oh, wonderful! You’re like a little Romeo and Juliet!”
Crowley glared at the devious glint in her eyes. “Yeah, except we’ve known each other a little longer than a week, and we’re definitely not teenagers.” He paused, something ticking over in the back of his mind. “And definitely not planning on dying any time soon.” Oh, bollocks.
Bloody Hell, Bill. Seriously? How hadn’t he seen that before? Bastard. Wrote a bloody play about us and didn’t even say. Dammit.
“So, what’s he like?” Gertie asked, trying to get the conversation back on track.
Crowley looked around the room. He looked at the little old ladies with their floral cups and slices of cake. He looked at Gertie’s fluorescent yellow cardigan, Kitty’s knowing smile, and the scarf that Ethel was knitting – only now did he realise it seemed to be turning into a rainbow. He sighed again, rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses, and took a final sip of tea. In for a penny, in for a pound.
“He’s wonderful. We never used to see each other that often, and it was always like this strange little treat, like a perk of the job, to get to hang out with him again. And then something big happened at work, and for a while we were seeing each other practically every day. And now we’re not seeing each other as often, and it’s awful, and I didn’t realise how bad it was...”
He talked about Aziraphale in a way he hadn’t done with humans since bloody Shakespeare, and he kept at it for hours. All the way through their tea and cake afternoon, the ladies asked him questions and he answered, and talked and talked and talked, and it was nice, to finally get to air it all, to say what he wanted to say, even if he’d never say it to the angel’s face.
He left that day with his face bright pink but somehow feeling a little better about it all. And the little old women left behind in the cottage burst into conversation as he left, revelling in this new development, this new font of gossip and pining, and it was everything they loved best from their romance novels, and it was in real life.
Just wait until Lettie told Lottie.
The sisters rarely saw each other these days, living in different small villages in different counties, but every so often one of them would make the effort to travel the distance to the other’s cottage, and they would spend the weekend together, talking and comparing notes from their respective little friendship groups.
“Oh,” Leticia said on one such visit. “Have I told you about the lovely young man we’ve adopted into our circle? He saved Kitty’s life, you know – well, sort of. Not really. There was a car that almost hit her, and he swore at the driver with a very colourful and imaginative set of words, so of course she had to invite him over for cake to say thank you. And now he comes almost every week! It’s wonderful.”
“Sounds it,” thought Lottie, trying to figure out whether or not she’d ever told her sister about her own saving-old-ladies-from-fast-cars-and-then-coming-round-for-cake young man.
“He’s gay, you know,” Lettie continued, “And we’re trying to convince him to tell his young man how he feels.”
Ah, here was her entrance. “Oh, we have one of those. He’s young-ish, too – well, younger than us, I should think, but he’s been one of the crowd for a while. I think I’ve mentioned him a few times? Aziraphale.”
“Oh, yes,” Lettie nodded.
“He’s always going on about this business rival he has that we’re all certain he’s in love with.”
“They used to see each other all the time, but it’s less often now, and he doesn’t feel like he can ask him to visit or meet up outside of work, and it’s such a shame...”
“Lottie. I think they’re each other’s young men.”
Charlotte turned to stare at her sister. And in perfect synchronisation, their faces lit up in mirroring grins.
“Come on, we don’t want to be late!”
The trip had taken weeks to organise. It wasn’t that they didn’t have ample free time to do so, or they weren’t all very enthusiastic about the whole thing. It was just the co-ordination that was the difficulty.
They made it in the end, though. Their celestial companion was gracious and helpful as usual, quietly making sure none of them forgot anything they’d brought with them, making sure they were all safe crossing the road.
“So, where to first, then?” he said.
“Buckingham Palace!” the group chorused cheerfully.
He’d agreed to show them the sights because, quote, ‘you live in London, dear, you must know all the best places to get tea and cake’. He’d promised to take them to all the key landmarks, and they’d all been so excited about it since he agreed.
The weather was excellent, a wonderful summer’s day, with hardly a cloud in the sky. It was perfect.
As they came in sight of the palace, the ladies all began chuckling to themselves. He wasn’t sure why, but maybe it was just excitement – this was probably the first time they’d been on a trip in a few years, for most of them. He restrained a smile as he watched them chatter and whisper, looking around excitably and giggling like children.
And then it happened.
“How wonderful to see you!”
The two celestial beings froze in place as their respective groups of little old ladies greeted each other in a flurry of movement. They stared at each other over the grey heads of their new friends, faces slack in astonishment.
What the Hell/Heaven are you doing here?
“Oh, Crowley,” Lettie said, a glint in her eyes. “This is Aziraphale.”
“Aziraphale, this is Crowley,” Lottie returned.
“Ah, yes,” said the angel weakly. “We do actually know each other, in fact.”
The demon shot a glare at each and every one of his group. Ethel and Kitty pretended innocence, but Gertie was grinning like a bloody Cheshire cat who’d got enough cream for a lifetime.
He rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses, and pushed past them to get to Aziraphale.
“How’re you doing, then?” It took a surprising amount of effort not to complete the question with angel, but somehow he managed it. “How did you get caught up in all of this?”
“They’re my friends,” Aziraphale said, a little stiffly. “And considering your, uh, position, I feel like the more pertinent question is how did you get caught up in all of this?”
“Pretty much the same.” He turned to glower at Gertie again. “I think they planned it all.”
“Well then,” Doris said loudly. “Where are we off to next?”
They spent the whole day together. The ladies weren’t the fastest travelling companions, but they were determined, and their joints didn’t hurt anywhere near as much as they often did. The celestials took them all over – to Trafalgar Square first, of course, to see Nelson and the Lions, then into the National Gallery for a bit, then to a nice tucked-away café for elevenses, then onwards again towards Covent Garden and the Royal Opera House, where they found a lovely restaurant for lunch.
At first, Crowley and Aziraphale felt like they had to pretend to dislike each other – they were rivals, after all – but by the midday it was far too hard to keep up the charade, and they began chatting and laughing as easily as they always had. The gaggle of old women around them caught every single loving look and lingering glance, and smiled smugly to each other. They knew it.
It was a while after that before either of the groups saw their young man again.
They thought nothing of it, really. The boys were often away for work, and Aziraphale had mentioned something ‘big’ coming up in his job this summer, though he had refused to talk about it when they’d enquired further.
The groups did wonder at their absence when all the strange dream business happened, though. Lottie had woken up one morning and had to ring up Lettie because she was convinced she’d heard someone on the radio yesterday talking about Atlantis and the Kraken, and Lettie said she’d had a strange dream herself about the M25 being on fire, but no one was talking about it anymore. The old ladies thought at least the young men would be able to use their clever modern devices to do the google for them and find out more, but they were apparently still busy.
About a week after that, Doris was taken into London again by her semi-famous grandson, and she was convinced that she’d seen the two of them walking in St James’s Park together, though her grandson was in a rush and wouldn’t let her go and say hello.
It was another week or so until anyone heard from them again, but when they did, the entirety of both groups of women melted. The boys turned up to Ethel’s knitting group, together, holding hands and calling each other ‘angel’ and ‘dearest’. And then they turned up to Greta’s baking afternoon, wearing matching rainbow scarves, kissing each other on the cheek and leaning against each other on the sofa.
Apparently the pair of them had quit their jobs at whatever rival companies they had been working for that had been keeping them apart. Good for them, the old ladies thought, smiling happily.
The Earth continued to exist. The baking and knitting continued to happen, continued to be attended by a pair of celestial beings who were now no longer quite an angel and a demon. And Aziraphale and Crowley continued to be very much in love.