The harmonica woman is sitting in the corner of a dark damp tunnel. She still has the white face paint on and bright red lipstick, though it’s running somewhat, giving her a monstrous appearance. She is stitching something together, slowly. carefully, in the candlelight. Her thoughts are of Abel. How she first saw him at Barons Court Station, as we saw him, horror on his face, blood on his hands, in the near future. How he loves Elsie then, oh yes, how he will love her then as he never loved her when she was alive.
Time will go slowly then, so slowly. He will live every second since his very first Spletzer-Martin tablet as detailed pictures in his head. But all that is yet to happen for him. This horror he knows only as confused drug inspired dreams, along with his own death. Currently he lies semi-conscious at the harmonica woman’s feet, registering nothing but the flicker of the candle flame.
The oldest group in London are barely heard of. They live at Limehouse by the Thames. They have skin so pale its almost blue, bright blue eyes and hair the colour of rust. They are, or rather were, Fishers – fishing creatures from the grimey black water of “the dark one”. Until the dark one was poisonned by sewage and the industrial revolution. At that time they took to carving ship heads and grave stones, and very good at it they were too. The locals called them The Blue Men, because of their blue skin and the fact that they all seem male, or at least androgynous. There were also never any children.
Justin was a good looking boy of sixteen with reddish brown hair and warm cream complexion. Sporty and good with his hands. Bright too, but that he chose to hide. The Fisher Boys club appealed to him because it was a bit different from other clubs. It combined learning a craft – boat building – with the adventure of sailing what the group built out on the Thames estuary and into the channel. The club had a good bonding as well, they had a song they chanted as they banged in the nails, push the boats out or hoisted the sails. Justin would have regarded a group song as childish and embarrassing normally, but not this one, this one seemed appropriate, manly, it helped with the hard work. The Blue Men ran the club, with very few words and a lot of doing.
Justin was a virgin of course, despite his claims to the contrary and all the thumbling behind the bike sheds. He kept it a secret. How did the Blue Men know he was a virgin? Perhaps they could smell it on him.
There is a smell in the air, something like sulphur. It’s not unusual for an addict to hallucinate a smell, and it is not unusual for such a smell to slowly slowly slowly turn into a man. In Abel’s case a man at the end of the bed naked but for a gas mask. That this is happening in a sewer deep under London could be considered unusual to some, but certainly not everyone. Does it bother Abel? It is unlikely, he is just pleased to have a Spletzer-Martin 5 travelling down his throat.
“Have you got a match?” He says to the man in the gas mask, it is an attempt at making conversation, the nakedness seems somehow familiar, comforting almost.
A huge flash occurrs.
The mattress catches fire. Flames leap into the blackness.
Screaming and trying to curl himself into the dampest corner Abel suddenly, slowly, luckily, realises this is a joke.
The flames die away as quickly as they arrived leaving Dread sitting there naked, still wearing a gas mask.
Dread was very much an hallucination, a familiar one by now, almost a friend. Down here in the sewers Abel is very glad to see a friend.
“Dread!” He shouts, like it is a reunion with a long lost buddy. Dread just sits there saying nothing, not even a nod to acknowledge he has realised Abel is there. This was of course nothing new to Abel, Dread was normally silent, yet down here his silence seems to have more authority than above ground, gravitas even.
Still it is disturbing sitting in the near dark on a damp shelf with a man wearing a gas mask having no idea where you actually are. Abel’s brain starts playing a tune to calm himself down, and in another corner of his deluded mind pictures develop, pictures and words, words and movement, till Dread is dancing and singing, tap dancing indeed on the flooded floor in front of Abel
“They call me Dread…”
Not only that but Abel, Dread, the two of them together, conjure up strange rooms, exotic costumes, an oasis a long long way away from here. By the time of the grand finale Dread is no longer just the personification of dread, but a Familiar Spirit, a guru, a holy fool. There to lead Abel through the dark tunnels to safety. He had after all provided Abel with his much needed Spletzer-Martins, hadn’t he?
Elsie stared intensely at the reflections in her wine glass, every now and then she swayed it gently from side to side and watched the ripples of wine roll. The sofa was large and comfortable and this evening she had time to think. Then again thinking was really what she was trying to avoid. Recently she’d found she preferred being overwhelmed, swallowed almost, by the small things, like the redness of her wine, or the reflections in the glass, or the old well worn rip in the fabric of the sofa.
She still missed Abel but her real concern was currently Douglas. He had gone from depression to jovial optimism. At first this had pleased her, but now it seemed to evolve round “jokes” about the extinction of large quantities of the human race.
“The human race is too large” he said with a grin, “the planet can’t sustain this level of consumption, something must be done.”
She couldn’t argue with his logic, but the solution…
It wasn’t genocide exactly, in that it wasn’t based on any ethnic group particularly, it was simply based on the idea that those with money and education should survive, along with a small number of obedient serves to oversea machinery (most labour could be done by computers after all), whilst those without would be killed – humanly of course. He said this grining the whole time, a joke “ha ha”, and Elsie would laugh along too. Still, something told her he might be serious.
Douglas seemed to separate people into three different groups, there were those like him – intelligent, rich, educated – the true survivors and evolutionary successors. Ones like Elsie – educated, intelligent and useful – deserved to stay alive, and the rest – the poor, the disabled, the stupid, the uncultured, the uneducated – should be wiped out. The global market had been separating the world into the rich and the poor for some time now, this was simply the ultimate and most sensible solution.
Elsie shuddered at the thought. She returned to the beautiful reds in her wine, the long narrow stem of her wine glass, the smell of candle wax and the kitchen downstairs. She’d arrived early and was waiting for her friends, Louise and Jackie, to turn up. Jackie was a retired academic now artist who had turned seventy and found her career suddenly blosom.
Louise was a single forty year old artist/twilighter*, glamorous in an arty second hand way. She survived by squatting and begging and blagging. She was particularly good at blagging, it was through her that Elsie was now sitting as her guest in this private members club. Louise had somehow convinced the clubs board that she was a renowned artist from New Zealand who was part of a show coming up at the Tate and who would pay her club membership as soon a her agent sorted out this irritating bank confusion that had occurred.
She was actually completely unknown, had been banned from the Tate for striping off and covering herself in cellotape (she called this protest art) and came from Hackney.
What happens to the Sin Eater once he’s eaten all your sin?
Well he’s cast out of course. Lives as a hermit on the outskirts of the village. Who wants to know him? He’s eaten all that sin!
But I race ahead of myself here, for we haven’t got to the Sin Eater of our story yet.
Douglas was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the spring. It was in the early stages. The chance of full treatment and recovery was very good, but it terrified Douglas like nothing had ever done before. The word “cancer” rung over and over in his ears. Until that moment of diagnosis Douglas had been immortal, now he was merely human. A damaged human at that. That he, such an important individual, could have the possibility of death hang over him, seemed appalling. Unacceptable.
There must be some meaning to it.
What this meaning could be started to dominate his every thought. Luckily Elsie was there to look after the art business, and counsel him during his darkest moods.
And they were dark, for the ego of a successful man realising he is mortal can have some real hatred in it. How unfair it was. How there were others more deserving of death. He had so much more to give!
There must be a reason.
Elsie tried to cheer him up. Point out that he wasn’t dead yet and the chances of full recovery were great. She was his best friend during this time. She would not sleep with him, the thought repulsed her, but that didn’t stop her caring for him immensely and feeling sorry for him when he tried to stroke her knee.
So she sat and listened to him. Listened to his rants, his cursing, his bitterness, and when he was finished let him sob into her shoulder. Her grand boss, the charming, influential Douglas, reduced to this.
There was a reason.
So Douglas discovered. The reason was very simple, the reason was that he should realise how wondrous life is and that he should teach people. Teach people that some are worthy of this fantastic life, and some are not. 17. Elsie’s Pragmatism
Certain moments replayed endlessly in your head, is that love? The irrational desire to relive tiny fragments of time over and over? What is a person? What is it to know someone? What does it mean when they become your default thought? Danger I’d say.
This is how it was for Elsie, but she told herself she did not love Abel. She was obsessed with Abel, she’d admit that, it was irrational but somehow necessary. When she first discovered he had gone she’d looked for him down the tunnels of the Piccadilly line, crept through god knows what for days in the darkness. A stupid crazed search which now, in the light of the Arts Admin office, she saw as a type of madness. A breakdown perhaps.
For what had really happened? Abel had gone off without telling her where he was going – that was very like Abel – and a drunk had told her he’d gone down the tunnels under London. Why had she believed what a drunk had told her? Why had she risked her own life chasing after someone who should be capable of looking after himself? Someone who certainly wouldn’t bother chasing after her!
So she stopped. Forced herself to be sensible about it, got back to work, got busy, tried to forget. She always remembered though, in the quiet periods, those moments when he’d seemed so close.
Although it had been the potential rock-god Abel that first attracted her, it was the weak, vulnerable Abel she had perhaps fallen in love with. The one that couldn’t cope with complicated situations. The one that needed a hug. The one that kissed her as though he really needed her. She knew by the next day he’d forget her. Even she would admit that it was partly the uncertainty, the waiting and wondering, that fuelled her obsession, made her desire him like nothing else.
Now though she was being pragmatic. She had a good job, she had prospects, her boss needed her.
Changes were sort, she vaguely dated other men. What was Abel to her? Just a series of moments now past. Or at least that was what she was trying hard to pretend.
SIN EATING, described in studies of folk culture as a form of religious magic, has been practiced in many cultures. In rural Wales the ritual was still in practice up until the last century.
A village would often have its own Sin-Eater who would live as a hermit outside the village. Shunned by the villagers for being the associate of evil spirits the Sin-Eater was only sort out when someone in the village was dying. Then he would be brought into the village and taken to the dying person’s bedside. The family would place a loaf of bread on the dying person’s chest. The Sin-Eater would enter and approach the body. Kneeling down at the bed he would give a short speech;
“I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen”.
Then the Sin-Eater would eat the bread from the dying person’s chest and a bowl of ale would be handed to him from across the body. By drinking the ale and eating the bread he was eating that person’s sins. The bowl and platter would then be burnt by the villagers.