Part Two. Berlin. November 1993
It was five past eight when Will and Melanie turned up at the flat. Richard had stayed in all evening, waiting for them, and had been engaged in chopping wood for the Ofen when they banged on the door, both of them ensconced in leather motorcycle gear and looking faintly ridiculous. Richard, however, knew he was in no position to pass judgement, standing with a flimsy hacksaw over an unyielding pallet. He explained what he was doing, indicating the Ofen and the inappropriate tools he had for the job, for, in addition to the aforementioned and pretty much useless saw, he also had a hammer and a Philips-head screwdriver in his arsenal.
“I think that’s the secret, you get hot by chopping the wood, not from burning it.”
Melanie gave a sneering laugh, and when Richard thought back, he remembered this as the first time he suspected that she was laughing at and not with him.
Chris was working tonight and wouldn’t be back until at least one o’clock, and as he said this, Richard felt the room get a touch colder. Still, he played the host, showing them the flat, and accepting all their sarcasm good-naturedly, apologising as if it were his own apartment. Will went into detail about how easy it was to find the street, yet nearly impossible to find the actual flat, tucked away in its dark corner.
He had some soup ready and warmed it for them, making the kitchen as hospitable as possible with the ambient candle lighting and the blue gas jet from the cooker, left on to give heat. There was wine and beer in the house and they chose the former, a rather low quality bottle that Richard had happily picked up from a Turkish Imbiss for a pittance, (imagine, he told himself, going to a fish and chip shop in London, and being able to buy wine,) and which became the next target for criticism. Not that it stopped them from finishing the bottle.
Richard told them about the great bar they went to, saying that Kinski would be open after ten, and silently counted the minutes until they could go there. He asked their plans.
“Mel’s been here before, so I’m expecting her to know all the places to go and all that’s worth seeing.”
Mel just nodded, while Richard knew that her experience of east Berlin was of a solitary day-trip, and all the places that existed then were probably closed down, while the new places, the squat bars, would have been inconceivable. Will continued in his affected manner, exuding a studied sense of world-weariness, leaning back in his chair, and speaking into the air, rather than addressing his comments to people directly.
“We’ll hang for a couple of days, suss the scene, then move on. Want to get to Warsaw, take a look around, see how they’re embracing the new post-Communist freedom. Freedom ? Ha, right. Poor buggers.”
Eventually, it was time to leave. Philipp was making the bar, but it was quite busy, the distorted guitars sounding even worse, or better, through the faulty CD system. Richard found the music very irritating, mainly because he found the company difficult, and strained to think of anything to say. Chris was the link between them and he wouldn’t be here for hours. Therefore, the only solution was to enjoy himself in the bar, as the novelty of ordering drinks past eleven hadn’t worn off yet. That also gave him a topic.
“Mate,” started Will, with a theatrical sigh, “I could take you to places in Bavaria where everyone’s in bed by ten o’clock.”
Not knowing how to respond, Richard got up to get more drinks. He returned all too quickly, sat down and looked at his watch, when salvation happened in the shape of Shoulder.
A large, impressively powerful hand crashed down on Richard’s own shoulder, with such a grip, that he jumped.
“Ahhh, you’re back. And you sent me that postcard of a painting about nothing! I am never having my hair cut ever again, all Friseur, all barbers, are in the head, verrückt, crazy. And … I will tell you why.”
At that point, Shoulder, as was his style, leant over and rested his arm on Will, who was stunned into a very uncomfortable silence.
Shoulder spoke with quite a deep German accent but otherwise looked nothing like his tall, Aryan friends, being rather short and stocky, his build accentuated by the tight, ‘artist-in-residence’ jumpers he wore. His complexion, which was very dark, and his large, hooked nose actually made him look more like some long-lost Inca and, along with his idiosyncratic communication style of non-sequiturs and gesticulations, Shoulder created such an impression that Mel and Will were shocked, for once keeping their thoughts to themselves. For the first time since his arrival, Richard felt happy, truly happy and so … sit back, drink the Jim Beam and enjoy the show. He wasn’t disappointed.
“One time, I was in Italy, I was fucking an Italian girl, so I went there and she says, (here he affected a ludicrously inaccurate accent of an Italian woman) ‘oh, bambino, you are so beuono, mi-oo, but babeeeeee, can’t we have another lover with us ?’ So I think, Ahh, schön, zwei Mädchen, danke, (‘beautiful, two girls, thanks’) because, here I will tell you why. I thought, Italy, cooking and singing and pasta and women with big, big, biiigggggg, breasts (here Shoulder held out his hands, far from his body, as if struggling to contain said features.) But my baby had small breasts, (here he turned to Will, looked him right in the eye, then punched him, playfully, but with real force, in the chest,) you know what I mean ! Small … (here he looked up, saw Melanie, starred at her chest, all femininity suppressed under tight, black tops) … like you. And she couldn’t cook ! So, I think, I’ll have a nice mama with big, biiggggg breasts, but she say to me, (back to the accent,) oh, no, my babeee, I mean two men. What ! (back to starring at Melanie,) Why do all you women want that ? I have a one-penis policy. I have to leave. Now, (turning back to Will,) at this time, I had all beard and hair and … (miming a face with improbably wild growth of hair,) so, I go to hairshop. ‘Piacere ! Hello, What’s up, Brother ? Take off all the shit. Si, I miei capelli sono dritti al naturale, my head is of course straight, no bumps. Yes, I am from Germany, hallelujah.’ Don’t forget, I have been up all night, many night, fucking, so I am tired like a monkey, and I close my eyes, and clip, clip, clip, I sleep. I wake up. I hear them laughing. Then I see in the mirror. They cut my hair and shave off my beard, but they comb my head over and leave a little Hitler moustache. And they won’t cut it off ! I have to pay a litre of Lira and walk through the town. More. Last week I go to German barber, (turning back to Will) yes, remember, last week, you were here and we were speaking about clown make-up ?”
Here Richard could get a word in, repeating a familiar scene.
“No, Shoulder, it’s his first night here, you haven’t met him before.”
“Yes, he likes big breasts and motorbikes.”
The latter reference spread confusion, being so accurate, and allowed them to gloss over the former. Shoulder merely carried on his interminable tale,
“And he wouldn’t cut my hair!’
“Because of the Hitler thing ?” asked Will, desperate to make sense of the situation.
“No, because of this …” Shoulder had been wearing a woollen beanie hat, which he now took off, and in doing so, covered the table with white dust, dust which hung in the air, before falling into their drinks and over their clothes. And then, his act over, Shoulder got up and left, supporting himself on Richard’s shoulder and whispering in his ear,
“His keys,” before shuffling off to harass Philipp.
Richard was unable to decipher the message, until he looked over and saw that Will had his keys, with the Suzuki fob, on the table.
Unfortunately, the two guests hadn’t appreciated the performance as much as Richard, both finding it somewhat offensive and, claiming fatigue after their journey, asked to go back to the flat, where they drank the rest of the beer and waited for Chris. And waited.
The couch could easily sleep three, if not four people, (lengthways) but Richard preferred his sleeping bag on the floor, after making space, propping the procured pallet against the wall and moving the new rucksacks aside. By three o’clock, everyone was exhausted, but didn’t want to go to sleep, only to be woken by a buoyant Chris who would no doubt burst in with fresh bottles and energy. But it didn’t happen. Chris finally showed up at lunchtime, freshly showered and with clean ironed clothes, while the other three looked like refugees, unwashed and walking around in mismatched clothing for warmth, not fashion.
“What the fuck is this ? Look at you fucking, useless people !”
Chris said this with a smile, but there was a harshness in the tone that was telling. Seeing him so clean only highlighted their own state, and the awareness that they smelt unwashed increased their vulnerability. Melanie broke the silence :
“And where have you been ?”
“Ute’s,” was the only response, as Chris left the room immediately, claiming that he was going to make coffee. Will made a show of allowing Melanie use of the toilet sink first, then Richard, and, as they emerged, as clean as possible, they joined Chris in the kitchen.
Richard didn’t take it personally, thinking that Chris had invited people over when he had been alone, and now that they had all come, at the same time, he must have felt invaded. He didn’t want to think that not only were they now not required, but they were actually not wanted.
Will was the last to join them, oblivious to any vibe, and stood drinking, not seeing the lack of space for him at the small table as a symbol of any sorts. He suggested going out for lunch.
“I’m not hungry.” Melanie responded to Chris’ proclamation by saying that they were, and if he knew a good restaurant.
“No, but I know some bad ones.” It was a feeble joke, but it broke the tension. Richard mentioned meeting Shoulder. Will said that if that arsehole came up to the table again, he’d leave. Chris picked up on the cue, to ask him when he was leaving.
“Day after tomorrow, or the next day. Two or three days should do it for Berlin, get the low-down.”
“Yeah, well I’ll be working most of the time. Maybe Richard can take you out.”
“That’s nice, we come to see you and you won’t be here,” said Melanie.
“Hey ! I gotta work. All right ?” No one said anything.
One by one, they finished their coffees, washing up their cups immediately. Richard mentioned that he knew some bars that had a lunch menu and they agreed, glad to get out and Chris glad to get them out. As they were leaving, Richard whispered to Chris, asking if he was OK. He nodded and gave a little smile.
After lunch, Richard suggested that they go for a walk around Alex, but this only led to discussions about the weather, which, in truth, would be a factor, as it was bitter, and already getting dark. Instead, they decided to stay in the bar and order cognac with coffee and just talk. Richard had his guidebook with him and they discussed the merits and demerits of it, the lack of photos or colour maps, the lack of detail on the maps that were included, the layout, which made it more like a novel. Richard pointed out some of the more unusual museums that were hidden among the suburbs of Berlin, a dog museum, a hairdressing museum, which reminded him of Shoulder’s stories and an Ofen museum, apparently a collection of different types of the devise. Melanie said that they had to go, just for the kitsch factor.
They stayed until early evening and went back, all hoping that Chris would be out. In the Hof, Richard pointed up to the window, which was black, showing no one in. They tacitly agreed to stay in and go to the bar later, all being tired from the previous evening and the cold, which forced one to walk with hunched shoulders, heads down.
“So, what have you been doing since you got here ?” asked Melanie.
Richard stood up from the pallet he was trying to dismember and said,
“You must have done something.”
“Well, Chris works a lot, the studio, or the bar. Sometimes he stays with Ute.” Again, Richard saw a change come over Melanie. Keen to change the subject, he continued, “I want to get to the museums. Museum Island, has three or four different ones.”
“Yes, you must go to the Pergamon. The alter’s rather plain, but there’s a Roman gateway that’s outstanding.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” suggested Will, who was now helping Richard to chop the pallet into pieces small enough to fit into the Ofen. Getting the flat warm was a lengthy process, one which required constant attention.
“I’ve been walking around a bit, getting to know the area. Some nice parks. Lots of small statues and interesting things. I like going places that are just different. I want to see Ernst Thälmann, too.”
“Who’s that ?” asked Melanie, disturbed that there was somebody she hadn’t heard of.
“It’s a statue, apparently a giant Soviet-type thing in Prenzlauer Berg, just up the road by Strassebahn. Then, at nights, we’ve been to the Cafe Kinski and, on the way, back, pissed out of our minds, we go looking for wood. This was a Godsend, keep us going for weeks. Hopefully.”
“Just find it on the streets ?” asked Will.
“Yeah. Oh, we check it first. Make sure it’s dry, not too dusty. No dog shit. I’m becoming quite the connoisseur.”
They killed time, for that was all that they could do, by reading and drinking tea. Richard was starting in on Volume One of Proust, which caught Melanie’s eye and she launched into an impromptu review, of sorts, explaining why she wouldn’t read it, accompanied by an expression reminiscent of someone suddenly aware of an unpleasant smell, while sucking bitter lemons. She, in turn, was reading a modern fiction, which she was actually enjoying, but qualified that by saying that she had found it second-hand, and only brought it along due to its compact size.
At ten o’clock, precisely, that fact known by the chimes of the BBC World Service and a pre-war sounding jingle, Richard felt Will staring at him, indicating that it was now time for the bar to open, but Richard didn’t want to say that it was Berlin and that squat bar opening times were perhaps not as reliable as Big Ben (and anyway, Melanie no doubt would have said that Big Ben was the name of the bell, not the tower as most people suspected,) so he put his book down and began the process of dressing to go out. Extra jumpers, coat, gloves, scarf, boots. Melanie, meanwhile showed no sign of moving. Automatically, Richard said,
“Chris won’t be back for hours, yet.”
“Oh, I’m not waiting for him. I want to finish this book, then I can leave it here, reduce weight. I might come, later.”
Outside, Richard guessed that she was just tired and wanted an hour or two of uninterrupted sleep.
“Naw, she just wants to take a shit and’s too embarrassed with us in the house. Might take a dump, myself, in the bar, if that’s all right with you.”
Richard indicated that he was totally fine with the proposition.
It seemed to Richard as if they were shit outter luck again, as soon as he saw Jens at the end of the bar. It was quite busy, so must have opened earlier than usual, probably so Jens could call ‘geschlossen!’ early.
Richard ordered two beers, which were collected, opened and passed to him without comment, save the amount. He had to control himself from screaming ‘what’s your fucking problem ?’ but took a deep breathe and just thought about the cheap price. He took them back to their table, as Will, who was removing some of the outer garments, made his excuses, informing Richard that he should feel free to start without him, as he would be some time.
Richard, naturally, needed no second telling, and had finished the bottle before Will returned, giving the thumbs- up sign.
The pool table area was quite loud, as there was a group of young men playing a sort of tournament, and there was laughing and screaming and playful mock-fighting.
Richard, after he had got Will’s attention, began speaking about their tour and Melanie, hoping that he hadn’t spoken out of line when he accused her of waiting for Chris.
“He’s a real prick-teaser, that guy. Puts her through the ringer and I have to do the clearing up.”
Will then went on to talk about his travels, how he had been in southern Germany, but not Berlin, and mentioned a number of uneventful anecdotes which he seemed convinced were highly relevant and informative. When Richard asked about his work, he explained that he worked nights in a hospital because he liked the quiet, and was unable to deal with people, anymore. All the time, he was looking over at the pool game, perhaps envying the liveliness and fun they obviously were all having, and suggested that they change seats and move to a table by the front window, in front of the players, adding that it would be easier for Melanie to spot them, should she deign to turn up.
They moved and were more or less ignored, until one almost backed into Will with his cue, but was very apologetic. Will made a point of speaking in loud English, and it aroused the curiosity of several guys who introduced themselves and began a conversation.
Walking around the bar was a tall, skinny, long-haired man with round glasses and a distant gaze, who started moving around the pool table, at first asking for a light, then a cigarette, then a beer, then money.
He was politely dealt with, but he persisted in bothering the players, holding one player’s cue as he lined up a shot. One of the men, Mathius, who wore a white polo-necked jumper tucked into his jeans, took hold of the man, and led him outside, with some harsh words in German. Another smaller guy, who wore a blue bandana and mimed guitar solos on his cue, backed him up, and they returned to the game. The man came back in, cursing away and making threatening gestures. Again, he was taken outside and pushed into the street. This only made it worse, for he came back in and began shouting face to face with Mathius. The next thing, Mathius had him on the pool table, arms around his throat, then lifting one to threaten him with a fist. Instead, he lifted him up, roughly pushed him and finally Jens came over and officially barred him from returning. At that point, Melanie turned up, asking what she had missed.
Richard now sat with her, as Will was up and in deep conversation with some of his new friends. Some time after one, Chris appeared, and said sorry for the morning. It appeared as if the studio job was ending and it wasn’t sure if there would be new projects or, as fellow worker Arizona Al predicted, the whole shebang was about to up sticks and hitch over to Japan. Or it may have been Korea. Taiwan ?
Melanie was extra pleased by this more familiar side of Chris, and smiled and found any excuse to touch his arm. Who, she wanted to know, was ‘Arizona Al’ ?
“He’s a guy called Al who’s from Arizona. Cool guy, little bit odd, musician, I think. He works the copy-machine.”
“What, full-time ? That’s all he does ?”
“It’s a full-time job. They’re copying shit left and right and someone always fucks up the machine, so they put one guy on it, permanent. He hangs out there, drinking herbal tea, singing to himself. He told me about going to the Hansa Studio, and touching the piano Bowie used on ‘Heroes’.”
“Cool. Have to meet him.”
The mood must have been infectious, as even Jens was smiling and no one was refused a drink. Around three, they left the bar and walked the short distance home, Chris and Richard conditioned to seek out good wood from among the street debris. Will managed to get Richard’s attention.
“Chris can be an A-One bullshiter, but I think he’ll be OK here. All the stuff he talks about doing, I can see it, now, it’s possible in this city. I’m gonna have to consider a relocation. That Mathius is a cool guy. I’ve invited him to London and I hope he comes. The guy in the bandana, too. Learnt a lot, tonight. Got the handle on the political set-up. Yeah, look forward to coming back.”
He and Melanie left two days later and Chris, in Kinski that night, with beer and Jim Beam, beamed as he informed Richard of another guest, heading over later that week.
Richard thought that it would be a whole different dynamic with Nuno, and he was right, only not in the way that he was hoping.