Authors: Dave Freer
I was writing exams with the Devil. There was a special rightness about this because exams have always been my worst form of Hell-on-Earth. My mind is usually my friend. My only friend, to be honest, which was not something I'd usually spent much time being. In examination halls it deserted me. All I had there was Grandma. She'd tan my tail end if I did less than perfectly. And although I'd only lived with her for six months -- between when Pa had taken the rope necktie and the old woman got out of jail -- it had had a marked effect on me. On my hide too. I'd been nine years old, and never done a stroke of schoolwork before. I did learn then, by the strokes. I mean, Pa had beaten me. Usually when he was drunk, sometimes just because he was irritable. But hers had been a-laid on with direction, and I'd followed it, even after Social Services had taken me into care after she collapsed in the street. It was appropriate that I was writing an exam on fishing, because that was all else I'd learned from her. She died a few months later, so she never had a chance to see what direction those hidings had taken me.
It struck me as a little odd that I was ten years old. I could somehow remember finishing my LLB,
summa cum laude
, and many, many exams on the way to there and becoming a beefy man. But this was the same skinny underfed, brat I'd been then. A scrawny rat with arms like matchsticks and legs to match.
The Devil leaned over me. He smiled. His teeth were sharp. "I'll have to accompany you to the toilets. My assistants will make sure there is no... cheating." There was naked fear on the faces of other examinees. To my surprise, I saw that the one sitting next to me was Grandma, but then I was shepherded away by the Devil. Away from the endless rows of desks watched by clocks and devils, to a vast stench-place of fetid pools of sewage spun with flies and writhing with maggots. And screaming. Distant but agonised. The Devil looked at my expression and laughed. "This is Hell, yes. Did you expect neat stalls? Although there are some of those somewhere, complete with sodomy and syringes. Hell is infinite and tailored."
Yes, I realized, this was Hell. And yet...this more traditional version of the dung pits was, to me, preferable to an eternity in the one I had come from.
"I assume you want to make me an offer. If you are going to pass that exam you'll need my help."
Help from the Devil in Hell? "There is always a price, isn't there?" I asked, knowing the answer.
"Oh yes. But you would know that. There was always a price for your helping murderers, thieves and rapists, wasn't there? Your profession and mine are remarkably alike. We work for a reward."
"They had a right to fair representation."
He chuckled. "Indeed. But what did that have to do with it?"
"Very little, I suppose."
The reply displeased him. I always noticed tiny things about people's expressions, and despite the horns and red skin I could read him too. It had been useful in misleading jurors, and in assessing judges. I wondered about the Devil's motive... but then he was the father of lies, by repute. "I thought you were just doing your job. Doing your best for your client," he said, supplying the standard answers.
I remembered fishing on the rocks with Grandma. Food was scarce and tackle cost money. But she always caught fish.
Always let the fish run a little. See how strong he is before you try to turn him. You break him off if you try too hard, too soon. A little pressure, that's what it needs
. The old woman had taught me that, and I'd never forgotten it. "For a fee, yes." I said.
The fish tested the line a little more. "Pro Bono?"
"Reputation. And other things. Not all fees are paid in cash."
"Ah. This one, of course, can't be. You can't ever pass the examination -- its pass mark is very high -- without my help. And without a pass... you will sit again. And again."
"Hell is shaped around you," I said after a pause.
"Indeed. You are almost too clever for your own good." There was a chill to his voice. It was worth remembering. Along with name 'the father of lies'.
"So what is the price? What is the currency you want it in?"
He smiled. I read that smile. This was what he wanted to hear. "The old woman, of course. Help her cheat. Betray her. For that, you can have the answers."
"Old woman. You mean my grandmother?"
"Vicious old crone. You know she had a slate and a half before she came down here. And she's old. You were in your prime when they shot you."
Age. Age in Hell? I was back to being a scrawny rat of ten. He was lying. Playing me as I wished to play him. There was a reason in this. A reason to our ages. A key. Whether I could use it was another matter. "So why do you want me to betray her? It'll make it easier to do it well if you let me know what I'm trying to do."
The devil shrugged. "Because you were the thread that could just have saved her. This is Hell. Betray her and you can pass. Perhaps get to Purgatory. There is an end to Purgatory."
I understood then. It was about hope. Hope. You always held it out to even worst offender, one who had not even a prayer. They paid the best. He'd given away more than he intended when he'd said our professions were alike. He was offering me a false coin of hope, and he wanted me to destroy it for her. To plunge her still deeper. She was the age that she was -- and I was the age that I was -- because that had been the point at which we both could have turned. The last time for me, and probably for her. Death intervened before it could have happened. Death is the Devil's friend and helper too. But the Great Judge must watch... "Tell me," I said. "I'll drop her in it."
The Devil smiled at me as if I were his favourite son. "The question," he said, relates to the bait for musselcracker. You always wanted to catch one, and never succeeded. The answer - the correct answer -- is musselworm."
Illegal bait. Highly illegal, since getting it involved destroying large piece of mussel-bed. The Devil would advocate it. And it would probably have worked. He went on to explain at length how to collect it, where to collect it and how to avoid being caught, and what to plead if you were. "But you knew that," he said.
I did. But all I said was: "It's a lot to remember."
"Ah. But you have a photographic memory, and this crib-note." He handed it to me. "Put it in your sleeve. Make sure your paper is painstakingly neat. There are marks deducted for untidiness. Now, let us return. I'll make sure you get the opportunity to pass it on." He turned and led me back through a misty vastness, a distance that I was aware was both great and not there at all. He had to lead me back to the desks or I would not have got there. I would rather have stayed in dung pits even if I could have found my way. Never turn your back on the Devil. And we were too alike. He did check I was there, almost constantly. But he looked away too.
Back at my desk, I faced the pad and the question. The Devil had given me the right question... and I realised, the right answer. And the harsh planes of that lined axe-blade of a face from my childhood memories watched me warily. The Devil sauntered away down the endless rows, through the sibilance of scratching pens. I watch him go. There were others I recognised, colleagues and clients, writing... I wondered what they saw or did? Hell, I now realized, was defined by the individual. And the Devil, I knew, was closer than he appeared to be, not a hundred desks away with his back turned, bending over another examinee's work.
"I have the answers for you," I said quietly.
Her glare - how could I have forgotten it - fierce as an eagle, and unblinking as a cat, turned on me. "Don't cheat, Ryan. Don't even think about it, boy."
She'd said that to me before, I remembered. When she found the crib note I prepared. Before she'd beaten me for it. I'd wondered at the time how she'd known what to look for. Now I suspected I knew. She'd said she'd had a promising academic career once, back then, in that tumbledown old house. It hadn't seemed plausible... then. She'd taken that note, saying she was going to make sure I wouldn't. It was clear now. "I'm not going to. But you are going to."
"But you must. For me. For me," I repeated, seeing the wavering, the faint widening of the eyes. "Please. For me."
She nodded, almost imperceptibly. "For you," she said, quietly.
I told her, sotto voce. And then settled down to write myself.
Time in an exam is a version of time in Hell, interminable and yet passing too quickly. All too soon the watching devil called: "Five minutes..."and then, moments later. "Stop writing. Hand your papers to the person on your left and to the examiners. When you have done that you may leave, quietly."
I looked at the paper she'd handed me, at the answer I'd given her. "I know perfectly well how to catch musselcracker," she said, quietly. "I just never told you."
"No talking. You two, remain behind," said the Devil taking our papers.
So we did. In silence. I watched the play of expressions that she tried to hide, and knew I was right.
The Devil, the very devil that had given me the answers and crib-note, came back to us... in the fullness of Hell's time, which may have been a century. "You were observed cheating," he said, holding our papers. There was both a dark delight and, somewhere underneath it all, a resignation in his tone. He'd seen it too often before.
"I cheated," said the old woman. "Ryan didn't."
The Devil raised his eyebrows. "No denials, this time."
"No," she said.
"Ah. But you lied anyway. Because he cheated. He gave you the correct answers. And he agreed to betray you. And he cheated too, himself."
I shook my head. "I'm innocent. I wouldn't cheat."
The Devil smiled and laid the papers on the desk. And read. "To catch a musselcracker use a bait of..."
"Fresh prawn." I said pointing to the text. "And I said a fillet of mackerel."
The Devil's eyes narrowed. "Take off your coat," he said.
I did. The Devil felt in my cuffs. And searched the pockets. I knew full well that he could re-create the crib note that lay in the dung pits... but I had a feeling the Judge too was watching. "You were seen talking... and heard urging the other to cheat."
I shook my head. "I told her...in my own way, that I'd loved her. And she told me, knowing the price of doing so, that she loved me too. Knowing full well it was a trap, but that she did it for me. That is a sin against Hell, but it is not cheating anything except you."
The Devil looked old. "He always brings it down to choices. Even my own." He pointed at us and the room was gone....
I was still a small boy. She was an old, spare woman, too big for me to carry up that dark hill away from the red hot lava at my heels. But I did, taking it step by staggering step. Behind me the lava, ahead the hill.
She struggled weakly in my arms. "Put me down, Ryan," she said imperiously, trying to push away. But I knew now that she wanted to hold me, and that she'd just never known how.
I held tighter. Took another step up the hill. "No. You can't get there without me.
"I'm too heavy for you, boy. You'll never get there with me."