An atheist comedy featuring God and a confused young man from Hackney.
When gay, pleasure-seeking Stefano Cartwright is almost killed by a wave while at the beach, his journey up a tunnel of light convinces him that God exists after all, and he may need to change his ways if he is not to end up in hell. When God happens to look down his celestial telescope and see Stefano, he is obliged to pay unprecedented attention to an obscure planet in a distant galaxy, and ends up on the greatest adventure of his multi-eon existence.
The Hurtle of Hell combines a tender, human story of rejection and reconnection with an utterly original and often very funny theological thought-experiment, in an entrancing fable that is both mischievous and big-hearted.
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About the Author
Simon Edge was born in Chester and read philosophy at Cambridge University.
He was editor of the pioneering London paper Capital Gay before becoming a gossip columnist on the Evening Standard and then a feature writer on the Daily Express, where he was also a theatre critic for many years. In addition he has written for The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, Daily Telegraph, Daily Star, Private Eye, New Statesman, Tribune and Attitude, where he was a contributing editor. He has been a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 5 Live.
Simon was on the inaugural intake of City University's MA in Creative Writing and subsequently taught on that course as a visiting lecturer. He lives in Suffolk.
Read an Excerpt
Stefano must have blacked out. When he came round, he was looking down on an agitated crowd. They were clustered around something lying on the dark, wet sand, just clear of the waves. At the centre of the gathering crouched a squat, middle-aged man in improbably tiny Speedos, buttocks in the air. Bent over the body of a pale young man, he was trying to give him the kiss of life. The poor bastard, thought Stefano uncharitably. He would get a shock if he came round to find that guy sucking his face.
Craning to get a better look, it occurred to him that the stricken swimmer's candy-striped trunks looked familiar. Now he realised that so was the body, which really was shamefully pallid compared to all the bronzed onlookers. It was superficial to be so critical, but Stefano had every right, because that was his own body he was looking down at. That was him, lying there on the beach.
This was like the weirdest dream he had ever had, but he somehow knew, as surely as he had ever known anything, that this was not a dream. This was happening.
He watched the kiss-of-life guy come up for air, puffing it in with a great gulp, and then hunch over for another attempt. The scene was silent, and it took Stefano a moment to grasp that this was not because nobody was talking, but because he could not hear. There must still be water in his ears after being pulled under like that. If only his rescuer would stop the kissing thing for a moment and tilt his head from side to side, it might drain out.
He could see the onlookers' mouths moving as they jostled inwards. Now someone – Stefano recognised the soft-drinks seller who hawked Coca Cola from a cart in the middle of the beach – pushed them back. Give him some air, he would be saying, because that was what people always said in situations like this, only he would be saying it in Spanish, and Stefano had no idea what that was. And there, finally, was Adam, with only a hint of anxiety at first, turning abruptly to panic. Stefano did not need to lip-read to know that his own name was being shouted.
Then, abruptly, the scene was gone. He could no longer see himself, nor any of the people around him, and he was surrounded by specks of white light. As his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he saw that he was in some kind of tube. Not that he could see the sides – the lightness was everywhere and nowhere – but it felt like some kind of extraordinary tunnel because it was brighter up ahead, and now he was conscious of rising towards the far end of it. He felt light-headed, euphoric, as if the whiteness were shining inside him. It reminded him of the first rush of a pill, in the days when they still worked and you knew why it was called ecstasy, only there was nothing illicit about this. What was happening to him? As he rose further and further up the long, white cylinder he was curious about what he would find at the end, but he felt no fear.
He blinked to focus better as the white walls rushed past him. There was definitely something up there now, different from the shining white, covering the entire end of the tunnel. His attention was drawn in particular to a pinpoint of pitch black at the centre, which gradually widened as he came closer. Now it became a deep, inky pit that he seemed to be moving steadily towards, a black hole at the end of the white corridor. All around the edges of this hole straggled translucent rivulets of white and grey, coursing over a glistening blue ground and pouring into the black abyss like water into a well. Beyond these shining trails of white, he saw, was something else: a border, like smooth rocks circling the pool of rivulets. Or maybe it was softer ... porous, organic, alive.
It looked like an eyelid, he suddenly realised: the black hole was a giant pupil, the straggling rivulets over a shining blue ground were the iris, and that giant lid must belong to ...
'He's breathing!' shouted someone, disturbing his concentration, and he heard a painful rasping sound accompanied by exclamations of relief. He blinked his eyes open, which was odd, because he could have sworn they were open already, and found he was looking at the kiss-of-life guy again, not from above this time, but from his own body, flat on the wet sand. He could hear again, that was for sure, and the rasping was coming from his own throat as he coughed up brackish sea water. The kiss-of-life guy smiled. With his wide, fat lips and gappy teeth, he reminded Stefano of a kindly toad. Then the face was replaced by an even more welcome one.
'I thought I'd lost you,' said Adam, and Stefano could see he was trying not to cry. 'How do you feel? Don't try to talk. We need to get you to a hospital. Can we get him to a hospital?'
Someone was shouting Spanish into a mobile phone. Adam kept turning away to talk to people, and it seemed an age before he was paying attention to Stefano again and there was a chance to tell him. To try to tell him, at any rate – it was hard to breathe, let alone talk, and his whole head stung with salt.
'Don't try to speak,' said Adam. 'Just stay there for the moment and then we'll get you to hospital. No, you mustn't try to move. Please, lie still.'
Stefano tried again to reach for Adam's hand, finding it this time and attempting to pull him closer. 'You don't understand,' he was saying in his head, only it would not come out like that. It would barely come out at all. But he kept trying, and Adam was eventually forced to stop shushing him and lean in close to make out what he wanted to say.
'I think ...' said Stefano at length, concentrating hard to make the words separate themselves from one another.
'I think I just saw the eye of God.'CHAPTER 2
The holiday on this strange little volcanic island had been Adam's idea. They had started on the opposite coast, under a blanket of cloud. There were no beaches on that side, and the bad weather seemed so permanent that it was even cloudy in the postcards.
As the outermost part of the archipelago, the island had been celebrated in ancient times as the edge of the known world. This excited Adam. For someone who had always been interested in astronomy, the further discovery that this had once been the zero meridian, where the western and eastern hemispheres officially met, made the place all the more evocative.
Unfortunately, soaking up this conceptual geographical history was not Stefano's idea of a good holiday, especially when it rained ceaselessly on the day they trekked to the lighthouse that marked the western tip of the rock. There was not much to see, and Stefano was conspicuously unimpressed.
'There's not even a plaque,' he observed, after circling the lighthouse twice.
'What do you want it to say? This used to be the edge of the world and now it's not?'
'It feels like it still is.'
They heard the climate was better on the opposite coast, so the following day they were back in their hire car, threading across the mountainous interior. It took half the morning to wind around the ravines, up into the cooling mist of the ancient forest, and then to hairpin down into a terraced gorge, lush with date palms and banana trees, where it was a blazing eighty-eight degrees.
They found an apartment in the hippie-run resort at the bottom of the valley. It had a cushion-thin mattress on the bed and a door that took five minutes to unlock, but you could almost see the sea from the balcony and it was only two thousand pesetas a night. Stefano put his foot down about further attempts at sightseeing. For the sake of harmony, Adam decided not to mention the ancient villa which claimed to be the last place where Christopher Columbus had stayed before setting out for the New World; it would do for a rainy day, if it ever rained on this side of the island.
Instead, they went straight to the beach, where the sand was as dark as the volcanic rocks that framed it, and soft as pepper underfoot. The breakers were huge, especially in the shallows, and even Stefano, who tended to be fearless, was daunted by them on the first day. However, he discovered that the trick was to dive into the belly of the wave just before it broke on your head. This sounded terrifying to Adam, but Stefano assured him it was fine when you came out the other side.
'It's actually quite funny,' he said, 'because you can laugh at the wave knocking everyone else over as it goes higher up the beach, and you're fine. But you have to be careful there isn't another massive one coming straight after it.'
Adam was a much less confident swimmer than Stefano, and the sea was too rough for his liking, but he was happy lying in the sun, reading. He grew to recognise the other characters on the beach, who mainly seemed to be Scandinavians and Germans. On the third day he noticed that one of these Scandinavians was wearing his arm in a sling, which had not been there the previous day. It was only then that he noticed there was no lifeguard on this beach, which made him less inclined than ever to do battle with the monster waves. He could not quite understand why everyone else on the beach seemed so keen to go back for more.
He was snoozing at the time of the accident, and it must have been the commotion that woke him. He scanned the crowd of tanned figures clustering around the unfortunate on the sand, looking for Stefano among them. Adam was calm by nature, and not inclined to rush into an unnecessary panic just for the sake of the drama. As he got to his feet, however, there was still no sign of Stefano. He began to realise that, on this occasion, panic might well be justified.
He reached the crowd, pushing through to see who or what was at the centre of the huddle. The sight of a paunchy German crouching over the pale, slender body in stripy trunks confirmed his worst fears.
'Let me through! It's my ...' Even here in the throes of terror he worried what word to use. 'Partner' sounded so uptight, but 'boyfriend' always seemed to invite ridicule when used outside the confines of their own world.
'Er atmet!' shouted someone, and then in English: 'He's breathing.'
'Gracias a Dios!' said someone else.
Amid the relief and jubilation, the German sat up to give Stefano room, and Adam flung himself onto the sand behind him.
'Stef! What happened? Are you all right?' he panted.
The green eyes looked up at him groggily through long lashes.
Adam gripped Stefano's hand, no longer minding what anyone thought, and called up to the little crowd: 'Has anyone called an ambulance?'
'I think so,' said a German accent. 'Yes, that guy is calling. It's coming.'
Adam turned back to Stefano.
'I thought I'd lost you,' he whispered.
Stefano was trying to say something, and Adam had to lean in close to catch it.
'I think I saw the eye ...'
'Sorry, Stef, I can't really understand you. But don't try to talk now, you'll have plenty of time to tell me later. I'm so sorry, I didn't actually see what happened. I think you must have blacked out. But you're all right now. Lie back, don't try and talk.'
'But you don't understand, it was really weird ...'
'I'm sure it was horrible, but don't talk now. You're safe now; try and relax.'
Looking up at the crowd again, he asked: 'What happened? I didn't see.'
'He was knocked down by a wave,' said the onlooker who had spoken earlier. 'They can be very dangerous.'
Others offered their own versions of what had happened. They had watched the English boy get knocked over, and they had all laughed, just as he had laughed when it happened to them, but then they could see he was in trouble because the waves were coming fast, one after the other, and whenever he tried to emerge, he was knocked down again.
'It was hard to help him because the force of the sea was so strong,' said one of them, apologetically.
From his prone position on the sand, Stefano was still trying to talk.
'Please, Stef, lie still. Help will come,' said Adam.
The guy who had administered the kiss of life was still there, a portly, near-naked shape outlined in the white afternoon sun.
'Thank you so much for helping him,' said Adam, squinting up at him. 'Is he going to be OK?'
'I'm not a doctor. I just know a little first aid. But I imagine yes. Don't worry.'
'Thank you,' said Adam again. It was strange for himself and Stefano to be the focus of concern from so many strangers. He had a sudden impulse to weep, and he fought it back.
After what seemed like an age, but could only have been five minutes, the burst of a siren – that funny, staccato dee-dee-dah chirp that was one of the hallmarks of abroad – announced the arrival of the ambulance.
The concerned but thinning gaggle that still surrounded them parted and two men in black trousers and bright yellow t-shirts – one of them stocky, fortyish, the other younger, taller, ponytailed – pushed their way through.
'Qué ha pasado?' said the older of the pair, and one of the Spanish speakers answered. Adam could not complain at being sidelined: he still did not have a clear idea of what had happened, so could not have explained even if he had the language.
The ambulance man crouched next to Stefano and asked him his name.
He replied in a croaky whisper, but someone from the crowd had to step forward and act as interpreter for the rest of the conversation. How did he feel? Could he breathe properly now? How many fingers was the guy holding up? Did he know the name of the island they were on? What day was it?
Now a stethoscope was being applied to Stefano's naked chest and the ponytailed crewman raised his bare arm to apply the blood pressure cuff. Adam saw a telltale flicker of those green eyes, and was reassured that Stefano was out of trouble: if he was well enough to register a cute first-aider, he was no longer at death's door.
The older of the men was now standing up and asking Adam something.
'Sorry, I don't speak Spanish,' he said, appealing for support from the onlookers.
'You are together?' said a slim Spanish woman of about their own age.
'Yes,' Adam nodded, trying not to notice the brown nipples pointing up at him. 'Si.'
The ambulance man said something else to her and she translated: 'He want to take your friend to the hospital, just to make sure he is OK, OK?'
'OK,' said Adam. 'Can I go too?'
Stefano was being lifted onto a stretcher now. The ambulance was parked on a track at the top of the beach, where the hot, black sand gave way to rough earth and rougher stones. Adam did his best to keep up, hopping in his bare feet.
'I'm coming too. Will you wait two minutes while I get our stuff?'
Their towels, cameras, watches, money were all still out there on the beach.
But the guy was shaking his head and saying something in Spanish, as his ponytailed colleague now closed the back doors of the ambulance.
'But we're together!' Adam bristled.
The bare-breasted Spanish woman laid a gentle hand on his arm.
'He say he cannot take you like this' – she gestured at his lack of clothing – 'so you follow behind in a taxi. It's not far.'
The ambulance was already pulling away, chirping away with short dee-dee-dah bursts to signal that it was on the move again.
The little hospital was at the top of the valley. The road sagged up the middle of the lush oasis in the side of the volcano which had made this side of the island habitable, and then wound back and forth in wide loops as the gradient began to show it meant business. Near the top, a turning pitched off at a tangent and led into what looked like a brand-new neighbourhood, with a gleaming white, flat-roofed hospital at the centre of it.
Adam paid his taxi-driver and hastened inside to track down Stefano.
'Cartwright,' he spelled out at reception, writing it down because the silent W was impossible to sound in foreigner-friendly English.
He need not have bothered. Not many tourists had been brought in on stretchers in the past hour, and they knew immediately who he meant.
Adam was directed to a ward on the first floor. He found Stefano in a bay at one end next to a tiny, brown, old man with wires attached to his hest, who was snoring loudly.
Stefano was propped up against a bank of pillows, wearing a pale blue hospital gown. There was an oxygen mask on the bed next to him but he was breathing perfectly well without it.
Adam gave him a discreet peck on the cheek.
'How are you feeling? What have they said? Have you seen a doctor?'
'I feel fine now. Did you bring my stuff from the beach? They need to see some kind of ID to keep me here. I don't see the point, but they say they want me to stay overnight. And I tried to tell them what I saw, but they wouldn't listen either.'
'What you saw?'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Hurtle of Hell"
Copyright © 2018 Simon Edge.
Excerpted by permission of EyeStorm Media.
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