Aaron was enjoying his meal. The restaurant was of course exclusive and hugely expensive. Unlike many of his peers he still appreciated this simple, unarguable fact. He hadn’t lost touch with his roots and the values with which he’d been brought up still informed his life. Having said that he could hardly pop into MacDonald’s for a fillet o’ fish and fries now could he? He smiled at the thought. Apart from the fact that the nutritionists at the club would have a mild fit at the thought such was his celebrity these days that exclusivity was a necessary evil rather than a lifestyle choice.
The Arsenal Captain had just enjoyed another highly successful season and like the rest of the squad he was kicking back a little during the close season. He had plenty of commitments of course, as an ambassador for the club he had always thrown himself into his off field work. He remembered back in 2013, the one the papers now referred to as his ‘breakthrough season’, he’d gone on a trip to Kenya with his Mum and girlfriend. Word had got out and the holiday had turned into a huge shirt signing session. He hadn’t minded. When you represented The Arsenal you represented far more than a football club, you represented a history, a tradition and how you carried yourself on and off the pitch mattered. It was he reflected why he’d chosen them over the red half of Manchester when he was just a boy.
He thought back to his boyhood. He’d always dreamed he’d one day lead out the Wales rugby union team in Cardiff. Football had been very much a secondary consideration back then. How differently things may have turned out. He smiled at the thought and shook his head. Caerphilly seemed an awfully long time ago, but as nice as this roast turbot with leaf chicory & cockle ketchup was he would have been just as happy sitting on the grass in the shadow of the old ruined castle eating cod and chips from the Picadilly Fish Bar.
He reached for his glass but before he could pick it up a sudden spluttering spasm dragged his hand to his mouth. As the coughing fit turned to choking his fingers slipped down reaching for his throat. He fought for breath, motes of light danced and popped in his vision and his head began to swim, his thoughts sliding away from him. He was vaguely aware of frightened panic in the voices of other diners but they seemed to come from too far away. Later he’d have no memory of grabbing the corner of the table cloth as he slid from his chair, nor the ecstatic cascade of food, cutlery, glass and china that cartwheeled in silence around him as the heavily carpeted floor swayed up to meet him.
The street was dark and cold, wisps of damp mist slunk low across the shining pavements and Aaron shivered as he wished he’d worn more than a light jacket. But hadn’t it been a balmy, summer evening when he’d set out for the restaurant? His thoughts and recent memories were oddly amorphous and intangible. Something wasn’t right but like a man waking and trying to clutch at details of a dream that stayed tantalisingly out of reach and burst to nothing when he came close to grasping them, he couldn’t piece together where he was nor how he’d arrived here.
” Come this way” the voice was close to his ear but he felt no breath on his face nor the presence of the speaker. He allowed himself to be steered into a doorway and down uneven, ancient looking worn stone steps away from the dank street and down in a spiral to where at last a faint warmth rose up. The temperature climbed as he descended and he wanted to ask the voice where they were going, how had they come to be here and why but some compulsion beyond his control drove him steadily downwards as if invisible, intangible hands were in his back, remorseless, implacable. Time seemed to lose meaning as the stairs wound on and on down and down but the welcome warmth of which he’d first been so glad was now more like an open furnace; a burning in the air which made his breath come in dry ragged gasps and caused sweat to run down his face and neck.
“We are here” and no sooner had the voice spoken than the steps ended and he stumbled to a halt. He held a hand above his face instinctively trying to shield his eyes from the sudden brightness, the unbearable heat, but it was no use. The light was all around him leaping and snarling in a wall of flames which danced and spat on a roiling river of fire. Impossible he thought. Impossible for a river to burn and impossible for me to stand this close to it and not disappear, instantly, like a dry leaf in a lava flow. The boat which awaited him on the bank of the burning water seemed real enough, and yet how could it survive the hundred foot high flames which roared and flared about it? But those irresistible hands once more propelled him forwards and with every fibre of his body screaming at the danger, the impossibility and the sheer folly of stepping into this flimsy wooden craft onto such a river, he walked to the shore and stepped into the boat.
He seemed to slip in and out of consciousness for minutes, years, seconds, whole lifetimes – he could not tell. Time had no meaning here and his travels across the river and down through the strange terrifying lands on the opposite bank would take longer to tell than can be accomplished in these few pages. During this journey he witnessed many cruel torments, people being savagely used in ways which made his distaste for the movie ‘Saw’ pale by comparison. Everywhere he was taken he was surrounded by the sounds of souls in a never ending howl of agony, a death rattle drawn out over centuries and raised up into a symphonic cacophony of suffering. At last, exhausted and with his mind so bruised by the hideous visions of torture and merciless barbarism he came to a huge door. Impossibly high, studded with iron bolts the size of a man’s fist, it was set into a wall that stretched beyond the limits of his sight.
“What now?” he asked the voice. But as ever he received no answer. “I’ve worked it out you know. I know where I am. I don’t know why I’m here, I don’t care any more I just want it to stop.” Even as his words died in the anhydrous air he flinched at a massive deafening roar which filled this awful world and through the high whining of his battered eardrums resolved itself into speech.
“Who is this and why have you brought him to me Virgil?”
The invisible voice which had brought him here answered with, for the first time, a hint of emotion and that emotion was fear.
“A soul master. A human soul for your pleasure, master”
The enormous voice, more like the noise of a hurricane than anything produced by a living throat silenced Aaron’s invisible companion
“But this one is not dead. And he is not destined for this place.”
Despite these words the great doors opened with a heavy, imponderable slowness and Aaron passed through and into a scene so degraded and so vile that even his beaten and abused senses reeled. I shall not describe in detail the acts of carnal brutality that the souls in the pit before him were carrying out upon each other, nor the diabolical and depraved tortures being played out upon them by fiendish misshapen creatures he saw silhouetted against the firelight but he instinctively knew that these were far worse than any human mind could devise, and worse than any he had yet seen in this blighted land. Tearing his eyes from the suffering before him Aaron became aware of a small suited human figure standing a few feet away and holding a clipboard. He nearly laughed aloud at the mundane incongruity of the man who appeared distracted, irritated. “No no no, this is not right” he was muttering to himself.
“Why am I here?” Aaron asked again.
“That’s it, precisely! Why? Why are you?” the man asked without looking up. “You’re in the right place but you shouldn’t be here, come, look.” With that he wandered to a row of barred cells set into the great wall and overlooking the pit. The line stretched into the distance and out of sight, some were open and empty their occupants presumably down there, the playthings of demoniac sadism some held moaning wretched figures of men while others had not yet been occupied.
“No no no” repeated the little man flicking through pages and shaking his head. “This is the right place, this is footballers but you are not on my list” He said this as if, despite the evidence all around them, there were no greater crime, then for the first time he looked up and gestured above the three cells immediately in front of them. Aaron followed his gaze and saw that the empty cages had crude signs with letters burned into them. His breath caught in his throat as he heard the man say “These are the next three we are expecting in this area and none of them are you, no no no” but it wasn’t the words he heard that stopped his breathing, it was the names he read there above the torture cells. Names he recognised. Names he knew well.
Adabayor. Nasri. Van Persie.
Even as his mind reeled he was aware of a curious disturbance in the air and a different voice drifted to him. An old dry voice, a small dusty and yet somehow sweet voice. It was arguing, hectoring and although slight and tremulous was holding it’s ground against the all pervading roar of the master of this domain.
“Well we didn’t make the mistake so don’t adopt that tone with me. I’ve been sent here to bring him back and that’s what I’m going to do” and despite the frailty of this new voice there was an implacable strength there which would not be denied. A short man, dressed improbably in a floor length white robe appeared before him and said “Now Aaron, I’m sorry about all this, there has been a dreadful mistake. My name is Clarence and I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be saving a man called George who at this very moment is shivering in front of a stove after jumping from a bridge into an icy river to save me, anyway that’s another story the point is I’ve popped in to well, to take you away, take you, um,. up as it were, you’re in the wrong place you see” the man’s voice babbled away happily and he reached out and took Aaron’s hand.
At the very moment their fingers touched, the inferno, the pit, the screams and moans simply popped out of existence and they seemed to be flying upwards through clear, clean air at a terrifying speed. “Don’t be alarmed Aaron, you are going somewhere far nicer.Yes yes, much much nicer by far” the man reassured him. Then he cocked his head to one side as if listening to a voice only he could hear “What’s that? He isn’t coming with us either? Oh my, this is such a mess. Well if you say so Joseph” and with that Clarence let go of his hand and wrapped his arms around Aaron’s stomach and squeezed so hard in a grip of which the little man in the nightshirt should never have been capable.
Aaron blacked out. Just momentarily. The force of the arms around his torso seemed to cause something to burst inside him and suddenly, with an explosive cough he felt something fly from his mouth. Something that tasted of cockles and turbot and chicory. As he opened his eyes and drew in a huge shuddering breath the people in the restaurant seemed to wake from a trance and broke into a cheering rattle of applause. He was sat on the carpet surrounded by broken crockery. A men knelt behind him and was unclasping his hands from his chest. “Now young man he said,” his voice old and unsteady and close to Aaron’s ear so that no one else could hear “I want you to do two things. One, help me up to my feet, my knees aren’t what they used to be, and two get to a telephone, call your agent and tell him to tell anyone who comes asking about you that you don’t care how much they offer, you are not going anywhere. Right?”
Aaron blew out his breath , dazed, and shaking slightly he managed to respond. “OK, ok Clarence, too bloody right. I’m not going anywhere.”