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“Hell”

by Charlotte Greene

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“The asparagus are lovely,” said the woman invitingly. Her British accent exuded politeness and propriety. Her grey-blond hair, cut in a chin-length bob, was as neat and perfect as her clothing.

The man with her grunted in response.

“And the Jaeger schnitzel! So difficult not to dry out the pork,” she said.

The man concentrated on slicing his roast, spearing a potato with his fork to accompany each slice of meat, and dredging the forkful through the sauce before placing it into his mouth and then wiping his short beard with his napkin.

“How is your roast, Dear?” she tried again.

“Fine, fine,” said the man absently.

Their server stopped at the table to ask if they’d like more wine, and the man opened his mouth to speak, but the woman preempted him. “Not a good idea, really,” she said, dismissing the server and giving the man a pointed look. The man frowned into his plate.

“His English is quite good,” said the woman when the server had gone.

The man did not respond.

An eruption of raucous laughter from the party of six on the far side of the small, low-ceilinged dining room caused the man and the woman to start a bit and then glance in that direction. The group’s table was crowded with wine bottles, glasses, plates and shopping bags. The group members moved around quite a bit, changing seats and passing plates as they chattered with obvious pleasure and animation.

“Jolly good time they’re having,” said the woman, not at all loudly.

The man grunted again.

The room in the tavern, which was called Zur Höll in German, looked less like part of a restaurant and more like the parlor of an old house, which in fact it had once been, centuries earlier. The uproarious party sat at a larger table by the paned bay window that looked out onto the cobblestone street of the medieval, walled town. The adjacent wall featured an ornate fireplace. Several small tables were occupied between the large party and the quiet, older couple on the other side of the room. A constant hum of conversation from the many tourists eating and drinking drifted in from the bar area and other dining rooms, along with the clink of plates and glasses and the hustle of the wait staff. The server arrived at the window table with two bottles of wine, which occasioned expressions of joy and more laughter.

The woman returned her glance to her partner and made another go at it. “It’s a charming room, isn’t it? The china is quite pretty. And the fireplace.”

“Mm,” said the man noncommittally as he scooped up some potatoes.

A tall man who looked like Robert Plant dressed in medieval costume entered the dining room and, seeing no empty tables, rested his pint of beer on the fireplace mantle and adjusted his cape and sword. One of the servers greeted him and took his order. The young couple at the next table addressed him. They said they recognized him as the tour guide who dressed as the town’s night watchman from the Middle Ages. They asked him for details about the tour, how much it cost, where it went, and how long it lasted.

The tour guide was friendly and engaging, and he told the diners, who were mostly British and American, amusing anecdotes about his experiences with the tour and the tourists. The large party at the window table joined in the conversation, asking questions with a volume and lack of inhibition amplified by significant amounts of wine. The night watchman seemed to be entertaining the whole room, with the exception of the older British couple. He said that the tavern’s name translated to “Hell” in English, and it was the only bar that stayed open late. The walled town’s oldest joke, he claimed, was that those who could not sleep could “walk the wall or go to Hell.” The room became rather loud, with all the laughter and conversation, and the other diners seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves.

The woman spoke again when the diners and the night watchman turned to their meals, and it had quieted down a bit. “Perhaps we could do that,” said the woman.

“What?” said the man, all his attention having been redirected towards his plate.

“The tour. We could take the night watchman’s tour.”

“In the rain?” he asked doubtfully. It had been unseasonably cold and rained continually almost every day of their holiday.

“It’s not raining today,” said the woman. “It may not rain tomorrow.”

“Have you not seen the weather report?”

“I do not wish to spend our holiday watching the telly in our room,” she scolded.

“Not much else to do with all this rain.”

“There are lovely little shops here, and restaurants, and the bakery…” she trailed off.

“You want me to spend my holiday shopping?” he asked, incredulous.

“At least the weather today was fine. We could have gone up in the hot-air balloon, if you…” she began.

The man dropped his fork onto his plate with a clink, sat up in his chair, and looked as if he might speak angrily to the woman, causing her to sit up in her chair. They glared at each other for several moments. But then the man seemed to think better of saying much of anything. He sighed and picked up his fork again. “Hell,” he said.

The couple sat in silence for some time, eating their meals. The night watchman finished his beer and sandwich and left to return to his post. The party at the window table polished off their last bottle of wine, paid their tab, gathered up their packages, and made a noisy departure. Other diners left and were replaced with more diners. Eventually, the woman attempted a different tack.

“When we get back, we’ll have to get the house ready for Carol and the children. We’ll have to think about the guest bedroom, plan some things for the children.”

“Mm,” said the man.

“It’s a shame George won’t be coming, what with his work.”

“Pity. If George were coming, we could go ‘round the pub,” said the man with regret.

“Still, it’s something to look forward to,” she pleaded.

“What I’m looking forward to,” the man said, tapping his finger on the table with each syllable, “is a pint of Guinness by the fire at the pub with the lads.”

The woman put her fork on her plate and sat up very straight in her chair. She levelled her gaze on the man.

The man looked down and sighed resignedly. “Yes, yes of course. Good to see the children.”

The woman tucked a strand of grey-blond hair behind her ear and readjusted the pendant of her necklace. She considered her plate of food carefully, at length, before taking another bite. The man ate purposefully, as if to finish the task at hand as efficiently and uneventfully as possible. He did not look at the woman.

“You really should try the asparagus, Dear. They’re lovely,” said the woman hopefully.

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