The Sin Eaterby Alice Thomas Ellis
As family members gather at the bedside of their ailing patriarch, very little is as it seems and there is an ominous tension in the air -- without a doubt, this is the territory of Alice Thomas Ellis. Hailed as a brilliant chronicler of the boredom, bad climate, and general creepines of the rural English countryside, she has invented her own fictional genre: the "supernatural comedy of manners." In this, her first novel, she turns ordinary occasions such as a family dinner or a village cricket match into events fraught with fear and indefinable menace.
Daughter-in-law Rose, in whose home the family patriarch is dying, manipulates the scene and her guests -- Angela, her conservative sister-in-law, and Ermyn, the visiting single daughter. Rose relishes her post, displaying her gift for disarming family members by moving furniture about, making shocking remarks to Angela, and serving up mischievously seductive meals. Ermyn, meanwhile, is fixating on various Bible passages, in particular the gruesome tale of the concubine in the country of the Benjamites. Now, her home, a small Welsh tourist town, grows inhospitable. Even Phullis, the dying man's cook and caregiver, is drawn into the eerie tension that surrounds the deathbed and the entire household. In a brilliant clash of expectations and reality, the author presents a close look at the conniving that underlie a family gathered in anticipation of death.
New York Times Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
`GOODBYE,' SAID ROSE. `Remember -- please and thank you, no strangers, and don't fall in the lake.'
`Oh Mum,' said the twins, laughing. They both leaned out of the car window, their faces damp from washing, their hair sleek as water in the sun. `Oh Mum.'
Rose laughed too. They were such competent, beautiful little children, not the sort to come to harm.
`Don't you worry, Mrs Ellis,' yelled Jack, grinding the gears.
`Slowly up the pass,' she cried, unheard, as the car backed noisily out of the double gateway into the lane. Jack the Liar had had several small mishaps recently -- he would bring the car back dented and bruised, long trails of leaves and hedge-grass and sinister tufts of virgin sheep's wool clinging to the door handles. `Bloody maniacs on the road,' he'd say, stepping about unsteadily. But he was sober now. Rose had smelt his breath and discerned only a chronic and lingering halitosis.
It was the drinking season: seductive holiday weather when even the locals still at work drank too much at lunchtime and early in the evening. The cold respectable grip of the chapels had lost its power, and people drank as they had drunk all those years before when the bay was dry land and the prince had built his castle there among the flowering cornfields and the woods alive with game. Then the sea had been almost out of sight beyond the horizon where now a boat was appearing, crawling into view like a cockroach over a rope. Centuries had passed since the servant had run into the great hall crying to the prince that the fishes were swimming in the cellars and the prince had poured himself another drink. His daughter, who disapproved of him, had led the survivors up here to watch as the sea washed over their fields and their farms. That was the legend. Certainly the country had been much subject to inundation and there were other bays and lakes where church bells rang from the depths and the lean remains of dwellings could be seen below when the water was still and clear. These days holiday makers swam and frolicked and floated about in the bay, fathoms above the sunken castle and the drowned, drunken courtiers. `Let them drink their fill,' the princess had remarked as the tide rose. It sounded worse in Welsh.
The eminence where the Plas was built had since been known by a name which could mean either Weeping or Watching Point. It was probable that the princess had watched and the dispossessed peasants had wept, since the mountain slopes offered nothing like the living they had known on the disappearing plain with its fair broad fields and placid river. Only the princess had preferred the wind-swept heights, being of a harsh and austere temperament. She had left her father's surviving subjects to manage as best they could and climbed even higher in search of the lonely sanctity she had always craved. Now Rose requested her to keep an eye open for the twins who would pass within a few miles of her abandoned hermitage. Civilly, Rose added `Amen'.
The momentary chill of parting was indistinguishable from the wind that came up from the sea even on the best days. Rose disregarded it. Some gnats were dancing over the rain butt, like a veil being violently shaken. The twins danced sometimes -- unselfconsciously and fast. They lifted their knees high, dipped their heads, spread their arms ...
It was very quiet. Rose could hear the spiders who lived in the ivy rustling discontentedly. A single butterfly hung, drained, on a dusty web. Spiders knew nothing of sumptuary laws, but Jack had been spraying the garden with insecticide again. It was his favourite gardening task: simple, unstrenuous and with such satisfactorily immediate results.
His mother appeared at the kitchen door, for no other purpose than to convey displeasure. She stood quite still, her hands at her sides, looking grim. Her lips were as hard, as bitterly thin, as split slate, and her eyes were small and black and dull. She was dressed, unconventionally for the sick-room, in a flowered overall and gumboots.
`They've gone,' said Rose in the empty yard.
Phyllis said nothing. Rose was meant to guess what had upset her and offer amends, even an apology. It was quite possible that if she went towards the kitchen Phyllis would refuse to give way and they would stand there nose to nose like cats for an incalculable time. Instead, she turned and began to walk round the stable yard, and when she looked back Phyllis had disappeared: she would be making something special for Gomer's tea, something luscious and greasy with butter and sultanas, to spite her employers and make her grandson happy and fatter.
Rose began to miss the twins. She touched the bark of the sycamore and told herself they would have a lovely time staying with the Captain's old cousins. They could play by the lake with the pretty, useless animals -- Jacob's sheep and Japanese pheasants -- and eat wild wormy raspberries and the little brown trout from the streams. Rose anticipated for them, against all probability and experience, hours of mild water and unflawed sunshine. It was good for them to be away for a time. Death was waiting in the house like a bailiff, quiet and unobtrusive but not fit company for the children, who were too young to learn the nature of intransigence.
`How's the Captain?' she asked, stopping and leaning in through the open kitchen window.
`The Captain's fine,' said Phyllis loudly to the table, on which she was stamping out little rounds of pastry. She was not so disgruntled as to ignore a direct question.
`The twins will be back next week,' offered Rose, quite aware that it was not the twins' welfare that concerned Phyllis.
Surprise briefly lightened Phyllis's expression of resentment. She closed her mouth tightly and stamped out more little rounds with the controlled rhythmic rage of marching feet. She didn't look up. She was riddled through with anger and depression.
Rose continued her perambulation. The slate flags, recently hosed down, gleamed, and the pools of dampness under the hydrangeas reflected impossible depths. The mountain beyond was misty in the heat and the lichen on the stone wall crackled drily under her hand. She wore a long blue dress and looked like an angel between the sky and the purple ground. Her hair was cut close to her skull, as black as the bird admonishing her, staccato, from the sycamore, and her eyes were huge and round and blue like windows, cut not to see through, but to show the sky.
* * *
Michael and Angela had been driving for hours. The car was hot, untidy with bits of paper and bad temper. They went slowly through the twisting streets of an old walled town planned, successfully, for the repulsion and impediment of non-residents.
`If we go this way we'll come out on the pass,' said Angela.
Michael just prevented himself from running over a small child clad in pants and bra and eating sweets under the overhang of an Elizabethan house.
`Careful,' said Angela.
`The coast road,' said Michael, enunciating clearly, `will be solid with traffic.'
`You don't know that,' said Angela.
They'd been quarrelling covertly for a long time now, to the danger of other motorists. Angela had a large repertory of small sounds, not usually associated with aggression. She would sniff, cough, tap her fingers, hum quietly on clear stretches of road. Michael used the car to startle and alarm, speeding round corners, overtaking lorries. Neither of them was given to open displays of anger. They came from the same background -- conventional, incurious, outwardly pacific. But confined spaces and solitude didn't suit them. Without other people and distraction they regressed and bickered in a sexless, pre-pubertal way.
`There's a caravan in front,' observed Angela. It trundled ponderously along, taking up a lot of road. Michael moved to the right. Instantly, out of nowhere, they were faced by a station-wagon crammed with an extended family and what must have been a large proportion of its worldly possessions. Michael moved back behind the caravan, but not before a great deal of terror and bad feeling had been engendered in the three vehicles.
`The most dangerous road in the whole of Wales and you start driving like a madman,' cried Angela, forced by fright into the open.
`Oh, rubbish,' said Michael, shaken. `I've been driving up and down here since I was ten.'
The pass wound like a broken spring down the mountainside. On the left the gaunt rockface thrust out pugnaciously, not giving an inch, and on the right the mountain fell sheerly away in a great waste of stone and shale to a dry river bed. Two houses stood at the bottom looking defenceless and foolish like bystanders caught uncomprehending between opposing factions. Angela was too annoyed to remark that she wouldn't like to live down there. But the pass was levelling out. Suddenly it became nothing worse than a country road bordered by hedges that broke here and there to show the sea shining beyond the fields. They went through a hamlet scarcely visible behind cigarette ads, an inn sign, banners heralding ice-cream and boards announcing Gwely a Brecwast and Fish and Chips. One smugly offered home-made scones. Parking, said the signs. Ladies, Inn Food, No Parking, Coca Cola, No Entrance, Dim Parcio, Conveniences, Campers Welcome, No Dogs, Fairy Glen, Ar Werth, For Sale, No Overnight Parking, Merched, Women, Cyfleusterau, Gents. A local girl was pushing a pram. Visitors drank pints and idled over the little bridge. Nervous Welsh sheep dogs minced girlishly along the roadside, each rolling one blind milk-blue eye. On the left a sign, slightly askew, welcomed all comers. Croeso Llanelys, it said.
Angela sat up, pulled at her skirt and patted her cheeks with a paper handkerchief. Michael turned the car abruptly up a steep mountain lane, changed down twice and drove into the stable yard of his father's house. He turned off the engine and got out.
* * *
Rose came forward and opened the door for her sister-in-law. People being helped out of cars were always at a disadvantage. `A new car,' she remarked. `What a pretty colour.'
`It's awfully hot,' said Angela accusingly, getting out stiffly and looking around.
`You look hot,' agreed Rose, standing back so that there could be no question of kissing -- the smell of other people's hair and teeth. She was gratified to see they both wore silly hats.
Angela took hers off. It was in the Spanish mode -- broad-brimmed, shallow-crowned and an emphatic shade of orange. She shook her hair, which was fair and dressed in large waves high off her forehead like a lady parliamentarian's: feminine, but reliable, with the merest hint of intellect. She looked disconsolate -- odd against the lovely day.
`How's Father?' asked Michael from the boot of the car, where he was pulling out suitcases and bags. His blue denim cap -- the type worn by foreign workmen and ageing literary agents -- shaded his eyes and hid his expression.
`He's just the same,' said Rose, though the same as what, she didn't say. He certainly was not as he had been.
Phyllis was back in the kitchen doorway. `Angela, Michael,' she said, a bit grudgingly but politely enough.
`Phyllis,' cried Angela. `How are you? And Jack and Gomer?'
`Oh, we're well,' said Phyllis, even smiling a little now, though not so much in response to Angela as at the mention of her grandson.
`I think you're marvellous,' said Angela, `-- taking on nursing the Captain as well as looking after this great big house.'
`We manage,' said Phyllis unblushingly. She stumped off to what Jack called the kitchen garden: a small stony patch behind the hydrangeas containing some wilting beans and a few lettuces. Rose got all her vegetables from a market-garden up the valley -- they were fresh and brittle and professionally symmetrical -- but Jack made great play with his little plot, tossing around spadefuls of earth in the early evening if anyone happened to be watching, and triumphantly flinging down yellowing cabbages on the kitchen table. `How's that then?' he'd say. `Terrific,' Rose would answer, eyes averted.
Phyllis stepped back out of the hydrangeas carrying a sprig of mint before her.
`Roast lamb, eh?' called Michael cheerily. `I say, Phyllis, where's that lazy great Gomer? He can take these up.' He indicated the suitcases and smiled expectantly.
Phyllis simply behaved as though he had not spoken. She walked straight past them into the house and quietly closed the door which, all through the summer, stood open until sunset. Michael stared after her.
`She's mad,' said Rose consolingly.
Michael turned his face away in irritation. He didn't need Rose to explain his father's servants to him. And anyway servants were often comic, and occasionally eccentric, but they weren't mad.
`Phyllis is one of the sanest people I know,' said Angela; `and underneath that reserve she's terribly pleased to see us. She's always had such a soft spot for Michael.'
But Rose had seen Phyllis's face, sullen and set with bitterness, contrasting strangely with the delicate faceted globes of hydrangea.
`She's probably feeling desperately overworked,' said Angela. `It must be a frightful strain looking after the Captain as well as everything else.'
`She doesn't do anything else,' said Rose. `A woman comes to do the rough and I do the cooking.'
Angela never believed Rose. `She still has Jack and Gomer to look after and her own house,' she said rebukingly.
`They all spend their time here,' said Rose. `They like it much better.'
`Well, if Father can't be moved, you should have a properly trained nurse,' said Angela. `I shall speak to Henry about it as soon as he gets here.'
Rose didn't want a trained nurse, but she said nothing. There was plenty of time. `When Ermyn comes,' she promised, `Phyllis will take you all to see your father.'
`Ah yes,' said Michael nervously. He picked up a pea-stick and beat it against his leg. `I think I'll just have a look round.'
Angela smiled after him to show Rose how tenderly good wives treated their husbands. `He always does that,' she said, determinedly fond. `Goes to make sure everything's just the same -- like a little boy.'
`Or a dog,' said Rose. `Dogs do that too.'
`You would know more about that than I,' said Angela distinctly, intending to wound. Rose's father had been the local vet -- though no one believed he had actually qualified. He had been Irish and disreputable, and she could never understand why Rose didn't mind. `I think I'll go after Michael,' she said.
* * *
Rose sat down on the slate slab that ran the length of the old dairy at fight angles to the house. The stables had been partly demolished when the Captain sold his horse, and the sun, unhindered, filled the yard. The ivy that grew on the mortarless stone walls was so thick Rose could sit in its shade. It had fleshless sinewy branches like the arms of the old men who had been sheep farmers in the hills not so long before. Now the native population was entirely dedicated to fleecing tourists -- not such a healthy life, but easier. Every house with as much as one spare bedroom or parlour was given up to this seasonal occupation, and avarice could have been shown on the map as a border running round the coastline and reappearing inland wherever a natural lake, a significant waterfall or a pleasant stretch of countryside was likely to attract the tourist trade. `The Principality is tantamount to a catamite,' said Rose.
Occasionally she could hear, very faintly, the sound of footsteps and voices on the other side of the high stone wall -- visitors going to have a look at the standing stones of the Druids' circle and the refreshment kiosk that stood nearby in case anyone should sink from famine three miles from civilisation.
She fetched a basket of peas and an earthenware bowl from the larder and sat down again. She had meticulously planned all the meals for the next few days and every detail was clear in her mind. She had never been one for the lovable muddle or the endearing smudge of flour on the cheek. She was greedy and clever and cynical, qualities essential to a good cook, and sometimes she used her ingredients like a witch, as social comment, to do mischief, or as a benefice. When Angela came back she would be met by the exasperating sight of Rose performing a domestic task carefully and well, and looking cool.
`I can't find him,' complained Angela, wandering round the side of the house. `He's gone too far.' She sat down and plucked a large ivy leaf to fan herself. `It's so hot,' she said. `Shall I do those for you?'
`I've done them,' said Rose putting the peas aside. `I think I might show you your room now.'
Angela was puzzled but, as yet, unsuspicious. `I know our room,' she said. `We always have it.'
`It's different,' said Rose. `I've changed it a bit.' She spoke carefully, not wanting to spoil her effect.
They went in through the kitchen door. The slate flags continued all over the ground floor of the Plas except for the drawing-room, the Captain's study and the room known as the long parlour, where wide boards had been laid to alleviate the dampness in the days before central heating.
Angela noticed how well the house was looking. Its windows and wood shone with cleanliness, and it had the complacent, untroublesome air of a well-cared-for child. This was probably because Phyllis had more time now that Gomer was older.
`You could carpet these stairs you know, Rose,' Angela said, as her smart shoes cracked at the wooden staircase. `It wouldn't detract at all from the feeling of the house.'
Rose stopped on the landing and opened a door. It was the same door, but the room within was quite different.
Angela stared, suddenly breathless. She looked quickly at Rose expecting to catch a wicked smile, but Rose's expression was as bland as the top of the milk.
`They did a lot to this part of the house at this period,' said Rose. `I expect it was with all the money Henry's mother brought. It's always had a pre-war feeling, and I thought now was the time to make it explicit. Because,' she went on, `no one really likes this style, and by the time they do it will be too late.'
Angela was speechless. She wanted to say that Rose had behaved unforgivably, that she had no right to change and distort things like this. She hated the room: the geometric furniture, the pale green carpet with the darker band, the embroidered antimacassars on the buff moquette armchair. All offended, not merely her taste, but her sense of caste.
`We must get you some flowers,' said Rose. `Lupins, I think, or marigolds in a nice black pot.' Rather to her surprise, she had grown to like the room. It had a comfortable afternoon air, ordered and respectable, redolent of a time when staid steady people had small families, dug in the allotment, listened to the wireless and drank cocoa before going to bed. Part of her fondness for the house was based on the ease with which she could make a fool of it, and she sometimes seemed to herself like one of those selfless persons who dedicate their lives to a poor amiable upper-class madman -- putting his gloves on the wrong hands, setting his beret straight over his eyebrows, taking their time wiping soup off his chin. Never sadistic, just gently amused.
`What happened to the other furniture?' asked Angela. She didn't want to sound grasping and inquisitive, but she did want to know. The solid mahogany, the bevelled glass, the brass handles ...?
Rose had considered saying that she had given it to a man who came with a cart, but the truth would do as well. `It's in the attic,' she said. `I could send it to London if you like.'
`I wouldn't dream of taking father's furniture away,' said Angela, annoyed by this offer of what, after all, she had as much right to as Rose. `It's much too big for Albert Terrace.' She had just finished furnishing her new house in the style Rose described as `solicitor's regency' -- desks inlaid with gold-tooled leather, brocade curtains, crimson-striped wallpaper, velvet-wrapped chaises longues, tiny teetering pie-crust tables and little framed silhouettes cascading down the walls. Each room was now complete and nothing more would fit in.
`I think I've got it right,' said Rose, taking a final look round. `It's a very pure and consistent style. They thought about it a lot. It didn't just evolve.' She closed the door quietly.
Alone in the room Angela flung her handbag on to the folkweave counterpane of the chubby bed. Michael's home had always seemed an extension of her life, a rightful heritage, a reminder of the past where, previously, she had felt she was coming into her own. She felt almost overwhelmed by detestation of the interloper.
There was a large photograph in a tortoiseshell frame on the chest of drawers. It was a wedding picture. Now she came to think of it, there were a lot of photographs of Rose's wedding around the house -- she was sure Rose scattered them out of pure spite. In this one Rose and Henry stood smiling at each other, surrounded by their respective families, who were not smiling at anyone and were clearly telling themselves that the whole thing was a dreadful mistake. Henry, thought Angela furiously. When she'd heard he was planning to marry the only daughter of a large Irish family who lived in the village she'd thought he must have gone mad. She'd envisaged bare mud-encrusted feet, green petticoats and safety-pinned shawls, bloodshot noses, building-site boots and perhaps the tell-tale outline of a small pig buttoned beneath the bright blue double-breasted suits. The reality had been worse. Rose's brothers were gentle, softly spoken young men in jobs that might one day make them rich; her father, although an obvious knave, succulent with confident charm, and her mother a stern respectable woman of the sort who would have made an excellent housekeeper or nanny in a more sensible age. And Rose was undeniably a good-looking girl, if you cared for that exaggerated style. None of them, not one, had admired Angela -- not her appearance, not her conversation, not her hat. They had been irreproachably polite, but their politeness had concealed the most hurtful of all insults: their ideals and aspirations were quite different from her own. It had been obvious that they considered Rose to be throwing herself away on Henry and it was a sorry waste -- a view of the situation so novel that Angela had then too found herself at a loss for words. They had stood together looking a little critical and disappointed. Only when they had caught sight of Rose in her great lacy wedding gown had their faces relaxed and broken into the kind of reassured smile that had obviously been used before and was kept for Rose. Rose had shared their mirth, trailing her train insolently like the tail of her coat, her wreath of small yellow roses slipping over one eye. It was as though a practical joke was in process. Angela remembered vividly the mild indecorousness of the occasion -- not the usual nuptial jollity, but an oddly irreverent atmosphere, light and ungrateful. She had put it down at the time to Roman Catholicism.
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