23rd November 2020
Part Two. Berlin. November 1993
“Richard … hey, I’m so sorry,” laughed Chris. “This is Ute.”
She put her hand out, and Richard quickly sat up, automatically patted down his hair, and said, ‘Hello’. He attempted to rise, but was weighed down by blankets and clothes. He was the one who had been waiting all day, yet it was he that felt had to apologise, for his unseemly appearance.
“What happened to you? Been bashing people?”
“No, not yet,” he replied with a little too much acid in the voice. He continued, toning down his manner, “Some idiot knocked me with his bag at Stadmitte. Hey, good to see you. At last. Hi Ute, vie gehts ?”
“Oh, you can German ?”
“Yeah. I know, ’Vie gehts ?’, ‘Geschlossen’, ‘Eine Turkische Pizza, bitte.’ All the important words.”
Ute spoke with genuine concern,
“And what is with your eye ? You need something for it ?”
“No, no, it’ll be all right.”
Chris stood there, hiding his guilt behind a wide smile that strained his jaw muscles. He suggested that they all go to Kinski’s, and after Richard gathered himself together, they left the flat.
Chris had woken late that morning in Ute’s Mitte flat, the Ofen still radiating heat. He was in a warm bed, next to a hot woman and was going to make the most of it.
After making love again, Ute rolled a joint, sparked up and passed it over to Chris.
“Don’t you have to go and meet Richard ? What time is his flight ?”
For Chris to be on time, he would have had to get up and leave immediately which he felt, considering his surrounding, was a ludicrous thing to do.
“No, he has keys. He knows his way around Berlin.”
“You sure ? I can drive you there. I’m free all day ?”
“No, don’t worry, he’ll be OK, my Darling ! You are so sweeeeetttt.”
They finished the joint and went back to sleep. When they eventually woke, dressed and got into Ute’s car, it was already late evening.
Jens was working the bar, and the Café was half full, but not with anyone Richard recognised. The music was some generic pseudo Sonic Youth guitar noise, played too loud to make conversation easy.
Chris, still with his embarrassed smile, got the drinks while Richard sat and made small talk with Ute. She was small, with dark blonde hair, tied back in a ponytail.
After a beer, she got up to leave, and Richard discretely averted his eyes, while they kissed.
She left the bar, and Chris turned to Richard,
“Wow, what a girl ! I can’t believe I’m with her. Really ! Hey, was it OK, to get to the flat ? It’s just been crazy the last couple of weeks”
“Yeah, it was … if I’d have known, it would have been better. “
“Sorry, sorry. Tonight, the drinks are on me.’
“Oh, you better believe it. If we’re allowed to drink here with that bastard working. Don’t think he likes us.”
“Yeah, bit of a prick, isn’t he ? We’ll be OK. If not, there’s plenty more bars. Quite a few down the end of this street.”
“Been exploring ?”
“In the interests of science. Gaptooth took me to one, run by Russians. The Czar Bar. Pretty rough in there.”
“What, fights ?”
“No, everyone’s too pissed to fight. It’s just … oh, you’ll see. Pretty basic. You don’t want to go to the toilet in there.”
“Well, I might.”
“No, trust me, you wouldn’t. So, Ute … what do you think ?”
“Yeah, she’s all right.”
“ ‘All right ‘ ? Are you blind ?”
“Half blind ! I’m joking with you. Getting my own back for waiting in a cold flat all day. Hey, what is with the weather ? It’s bloody freezing.”
“No, it’s not.”
“It fucking well is !”
“No, don’t say that. I used to and everyone says, ‘no, wait until it gets really cold.’”
“It’s going to get colder ?” Chris just nodded. “Shit. What do we do ? I only have a few jumpers.”
“Don’t worry about that, got it covered. You can borrow my stuff.”
“That army coat’s good. Fur lining.”
“Going to need it.”
“Because this isn’t cold, wait until it gets really cold.”
“It’s like some kind of pride thing with them, ‘we can survive the cold’. How was Tempelhof ? Did you see the eagles ? And the Luftbrucke ?”
“On the corners ? Yeah. Looks like something out of a war movie.”
“Yeah, the Nazis built it, it’s one of the few Nazi buildings still in Berlin. Speer designed it. The Americans took it over and then had a problem about the eagles, because apart from the Nazi connotations, the eagle is also an American symbol, so they left them. Then they used Tempelhof for the airlift, dropping food and fuel over Berlin.”
“Someone’s been reading up.”
“Too cold to do anything else. Well, nearly anything else.”
“By which we segue way back into Ute. So, what’s the story ?”
“First … more drinks.”
Chris knew how to set up dramatic tension and took his time, going to the toilet, buying cigarettes from the machine and getting two more beers, creating sufficient expectation for the story, which was known to Richard only in barest outline. Chris had the stage and knew how to keep it.
He began filling in the background. Marina now worked at a bar in Steglitz, the co-owner was her aunt, not really an aunt, but, well, it was complex, and the Spüler (the washer-uper), had quit, or been asked to leave, because he had fought with one of the cooks, threatening to put his head into the deep-fat fryer, so there was an immediate opening and the job paid cash, every night, 12 Marks per hour, working from seven till round about midnight. With the studio in the afternoon, and then five days a week at the Bar Biberkopf, Chris was making the best money of his life. Richard commended him then tried to steer him back on course.
“Right, yes, Ute. So I’m working one night, and I get there early, have a coffee, maybe ten, fifteen minutes before seven, create a good impression by my timekeeping, because my actual work isn’t going to impress anyone. Sitting along the bar are two girls. I kinda recognised one, she was one of the barman’s girlfriends, but the other one … wow !”
“You betcha ! Then they get up to play pool, and we’re making eye contact, she hits a great pot, OK, pure luck, but what the heck, gives me a chance to say, ‘great pot’. She smiled and did this curtsey … I was gone, daddy, gone, knocked out, loaded.”
Chris still seemed mesmerised by the memory of it, as he took a long drag on his cigarette and stared into the distance. Richard coughed.
“What ? Oh, yeah, so, just when I’m about to make my move, play it all cool, the cook comes out and shouts at me, ‘ain’t you working tonight ?’ because it’s like four seconds after seven. Then Ute looked up, made a gesture of pity, and smiled at me. She smiled at me.”
“Ah, I love it when women smile at me.”
“You know what I mean, then ?”
“You think I can work after that ? I’m putting old food in the sink, plates in the trash. I’m just thinking about Ute, and when I can take a break, so as to see her. And, of course, tonight’s really busy, restaurant’s filling up, plates piling up. Then the cook sends me to get some shit in the cellar, which means going back into the bar, so I see her, I play it all cool, she looks over and … another smile. So, that’s it, I’m beaming, Cheshire Cat smile, all night. Not so the cook.”
“Not happy ?”
“The German work ethic don’t apply to cooks, ’cause those fuckers hate having to do shit. He’s getting more and more orders, getting more and more angry, starts kicking the fridge, the pots …“
“I’ve learnt to get outter the way. Point is, I have to keep working, so I can’t mossey into the bar. Now I panic; what if she leaves and I never see her again ? Eventually, I get a break and get some food.”
“What’s it like ?”
“Well, it’s the same as customer food, so it’s pretty grim. But I eat it at the bar … next to Ute. And after I finish, she gives me a cigarette. Gauloise Blue. Now I’m thinking what to do, should I stay after work and have a drink, or play it cool and leave, but I want her to know, without knowing too much … you follow ?”
“All the way.”
“So, later, I’m about to leave, when I see Ute sitting on the first bar stool, and I have to get my money, so I’m about to go up to her, make my move, when Georg comes over, and starts stroking her hair.”
“And Georg is … ?”
“Oh, yeah, he’s the barman that night. Now, Germans are more physical, they’re always touching each other, you know, it can be kind of, ‘Whoa, Nelly, this isn’t a petting zoo,’ so I don’t read too much into it, but then he whispered something in her ear, and she laughs.”
“Oh, that’s not good.”
“It’s a disaster. I mean, touch away, but making her laugh. I knew something was up.”
“So you … what ?”
“What could I do ? Hey, Johnny Cash, ‘what could I do ?’ Life’s a piece of piss for a Spüler named Chris. I got my money and left, hoping that Ute would follow me out with her eyes.”
“And did she ?”
“Well, how do I know ? I had my back to her. Anyway, I hit Kinski’s and I hit it hard that night. Probably why I had the fire and almost died.”
At this point, as Richard could have predicted, Chris broke off, ostensibly to take a drink and light a new cigarette, but really to build excitement. Richard refused to ask, waiting to see how long it would take Chris to follow up. Then Chris recognised some new people who had walked in, and began speaking to them. But if Richard was curious, he knew that Chris must be equally excited to return to his ever-evolving tale.
It was Richard who put an end to the impasse, wanting to get the story out of the way, so that they could get on with the serious drinking, because after the day he had spent, he was in the mood to get seriously drunk. He also knew that his non-story with Claire was a pathetic non-starter; Chris had lived enough for the both of them.
“To recap, Ute is with Georg, you drown your sorrows and end up in a ring of fire. Tonight’s session is brought to you by the songs of Johnny Cash.”
“What do you want to hear first ? The Ute saga, how our hero killed the evil beast and saved the princess, or how I battled the all-consuming fire, representing the flames of my passion ? Pretty symbolic stuff, hey ?”
“Just get on with the bloody story. We’re scientists, we deal in facts. Tell me in chronological order. So, you come here, get hammered, go home and … ?”
“And start a fire in the Ofen. You’ve seen all the wood in the flat ?”
“Couldn’t miss it, Noah. You building an ark or something ?”
“Hey, 5th of November, how about that ? Oh, we can look out for more wood, later.”
“So, I’m getting the Ofen working, got to sit there, burning paper and small bits of wood, to get it started, then bigger pieces, but not too big, or it’ll just put out the flame, and I’m falling asleep, but got to get the Ofen working or I’ll die from exposure, so I keep putting more wood in, opening the vents slowly, let air in, more paper, wood, finally, it’s going, roaring fire and I can start to feel the heat. God bless the first law of thermodynamics. I load it up and put in a big piece of wood, so big it sticks half way out. I’m thinking that it’ll burn for an hour or so, and that’ll be enough. I just crash, clothes on, shoes on, the works. Next thing I know, I’m woken by the sound of cracking, like logs on a fire. There’s black smoke in the room. There’s a fucking fire outside of the Ofen.”
“What did you do ? Weren’t you still drunk ?”
“Not for long. Nothing like a forest fire in the house to sober a guy up. Well, I panicked, of course, then ran out of the house. I was fully clothed, so it was OK.”
“But the fire .. ?”
“Still raging, yeah. So I have to go back in and put it out, but I’ve got no bucket now, because it was full of purple vomit, so I pick up the log and try to get it into the Ofen.”
“Wasn’t it hot ?”
“Fucking burning ! I scorched my hands, so I put on the gloves, picked it up quickly and carefully and shoved it in, stamping out the flames on the floor … the log had fallen onto some wood and paper and ignited them. Then I had to open the windows, because the room’s full of black smoke, so all the heat goes in seconds and it’s Siberia in there. “
“Fucking Hell ! You were so lucky. The paper fire. Could have had a Django situation.”
“Which is ?”
“Django Reinhardt, the Gipsy guitarist. When he was young, he fell asleep in his caravan and a candle fell onto some paper flowers his wife had made. Whole thing goes up, he gets injured, gets burnt so badly that he’s unable to use two fingers of his left hand. Then he goes on to be one of the greatest guitar players the world’s ever known.”
“So … what’s your point ? ”
“That you were lucky.”
“I was lucky, yeah. The next day’s Saturday, which means that I’m not working, I won’t be back at Biberkopf until Monday and I don’t even know when or if I’ll ever see Ute again. Anyway, I close the windows in the morning, and just stay in bed, or couch to be precise, under blankets, because I’m really hungover. By evening, I’m up and decide to see a movie at Babylon, we’ll have to go, by the way, nice cinema, English films, you can get a beer. So, I get there early and choose my place, middle row, middle seat. It’s Saturday, so it’s busy and it’s not so large, it’s filling up. I begin to notice that all seats are taken except the ones directly around me.”
“Sounds like me in the lecture halls.”
“And it’s only when there are absolutely no more seats available that people sit next to me, and even then, they’re on the edge of the seat, leaning away.’
“Well, living without a shower, you have to overcompensate with the deodorant. Just a tip.”
“It was the bloody coat. All my clothes in fact. My hair. I stank like an old bonfire.”
“Yeah, well, it’s only Berlin. Everyone stinks. After walking around for a day or two, the smell filtered out of the coat, and I tried to open the windows a bit, but it was too savage. Right fire story over, on to Ute. And, once again, Marina to the rescue.”
“That woman is your lifeline.”
“Yeah, I had a situation with Ross about that.”
“Oh, he found out about … or … what ?”
“No, he doesn’t know anything. How true. No, I mean, I was at the bar one night, before my shift and Marina’s working, so Ross pops in, and he sits there, with his beer, all pompous, all, ‘keepin’ an eye on me lassie’, when, just to have something to say to him as much as anything, I call Marina my fixer, you know, one who fixes things.”
“Well, he looks at me all blank, saying nothing. Then he goes all aggressive, and asks , ‘what ?’ So I repeat, repeat and clarify, two-pronged attack. ‘Oh’, he says, ‘I thought you said she was a Vixer.’ Which means ‘wanker’. If anyone was a wanker, it sure wasn’t Marina. Well, he fucks off, and I get a few seconds of Marina time and try to get the low-down on Ute. Marina saw through it immediately, all smiling and stroking my arm.”
“That petting zoo can stay open twenty-four hours.”
“Well, er … I’ve moved on from Marina. Lovely girl, but … I think it’s just seeing her with that arsehole. It’s killed the passion. Still lovely and great and all, but no romantic feelings.”
“And still great breasts.”
Chris wasn’t quite sure how to respond, having a faint recollection of a late night conversation about Marina’s attributes.
“Yeah, anyway, she’s my man on the inside. Here’s the deal. Ute’s an art student. Single. Georg … bit of a situation; he’s smitten, big time, he thinks he’s onto the real deal. No dice.”
“That’ll be the letter where you told me she’d dumped the boyfriend.”
“Right. Only they never were going out. Now, things are working in parallel. Walter, the owner, has made the schedule so that George now works mainly weekends. Ute comes in only on weekdays. I arrive early to spend time with Ute, because she sometimes comes with her friend after college. Sometimes without her friend.”
Here Chris winked before continuing,
“So we’re hanging out, talking, smoking, drinking. She lives in Mitte, and one night, I stay behind to have a drink, all free, by the way, and she offers me a lift home, because Steglitz is miles away, and I invite her for a drink. Not here, I thought I’d better suggest a normal bar, but she says, ‘no’, prefers these kind of joints, and takes me to one she knows, in some back street. We’re getting on really well. Then she invited me to a movie. She comes to pick me up and, ring those bells, she turns up in this stunning black number. She meant business and was taking no prisoners. And so … unconditional surrender.”
“What was the movie ?”
“Ah, who cares ? Now, to go back a bit. Georg. Nice guy, I like him. He’s not so big, but he works out, does karate, I think, something that involves kicking people and breaking bones. We were in the changing room once, and he took his shirt off; even his muscles had muscles. Not the guy you want to fuck with.”
“Or steal a girl from.”
“She never was his girl. But, smalltown Berlin, Georg’s found out about me and Ute … and that night, we’re working together.”
“Doesn’t sound good.”
“I get to work, and there’s just … this vibe, like an electric fence or one of those freaky, bug-zapping, blue lights they have in kitchens, normal kitchens that is, because what they use in Biberkopf is a roll of Sellotape, which gets encrusted with squirming flies. Georg’s looking mean and slamming people’s drinks down. Also, not entirely sober.“
This seemed a good point for fresh beers.
“Where was I ? Oh, right. I’m in the kitchen, and we have all the noise of my machine, water running, the cooker with eight rings a-blazing, soup a-boiling, chips a-frying, and so on, plus the radio’s always on. Plus background noise of a busy bar slash restaurant. Yet … yet, above all this din, I hear it. The cook hears it, even stops working and pokes his fat head out of the kitchen. Massive screaming match between Georg and Walter. Unfortunately, no subtitles. I’d have loved to pick up a carrot and nonchalantly chew on it, inquiring of a bilingual bypasser what was happening, but thought it best to keep working, because they’d find someway of blaming me. Bang, sound of door slamming. Georg went into the changing room. Puts his coat on, comes out, slams the door again and … that’s it … Haven’t seen him since.”
“Did you find out what they argued about ?”
“Georg blamed Walter for destroying his life, Walter accused him of being a no-good alcoholic. And so on. Couple of massive German customers stand up, gather around, but do nothing, just stand there, all serious, probably hoping for free drinks. Quite a night. So, that’s what you’ve missed. One more thing, Melanie’s coming over. Should be here in a couple of days and bringing a friend with her.”
“Yes. How the fuck did you know ?”