[Issue 2 / August 2012]
The stage is set for the final act. The girl is strapped to her bed. Her parents are on tenterhooks. Attempts at a scientific explanation have been exhausted. I’ve played all the usual tricks: poltergeist activity, speaking in tongues, cold spots around the house, drastic changes in the girl’s physiognomy.
It’s not a Christian or Catholic household, so the old crucifixes-dropping-off-walls routine isn’t applicable. She had one of those “buddy Christ” things on her windowsill, though, so I made it go up in flames. That was the second month of the possession, when her parents were still talking to psychiatrists and psychologists. It’s my job to push things until they get the hint and call in an exorcist. Torching a “buddy Christ” seemed like a pointed hint.
I’d been possessing her for two months: a 14-year-old with a bedroom decorated entirely in pink, posters of boy bands everywhere. One of the bands had sold their collective souls the year before. They’ve got two platinum albums left, then the Boss owns them.
It was a devout relative who persuaded her family to see a priest. And then I had to put on a real show to convince the priest. Seriously—there’s something wrong when even clerics are sceptical. I was close to letting him have it with the projectile vomiting, but it would only have come across as a cliché. By the time I’d made the number of the beast appear as acne scars on her neck, he got with the programme and took it to the diocese.
Back in the day, some granite-faced fire-and-brimstone type would have been round in no time, spoiling for an old-school good vs. evil smack down. Nowadays, they have meetings first.
So here I am, letting my innocent victim slumber while I wait for the priest to arrive. The necessary permissions have been granted; he’s on his way.
Sure enough, a car draws up outside. There’s the slam of a door. An inappropriately cheerful chime resounds from the doorbell. I wait a few seconds till the priest has been admitted then let rip in a raspy forty-a-day voice with a thesaurus of blasphemous vulgarity by way of a welcoming homily. Heavy boots pound up the stairs. The bedroom door flies open and he comes barrelling in. I take in his military style haircut, broad shoulders and the fact that he’s wearing a leather jacket over the regulation issue black shirt and white dog collar. He’s early thirties and seriously in shape. The holy water’s out in a flash and the shriek the girl emits is absolutely nothing to do with me—it’s the reaction of any normal person to face full of cold water.
Then it hits me and I replace her adolescent yelp with a full-throated roar of ageless evil. This done, I voice the bilious assertion that his mother sucks cocks in hell.
“Be silent!” he commands. He whips out a crucifix. Damned if he doesn’t give it a little twirl, like a gunslinger! “I’ve seen that movie,” he adds, mockingly, “and if you even think about the pea-soup puke, I’ll rip you out of her body with my bare hands and then I’ll really exorcise you.”
Okaaayyyy. Not what I was expecting.
He’s at the bed in two strides. He places the crucifix on her face, the crosspiece covering her eyes, the lower end weighing on her lips. See no evil and speak no evil in one fell swoop. Next thing, he’s giving it the rite of exorcism.
Usually, I pick up on an exorcist’s weak spot—their deepest fear or hidden secret—straightaway…and exploit it just as quickly. I’m not getting a reading from this guy, though. I need to buy time. I throw my negative energy out into the room and flick open the window latches, throw them wide open and slam them shut with as much force as possible. There’s a muffled noise and a miniscule pattern of spider web cracks appear in the panes. That’s uPVC for you! Wooden window frames would have splintered and shards of glass cascaded across the room. Now it’s all lifetime guaranteed double-glazing.
I yank the drawers from her dressing table with the intention of hurling them around the room. They prove to be a rickety flat pack assembly and fall apart within seconds, the dressing table itself collapsing like a house of cards that’s just had one card removed. Probably the joker.
To one side of the now deconstructed dressing table there’s a tower rack full of CDs, so I launch them one after another, like clay pigeons. Briefly, I get a result. The first three or four catch him on the head, then he produces another crucifix from the dark folds of his leather jacket and holds it right in my trajectory without even turning to look. The rest of the CDs go up in a white-and-blue flash of holy fire. Well, they were boy bands. I guess they never stood a chance.
I conjure some fire of my own. The boy band posters spontaneously combust, the room filling with a sulphuric reek. Without missing a beat, he produces another vial of holy water, breaks it open and douses the flames. As he does this, he makes a sign of the cross so effortlessly iconic that I wonder if he practices in front of a mirr—
The dressing table’s mirror is still intact. Not for long. I shatter it into a couple of dozen shards, making sure to keep the pieces big enough. Then I whirl them around him, a tornado of glass. He’s caught off guard. For a moment or two he doesn’t know what to do. I freeze the tornado, the shards hanging in mid-air. He’s surrounded by his own reflection. My hunch pays off and he looks. There’s a small glint of self-appreciation in his eyes. Then he realizes what I’m doing. He flings his arms up to shield his eyes, the involuntary making of a cross. The shards clatter harmlessly to the floor.
It’s bought me less than a minute, but I’ve used it to work the straps free and make the girl levitate. The motion dislodges the crucifix. As it falls, it inverts and is thus robbed of its power. I consume it in the same unholy fire that made short work of the boy band posters. It falls to the floor as a pool of quicksilver which reforms as a snake and lunges at the priest’s ankles. He stumbles as he jerks backwards, stumbles and falls. The snake lunges at him again and disintegrates into hundreds of burning droplets that scald his skin. He exits the room, first crawling and then, as he gets awkwardly to his feet, at a run.
I let the girl sink back to the bed and get some rest while I wait. I daren’t risk nodding off myself; I’ve won this round but he’ll be back.
Two hours later, the sound of a car pulling up. Two doors slam this time. He’s got back-up. I’ve levitated the girl off the bed by the time they burst in, crucifixes brandished, vials of holy water at the ready, already at “and let my cry come unto thee” in the rite of exorcism. They mean business.
What follows is basically half an hour of me getting my ass kicked. Leather Jacket has brought his mentor with him, a grizzly old bastard with a permanent frown and a shock of white hair. The kind of priest who believes that it’s mankind’s lot to suffer on earth and even the eternal reward in Heaven isn’t guaranteed. With this guy backing him up, Leather Jacket’s weaknesses become less and less exploitable. My hold on the girl weakens. There’s nothing left in the room to fling about, shatter or enwreathe in fire. I vocalise some half-hearted obscenities, but it’s more for appearances’ sake than in hope of distracting or defying them.
Holy water slashes across the girl’s body. Crucifixes are thrust at her. Entreaties in Latin, Hebrew and English politely suggest that I depart forthwith. I save the fireworks for the inevitable moment of departure. As I tear myself from her mortal form, leaving her flesh as uncorrupted as before my residency and her mind blanked of what she’s been through, I blow every light bulb and electrical implement in the household, open cracks in the walls and ceiling, and set dogs howling and cats screeching for miles around. Clouds roil up out of nowhere and muscle across the skyline. Lightning flashes in jagged patterns that look like the lettering on heavy metal album covers.
And then I’m gone. Drifting upwards. My form – the real me – is incorporeal. I’m just atoms; Satan’s the alchemist who worked out the formula. Looking down, I watch the two priests emerge. The old guy reaches for the car door, gesturing to Leather Jacket to climb in. But he refuses. Shaking his mentor’s hand, he sets off down the street. The ritual’s over and he’s not wanting company. A man alone with his thoughts. I can dig that.
I watch him go, then turn my thoughts to what to do next. An exorcist never actually defeats a demon. They can drive us from the host, sure – and that’s where the books and movies usually end – but we remain. What happens next differs. Sometimes it’s straight back to base for the next assignment. Sometimes we bide our time before repossessing (no better way than planting seeds of doubt than to make men of cloth think they’ve won, then show up again a few days later). Me, I like a little R&R.
It’s early evening. I drift over to a nearby business park. Some junior executive type in a second-hand Jaguar he’s blown his savings on to impress his colleagues is peeling out of a car park. Dipping into his mind, I determine that he’s got no home life, no dependents, no real friends and nothing outside of his job. Also, he’s stressed about a big contract, he’s got a couple of hundred in cash in his wallet, and he’s thinking about hitting a bar on the way home.
The ideal candidate! Dropping into his body, I steer the Jag into the nearest pub car park. His head is full of figures, graphs, pie charts and barefaced lies (well, you know what they say about statistics) and I let myself seep into his subconscious and persuade him that all these things are unimportant. As he locks the car and pockets the fob, it occurs to him that he’ll probably be getting a taxi home; he can forget about the motor till tomorrow.
I soften him up with a couple of pints. He’s usually a lager-boy, this one, so it vaguely surprises him when some cask-strength real ale hits his innards. He doesn’t normally drink scotch, either, but I’m eyeing the selection of single malts behind the bar and thinking that he’s in for an edifying evening.
I’m ordering my third pint, when Leather Jacket walks in, hair slightly windswept, jacket collar turned up and a dull but steely look in his eyes. He stands slap bang next to me at the bar. He doesn’t know me from Adam. Or from Pazuzu, for that matter.
As Mae West put it, I can resist anything but temptation. Or was it Oscar Wilde? “Tough day at the office?” I enquire.
He gives me a look that casually invites me to take my business elsewhere in the name of the Lord, then jerks his head at the barman as if wearing a dog collar gives him queue-jumping rights.
“Ahh, have a drink wid an old altar boy, fahdah,” I say, laying on a cornball Irish accent.
“Hold your tongue,” he snaps at me. The next thing he snaps is his fingers. The barman comes running. He’s about to place his order when I deliver my riposte:
“I held your mother’s tongue. Right between my –”
He rounds on me, a picture of fury. “How dare you?” The barman comes to a skidding halt. The low drone of chatter ebbs to silence. Eyes swivel in our direction. “Who do you think you are?”
I let my grotesque features push through the skin of my host’s face. (What do I look like, you ask? Ever seen a gargoyle? Imagine it come to life, in glorious Technicolor and with a Hollywood special effects budget behind it. Got that? Great. You’re halfway there.)
“You know who I am,” I reply, in a voice that could carve tombstones.
The barman suddenly absents himself and the patrons make for the exit like the place was on fire. This is how I end up having a drink with the enemy.
He’s resistant at first, reaching into the folds of his leather jacket for the crucifix and giving it some “unclean spirit” and “spawn of hell” and “lapdog of Satan”. He snatches a half-empty bottle of mineral water that one of the scampering patrons left behind and hastily blesses it. Personally I can’t be bothered squaring up for round two right now, so I reach out, pluck the crucifix from his fingers and lay it on the bar. Then I grab the bottle of mineral water and take a swig. I’ll be honest: it burns as it goes down, but no more than a Talisker or a Laphroiag. “Not bad,” I say, handing it back, “but how about we sit down and have a real drink?”
I make a bottle of scotch and two shot glasses float over to a corner table and open my palm in an “after you” gesture. The door closes, the “open sign” flips round to “closed”, the lock snaps tight and the blind falls. I love doing the poltergeist act. Definitely the best part of the job.
“What trick is this, demon?” he asks.
“Dude, for Chr— … for Pete’s sake, just chill out, sit down and have a drink with me. I’ve been stuck in a pink bedroom for months, no company, no conversation. Why do you guys take so long authorising an exorcism these days? They were some long and lonely hours waiting for you to get your act together, I can tell you.”
“You are the father of lies and the destroyer of innocence. Do not speak of –”
“Do me a favour,” I interject. “Quit talking like it’s ‘The Crucible’, will you? All I’m asking for is your company. I don’t want your soul. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
Never taking his eyes off me, he goes over to the corner table and takes a seat. I position myself opposite, uncork the scotch and pour us a glass apiece. “Sláinte mhath!”
And finally, he laughs. “A demon toasting my health. I can officially say I’ve seen everything now.”
“Drink to my health, and I’ll be able to say the same.”
He raises his glass. “God be with you.”
I raise mine. “Yeah, whatever.”
We clink and drink. It goes down like liquid fire. He pours us another shot. For a moment, a companionable silence enfolds us. He holds the glass between the palms of his hands, warming its contents. Then he lowers his nose and inhales deeply. I drink this stuff every chance I get, so I know what aromas he’s picking up: peat, heather, a salty breath of sea air. He takes a sip and an appreciative sigh follows. The man’s got taste.
“Let me ask you something,” he says at length.
“You possessed that girl, right?”
“I conducted an exorcism, right?”
“I drove you out, right?”
I nod again, hoping he’s going to get to the point. I’m starting to feel like a nodding dog on the parcel shelf of a Vauxhall Astra.
“Drove you out as in ‘defeated you’, right? As in ‘dispelled you’. As in ‘sent you back to hell’. As in –”
“As in ‘the power of Christ compelled me’,” I finish off. “Yeah, I get you. What’s your point?”
“What’s my point?” he echoes. “This is my point: why aren’t you back in hell? Why aren’t you broken, ruined, seared by holy fire? Why aren’t you a pitiful, pathetic and abjectly humbled shadow of your former self? Why aren’t you begging for forgiveness?”
I’m about to give him the quick capsule answer (i.e. because I’m a demon – duh!) when he throws out another rhetorical question:
“How come you can pick up a crucifix and down half a bottle of holy water when I used those very things to exorcise you?”
And that’s when I realise he’s not being rhetorical. “Shit,” I murmur softly. “You honestly don’t know?”
“Dude, what did they teach you at seminary?”
“The word of the Lord,” he snaps, “and how to recognise the lies of the Adversary.”
“And you know what they teach us?”
“I can guess.”
“You’d probably be wrong.” He makes as if to protest, but I plough on: “They teach us how to blaspheme. They teach us how to spit on icons. They teach us how to possess hitherto uncorrupted children; how to make them say and do the vilest filth. And they—”
“You hell-spawned paedophile!”
“—teach us how to throw in the towel.”
“You venal minion of – … They teach you to what?”
“Throw in the towel. And kindly don’t accuse me of being a child molester. That’s slander. I’ll have my lawyer on you.”
“You have a lawyer?”
“Of course I have a lawyer. I’m a demon. Half of my brethren used to be in the legal profession.”
“Don’t change the subject. What do you mean, throw in the towel?”
“They. Teach. Us,” I explain slowly. “How. To. Lose.” The truth is more along the lines of teaching us how to make the church think they’ve won, but he looks dumbfounded enough as it is so I decide to go easy on him. “It’s like this. We live in an age where communication has shrunk the world, technology is racing along an exponential curve, and credit lets everyone have what they want immediately. Everyone lives on a mountain of debt and prays to the lottery for their own personal deus ex machina. Nobody prays to the likes of us anyone. People want salvation or a quick morality top-up, they pledge some moolah on Red Nose Day. They want transcendence, some obliging fellow with a pocketful of baggies is waiting to sell them their drug of choice. They want a miracle, the tabloids are full of them – ‘dramatic rescue’, ‘hair’s-breadth escape’, ‘have-a-go hero’. They want a saviour, they’ve got this year’s winner on ‘Big Brother’.
“And it’s no better on my side of the fence. Back in the day, they’d sell their soul to the Boss for anything. Immortality? We’d have Mephistopheles countersigning the agreement within seconds. Talent? They’d be lining up at the crossroads at midnight. Women? The all-time number one. You’ve heard that saying that men think through their peckers? None of them ever thought clearly enough to check the small print.” I knock back the rest of my drink and give Leather Jacket the nod to pour me another. He’s stupefied enough to do so unthinkingly. “But that was then, my friend, and this is now. Nobody has to pay the ultimate price for anything anymore. Immortality? Any nobody who gets a sex tape online stands a better chance of being immortalized than the greatest artists of the pre-internet age. Talent? Come on! The less you’ve got, the bigger your career. Women? Who needs to barter his mortal soul for a taste of forbidden fruits when he can order his own mail order bride? Face it: we’re relics, you and me. There’s no call for us any more.”
“So why do the faithful still come to church? Still fear evil?”
“Because we do our job well.” It’s his turn to drain the shot glass and immediately replenish it. “And that’s all it is: a job. You can kid yourself it’s a vocation, a calling, a moral imperative. You can make yourself feel better by thinking that the likes of me get into it for the kicks because we’re sadists or pederasts. But the fact is, there’s no difference between us. We clock in, we do the job, we file the report, we attend the one-to-ones and the appraisals, and we clock out. They stiff us on the overtime, the management are ball-breakers and the pension’s shit. It’s. A. Job.” I snap my fingers and a coat someone’s left draped over the back of a chair picks its own pocket and comes out with a pack of cigarillos and a box of matches. I have the coat float over, hand them to me, then return. I light up and inhale deeply. Smoking ban, my arse. “But we get the job done,” I continue. “We suck it up and resign ourselves to the lousy conditions and our superiors taking the credit for our actions, and we get the job done. Because if we don’t, there’ll be no reason for these morons to believe – or doubt. Then we’re all redundant, no matter which side we’re on.”
“You possess innocent children just to give humankind a reminder?”
“Sorry,” I say. And I am. Genuinely. “If it’s any consolation, it keeps you guys in business, as well.” I take a drag and blow a smoke ring. We watch it drift up to the ceiling. The sprinklers kick in and the moment is lost. The cigarillo extinguishes. “Guess that’s our exit line,” I say, getting to my feet.
“Answer me one question,” the priest says.
“Why children? Why don’t you possess adults? Are you really so insecure that you have to pick on such easy targets?”
And there was me thinking he was starting to understand! Still, it’s a fair question and I formulate the fullest answer I can. “Right. First of all, children are not easy targets. Put the deathless and ageless reality of true evil up against a twelve-year-old girl’s obsession with Justin Beiber and you’re on a hiding to nothing from the start. The main reason, though, is that when people see children in the thrall of possession, it shakes them to the core. They see it in an adult, they chalk it up to sociopathic tendencies or mental illness. The early doors crowd who stampeded the exit when I showed them my real face—do you honestly think they’re standing around right now agreeing that they all saw a demon? Of course they’re not! They’ll have found a nice comfortable rationale – I’m a serial killer or a terrorist or an escapee from the nearest loony bin – and called the police, and only in the loneliest and most sleepless depths of the night will they even consider admitting to themselves what they really saw.”
As if to validate my thesis, sirens blurt through the distance. The distinctive whump-whump-whump of a helicopter grows louder. I detach myself from my earthly host for a second and conduct a hurried reconnaissance. Armed response team.
“That’s definitely our exit line,” I insist.
He doesn’t argue.
Outside, flashing blue lights are already visible. There’s a low wall at the far end of the car park. “You’d best head that way,” I say.
“What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me. By the time they get here, they’ll find a very confused businessman with a gap in his memory and I’ll be filing my report in Hell.”
He sets off in the loping gait of one unaccustomed to running. He pauses before he vaults the wall. Looks back with something that almost passes for kinship. Then ruins it. “I’ll pray for you,” he says.
“Yeah, whatever,” I grunt. “Your mom says hi.”
Born in 1972, still alive, married, no kids, Neil has published three books of film criticism: ‘The Films of Sam Peckinpah’, ‘100 Violent Films that Changed Cinema’ and its companion volume ‘100 Sex Scenes that Changed Cinema’ – although he denies authorship of the latter if his mother’s around! He has been publishing poetry in the small press since the mid-90s, and was shortlisted for an Eric Gregory Award for poetry in 2000. He’s an active member of the Alan Sillitoe Committee, an organisation dedicated to raising funds for a permanent memorial to Alan in his hometown of Nottingham (Neil lives there too) – the website is www.sillitoe.com.