A Visitor's Guide to HellHeather Douglass / Fantasy / Humor
r's Guide To Hell
A short story published by Heather Douglass
Copyright 2012 Heather Douglass
Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
A VISITOR’S GUIDE TO HELL
“Such a lovely coach station,” Auntie Beryl said. But then, she would.
Auntie Beryl had abnormal tolerance levels. Most people would struggle to admire the place we stood: a lightless, concrete wind tunnel whose seats had been rained on, where the only olfactory relief from diesel fumes was the smell of pee.
It was my turn to go with her on holiday. Family obligation--Auntie would otherwise inflict herself on us at home. Though I often wondered if this weren't the better option, because she chose such god-awful destinations. She once spent a fortnight in Somalia with my mother, but only Beryl took any pictures. And she had one arm in a sling.
This year she put herself in the hands of St. Mungo's Friendly Society, a cheery group of retirees according to her, who had organized a day trip. Destination? I asked, but Beryl said she forgot to write it down.
When our coach arrived, screamed to a halt in front of us, Auntie admired it. I noticed rust, bald tires, and a sound like copulating cutlery coming from the hood.
We had some delay boarding. The woman first in line seemed reluctant to get on; she had to be coaxed by her fellow passengers. Then one by one, they started to react the same way. I couldn’t make out what the problem was until I had helped Auntie climb the steps. As she handed her ticket to the driver he smiled, displaying his fangs. When it came my turn, he looked me deep in the eyes, and draped his long, red tail across his lap.
Somewhere during the eternity I spent abducted by that stare, Auntie Beryl took our bags down the aisle, located our seats, folded her raincoat neatly and stowed it in the overhead rack.
“Auntie,” I said when I finally joined her, “where are we going?”
“Burnley,” she replied.
“Well, I’m sure that’s what Cyril said. It sounded like that--Burn-something.” I closed my eyes and sank into my seat, which would have been a figure of speech had any springs lurked in the upholstery.
For ages we drove in darkness, though we left the station at 9 am. I didn’t mention this to Auntie, because she seemed happy to pass the time counting potholes in the road. Potholes burning sulfur. Studying other passengers’ faces, they seemed at best apprehensive. But not one said a word. Thirty-four silver haired, plucky children of the Blitz sat clutching umbrellas they probably began to suspect they wouldn’t need.
Finally, we arrived at The Gates. Black, cast iron, twenty foot wide by sixty foot high with a motif of serpents winding round serpents winding round dismembered human torsos. And in each serpent’s mouth a letter of the alphabet, spelling from left to right:- Abandon All Hope.
“My God, Auntie,” I said. The driver caught my eye in his rear view mirror and leered.
“Sorry love,” she replied, “what did you say? Only I was admiring the view from the window, that lovely sky. Look at those colors.”
The horizon beyond The Gates was on fire.
A three-headed dog in black overalls crawled out from a pothole and loped towards The Gates. He released the giant padlock, drew back the doors and waved us on. All three heads snarled as we passed. Auntie Beryl was checking her lipstick in a hand mirror.
I decided to excuse myself and have a word with Cyril, St. Mungo's president, and the brains behind the event. He sat near the emergency exit. He had more skull than his skin could properly cope with, save for a surplus under his eyes. No hard hitting questions were needed to make him admit the truth. Twelve years at St. Mungo's taught him this one great truth: that all outings were complained about before they started, even by the members who voted for the destination. So, because they had repeatedly made his job hell…
I returned to my seat, and remarked to Auntie Beryl what a charming man the president was. She agreed.
Our first stop was a car park. Not much in itself, but it seemed to have attracted a large number of black leathered bikers. Dozens of polarized lenses followed the progress of our vehicle, until the brakes shrieked and a low-level exhaust cloud spewed out the back. Then we couldn't see a thing. The whole area was engulfed in blue fog.
“Right everyone,” Cyril shouted, “off the coach!” The response was subdued but dutiful. I insisted on going ahead of Auntie, just in case. Though I could hardly make out the woman in front of me, I did hear her. First there was a scream, and then noises made as if from under a gloved hand. Auntie was chatting with Cyril as they came down the steps.
“Was that Emily?” he asked me. “Splendid.”
The haze eventually thinned. So did the car park, because we saw the bikers had vanished. We remained a suspiciously smaller group, huddled at the rear of the coach.
“We have an hour here in Hades on the Hill,” Cyril announced, “before we take lunch at the World Food Festival in Nether Foul. Please remember your day passes for admission to the sites, and please be back on the coach no later than 12:30.”
I looked at our newly cleared surroundings, and tried to imagine anyone lingering beyond the deadline. Across the road were several marquees. The nearest had this banner over the entrance: 2011 ROAD KILL TAXIDERMY EXHIBITION. And further back there was another tent advertising novelty body piercing with kitchen utensils.
Auntie Beryl did it all with gusto. She went in every marquee, particularly admired the stuffed rabbits (glass eyes capturing that headlight stricken terror of their last moments). She bought Cyril a gift, a bird’s wing, separated from the bird by force of impact.
In our wanderings we lost track of the others, and returned to the coach to find more empty seats. While Auntie asked the driver if she could use his mirror to check her hair, Cyril made enquiries, and I overheard details of a spatula piercing gone badly wrong, an experiment with salad tongs and a gentleman who crossed the road just in time for the reappearance of the phantom bikers. Twenty minutes later, he was an exhibit.
Cyril seemed satisfied. The coach started up and took us to Nether Foul, which turned out to be a fairly decent place for Hell. There were children playing on swings in a park--headless children, granted. And the main street had an assortment of darling little shops, catering to the specialized needs of deep-sea anglers, obese gymnasts, amateur neurosurgeons and ghostwriters for the dead.
As the coach turned, I saw the peaceful village green where a game of cricket was underway. That did turn my stomach. Knowing lunch was imminent, I forced myself to stare at the floor until the nausea went away.
The Food Festival looked like it might make the day worthwhile. A stretch of parkland had been transformed by an assortment of decorated stalls, servers in ethnic costume, gingham covered picnic tables. Fabulous fragrances fought each other for a monopoly on our noses. I worried I might really enjoy myself.
Once Cyril offloaded us, we were told to split up and bring back a variety of food. “Then we’ll pass the plates around,” he said, “and everyone tries a bit of everything.”
This didn’t go down well. I could see the grey heads shaking, heard mutters of 'foreign muck’. Even Auntie Beryl seemed unhappy, but when it comes to food everything I said about her tolerance levels does not apply. Auntie could write the Ergon Ronay guide to department store cafeterias, which is another reason why holidays with her are tough.
But she was willing to make sacrifices for Cyril's sake, and marched away in the direction of the Afghan takeaway. For myself, I could see a stall where the cooks dressed in kimonos. I could smell sesame oil. I imagined king prawn tempura and sweet potato pancakes draining on racks. By the time I arrived I had eaten a full meal in my head, sashimi with pickled ginger, glassy rice noodles, sake.
A smiling geisha took my order. Seconds later a steaming plate was passed to me over the counter. I stood looking at the contents for some time until their reality registered, item by item. Green peas, boiled to the wrinkly stage and petrified by a heat lamp. Spongy chips. A meat pie collapsed under the weight of its own gravy.
“Salt and vinegar?” the geisha asked. All I could do was stare at her.
But I consoled myself on the way back to our table. At least I had food that insular English palates would like. In fact, my plate would probably be the most coveted, and if I played my cards right I could trade it for something exotic.
Auntie Beryl beamed when I sat down opposite. “I’m glad I went where I did. The Afghans have lovely food!”
I looked at her plate. “Auntie, they’ve given you sausages. And mash made from dehydrated potatoes.” Then the penny dropped. I looked across the table and saw Cyril sprinkling salt on his Cuban fish fingers.
“Isn’t it odd,” Auntie remarked, opening her serving sized packet of Afghani brown sauce, “I would have expected terrible food in Hell, wouldn’t you?”
At least it came as no surprise that Hell would have salmonella. As lunch continued, four of our entourage disappeared into the toilet blocks and were never seen again. But we couldn’t wait for them, Cyril said. The coach collected what was left of us and drove south out of Nether Foul to the banks of the river Styx, where we were scheduled to take a cruise.
By now you can imagine the weather beaten sink that waited for us, piloted by one mute oarsman whose face remained concealed by his hood. We squeezed onto the vessel, weighted it down until the river came within inches of pouring in after us. The water reminded me of mushroom soup, including the simmer.
The boat took us a few miles downstream and docked near a place Cyril referred to as a heritage property. Until that point I hadn’t been aware the definition extended to caves. A five-piece band of assorted trolls stood on a pile of rubble, playing Benny Goodman. This was our tea dance.
Not that I saw any tea. But they had provided a number of companions to act as partners for the recently bereaved. I quite liked one named Enrique, who wore a white tuxedo and whiter smile. But of course, I had to dance with Auntie.
Auntie Beryl has been known to fill casualty wards just trying to cha cha. It surprised me we didn’t collide with anyone during the first few numbers. But with each tour of the floor, it seemed the other dancers had moved deeper into the cave, where darkness made it hard to distinguish them. Lucky people, I thought, imagining myself with Mr. Latino White Tuxedo. At least they had a need for privacy.
But when the last number finished and we applauded the band, I looked round and saw not a living soul in the cave except for the two us, and Cyril.
So we boarded the coach, and sat close behind the driver with all the empty seats to our backs. Cyril said nothing during the return trip, nothing when the driver pulled up once again outside The Gates. The three headed dog knocked on the windscreen, indicating to the driver that he wanted to come aboard. The doors hissed open.
“Passports, please,” the dog snarled.
Auntie and I looked at each other.
“Passports?” I asked the dog.
“Passports. You must have a passport to get out of Hell.”
“But we were never tol—“
I shot a look at Cyril, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes. Instead he reached into the breast pocket of his sports jacket, and coolly handed his document to the dog. Auntie actually got worried enough to twist her handbag strap.
“Cyril,” she pleaded, “can’t you do something for us?”
He wouldn’t answer; his eyes were fixed on the dog. All three heads read the pages of his passport, and all three heads nodded.
“Everything appears in order,” it said, and pulling a pen from its overall pocket, it scribbled on one of the pages. Then it handed the passport to me.
“You and your aunt are free to leave.”
My mouth dropped open. Cyril sprang to his feet.
“What do you mean?!” he said, “that was mine!!”
He grabbed the book from me, and rifled through the pages.
“Mine, I tell you!! It has my photograph, my—“
Then he stopped. He brought the passport right up to his bifocals, and his hands began to shake.
“No…,” he whimpered, “...no…”
The dog slowly shook its heads. “Ah, he's overcome with gratitude.”
Cyril could not blink. His skin had stretched so tight I thought he might lose his eyeballs. A drop of spittle hung from his lower lip. The dog’s six eyes burned red.
“We watch these things, you know. Imagine, a talent like yours for planned human suffering, wasted at St. Mungo's And since you happened to be visiting…,”
The coach driver gave us his most winning grimace.
“We really couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”
From the other pocket of its overall, the dog produced a long chain with ankle cuffs and clamped Cyril’s legs. Then we watched them leave the coach. They walked over the pothole strewn ground until they reached the lip of a large, boiling abyss. Out of pity, I looked away. Out of spite, the coach driver laughed. He revved the engine until another dog appeared, opened The Gates and let us through.
“That was very kind of Cyril,” Auntie said, blotting a tear from her eye, “always looking out for people.”
“Auntie,” I began, then left off. What could I say?
I thought of nothing until the coach returned us to the concrete wind tunnel, and left us on the tarmac where it was midnight cold and dark. A drunk lay asleep under one of the benches.
“Auntie,” I said, “this is a lovely coach station.”
“Just what I said,” she replied.