…the condition or the place of suffering which is not too hot and not too cold – so it’s just right
“Hell is other people.”
Smith had delivered this quotation to Oscar a few weeks ago. And Oscar had recognised it when he heard it then. The brief sentence recalled something from his past – but this something was too vague to form a coherent memory. It was more like a flavour or a smell – a scent of something he had said or heard or done or suffered or witnessed or ran away from in the past. It wasn’t a painful memory, what was there of it, it was nothing but an echo – he had heard that quotation before, either coming out of his own mouth or that of another, and whether or not he agreed with it, then or now, he couldn’t decide, he had never thought of it as something to agree or disagree with.
What it was about other people that made them hell-like, Oscar couldn’t have said. Not that Oscar found other people anything but hellish. But you can always walk away from them if they are that repulsive. Unless you are in a situation where that isn’t possible – perhaps trapped down a well with an unrelenting bore, or handcuffed to someone with regrettable personal hygiene, or being a Siamese twin to a complete bastard – are such situations the stuff of hell? Surely to be truly hellish, these situations lacked a dimension or two, lacked a certain hellish quality – such as physical pain. Was physical pain an essential ingredient of the hellish experience? Or was mental torture sufficient in itself? Was more than one person required? Does “other people” mean all people or a certain portion of them? Can there be degrees of hell just as there are degrees of bores, body odours and bastards?
Oscar was confusing himself now. But he may as well. He had nothing to do but look about him. And the bulbous features and straggly hair of his fellow waiting room occupants had little to retain his interest. He shied away from imagining what horrible flesh wasting diseases and rotting organs provided them with sufficient motivation to visit the doctor – such thoughts are worse than no thoughts. The twelve posters on the wall, each focusing on one or other way you could avoid illness or personal injury, had been read with at least some interest and led to one or two idle streams of thought, streams of thought which ran out of steam, or out if water, after a minute or two. The idea that steam was water, but only in another form, flitted past Oscar’s conscious mind, but couldn’t have been said to occupy any time or space. The rain spattering the window didn’t appeal to Oscar as a means of occupying his thoughts – he didn’t feel like feeling sorry for himself. So getting back to confusion, which was preferable to boredom. But there wasn’t much in it… between the two.
The person sitting next to Oscar, a man in his forties, fifties or sixties, chose this moment to have a ferocious coughing fit, which shook trough his obese body and sprayed the back of the coat of the young obese woman sitting in front of him. Oscar’s proximity to this event provided yet more raw data to back up Smith’s claim that hell was in fact “other people”. But as hell is, by definition, a place of extremes, of infinite pain and torture, there would have to be an infinite number of these obese coughing and spluttering poor people, all coughing and spluttering in unison, (or would a lack of harmony be more in keeping with hell?), covering the walls and ceiling of the hellish underworld as well as all of the other obese poor people in thick green phlegm.
So hell would have to be an infinity of other people. A concept which was meaningless because it was inconceivable – Oscar certainly couldn’t conceive of an infinity of people, never mind an infinite number of the person sitting beside him, extending into the distance without end, the walls covered in layer upon layer of dried mucus and the obese young woman in front drowned and now submerged in a lake of bubbling blood, phlegm and mucus… but even this wasn’t infinite… you can’t have an infinite lake of mucus, unless it is bottomless, or boundless.
So this isn’t hell, Oscar reassured himself. And as the next number was called out – “number 23” echoed from behind a screen – Oscar comforted himself with the idea that the end was in sight, that number 31 wasn’t too far away.
“You got a tissue pal?” the obese man beside him whispered and spat and dribbled at Oscar, glossy threads of snot and spit linking his nose, left cheek, lower lip, first, second and third chin with a mucus soaked navy jumper.
“No I don’t.” Oscar couldn’t help sounding offended, but didn’t turn away in disgust, owing to a feeling of humanity which called out from a distance.
But the feeling of humanity was weak, as could be seen from Oscar’s reaction when, five minutes later, just after number 24 was called out, the very same man slid to the floor and lay there in an inert heap. In reply, Oscar turned the other way, picked up a tattered women’s magazine and held it close to his face, actually engineering some interest in an article on irritable bowel syndrome, his concentration upon which was interspersed with one or two thoughts concerning other people – how they weren’t all that bad, each to their own, live and let live – and which evaporated completely, his concentration on the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, on arriving at the thought that if this dead man on the floor to his left was any number below 31, Oscar’s number, then this other person could indeed prove to be a damn inconvenience if not something worse.
“Oh my god – he’s dead!”
“Someone do something.”
Even though the man wasn’t dead – “he’s sleeping” was the doctor’s diagnosis – he proved to be quite a distraction, an event, an occasion for numbers 25 up to 31 and beyond. It was the kind of event – someone appearing to die, but only really falling asleep – which brought people together. Oscar stood back when he witnessed this taking place – this bringing together of people, of strangers, of people nothing like him. Oscar didn’t wish to be brought together with any of these people. He would keep his distance – he knocked over a chair as he edged away. He didn’t want to be part of this whatever-it-was, having these people as life long friends, being called by them in the middle of the night when their cats have kittens, having them as godparents to his children, joining them for picnics in the park, popping around for tea or coffee, knowing how many sugars they all took, hearing about their wayward children, addictions to fatty foods, fears of the dark, failure and change, sharing a slice of buttered toast.
These were just the kinds of things populating a variety of hell, some duller version of it, Oscar now thought. Because, despite their plastic shopping bags, stained tracksuit bottoms and dripping mucus, these people didn’t have the wherewithal to fill the blazing caverns of hell.