Full house at Shrewsday Mansions: everyone from two families was over for after-school dinner, and as usual I was running late. Kids were everywhere, carting around cats, brandishing toy cars, doing homework about adjectives. My sister and I sat at the centre of the maelstrom with mugs of tea.
On the menu today: pizza. The breadmaker had been whirring and clunking like a disgruntled gnome in the corner of the kitchen for one and a half hours now.
I opened the breadmaker.
And there, glowering inside, was the creature from the Black Lagoon.
Minus the black lagoon. In colour this was an exemplary dough; pale, wheaten; something that the Covent Garden Vegan Cranks team would have saluted with some veneration.
But nothing could prepare me for its malignant mien. It had- how shall I put it – personhood. It would have sent even the most zealous wholefoods preacher backing away in the direction of the door.
As I reached in to retrieve it, it adhered sinisterly to the normally non-stick surface. How did it do that? It clung on with unnerving adhesion, like something out of those rather graphic Alien films.
And when my fingers went in to retrieve it, the full horror of the situation became apparent as it closed inexorably round them. It oozed into every crevice of my hands, in a claustrophobic takeover bid. This was no shy retiring violet, this dough. It was giving off vibes which were unmistakably malevolent.
In mild panic I observed to my sister that it might be alive.
She did not help. Instead, she dissolved into giggles as she watched me wrestle with this dough like Hercules wrestling the serpent river god Achelous. It began to dawn on me that mankind was in trouble if this was where Evolution was headed.
With a lot of flour and strenuous physical exertion we began to tame the beast. But for a creature the size of a small hedgehog, it had taken its toll on two great burly humans.
Later, as we devoured our trophy with something akin to spite, it occurred to me that perhaps this was where one of our most baffling ancient traditions began: with the conviction that a piece of dough could be pure evil.
In 1906, in a small Herefordshire village called Ratlinghope, a farmer was buried in the churchyard.
The inscription on his gravestone was perplexing.
“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.”
Soul pawning. Richard Munslow had lost three of his children with whooping-cough and chose to spend the bereaved years of his life buying passage for others into the afterlife.
He was the last of the sin-eaters.
The strange notion that a loaf of bread, passed over the body of a dead person, could assume the unfinished business, the unresolved sins, or the departed: it persisted in parts of England from the dark ages until the dawning years of the twentieth century.
Once the bread held the sins, someone had to eat them.
And that person was often an outcast, because if they ate the sins of the village, it followed they must be haunted by evil spirits.
They lived apart, shunned, a passport to the afterlife and yet abhorred and feared much as we abhor our own transgressions.
And the instrument for the transfer was a loaf of bread.
So maybe there was something in my unease, hands swamped by killer dough as if extras in a ’50’s movie. Maybe a batsqueak of a social memory endured.
Or maybe I should just lay off the olive oil.