Writer in Residence · 01/13/2012

George's Devil

I think that I may have written other stories before I wrote “George’s Devil” back in 1995; but it in this story that I see my beginnings as a writer. I was living in Indonesia at the time, in a small village in the Tanimbar islands. I had come to Tanimbar to immerse myself in myths, dreams and adventures; but once I was there, the loneliness was agonising: I felt cut off from my home, my friends, my native language. And so, nostalgic for the sounds of English, I borrowed a manual typewriter, and one afternoon in late January, as the rain poured down outside and hammered on the corrugated iron roof, I started to type, with no idea of where I was heading. When I got to the end of the story, I read it through out loud; and I found to my surprise that by the time I had finished reading – for reasons that are still obscure to me, because it seems to me on re-reading that they cannot lie solely in the story itself — I was shaking with emotion, my eyes welling with tears. It was the strangeness of this that made me decide, there and then, that what I wanted to do, above all else, was to write.

It was a decade before I was to publish my first novel, a novel that begins with the apparition of a devil on a small, Indonesian island, not too dissimilar from Tanimbar.

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One day — a perfectly ordinary Tuesday in June — George discovered that there was a devil in his house. He was sitting reading his newspaper in the kitchen when he first heard the scuffling behind the cooker. At first he ignored it, attempting to block out the sound by giving increased attention to the quite uninteresting article he was half-heartedly reading; but the scuffling persisted until George came to realise that it would merit, indeed that it would require, immediate investigation.

He put the newspaper down on the table, folding it neatly, and stood up, eyeing the stove with suspicion. He hoped that the creature would not turn out to be a rat. He had always found rats abhorrent, and he was unsure what he would do if confronted with one. He could not possibly kill it, and anyway, what was the most efficient way of killing a rat? But neither could he stay in the same room as the scuffling and feel at ease. First, he told himself, he should establish with certainty what was making the noise. Perhaps it was the neighbour’s, although what the neighbour’s cat was doing behind his kitchen stove was anybody’s guess. When he was sure what it was, then he could decide upon the most effective course of action.

He edged towards the kitchen drawer and he took out a large rolling pin, more to give himself a sense of security than out of any precise notion of what use it might serve. Then he took out a torch from the cupboard, which he held in his left hand, leaving the right to defend himself. Fully equipped, he made his way with extreme caution towards the stove and, with a shudder of revulsion, shone the torch into the darkness behind.

Two shining eyes and a hiss greeted the beam of light. He felt the upsurge of nausea, and lifted up the rolling pin in a manner that he hopped looked threatening to the rodent that was lurking in the darkness. Another hiss, this time more protracted, tinged with malice. The second hiss made George a little insecure. Rodents, he was almost certain, did not hiss.

He looked more closely. There amongst the cobwebs and lost keys and gobbets of furred potato fallen from the stove top, he saw a shape that was decidedly un-ratlike. He moved the torch, and its beam fell onto the body of a creature whose skin was the colour and texture of a peeled plum: the small, but instantly recognisable form of a devil. It had a pinched face moulded from pure hatred, pointed ears and two livid red horns. Its mouth was a lipless slash and its eyes yellow and full of loathing. The creature’s tiny body was raw, as if flayed, and two wings of almost transparent fleshiness could be seen furled behind it. A tail curled from the base of its spine and ended, as he imagined devils’ tails generally did, in a point shaped like an arrowhead. The devil’s hands were bony, the fingers long and ending in clawlike nails. Its feet were similar and, George noted, it had exceptionally long toes.

Such was the surprise that George experienced a few moments of extreme clarity. He thought of how he had always imagined devils to be tall, taller than human behinds, whilst this one was certainly no more than thirty centimetres high, if one measured him from the soles of his feet to the tips of his horns. He also noted, with the detachment of a professional biologist, that the devil appeared to be sexless, and that therefore “he” and “him” were perhaps inappropriate pronouns.

The lucidity waned to be replaced firstly by repugnance, and then by dread, and finally by a panic that began in the base of his stomach and spread throughout his entire body: there was a devil in his kitchen.

Another hiss. The thin mouth twisted itself into a sneer. George retreated to stand in the middle of the kitchen. He had not the slightest idea what to do. Nothing in his upbringing had prepared him for situations such as this. None of the austere sermons of his youth, with their endless talk of evils and devils, of Satan and his cunning, of temptations and sins. Not a single bit of what he had heard then, yelled from pulpits by half-crazed preachers, not a bit of it was of the least practical relevance. They had shouted, they had yelled, but not one had they provided any practical advice about how one should deal with a devil behind one’s stove.

George then had a thought, an idea. It was only a temporary measure, to be sure, but it would at least defer the necessity for more decisive action. Putting the rolling pin down, he returned to the still open drawer and removed a pair of salad tongs. Then he made his way back to the stove and, suppressing his revulsion, picked up the devil, clutching it between the jaws of the tongs. He was surprised by the devil’s strength as it struggled to free itself, spitting at him and then breaking into a high-pitched screaming which made George’s flesh rise into goose pimples. Holding the struggling creature at arm’s length, he went out into the hall. There he faced a moment of indecision. Should he open the front door and put out the devil as he would had it been his neighbour’s cat? But some instinctual sense told him that, when it came to devils, it was better to know where they were, rather than to cast them out and to allow them to run at large. So George turned away from the front door, the devil still kicking and screaming in the grip of the salad tongs, and he opened the door under the stairs that led down to the cellar. He tossed the devil into the dark and slammed the door shut, bolting it firmly.

He leaned against the cellar door in relief, breathing deeply and listening for sounds from the darkness below. Unsure as to whether the silence should unnerve or reassure him, he returned to the kitchen, washed the tongs, to which there adhered a viscous purple slime, placed them together with the rolling pin back in the drawer. Then he switched on the kettle and made himself a cup of coffee. The coffee made, George sat down at the kitchen table. He skimmed through the newspaper and then turned to the crossword on the back page. Before he had time to search in his pocket for a pen, he had already solved the first two clues.

That evening, his wife, Marianne, returned home. George explained to her about the devil, and at first she laughed; but with calm insistence, George managed to talk her round, and persuaded her to take a look herself. Marianne returned from the cellar pale-faced. She sat opposite her husband, wordlessly awaiting an explanation. George looked at her helplessly. Then he told her what had happened, how he had found the devil behind the cooker, how he thought it best to put it in the cellar rather than to cast it out. And his wife had to agree that this did indeed seem the most practical short-term solution.

After they had eaten supper, they sat down together with the telephone book and began to draw up a plan of action. They skimmed through the various organisations listed under Pest Control, but none of the companies looked as if they had the relevant expertise, so they turned instead to Religious Organisations. The list of phone numbers was long, so they categorised them into sections: Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh. They also created a category called “miscellaneous” that included Bahá’í, something called Cao Dai, assorted Wiccans and the impressive sounding National Academy of Druidic Arts. Having established a list, they started to make some exploratory phone calls, to enquire about procedures for exorcism. A few organisations rejected them outright, others referred them elsewhere, but a surprising number were enthusiastic about the prospect of having a real devil to exorcise.

During the next week, a procession of the Holy passed through George and Marianne’s house. All manner of incantations were chanted, incense of every variety was burned, offerings were made to gods of all descriptions. The Cao Dais, whose precise doctrinal stance remained a mystery to George and Marianne, hung a picture of Victor Hugo above the cellar door, and the National Academy of Druidic Arts supplemented this with an unseasonal sprig of mistletoe. Yet all was to no avail. The devil, which hid itself at the first sound of the Holy descending into the cellar, invariably reappeared to scratch at the door when they left.

Eventually George and Marianne lost their faith in the assurances of the Holy, as they left the house, that they would have no more trouble, assurances that were followed only a few moments later by a scratching at the cellar door.

It was Marianne who made the suggestion. “It will”, she said, “have to be exterminated.”

That evening they descended into the cellar together, taking with them a sharp kitchen knife, the rolling pin, and various other kitchen implements — sieve, wooden spoon, large saucepan with lid. They closed the cellar door behind them and switched on the light. The bulb gave out a weak and sickly light that seemed to only thicken the gloom. Then they heard a hiss from the far corner of the cellar. There, leering at them from behind a cardboard box, was the devil, its peeled-plum skin glistening. They advanced together. Marianne struck first, dealing it a blow across the head with a wooden spoon. The creature fell to the floor and started to writhe. Marianne stamped on it, but the devil slipped free. George lunged, grabbing the devil in his left hand (how cold it felt!) and slashed at it with the knife in his right hand. The knife failed to drive home and the devil bit him. George let go. He looked at his hand: despite the devil’s coldness, it was blistered, scorched. The devil scuttled into the corner. George looked at Marianne, and in that glance something altered, the energy went out of them, they became deflated, their weapons fell to the floor. Wordlessly they fled up the stairs, extinguished the light and looked the door behind them. They sat in the hall, shivering in horror, but not sure whether this was horror at what was there in the cellar, or whether it was revulsion at their own fervour. They returned to the kitchen and sat in silence. Or not quite silence, because by the cellar door, again, they heard the devil scratching and scraping, getting up to its devilish business.

That evening, they decided to settle instead on a policy of accommodation.

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It was several months later that George’s sister came to stay with her daughter, who had just turned six; and knowing how children delight in breaking prohibitions, both George and Marianne were careful not to mention the cellar, and to monitor carefully any signs of inquisitiveness in their niece. One thing they had noticed was this: whenever there were visitors, be they exorcists or sisters or nieces, the devil fell silent; and so there should be nothing about the cellar, they told themselves, to provoke their niece’s curiosity. It was two days into his sister’s visit that George came home — Marianne was still at work — to find the cellar door open, and a note on the kitchen table from his sister saying, “Just popped out to the shops.” He called his niece. “Down here,” she replied.

George, feeling a terrible rising panic, ran to the cellar. His niece was just visible there in the darkness, sitting on the bottom step of the stairs, her back turned, hunched up. George started to descend the stairs. “What are you doing?” he called down.

“Just sitting here.”

George was now at the bottom step. He sat next to his niece and took her hand, glancing around the cellar, looking for those yellow eyes, that malignant face. But he saw nothing other than darkness. They sat there, hand in hand, for a long time. George felt a curious kind of calm come over him.

“It’s really sad,” his niece said at last.

“What is?” George asked.

“I heard a scratching at the door,” she said, “so I came down to see what it was.”

George felt his muscles stiffen. He looked his niece, eyes wide. “What happened?”

His niece withdrew her hand from his. “When I came downstairs, I found this strange little person. He looked so very unhappy.”

“And?”

“And I gave him a hug.”

George’s throat was dry. “And then?” he croaked.

“And then,” his niece shrugged, “he disappeared.”

George’s niece stood up and walked slowly back up the stairs. George stayed there on the bottom step, looking into the darkness and breathing deeply.

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posted by Origin Stories