14th November 2020
Part One. Berlin. Spring 1993
Despite travelling for a day, with little sleep or food, Chris felt elated as the train entered the western suburbs of Berlin, a sensation he had simply never known before. For the first time, he wasn’t scared, but knew that he had made the right choice. He felt that he had left nothing, that nothing had ever worked out. He never had the feeling that he was in the right place, doing the right thing.
Now, as he looked out of the train window, he saw people on the streets, cars, yellow buses, giant ‘U’s indicating underground stations, white letter on deep blue background, and blocks of flats, only four or five stories high; long, ordered roads, small side squares, he saw, for the first time, Berlin.
The train corridor was filling up, Zoologische Garten was next stop. Some unshaven lads were smoking, an elderly lady screamed at them to step aside, a middle-aged man in leather pants and jacket walked past holding an open beer can, two teenage girls appeared eating something out of tin foil.
Chris had read and re-read the instructions, but stepping out onto the platform was still disconcerting. All signs, naturally, were in German, and everyone but him knew exactly which of the many exits to use. People streamed past, all with a determination he envied. He walked to the platform centre where there was a large map and studied the signs leading to various streets. He recognized his one, followed it and emerged, finally, out of the main doors, by the large bus terminal. It was as Marina had said; he’d see a large tower with the Mercedes sign, the Europa Center. From the station, he had to go south on Joachimstaler Strasse, and to his left, before Europa they’d be the ruined shell of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church. Keep walking and on the corner of the Ku’ Damm was a bar. He should get a table outside, order a coffee or Sekt (he had no idea what a Sekt was) and wait.
He was a little behind schedule, spending more time twisting the corridors of the station, than on the streets, but he was here, one suitcase, one wallet (with a less than impressive amount of Deutsch Marks), and no reason to be anywhere else.
Marina had said that the waitress would come to him, would speak English and may be cute. The waiter did indeed come to his table, but he spoke English begrudgingly and couldn’t by any stretch be deemed ‘cute’, none of which mattered; the coffee arrived reasonably quickly, was reasonably good and was reasonably over-priced.
He hoped he wasn’t too much of a sight, and wished he’d shaven on the boat when he’d had the chance. The worst part for him had been the very first step, leaving his bedsit and taking the Tube to the mainline station. From there it had improved, slightly, though the train ride through miles of dreary, depressing London suburbia was only inspirational in a negative way: what could be worse ? The boat was where he first felt some indefinable happiness, as if leaving England was restoring him to youth and health and hope. Then came the confusion of Holland, and the realisation that he had Pounds and Marks but no Dutch money, so couldn’t buy any food or drink. The trip to Hamburg was one of prolonged suspense, as he was in a limbo of sorts, but it got him into Germany for the final leg, and a ride that reinforced the image of German efficiency and timekeeping.
He ordered a second coffee and then a beer, as he saw many people drinking alcohol freely in the mid-day sun. He immediately sensed the relaxation in the atmosphere, none of the stress and anxious restlessness of London. Then he felt two hands over his eyes.
“Chris ! You’re here.”
Marina jumped in front of him, bounced up and down once or twice and hugged him. Chris stood up but wasn’t sure how affectionate he was supposed, or allowed, to be and gave her a feeble kiss on the lips, which she returned after a slight hesitancy, but with the passion of friendship and nothing else.
Chris thought she looked fantastic, even more so than in London, with her sparkling brown eyes and curly brown hair. He loved the way she took command, raising a delicate hand to summon the waiter and then dismissing him with a charming smile.
She explained how thing were, speaking in her animated style, with hand gestures and a myriad of subtle inflexions. The first night he would be staying with her and Ross, her boyfriend. The ‘B’ word. Chris thought back to Richard and his routine. He had known about the boyfriend in London, but he had been hundreds of miles away, now Chris would have to see him, and be aware that this night it would be the boyfriend that would take Marina to bed.
He kept these emotions under control as Marina continued, and smiled hearing how busy she had been on his behalf. Tomorrow, he could stay with her oldest friend, Claudia. She had an English boyfriend, but he would be away for a week, so she had space. They knew a landlady who had a flat that should be free in a week, possibly sooner and Claudia could also get him a job at a studio where she did some part time work.
“Well, then,” said Chris, clapping his hands, “we should drink Champagne.”
He was joking, but Marina was already in action. She softly bit her lip, an action that drove Chris wild, and raised a finger for the waiter, followed by a smile that could disarm the meanest of souls. She ordered a bottle of something.
“Not Champagne. Even better. And German !”
The Sekt arrived with all pomp, an ice bucket and two flutes. The waiter poured, stern-faced, with his right arm, his left tucked way behind his back in an attitude that Chris felt had to be excruciating. He finished pouring, gave a curt nod with the merest soupcon of a smile, then left. Marina picked up her glass, Chris his and they toasted,
“Prost!” the German ‘cheers’
“Sekt. Do you like it ?”
“Oh, this is Sekt. Yeah. And a whole bottle. Can we afford it ?”
Marina laughed, with her hearty, open-mouthed, unaffected manner.
“This isn’t London. Learn to live. Learn to have fun.”
“It won’t be easy. How do we get to your house ? Tube ?”
“But you’ve been drinking ?”
Marina raised her left shoulder slightly, turned out her bottom lip and tilted her head.
“Ja. Und ?”
Chris laughed and they slowly killed off the bottle, as Marina talked about everything and nothing and Chris, as long as he was looking at her, didn’t care either way.
The evening at Marina’s was uneventful, as he was tired from the journey and the afternoon drinking. Marina had laid out a towel, some soap, a new toothbrush and prepared some food while he washed. As far as Chris was concerned, everything was fine, more than fine, wonderful. Until Ross came home.
In much the same way that he knew he was going to Berlin, it hadn’t been until he had quit work, given notice on his room and found himself at passport control, that it really sank in. Now it wasn’t until he physically saw Ross that he accepted that Marina had a boyfriend. And he hated him.
He was a boorish Glaswegian, working as project manager on a construction site. He was fond of his own voice and of showing who was boss in the house. Throughout the evening, he constantly reprimanded Marina when he felt she was being too silly or childish, or if they seemed about to embark on a lover’s spat. Chris hoped and hoped that they would. He envisioned jumping into her car and the both of them moving into this new flat. But it would never be. She deferred to Ross every time.
The unforgivable occurred as they were making arrangement for going to bed. Marina had slipped away to get an extra blanket and Ross had slapped her on the backside and winked at Chris.
“I feel like an early night, tonight,” which he illustrated with an unbuckling of his belt.
Left alone in the main room, Chris tiptoed to the kitchen, found a half bottle of wine, uncorked it and gulped freely. He reasoned that he needed to sleep and didn’t want to be disturbed by any noise.
What he was disturbed by actually pleased him. Around six-thirty, Ross began getting washed and dressed and made no concession to the sleeping guest, shouting out to Marina entirely superfluous comments. As these had no effect, Ross went over to Chris and shook him, telling him it was nice to meet him and that they should do brunch, soon.
The front door closed and although Chris wanted more than anything to jump up and onto Marina, he resisted the temptation and soon after, the Berlin chorus began.
Somewhere in the neighbourhood, a cacophony of industrial noise rose up, a mix of drills, shouts, electric whirls and buzzes, hammering, thumping, heavy vehicles and heavy machinery.
Rubbing sleep from her eyes and emerging from her room still in her nightie, Marina greeted him with a smile, the light in her distant room back-lighting her like an angel. She told him to rest with a laugh, then said that the noise stopped in half an hour. Meanwhile, she would wash, dress and go out to buy breakfast.
Chris’ first Berlin breakfast was a veritable feast. Fresh bread rolls, various jams, cheeses, meat slices, smoked salmon, eggs, fruit, yoghurt, coffee, orange juice and Sekt. And Marina.
Many, many mornings, as he fished around for the remnants of a coffee packet, smoking a left-over cigarette butt and taking aspirin, he would think back to this Elysian banquet.
Then it was back in the car, Marina again laughing at Chris’ solitary bag. They drove through Berlin, and Marina pointed out various sights along the way and gave a potted history lesson, most of it prefixed by “I’m not really sure but I think ….” and similar disclaimers. Chris looked everywhere, trying to absorb everything, as they sang along to tapes of R.E.M. and Nirvana.
In half an hour, there were in the old East Berlin and the change from Marina’s area was striking. Here the buildings were all dark brown, with flaking stucco. The balconies had few plants, but flimsy washing lines displaying drab items of clothing. The roads were cobbled, the air had a strange smell, which he would later recognise as a blend of briquette dust and smoke and soot and stale beer and the fumes of thousands of cigarettes. The parked cars were old models, many Trabants, there were no signs of street life and every other block seemed to be a wasteland of scrubs and dust and broken furniture. Every residential block seemed to be undergoing renovation, with temporary wooden walkways and covered tunnels leading into the blackness of inner courtyards, scaffolding, large plastic sheets that flapped incessantly and puddles of mud and sand.
Chris loved it.
They got out and went up to a block in Ackerstrasse, Marina pointing to where the Wall had been and gesturing the path it took. There was no intercom as in Marina’s flat, here the doors were open and the temperature inside felt ten degrees cooler immediately. There were rusty metal boxes hanging off the walls, graffiti covered, for people’s letters. Marina pointed out Claudia’s and led him through a door, out into a back courtyard, which had some bicycle racks and dustbins, into another block. They climbed bare, dusty stairs to the third floor, and Marina knocked on a door that had faint music coming from behind. After a short pause it opened and Claudia came out, giving Marina a big hug and Chris a hug almost as warm.
The flat, which had looked so dour from the outside was transformed inside. It had a small kitchen but two medium bedrooms and a large living room with tall, green plants. The ceilings were high and there was decorative panelling with what appeared to be cherubs and flower motifs. The flat, like Claudia, seemed very open, clothes were all over, books and LP’s on the floor, papers and magazines likewise.
They were invited into the kitchen for coffee and Claudia began rolling a cigarette, asking Chris if he smoked. He did and willing accepted the proffered gift. Claudia had a certain feline sexuality in her movements, which interested Chris. When the water boiled, instead of standing up, she seemed to stretch into the space and to slink over to the stove, propelled by first one shoulder, then the other.
It was certainly low-tech in comparison with all the western devices of yesterday.
“So, Chris, do you speak any German ?“
He admitted that he knew very little, and Claudia gave a discouraging shake of disapproval, that worried him.
“You’ll have to learn. Everyone speaks English, anyway, but you’ll get a better job. And understand all the sodding paperwork.”
Chris let out a laugh at her English. She had learnt in Ireland and had a strong Irish accent, that really threw him. He later understood that although her manner could be a bit abrasive, she was as lovely as Marina.
The girls soon talked about the plan. He could start work tomorrow and there was certainly a flat available in a day or two, in Friedrichshain, a ten-minute drive away, Marina informed him. They had some food, more coffee, more cigarettes and talked about London, and how they had met, and stolen bottles and about the interrogation that Chris embellished to such an extent, that both girls fell silent in fear and trembling. Chris liked this and noted the effect a powerful story could have on his audience, especially when he cast himself as victim.
Claudia told Chris to choose more music when the tape finished, so he ejected the live Bauhaus tape and rummaged through a disorganised collection of tapes with inscrutable labels and CD’s, most of which were in the wrong sleeves. He suspected that the Dire Straits and Fleetwood Mac CD’s were her boyfriend’s contributions, the Siouxsie, Sisters Of Mercy and Depeche Mode, her own. He took his time, knowing that the tone of his relationship with Claudia would be set by his choice. He made an exclamation of pleasant surprise and inserted a tape. The female voice of German band X Mal Deutschland filled the kitchen and it had the desired effect. Claudia approved. So he had good taste in music. A good start.