The final leg of our skewed quadropedal journey across continental South-East Asia before heading back to the Philippines (which is the closest place I have to a home now, though the type of unwelcoming home that only lets you stay 21 days before kicking you out again) was five days in $ingapore. Oh hang on, I accidentally pressed shift and 4 then instead of S, I meant $؋₪Gsa₱oR€. I'm implying they like money.
Another former Asian 'home,' I came to-and-fro a few times and got to know this slightly insane island city-state in the summer of 2011 (it's always summer when you're 85 miles from the equator) and had mostly fond memories. Indeed, after Vietnam traffic, Singapore's tyrannical laws made walking along the pavement a much less death-defying experience, and because the solarphobic population tends to lurk beneath the streets in the air conditioned sewer of shopping malls, I don't even have to share these pavements with anyone else.
Thinking about these subterranean consumer vampires put me in the mood to write another story. I ended up writing a different one based around Singapore's best and worst attractions, which you might recognise if you've been following my 'adventures' for a long time. Drags on a bit, doesn't it?
'Wouldn't happen.' Craig Shinks was already drunk by the time their flight landed in Singapore airport, a fact his long-suffering brother had succeeded in concealing as he’d physically supported the shouting oaf off the plane and through immigration. Three hours later they were winding down the evening in Clarke Quay and Craig Shinks was plastered.
‘Just wouldn’t happen,’ Craig repeated his overly angry objection to the Merlion statue that had the audacity to grace this city's harbor and to delight passing boatloads of tourists with its biological inaccuracy. ‘Come on, let’s take a fucking boat ride.’
‘Maybe tomorrow,’ Martin countered as he drank his sensible tea. ‘I don’t think the other passengers would appreciate you chucking up all over them.’
‘Ohhh, fuckshou,’ Craig slurred expletively, then guffawed in surprised merriment at his excellent, unintended joke. ‘Hey, “fuckshou.” That’s like the name of one of these Chinese prostitutes, right? Ha-ha-hurrrrrrr.’
Craig’s vomit reflex hadn’t needed the help of the waves after all, as he dry heaved into his lap to the dismay of the other international diners. Martin tried to make eye contact with each one, pulling his experienced ‘brothers - who’d have ’em?’ embarrassed grin. The waiter approached nervously and Martin asked for the bill.
‘Hey, you gave me an idea when you were talking about prostitutes earlier,’ Craig piped up a few minutes later, as they stood in line for a taxi.
‘I wasn’t talking about anything. Let’s not talk about topics like that in public, how about that?’
‘No, no, but listen,’ Craig insisted, as if his brother or the winding queue of prospective passengers had any choice. ‘Why don’t we... we could ’ave a bit of that before we turn in, y’know? Only I’m a bit short, so we might have to share.’
Martin had been trying to physically silence his younger brother for most of the sentence, but Craig still possessed some survival reflexes as he squirmed out of his grasp at every turn. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Craig yelled, pushing his brother into the road and the path of an oncoming taxi that narrowly missed him. ‘Whoops,’ the drunk man observed. Somewhere far away, a bell tolled eight times.
‘Listen, you ungrateful little prick,’ Martin exploded, fuelled by a lifetime of pent-up rage. ‘I’m completely sick of your bullshit. I invited you on this trip and all you’ve done is embarrass me and bring shame on the entirety of Western civilisation. So you can get your own bloody hotel or spend this on booze and sex and sleep in the street, you are not my problem any more!’
He threw a 100 Singaporean dollar bill at his amused brother, who caught it deftly despite barely being able to stand. The onlookers were quite entertained now. ‘Cheers, Martin,’ Craig said. ‘I’ll text you in the morning and you can come and find me. I’ll probably be in some gutter or other, god forbid I could take care of my fucking self.’
Martin Shinks stormed off into the lights of the CBD, mumbling variously about ingratitude and thirty-seven years, and Craig pushed his way to the front of the taxi line meeting no resistance. ‘Alright, mate,’ he enquired to the Malay cab driver. ‘Where can a guy get up to his nuts in a fallopian tube around here?’ Following a less exuberant English translation, the taxi took off in the direction of Orchard Towers and the bells tolled nine.
‘Alright, mate?’ the irrepressibly chirpy, steamingly drunk Englishman enquired to the man sitting outside the dingy, neon-lit building he’d been pointed towards by the driver. He gestured at the glowing Chinese glyphs. ‘Does this shit mean there’s pussy here?’ He was led inside, and struggling dizzily up the flights of steps he imagined he heard a far-off bell striking two, over and over again. It seemed accurate enough.
‘Hello, yes,’ a man whose enthusiasm and bouncy demeanour matched Craig’s own, but whose blood alcohol content did not, approached the new customer and led him to a waiting room where a mix of old Chinese and balding Caucasian men sat silently. The man was reeling off his sales pitch as they walked. ‘What you want? You get everything here. Boom boom, shower, everything. You want boom boom?’
‘Well not with you, thank you!’ Craig slapped the pimp harder than he realised and made the already tense atmosphere more intimidating.
‘Ha ha, no, we got many nice girls. You like Chinese, Indian?’
‘Got any white ones?’
‘Very white looking,’ the man attempted.
‘Ahh, whatever.’ Craig sat down next to two other Englishmen with playing cards and a small pile of money, who were delighted to invite the witless newcomer to play. Craig had tuned out the irritating bell chimes that pervaded this place, but another double dong rendered more sharply above the background chatter.
When it was his turn, the penniless and now slightly soberer Craig walked guiltily into the room he was directed to, though not feeling guilty for the usual reasons this establishment’s customers did. He decided he’d break the unfortunate news that he didn’t have any money left on the way out. His brother would come and bail him out, he always did. There’d be time to appreciate him when they’re both in their old age, he’d always theorised. If Martin needs a kidney some time, they’ll be pretty much even, not that he’s taken great care to keep those organs in mint condition.
There was no question of money changing hands right now, and Craig greeted the young Singaporean woman, sitting smiling on the bed clad in what Craig wasn’t certain was a dressing gown or just the sort of thing those people wear, on his way to the en suite bathroom to be sick. He was feeling sweaty and dazed, and decided a shower would do the trick, but he wanted to make the most of this time he wasn’t paying for. He shouted through to the bedroom: ‘Oi, Ching-Chong, want to join me in the shower, love?’
The woman approached with an incredulous look on her face. ‘“Ching-Chong?”’ she asked in a perfected California accent. ‘Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?’
‘Hey, that’s pretty good!’ Craig complimented. ‘Shame about the eyes, but I won’t be concentrating on that area too much.’ He gave a wink that was not received as ‘cheeky,’ and the woman stormed out. He ran after her and grabbed her. ‘Oi, what do you think you’re doing? I’m getting what I paid for.’ He was even convincing himself now, and strangled the girl’s cries as he proceeded to get his money’s worth.
Now in greater control of his faculties, Craig ran down through the building pursued by several angry men. He’d think about the moral and legal implications of what he’d done later, though drowning them in alcohol would probably be more effective. Motivated by the threat of certain death, he achieved speed and coordination he hadn’t thought possible as he skillfully left his pursuers behind, though he wasn’t delusional enough to cast himself as the hero in this story. He finally stopped to catch a breath when he reached a river, pressing his back flat against a wall, panting and cursing. He heard the bells toll six followed by seven. ‘We’ve done that one already!’ he shouted. He then saw a policeman standing nearby, who was inspecting him in the understandable way an officer of the law would observe someone who’d been frantically running before proceeding to yell at the sky. ‘Evening, officer,’ he greeted, trying to act innocent. The cop didn’t seem particularly interested as he continued to catch his breath, then he made the mistake of spitting on the ground. The policeman approached.
‘Excuse me, sir. Spitting is prohibited in Singapore.’
Craig was exhausted and not in the mood. ‘This fucking country,’ he moaned, and then dashed off again, followed by the cop who chirruped on his whistle to alert other officers in the area of the villainous fugitive whose pursuit for a minor infraction might be comical if he hadn’t done much worse things that night that demanded justice. They followed the riverside route for a few minutes, Craig politely nodding to joggers as they quizzically passed, before he began to tire and heard his pursuer catch up with him.
Unable to force a final burst of energy through his aching veins, he turned to face his glowering adversary and considered the ramifications if he got caught. What if they investigated him, uncovered the tax fraud, the customers he’d swindled. Then there was that woman he’d raped not thirty minutes earlier. The Singaporean justice system was legendarily strict, so, considering the pain and humiliation of caning, he effected the only rational response. He leapt on the approaching cop head-first and nutted him to the ground, where he promptly died.
‘Oh, great,’ Craig said (sarcastically). He was really in for it now, no amount of bribery would get him out of this one. ‘Will you stop ringing those fucking bells?’ he yelled at the night sky, which even in this severe state of distress he considered was surprisingly clear for a dense metropolitan area. The bells were deafening now, but their source was still nowhere to be seen. Craig fell to his knees, pushing his hands firmly against his ears but unable to block out the two-tone chiming, repeating over and over. He looked up to see an unexpected sight as an impossible creature rose from the water, a salivating lion’s head on top of a fish’s body opening its maw and arcing towards him. Craig closed his eyes.
He was ushered along in a stream of people. No one seemed to be speaking, but the sounds of anguish echoed in the distance, countless screams of agony and endless sobs of sorrow. Craig Shinks waited in the line he seemed to be part of, for wont of other ideas. He didn’t remember coming here, but as he looked up to the building they were headed to and the handy English translation under its Chinese name, ‘COURT OF KING QUINGUANG,’ his heart sank. He couldn’t remember how many events from the previous night had been real - they'd all felt real at the time, even when he was eaten by a Merlion, which was such a ridiculous conceit he comforted himself that he must be on drugs he couldn’t remember taking.
Still, if he was being shepherded into a Chinese court, at least some of those things must have happened. Rape? Manslaughter? How was Martin going to get him out of this one? He tried to check his pockets for his phone, but he was packed in too tightly by the throng and didn’t seem to be able to voice his criticism, which was irritating. After some time, they reached the gate that was guarded by two giants with the heads of a horse and an ox respectively, and Craig comforted himself that he must still be dreaming. He was probably lying feverish in an alley somewhere. Singapore was a safe country, he’d had worse.
The great axe blocking his access was lifted and Craig was led into the great hall, where he involuntarily kneeled before the King. Bit of a weird dream, he considered, but he’d see how it played out before trying to wake himself. Things could hotten up. The King unrolled an impractically large scroll and started to read out a list of Craig’s most despicable deeds, which took some time. Nice try, conscience, he applauded, but you’re not going to guilt-trip me into changing my ways that easily. I’ve got another decade at least before I have to shapen up, after that it’d just get embarrassing.
‘This is not an insubstantial list, Mr Shinks,’ King Quinguang wryly observed, in passable RP English which Craig deemed to be surprisingly non-racist for his unconscious. ‘Just from the last 24 hours, I see you’ve inflicted physical injury (a servant struck a gong twice), gambled (twice more), consorted with a prostitute (another two strikes), disrespected your elders (three strikes this time), cursed (six strikes), broken written rules and regulations (another six), raped (seven gongs), caused trouble for a sibling (eight), harmed other people to benefit yourself (eight more) and murdered (nine strikes).
‘Looking back at your so-called life and your chosen career path, you’ve repeatedly conned and robbed others (two strikes), used narcotics (three strikes), evaded tax and carried out other fraudulent business activities (four strikes), failed to honour your parents (four), charged exorbitant interest rates to borrowers (five), used pornography in the indulgence of a shameful act (six), wasted food (six), sowed discord between family members (seven), and neglected the elderly (nine). That’s a full set, you must be very proud of yourself.’
Craig shrugged. ‘That sounds fairly accurate,’ he conceded. ‘And a bit mental.’
‘Which “bits” do you consider “mental,” Mr Shinks?’
‘The bits where you list minor transgressions like wasting food and gambling alongside serious crimes like rape and murder, as if they’re the same.’
The King leaned forward on his podium. ‘This system has succeeded in separating the innocent and the guilty for thousands of years, Mr Shinks. It’s not my fault if your parents and your society failed to raise you correctly.’
‘But I wasn’t prepared for it,’ Craig admitted, as the realisation that a ghastly fate awaited him became more certain. ‘I mean, I wasn’t prepared for anything, really. But especially not this. If they’d told me Buddhism was the right one all along, I would have done something about it, changed my ways sooner rather than later - and I definitely would have changed later, honestly. Just give me another chance.’
The King laughed. ‘Mr Shinks, everyone gets another chance. How you get to spend it, only the Wheel of Reincarnation decides.’
A wave of euphoric comfort swept through Craig, which he reasoned might be the sort of comforting certainty felt by religious people occasionally, even those who weren’t Buddhist and had thus committed their lives and souls to the wrong thing. There was an afterlife, and better still, there was more life. Reincarnation was a fact, and right now he’d take anything, even a worm or a fungus, just for the chance to live again and to eventually work his way back up the food chain. That is, assuming a fungus that doesn’t have a brain is able to live a commendable life and be rewarded with an upgrade. He was screwed.
‘But first, the Mirror of Retribution,’ King Quinguang orated, and Craig was brought before a mirror. The gruesome visage it reflected didn’t bode well. Through a window he could see a pair of bridges, one golden, vacant of traffic and vanishing high into the clouds, another one silver and disappearing in the distance, which a few women and children were contentedly trundling along. ‘Tell me,’ he shouted back to the King as he was shackled and forced through the back door into the darkness at spear-point, ‘do many virtuous people get to cross those bridges?’
‘Not really, no,’ the King sighed. ‘I guess we could have been a little less vague about the whole thing.’
Craig was forced along a rocky embankment for several gruelling hours, which the wisecracking guard (who happened to be some sort of blue demon, but Craig was taking these things in his stride now) insisted was the easy part. He learned that he was now to work his way through the rest of the Ten Courts of Hell, each of which held grisly and mostly non-poetic punishments for the various transgressions a few Chinese people had decided were worth worrying about a couple of thousand years ago.
The walk had been cold, but now Craig felt warmer and smelled sulphur in the air. ‘What is that?’ he asked the guard.
‘The Court of King Chujiang,’ the guard informed him handily. ‘Where those who inflicted physical injury, conned or robbed others will be thrown into a volcanic pit. Where those who committed crimes of corruption, stealing or gambling will be frozen in blocks of ice. Where those who worked as or used a prostitute will be drowned in a pool of blood.’
‘I think I’m down for all three,’ Craig realised, dismayed. ‘But how does that last one even work, when prostitution’s legalised in some parts of Singapore?’
‘How should I know? I just work here,’ the guard answered. ‘In you go.’ He pushed Craig over the lip of the volcano and he writhed around in the molten rock, charred and melted yet impossibly alive, with a nervous system that had never been so excited. He splashed, blind and in agony, until he eventually found his way to the edge and mustered the strength to climb out of the crater. A few folk around him with the misfortune to have been slightly shorter in life or possessed of less strength had been unable to get that far and were consigned to an eternity in this pit, sitting in a foetal position like pebbles in the molten stream, their cries long silenced.
He received no congratulations when he clambered back onto dry, solid land, as the spear dug into his charred side and pushed him into an icy crevasse. He slid down the sheer rock into a pile of snow, which was actually something of a relief for the first few seconds before it took on its own shade of anguish. Still, it wasn’t quite as bad as the volcano. His faculties somewhat returned, Craig reasoned that gambling wasn’t frowned upon quite as severely as theft in the Chinese afterlife, which was good news for the residents of Macau at least.
He wasn’t sure how long he was kept in the reverse sauna, but he saw his fellow corpses being escorted out one at a time as their term was over and he was eventually freed, ready for his next ordeal. The river of blood, had the blue man said? Sure enough, they soon came upon the raging red river and Craig was hurled in, gargling his way down the rapids until it ended in a shallow pool at the mouth of a cave. Summoning the bravery to touch what was left of his face after the lava had been through with it, Craig decided he wouldn’t do that again. He had no idea how he was still able to see and hear when those sensory organs were evidently long gone, along with most of his other tissues.
‘The Court of King Songdi,’ his guide announced, revelling in his job.
Have you considered a career in tourism? Craig asked him, but without vocal cords the sound was an unintelligible rasp and the guard didn’t grace it with a reply.
‘Here, the ungrateful, those who disrespected their elders or escaped from prison will have their hearts cut out.’
Is that supposed to be symbolic? Craig wondered. I mean, it works for the disrespecting your elders bit, I suppose. But that last bit seems like an afterthought. His thought process was stopped in its tracks as a man approached and matter-of-factly took a pair of pliers to his ribs to extract the beating heart. It didn’t hurt as much as Craig expected, probably because he was already smarting in every part of his body so a little amateur organ removal was nothing to write home about. He was just saying, not to criticise, that if the arrangement had been up to him, he would have shuffled the more extreme, disfiguring items to the end, just to give these other courts a chance.
The red hot pillar was next. Craig was tied to the burning structure, which couldn’t be seen beneath the mass of everyone who’d ever had a sneaky puff on a funny cigarette, their bodies now acting as insulation to help retain the heat and lower the Court’s electricity bills. Some of them were as horrifically deformed as Craig, indicating they too had been through the volcanic pit on their infernal journey. Others were more or less intact, the swots.
‘The Court of King Wuguan,’ his merciless companion announced as they proceeded deeper into the cave. ‘This is where your dodgy business dealings come back to bite you.’ A masked man who clearly revelled in his job ran at Craig and smashed his skull in with a mallet. He was then guided by the hand to a stone table and laid flat down on the frayed remains of his ribs, soon thereafter feeling the pressure of an inconceivable weight pushing his spine into his chest and flattening his body. That’s what I get for telling my dad to fuck off that time, he reasoned.
What remained of Craig by this point would be comical if it wasn’t so horrifying. A gangly, two-dimensional cinder with the vague shapes of arms, legs and a caved-in head, he received mobility assistance as he was guided to the Fifth Court, but the uneven stone floor wasn’t exactly wheelchair friendly.
‘The Court of King Yanluo,’ the guide said, and pushed Craig onto a hill of knives. This must be what Sonic the Hedgehog felt like when this happened to him, Craig decided, and tried to block out the pain by repeating the theme music from the Green Hill Zone in his head. It didn’t work - why wouldn’t his nervous system shut down already?
‘That’ll teach you to charge unfair interest rates,’ the guide chided him.
Will it? Craig silently questioned. Will I even remember this?
‘No,’ the guide replied. ‘It was just a figure of speech. If people actually remembered any of this, there’d be no sinners left.’
Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
‘Shut up and climb that tree.’
I don’t want to. It’s covered in knives.
‘That’s right. This is the Court of King Piencheng and the tree of knives awaits those who cheated, cursed or abducted someone.’
How can those first two be equated with the third? How is this even different to the hill of knives I was just on, practically speaking?
‘Climb!’ the guard prodded, vocally and with his spear. When he decided Craig had spent enough time contemplating his misdeeds, or at least trying to remember the other themes from those early Sonic games (Mystic Cave Zone was the most effective distractant, it might have had something to do with the comparable scenery), Craig was forced to pay the price for his pornographic excesses (and wasting food) by being sawn in two, which definitely seemed appropriate. His already absurd body was now in two pieces, and the guard lent a helping hand by carrying the legs while Craig moved along on his arms. Maybe he had a friend here after all.
In the Seventh Court, Craig was finally offered some sense of a fitting punishment as his useless tongue was cut out for the crime of spreading vicious gossip around his family. He regretted that he wasn’t able to express this appreciation of poetic justice to his companion, as well as his disappointment that the punishment for rape was the less fitting fate of being fried in a giant wok. It just doesn’t make sense, he thought as he experienced the familiar sensation of his body fat frying, unless it’s some sort of really tenuous metaphor. Still, such a let-down after the previous one. He also thought, ow, that’s extremely painful, I wish this would stop.
‘The Court of King Dushi,’ the guard said with less enthusiasm. Even he was getting bored now. As punishment for lack of filial obedience, Craig’s intestines were yanked out, which turned out to be mostly contained in the part with the legs. So the guard hadn’t been carting them around out of sympathy after all. Both halves of Craig were then chopped up into assorted pieces to punish him for inflicting pain on others, after which he heard the guards having a nervous discussion about how he was supposed to have his head and limbs removed in the next Court if he’d already been dismembered here. They settled on flimsily reattaching the severed extremities only for them to be removed again in the Court of King Pingdeng. Craig was past even the point of sarcasm now. He was also long past the point of being recognisable as a human being.
His assorted remains were brought before King Zhuanlun in the Tenth Court, who pitied the pile of bones and fried organs and gave him a reprieve. ‘You’re supposed to drink the tea of forgetfulness now,’ the guard informed the pile that had been Craig. ‘But I’m not sure how that’s going to work, exactly.’ Then he paused in his compassion and the familiar scowl returned. ‘So I guess you probably shouldn’t have killed that guy and committed all those other crimes. Dick.’ He poured the warm liquid onto the general vicinity of Craig’s mouth and stomach, murmuring discontentedly about his long working day and something about the wife, and Craig started to feel better as the liquid osmosed through his pores. King Zhuanlun spun the Wheel of Reincarnation, which resembled the Wheel of Fortune more than he’d expected, and Craig left his body.
This time I’m going to do it right, he urged himself, straining to stay conscious and not lose his grip on himself. Craig Shinks would rise again, and this time he was going to be better.
Martin Shinks learned of his brother’s death the next morning, an apparent accidental suicide in a double headbutt that also killed a police officer who was presumed to be chasing him down following a rape. He cursed himself for feeling more relieved than bereaved at the news, and thought he heard a bell chime eight times, which didn't seem right at this hour.
Martin had been requested to identify the body, but right now he just wanted to have lunch, to enjoy one hour of his holiday without his idiotic brother spoiling it, to do the things he wanted to for a change. He was now free to enjoy exotic food, not forced to accompany his brother in depressingly English-themed pubs and consume the same bland meals they did back home. He was free.
Martin headed to the fresh seafood counter and ordered the most conspicuously exotic thing he could find. He wasn’t even sure what this creature was - it was shaped sort of like a soft, fleshy pineapple with its guts hanging out, and the rhythmic opening and closing of a mouth-like filter revealed it was still clinging onto life. It looked perfect.
‘One please,’ he indicated with his finger.
The seller looked puzzled and a little disgusted. ‘You sure?’ he asked. It was as if the man couldn’t remember laying this abomination out on display, let alone being able to identify it.
‘I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life,’ Martin confirmed dramatically, handing over two Singaporean dollars and receiving the fresh catch. He took it proudly to his table and chewed the edge. He almost retched instantly; it was absolutely disgusting.
Martin! the food squealed silently. It’s me! Don’t eat any more of me!
But Martin was unperturbed. Smiling, he lifted the morsel to his mouth. He’d never been one to waste food.
Influences: The Merlion and Ten Courts of Hell at Haw Par Villa, Singapore; sea pineapple sashimi (멍게) in Busan, South Korea; probably some Neil Gaiman in there somewhere