It was only after death that I realised the London underground was modelled after Hell.
The air was stagnant with dust and the nostril-clenching tang of BO, everywhere a sea of unsmiling faces and bodies–every size, every age, every religion.
I joined the long queues of recently deceased and peered at the labyrinthine map on the wall, a spaghetti plate of coloured lines and odd names.
“The map’s useless,” a man beside me said, his hot breath sticky against my cheek. “Last updated a thousand years ago.”
The crowd carried us forward three miserly steps before coming to a standstill. “Some nitwit took the zones off the map,” he continued. “No way to tell what circle of hell each stop is in. Imagine, you’re meant to be in the first and end up in the very middle with old Luke for company.”
I turned my head just enough to see him. My neighbour was dour-faced, saggy-cheeked. His ears leaned away from his head in a bid for freedom.
“You’re new,” he said. “I can tell. Not miserable enough.”
“Yeah.” Somehow I’d expected my voice to sound different in death. Instead it was the same, disappointingly high-pitched. Another few steps forward, the crowd pressing in as the tunnel narrowed. The forced intimacy sustained our conversation. “Have you been queuing long?”
“Years.” He twitched his shoulder in a restricted shrug. “Feels like it, anyway. Hard to tell down here.” The crowd pushed us from behind. Through a gap in the bodies I saw the end of the queue, a row of burly ticket inspectors calling for tickets. “Every time I get to the barriers, I pretend I’ve lost my ticket,” my neighbour continued. “Then you’re sent to the main office–takes ages. Then to the back of the queue. Then do it all over again. This if my fourth time.”
I put my hand in my pocket. My fingers touched the familiar plastic edges of my travel card. In the dim light, it looked the same as ever.
“Break it,” he said, miming the action. “Get a paper ticket. Then you know where you’re going.” He flashed his ticket at me, obscuring the writing with his thumb. “I know where they’re sending me,” he said, “and I figure sticking around here in purgatory’s better than going there.”
Every ounce of English propriety in me rebelled. “Isn’t that illegal?”
“It’s straight to ninth if they catch you,” he said. “But that’s only if they catch you.” A sly wink. “Just the once. Get the paper ticket, find out where in Hell you’re going. Aren’t you tempted?”
We weren’t far from the barriers now. The ticket inspectors were calling people forward, asking for tickets, in all appearances normal men on the job. Then one of them looked up. His eyes were solid black, soulless pits that drained the last remnants of life out of me. For a moment my vision blurred. I saw scaled wings tear free, the skin of his face melting into a misshapen, inhuman blur, a forked tongue tasting the air. When I blinked the vision was gone.
“I’m… I think I’m in the wrong queue,” I said to my neighbour, swallowing bile. Only four people were ahead of me. “There’s been a mistake. I’m going to Heaven.”
“Heaven?” He cackled, his laughter so loud it sent ripples of unease through the waiting crowd. “Heaven?” he repeated, shaking his head. “You sure?”
“Of course. I’ve been baptised, christened… even got my last rites.” I was now third in the queue, close to hyperventilating. Did I dare to snap my travel card? I turned to my neighbour, held up the card. “Please, help – what do I do?”
“Hm.” He scratched his cheek, running his fingers over a scar at the corner of his eye. “Even if you’re not going to Heaven, it’s bound to be better than where I’m going.”
“Tickets, please!” the inspectors called. Only one person ahead of me.
“Tell you what,” my neighbour said. “Let’s do swapsies.”
He grabbed my travel card, pushed his paper ticket into my hand, and then shoved me, hard, before I could react.
“Tickets, please,” the inspector said to me, pulling the ticket from my numb fingertips. He handed it back with a sharp, fanged smile. “Straight ahead,” he said. “The ninth circle.”