Apparently there’s a polish proverb that states ‘When a man hurries, the devil smiles.’ I know this to be false. The Devil, or Horatio Longbottom, as he prefers to be called, is a patient individual. For a fallen angel that has spent eternity as the Commander-In-Chief of Hell, he’s mastered the art of placidity. He has anger containment problems from time to time, but so would you if hysterical, babbling minions roamed the Underworld, each one vying for authority or respect in the bowels of Hell. We have the same on Earth, of course, but we call them General Managers.
It’s not as bad as I thought, all things considered. They have an excellent amphitheatre, their bratwurst is simply exquisite, and on the weekends they round up the destitute for bowling tournaments. One team named themselves ‘The Legion of Doom’ and made T-shirts. 100% baby Seal. I never knew Hitler was such a dab hand with a needle and thread.
Sure, they have doom fortresses, gnashing skulls, spiky portcullises, pits of despair and all the death traps you could imagine, but Hell really is just like any office job – once you get into the routine of things, it becomes a tad mind numbing.
I’m Harry, by the way. If you hadn’t already guessed, I’m dead. I’m going to tell you my story of how I ended up here – not as a precautionary tale, but simply to whittle away the hours before the ‘spit-roast of death’ scheduled at 3.45pm begins.
I suppose alarm bells should have rung when I stepped onto the train at Shepherd’s Bush station and realised there wasn’t a soul onboard. It was 8.15am. Rush hour. There should have been at least sixty sad wretches in suits and hope-drained faces shoved up against the doors. It should have been crammed so far beyond its carriage size that even the most agoraphobic sardine would have pleaded for freedom just so it could jump back into its tin for some extra leg room. Or fin room.
I had a vague recollection of an incident outside the station. A cyclist nearly collided with a bus. I remembered the cyclist waving his fist frantically in the air, calling the bus driver a ‘crack addled, son of a motherless donkey whore,’ and I assumed this had something to do with the lack of people on the train. I sat down and stretched my legs in the grandest of V shapes with a self-righteous, unapologetic, impertinent gesture of crotch waving. It felt nice.
The second alarm bell should have been pounding my cranium like a sledgehammer, howling like a four-minute warning klaxon heralding the apocalypse, when a dwarf with an enormous erection got onto the train at the next station.
His trousers were bulging as if he were smuggling an elephant’s trunk into the country. It looked like he’d shoplifted a large didgeridoo and had stuffed it down his trousers to avoid a blow from Rolph Harris. My eyes glanced from his prominent swelling and I was horrified to discover that he was leering at me.
I had made a cardinal sin of the tube and locked eyes with someone. Big mistake. The social etiquette of a situation like this was to look anywhere but in front of you. Everyone knew that. I looked at the advertising poster above his seat to avert my attention.
A model wearing an itsy bitsy teeny-weeny yellow dot bikini gazed outward at me, with full pouting lips and childbearing hips. Bold capitals next to her smouldering body asked me whether I was beachwear ready. Subconsciously I sucked in my paunch. I looked at her body again, scrutinising the curvature of those hips, whilst at the same time condemning whatever marketing agency had decided to put this advertisement on the tube. I could make out beads of sweat dripping down her bronzed, Amazonian body. I looked away, afraid that I too would feel a flutter in my crotch and give the dwarf ogling me the wrong idea.
What the dwarf said next took me by surprise.
‘How does it feel to be dead, Harry?’
I raised my eyebrows in a ‘are you talking to me’ kind of way and looked around for assistance so that the mad dwarf wouldn’t hurt, or worse yet, sexually assault me.
‘It’s okay Harry,’ he said, his voice surprisingly low and mellifluous. ‘I’m Oswald. I’ll be your guide to the Underworld.’ He rose from his seat and extended his hand. In my confusion and typical sense of British stoicism, I hastily and absentmindedly jabbed my own hand forward and accidently brushed his throbbing sex truncheon. He failed to react so I stammered something about how nice it was to meet him as my face turned bright scarlet.
‘We’ll be getting off at the next stop,’ he said, matter-of-factly.
‘Umm…hang on a second…how do you know my name?’
‘Oh…well, when you died, your soul kind of found its way to us.’
‘Yeeeeaah,’ I said, ‘about that…uh…what exactly…are you talking about?’
Oswald sighed. I must have been looking at him in the same manner a zoo punter might watch a coked up orang-utan perform a wild jig in a pit enclosure; indomitably inquisitive but at the same time ready to dash out of the way in case any faeces should be flung. He considered what to say for a moment, but then deferentially took my arm and guided me to the window of the carriage.
‘What do you see?’ he said.
‘Nothing,’ I replied. ‘We’re in a tunnel.’
I looked out at the dark tunnel walls as they whirled past with the juddering motion of the train. Nothing happened at first. I felt unnerved and uncomfortable as I humoured this madman’s request. I focused my eyes. I began to feel like I was looking at one of those magic eye pictures with shapes and forms conjoining together. It was like watching a Zoetrope flicker images on the tunnel wall right in front of me. The screeching of the train built to a crescendo in my head, and then, with a simmering clarity, the shapes resembled something I recognised. I saw my crumpled body on the road outside the train station.
The train jolted and with a finger-like snap it all came back to me. Running across the road to catch the train. The cyclist nearly hurtling into me. Sidestepping to avoid going ass over tit on his handlebars. The insult he threw about the son of a motherless donkey whore was directed at me, not the bus driver. And that’s where I slipped, thinking I’d reached the curb as the bus ploughed straight into me.
A bus had killed me.
My legs turned to spaghetti. My stomach flinched, as if cattle prodded. I felt the colour of my skin turn the same shade as my toilet bowel – porcelain white with the odd streak of brown and green.
‘Don’t worry’ Oswald said, ‘you’ll get used to it in time.’
I nodded, as if somehow this all made sense.
The train juddered to a halt. Oswald fell into me and for the second time I inadvertently touched his thrumming love pump. Still nothing, as he hopped off with a Cheshire cat like grin and beckoned me to follow.
Notting Hill Gate looked significantly different. For example, I couldn’t remember a gargantuan black cloud floating ominously in the sky, spiralling and swirling frantically above the only man-made tower within eyeshot, which was located high upon a steep ridge. There was also a faint aroma of sulphur in the air.
‘This is hell, I take it?’
Oswald clapped me on the back. ‘You’re one of the quick ones, aren’t ya?’ he said, in a manner that I perceived as slightly condescending. He gave an exaggerated wink and waddled off towards the large obsidian tower. Definitely condescending. I sighed and hurried after him.
‘Listen, I guess you must get this all the time, but I think there’s been a mistake.’
Oswald laughed. ‘You’re right. I do get that all the time.’ He stuck his hand down his trousers and rearranged his tackle.
‘I’ve got a question for you,’ I said.
‘Is it about my penis?’
‘Well…it’s kind of hard to miss.’
He smirked. ‘The Boss is always playing pranks around here. He’s given me an erection that will last for seven weeks. The first couple of days were okay, but it’s really starting to chaff now.’
I opened my mouth to reply, but there was nothing I could say that would be intelligible. We continued along as the ground started to slope uphill, towards the tower. I noticed several monstrous creatures flying high in the air but Oswald didn’t pay any attention to them, so I didn’t ask any questions. About an hour into our hike the climb up the slope turned into a gruelling slog for which I wasn’t prepared. Surprisingly though, Oswald didn’t seem to be having any difficulty, even with his diminutive frame. I, on the other hand, was wheezing and spluttering like an old age pensioner that had smoked seventy cigarettes a day, for the last seventy years, with the disadvantage of only having one pathetic, shrivelled lung. And that particular respiratory organ was a reluctant sonofabitch to provide any oxygen to my bloodstream.
I was therefore relieved when Oswald stopped. Something had caught his attention in the distance up ahead. I was surprised at how far we had risen from our initial starting point. I could see a man running towards us. He was flailing his arms in the air, trying to catch our attention.
‘Hi!’ he exclaimed, his voice loud and high pitched. ‘I’m Brian.’
I opened my mouth to say hello, but retched instead.
‘New recruit, huh?’ he said. ‘Well you’re the servant of Evil now, you know that?’
Brian had wild, twitchy eyes. ‘Yeah,’ he continued, ‘you’re an insolent little maggot. Think you can be saved? Don’t answer that, it’s a rhetorical question. You can’t. You affront the LORD with your mere presence here – you are now the poisonous dribble of the death serpent!’ He cackled wildly and without warning threw himself off the crest of the mountain. As he plummeted to the ground he said something that sounded like, ‘Save me some ham in case I come baaaaaack,’ but I couldn’t be sure.
‘What…the fuck?’ I panted.
Oswald looked over the edge to see Brian’s body thrash around, hitting the side of the rocky hill many times in the process, before cartwheeling wildly again into the air and finally coming to a bone crunching stop on the solid granite far below.
‘Some people have trouble accepting that they can’t die once they’re dead.’ Oswald whispered in a pensive manner, before toddling up the hill again.
Finally we came to a spiky portcullis that slid up upon our arrival like extendable fangs. We marched forward into a courtyard and I couldn’t help but be impressed. The tower stood in front of us like a luminous monolith. A man sat behind a desk with a glum expression on his face. He was adorned with post apocalyptic-type armour. As we approached the desk, he jerked, sending his spiked helmet sliding down his forehead.
‘Name?’ he barked.
He rearranged his slanting helmet. ‘Cause of death?’
‘Motor accident.’ I replied. He jotted something down on a piece of paper. His helmet slid forward again, but he caught it with his other hand. ‘A grisly, mutilated kind of accident,’ I added.
‘Okay,’ he muttered to no one in particular. ‘Empty your pockets and proceed to wardrobe.’
I looked over at Oswald, who sashayed his hips to and fro and nodded in affirmation. I emptied my pockets. At my time of death I was carrying nothing more than my wallet, my house keys, and a Kinder Egg. Oswald limped over and picked up the chocolate egg.
‘What’s this, then?’ he asked, rolling the egg in his hands.
‘It’s three surprises in one.’
He brought it up to his ear and rattled it.
‘What’s inside?’ he asked, warily.
‘That’s one of the surprises.’
He narrowed his eyes upon the apex of the egg. ‘What are the other surprises, then?’
‘Well, it’s dark chocolate on the outside and white chocolate on the inside.’
Oswald looked at me confused. ‘But surely that’s just two surprises, then. Chocolate is chocolate.’
I shrugged my shoulders. ‘I didn’t make it.’
He considered this for a moment, then tossed the egg to me. ‘You better save that for the Boss. He likes gifts from the upper World. Might get you a better job down here, too.’
The man at the desk despondently waved us in and the great marble doors opened. I would soon meet the Devil.
A few minutes later I was led into a small room and my pre-death clothes were unceremoniously shredded. I was provided with a snazzy black robe, elegantly lined with golden thread and adorned with two gleaming columns of golden buttons. Oswald proffered a high collared black jacket with a fitted waist and built-in half cloak to fit over the robe. I’d never been one for the finer things in life, but as I ran my fingers over the fabric I found myself mumbling that you couldn’t find this type of stitching in Primark.
Oswald led me through countless hallways until we came to several spiral steps. I padded behind him in my jet-black slippers, marvelling at the paintings that decorated the walls. I don’t know why Hell garnered such a bad reputation; my experience thus far had been quite delightful.
The steps led further and further down and I lost count at three thousand and thirteen. Soon enough we came to a vast chamber filled with stone columns. There were many lit torches on the walls. Ahead was a large mahogany table, carved with ghoulish skulls. Sitting behind it was a wiry looking man with sunken eyes and thinning hair, which had been carefully combed over. He seemed to be writing in a leather-bound tome. I noted that he was wearing what appeared to be pink pyjamas. There was an ethereal vibe to this chamber so it seemed wise to speak only when spoken to.
‘Oswald, my dear boy!’ the man in the pyjamas exclaimed. ‘You brought a guest.’
Oswald stopped suddenly, semi-turned, extending his arm at me. ‘Morning bus accident,’ he said. I had been too late to stop and for the third time brushed Oswald’s raging sex piston.
The man interlaced his fingers. His eyes were clear, blue and angelic. He stared at me in silence for a moment.
‘Harry.’ He finally announced. ‘Welcome to my home.’
With surprising agility he jumped to his feet and strode around the desk. He didn’t avert his gaze from me. I felt like a Chihuahua in a rundown pet shop, ogled by a gurning old hag with a sinister intent of stroking me to death. As he drew close he offered his hand; even in the dim light it looked jaundiced, his clenched fingers like a chicken foot.
‘I’m Horatio Longbottom,’ he chirped. I took the chicken foot/hand and shook it.
‘You’re the devil?’ I asked, incredulously. I was expecting red horns or hooves, or at the least ass-less chaps. He clicked his tongue and ran his free hand through his wispy hair.
‘I’ve had so many names over the centuries,’ he began, ‘and in the end I feel that a name with a humorous surname seems to…comfort the souls here.’ He was still staring at me with those blue, azure eyes and didn’t blink. He never blinked.
‘I believe you have something for me?’ I could see Oswald in my peripheral vision miming for me to remove something from my pocket. Or at least I thought he was. There was a distinct possibility he was massaging his enflamed white snake. I remembered the Kinder egg, and fished it out of a pocket inside my robe.
Horatio’s eyes lit up like the city of Pompeii after the volcano had belched out melting hot magma. He snatched it from my grasp in the manner of a child coveting a double chocolate chip cookie.
‘Ooooooooh,’ he cooed and rolled it around in his hands, bringing it up close for inspection. We stood silent for a few minutes, until he looked up at me with a fanatical grin.
‘It certainly looks nice,’ he said, ‘but what is it?’
‘It’s a Kinder egg.’
‘Kin-dah. Surely the Egg of Kings. You do surprise me, Harry. Your records say you barely accomplished anything of merit within your life, but here you present to me a gift fit for angels.’ He tapped it with one of his nails and began to peel off the wrapper.
‘Umm. Right. It’s three surprises in one. Apparently.’
He pursed his lips and let out a small squeal of pleasure.
‘And what…are…the three surprises,’ he said, starting to pant. I was unnerved by his heightened pleasure.
‘Well, it’s chocolate on the outside…’ I began, but upon hearing the word ‘chocolate’ he deftly lobbed the egg into his mouth. There was a faint crunch as he bit into the small shell of whatever toy would now never see the light of day.
‘I didn’t expect it to be crunchy,’ he said, after swallowing the entire egg. ‘Or to taste like plastic.’
I shrugged my shoulders. ‘Listen,’ I said finally, ‘I was telling Oswald that I think there’s been a mistake.’
‘Yes. I haven’t killed anyone. I’ve never performed any sexual acts with an animal. I don’t think I should be in hell.’
Horatio put his arm round my shoulder and lead me down the chamber. He waved dismissively at Oswald who promptly turned and took his leave.
‘I’m afraid,’ he began, ‘what you’ve been led to believe about Heaven and Hell in the Upper World isn’t exactly what the reality is. Intelligence for these type of things is a complex instinct which hasn’t fully yet matured. I think mankind may be able to solve it in the next hundred years or so, with any luck. I don’t know, just blame it on the God Hypothesis.’
‘The God Hypothesis!’ Horatio bellowed, slapping his hands together. ‘It basically means,’ he continued, ‘that mankind has an unparalleled understanding of absolutely everything whilst knowing virtually nothing. That is His gift to you.’ He cackled loudly and the walls reverberated to his laughter. I assumed he had practised for a long time to achieve the correct pitch for this effect – maybe even the best part of a few years in villainy school to master that laugh.
Horatio roared again. ‘Ignorance…yes. Or maybe there’s simply no room up there,’ he said, pointing to the high stone ceiling. ‘Maybe you farted in a lift once, which had dire consequences for the next person who entered it. Maybe you you’ve done nothing with your life and someone, somewhere, knew you never would. Or maybe,’ he said, leaning into my ear, ‘maybe this is the only afterlife anyone will ever know.’
We had moved from the large chamber into a narrow tunnel, and without warning, he slapped me hard across the face.
‘If you want to try and understand,’ he said didactically, ‘imagine Hell as the David Lynch and Salvador Dali lovechild of surrealism. Just think of that lovechild as having seven arms, an elongated beak for a nose who answered ‘flip-flop mackerel’ to everything you asked.’ He ushered me through an archway. We were standing in a small cell-like room. There was a large hole in the floor. At the far end of the chamber was another doorway leading into another room, but I couldn’t see what lay beyond the entrance as it was currently engulfed with flames that seemed to be flourishing viciously.
‘Call it an initiation,’ he said, staring at me with those cold blue eyes. ‘You can choose to jump into the hole of uncertainty, or walk through the flames of burning-toastiness.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
Horatio shrugged. ‘Funsies, I guess.’
There was an audible click from behind us. I turned to see Brian reattaching his jaw back into its socket.
‘I shall swallow the tears of sin!’ Brian hollered, once his mouth was able to move again. Horatio groaned.
‘Brian,’ Horatio said facetiously, ‘I thought you left to find salvation…or something.’
‘The pale horse has been saddled’ Brian said, brushing past me, ‘and I have put my holy foot in its stirrup.’ I noticed several bones protruding from stumps that used to be his legs. ‘You,’ he said, waggling his finger at Horatio, ‘you…foul beast. You…licker of nipples…you shall not deter me from my true calling. For the LORD calls me unto his light.’
Horatio sighed. ‘He does, does he? And what does he ask of you, Brian?’
Brian flapped his arms in the air, as if wasps were attacking him. I thought it all a little too dramatic, but Brian didn’t seem shaken from his convictions. ‘He asks me to dance on your baubles! That’s right! The LORD has asked me to smite you with righteous vengeance and rid this den of heresy. The pale horse whinnies with each passing moment I remain in this wretched abomination.’ And with that he walked through the entranceway and into the flames.
‘If I come back this time save me some haAAAAAAAIIIIIIEEEEE!’ He screamed as the flames consumed his body.
Horatio shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t mind so much, but I think he actually gets off on this type of thing.’
I exhaled. ‘So I guess I’m stuck here, then.’
‘’Fraid so, old sport.’
I looked down at the hole of uncertainty.
‘What’s down there?’
‘I’m uncertain,’ Horatio said. ‘Cake, maybe.’
I nodded. Taking a few steps forward, I closed my eyes. It was true what he had said earlier; I hadn’t accomplished much with my time on Earth. I’d left school with nine GCSE’s and three A-Levels, thinking that they would mean something. They didn’t. University came and went in a drunken haze and then I’d taken up a nine to five job in a processing factory. I’d fallen in and out of love twice. I’d spent five months travelling the world only to come back to London feeling jaded and lonely. I’d thought about purchasing a house but realised I didn’t have the means to do so. I played far too many video games, watched far too many films, and read far too many books. I never escaped the monotony of my own existence. Maybe it had taken death for me to realise that, in the end, it didn’t really matter. None of it did.
I stepped off and into the void.
Horatio was right. There was cake at the bottom.
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Photo by Tomek Dzido