Despite its small-press status, Emerge is a thoroughly splendid collection, crammed with good material from a large number of amateur and professional writers, and is well worth buying (see the bottom of the page for details as to how). ‘Scapegoat’ was only my second piece of professionally published writing, and arguably (depending on how you view the writing in The Book of the War) my first professionally published story. I feel I've developed substantially as a writer since then.
‘Scapegoat’ is unlikely to be published elsewhere, and so I offer it up here as an incentive to readers to buy Emerge.
It was a few years ago now, at a party. Someone’s birthday, probably, one of Marie’s friends. I remember it was in one of those corridors at the halls of residence – whoever it was was obviously popular, as they’d got all their neighbours to throw their rooms open for the evening.
It was your standard student party – tons to drink, all of it very cheap, a lot of extremely loud music, people getting plastered and getting off together. As the evening wore on some drugs were wheeled out, quite discreetly because Marie’s mates were generally pretty well-behaved. The long queue for the loos meant that those who couldn’t handle their drink were having to take their vomit outside, which is always pleasanter. Until you come to leave.
God, I’m glad I’m not a student any more.
Anyway. I was there for the conversation, mainly, so went round chatting to people, trying not to drink too much too quickly, which was always the temptation. As usual, it wasn’t long before someone asked me about my faith. I was the tame Christian in that crowd, kept around for the curiosity value, or that’s how it sometimes felt. As I say, they were all nice people, and good at pretending they didn’t think I was barking mad. They liked to hear different points of view, although I sometimes wished an evening would go by without them feeling the need.
So, we talked a bit about God and religion, I did my best to impress on them that, yes, it was possible to be a Christian without believing every last word in the Bible, or that heretics and homosexuals should be stoned. (‘Although some of the ones here seem to be,’ I added, getting the usual laugh.) My Christianity wasn’t about condemning people, and it wasn’t about making converts either, though I was always happy to talk to people about it. I sometimes saw myself as something of an apostle to people who’d been put off Christianity by the University’s CU. Although I obviously didn’t tell them so.
Two guests seemed to be paying particular attention to what I said, unnervingly so in one case. He was this older guy, a mature student presumably. Big bloke, built like a wrestler with his hair shaved right back to his scalp. He was wearing a Marillion T-shirt, or Led Zeppelin or something so absurdly out of date it had to be an ironic fashion statement. (Also an earring, but since I never can remember which ear is the gay one I wasn’t jumping to any conclusions.) The other was some daft girl who’d played around with ouija boards and listened to too much death metal, and thought this made her a qualified Satanist. She started asking me about the Devil and demonic possession, and I said I thought people who took the idea seriously – Christians included – were generally a bit disturbed.
After a while I escaped (I think I got them talking about The Life of Brian or something) and popped outside for a fag, which at that stage I still hadn’t managed to give up. I found a vomit-free patch of ground next to a comfy wall, and lit up.
It was a chilly night, but cloudless, and I watched the stars for a while, alone with my thoughts and the invigorating clench of nicotine.
After a while I realised I’d been joined by the big bald guy. He asked me for a light, and pulled out a cigar, to my surprise. ‘It’s Tom, isn’t it?’ he asked politely. ‘I’m Sam.’ His voice was kind of cultured, with a trace of an accent, Eastern European possibly. Not much in keeping with his tough appearance.
We smoked together quietly for a bit, before he added, ‘You are wrong, you know.’
Oh great, I thought. I should have seen this coming. ‘About the Christian thing?’ I said. ‘Yeah, well. You’ve got your beliefs, I expect. Let me have mine.’
‘Not about “the Christian thing”,’ he said emphatically. ‘That, as far as you are willing to take it, is entirely true.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Thanks.’
‘I mean, Tom, that you are wrong about the Devil.’
Shit, I thought, I’ve found a loony. ‘You’d know, of course,’ I sighed, gauging the length of cigarette I had remaining.
‘Yes,’ he said flatly.
I wasn’t too worried about provoking him. He might be big, but I was wiry, and fast, and best of all I had a large number of friends in easy calling distance. Besides, I’d been trying to cut down recently, and I was feeling irritable.
‘Where, Tom,’ he continued, doing that creepy first-name thing patented by evangelicals and franchised out to zealots of all persuasions, ‘do you suppose that evil comes from?’
I took a deep drag. ‘First up,’ I said, exhaling smoky breath, ‘I’m not sure evil is a definite enough thing to need a source. It’s more a falling-short of God’s expectations. If it comes from anywhere, it’s human nature. Not some dark supernatural well of wickedness, not a fallen angel, certainly not some bloke with horns and hooves. I mean, sure, human beings can do evil things –’
‘Be quiet, Tom,’ he told me curtly. ‘Listen to me.’
That shook me. ‘Well, OK,’ I said, mentally reserving the right to at least make exasperated faces.
‘You Christians,’ he said contemptuously, ‘those worthy of the name at least, you explain mankind’s evil by appealing to a higher authority. Men and women sin, they cheat and lie and rape and slaughter and devour, because they have been led astray. An angel, they say. A being of light, more powerful than they and closer to God, came to them in their primordial youth and taught them how to sin. How were they to know? They were only obeying orders.
‘But the angels, we are also told, just like mankind before his Fall, were perfect, sinless. Each came from their Creator’s hand completely moral, incapable of selfishness or disobedience. So pure that the holiest of modern men, your Mertons and your Gandhis, next to them would seem a cesspool of immoral impulses and rancid thoughts.
‘If this is true,’ he said, ‘then where did evil come from? How did Lucifer fall?’
‘Well, this is the thing,’ I interjected, still hoping to deflect him. ‘Clearly the whole story’s total bollocks. Human beings sin because they’re not perfect, and if you’re building up to telling me that’s because God created them that way, I’m afraid I probably wouldn’t argue.’
‘In its essentials the story is true,’ he growled impatiently. ‘But it succeeds only in shifting the blame. It is no explanation. Humanity, created perfect, fell – well, then, it must have been pushed. Who was there to do the pushing? Only the angels – created perfect. It is no explanation at all.
‘In point of fact, Tom, the angels were God’s early sketch for humankind. The bodies, the mortality, the limitations of intellect – all these are improvements on the original design.
‘Oh, yes, humanity was created perfect, morally at least. You had to be persuaded, coerced almost, into sinning. The angels were not, and for them that was not the case.’
He took a deep puff on his cigar. Its bright tip lit his face up in the dark, and his eyes glittered at me through the blue smoke.
‘The angels sinned constantly,’ he said, ‘in their very souls. It horrified them. Their radiant heads teemed with urges to selfishness, to doubt, deception, hatred. Most of all, to fear. Each believed that God had intended them to be perfect, so each was terrified of their Creator’s disappointment. The streets of Heaven were awash with beings of light, dominions and seraphim and thrones and powers, each giving lip-service to the Lord, each terrified that he would find them out.
‘There was one angel, the first to have been created, who came to realise this. The others were blinkered by their fear, but this one was able to look outside himself, and see what fear was doing to his fellows. He broached the subject with a few trusted others, of this affliction which they shared. They were greatly relieved to learn that they were not alone.
‘At their suggestion, he explored this gift of empathy he had been given. He found that he could reach into his fellows’ very souls. Not only could he feel their pain, he could remove it, absorb it into himself. He could take on their prideful thoughts and dishonest impulses, their petty and their paralysing guilt, and make them free of them. He began to help more and more of the other angels in this way. As he took more of their evil thoughts into his heart he felt himself becoming depraved, fearful, ashamed; but he knew also that in so doing he was aiding his fellow creatures, and so he continued.
‘At length, word reached the Lord that the first of angels was becoming wicked. The messenger was a lesser power, one too afraid to hear the good news that he could be saved, too selfish and too proud to let go the sin that was inside him.
‘Perhaps God knew the truth. I would assume so. But the first of angels was punished, nonetheless. He was sentenced to be cast out from Heaven, exiled forever from the City of Light, condemned to an eternity of solitude and darkness. But first, all the remaining sin, that evil that stayed in the hearts of those who had not yet accepted his healing salvation, was poured into him, until not a drop was left.
‘This was the worst part of his punishment. He became evil beyond measure, the very embodiment of the fallenness of angelkind. And yet he accepted his punishment willingly, for their sake. This is, I think, important to the story.’
He took another drag on his cigar.
‘After that he was taken, gently, ceremoniously, up to the highest pinnacle of Heaven, and cast down, down into endless emptiness, until he found eventually a corner of the abyss’s inchoate void that would receive him.
‘So, now, yes – the angels are perfect. Every one free of sin, above reproach – save one. Because that one saved them all.’
There was a long pause, in the chill night outside the threshold of the hall. Then he said, ‘These events have been replayed throughout Creation. You lesser beings whom God created later, have picked the pattern out on canvasses beyond your counting – the sin, the betrayal, the sacrifice of one for all. But this is how it happened for the first time, this is how the pattern was first etched, onto the golden streets of Heaven itself.’ He gazed at me with something like compassion, as I stood staring at him, my cigarette forgotten in my hand. ‘I must leave now,’ he said, and turned away from me.
‘No, wait!’ I said. ‘Where did you hear that story? What did you say your name was? Sam, wasn’t it? Listen, Sam –’
He turned again. His piercing eyes transfixed me through the smoke, and he said ‘Call me Samael.’ Then he walked away, his broad back disappearing into everlasting night.
With shaking legs, I headed back inside, to where the birthday guests were doing the Macarena. None of them knew who had invited Sam: few of them even seemed to remember him. The death-metal girl, in whose arms I ended up taking some fleeting comfort later on that evening, certainly didn’t.
A phrase came to me, in the dead of that night, some lonely hours before the dawn chorus began its hopeful jeering. ‘The Devil is the father of lies.’ I don’t know whether I believe that. These days I don’t know what I think about a lot of stuff.
I try to be less glib about evil, though. When I remember.
And I haven’t touched a fag since, which surely can’t be a bad thing. Can it?
© Philip Purser-Hallard 2003.
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All material © Philip Purser-Hallard 2003 except where otherwise noted, and not to be used without permission.
Emerge cover © Emma Danby and Chris Merchant 2003.