The Sin Eater by James Ross

An odd couple meet a tramp with an impossible promise; by James Ross.

Babe needs new boots.

We're down at the river on a market day. A hard sun is shining on the crowds, on the stalls, the polis, more people, parked vans, buskers, the glistening river. I count four Big Issue sellers in less than five minutes:

'Big Issue?'

No thanks.

'Big Issue! Help the homeless?'

No thanks.

Men in ponchos are banging out Chilean folk music on leather drums and electric pan pipes. I've just been paid and Babe needs new boots, so I'm going to buy him a pair.

We stroll with linked arms, enjoying the sun and the crowds and the day.

I stop at a barrow to check out some pirate DVDs but Babe's attention is drawn to a beggar sitting against a wall at the edge of the Quay. Next to him is a sign propped up behind a cardboard box that is half-full of fruit; yesterday's discards from the nearby stalls.

Babe walks over to the seated figure, points at the sign and says, 'What's this?'

The beggar, just a bearded kid really, smiles, and acknowledges the board with a nod. 'Read it.'

'I've read it.'

'Read it again.'

The sign says I Eat Your Sins.

I've left the music stall to follow Babe over and I ask the beggar, 'How much?'

'Two quid to you,' he says, with a grin.

Babe looks at me strangely as I take out two pound coins and drop them into his tin. I look at the tramp and I think, just some grimy sun-burned kid. Pleasant smile though. And then I look for the wine, but this is unfair as he doesn't look much like a drinker.

And it's a living, I suppose.

'Angel. he can't eat your sins,' Babe tells me.

'Yes I can,' he replies calmly.

'How?' Babe asks. 'You don't even know what they are.'

He points at the box of fruit, 'They choose their own sinner, man. They know. So don't try and buck the trend, huh?'

He is unafraid, he has attitude, and if I didn't love Babe then I might have found myself attracted to him.

I pick an apple from the box.

'Now what?' I ask.

'Well, you put that apple against the source of your pain, or of your bad thoughts. That usually works. I don't need to know details,' adding; 'best that I don't, maybe.'

I place the apple against my head. Babe shakes his head in exasperation. I place it against my heart. My womb.

'An all-rounder,' the kid comments with a cheeky smile and reaches up and takes the apple from me. He bites into the soft flesh, devours it whole in seconds. Then he wipes his mouth with a sleeve. A spit-trail hangs for a moment between mouth and wrist.

'That it?' I ask.

He nods.

He has pale blue eyes.

I feel refreshed, lightened. I smile.

'Gone,' he says, 'Forgotten, over.'

Babe butts in, breaking the spell, 'You can't absolve people,' he says. 'What if someone picks the wrong fruit?'

The tramp shrugs, 'Doesn't matter man: a moment of guilt, a lifetime of innocence.'

'What does that mean?' Babe hisses.

'Calm down, man. Choose an apple.'

Babe is taking this very seriously. He is hooked, like a rat smelling the cheese, but sensing the trap.

'What about really bad things,' he asks quietly.

'I eat all sins. Two quid.'

'But you don't care about them!'

'I don't need to know, better that I don't. Right?'

'You can't just eat your fill of evil,' Babe says, but it's more a question than a fact.

The kid shrugs and says, 'If get a bad belly, I pack in for the day.'

I am getting impatient, suddenly remembering there's a stall nearby that sells brand new parachute boots for little more than the usual second-hand price. 'Come on Babe, leave him be.' I tug his arm.

Babe ignores me and asks, 'What if someone, me for instance, comes back the next day?'

'Then you haven't learned, man. But you're welcome anyway.'

Babe chucks two coins into the tin. 'Give me an apple.'

A shake of the head. 'You choose.'

Babe picks up an apple, stares at it for a moment or two and then puts it back for a peach that is nestling in the corner. The blackest, oldest fruit in the box.

'You must do bad things,' the kid observes.

'I do,' Babe tells him.

'Put it to the source of your pain, or the evil in your heart.'

Babe rolls the soft mass in his hands, juice running out between his fingers.

'Sins come from the heart, not the hands.'

'Mine come straight from the hand,' Babe says.

'OK.' He takes the peach, tears at it with his teeth, chews it lump by lump. Devours it.

Babe chews his bottom lip, impatiently. When the fruit is gone Babe says, 'Now what?'

'All gone. Forget evil, be happy.'

'Let's go,' I say, bored by all this now. As we turn to walk away the kid says, 'see you later then, man.'

Babe looks at him, his eyes shine, and he nods.


  1. Apt title... a clearly written and
    funny tale. Babe's sin might make the sin eater sick! There could be more than one interpretation though, which is quite cleverly done.

  2. Good dialogue in this one...simple yet layered with subtle meaning. Well done.

  3. Really great dialogue. The ending left me wondering, though. Will he be back? Then the evil wasn't really eaten and he was ripped off. Why was Babe anticipating with "shining eyes"?

  4. “Who knows what evil lurks ....?” A clever and original concept with effective ambiguity.

  5. Oo, interesting idea. Tried not to be hooked but unsuccessful :)