5th December 2020
London. Spring 1994
“So one of the chefs tells me to clean out the large vegetable freezer and I’m in there, scraping frozen crap off the shelves and sweeping up lumps of … I don’t know what. Then, this other chef appears, young guy, tall and gormless, carrying a clipboard. It’s part of his job to make routine checks on the temperatures, every day, same time. Now, the door’s open because, right, I’m in there, doing their shitty work. Gormless looks at the temperature gauge and, naturally, it’s way up, and he freaks out. This has never happened before, it’s an anomaly, except, of course, he wouldn’t know what an anomaly was, because he’s a chef, and of all the qualifications needed for that job, intelligence ain’t one of them. “
“So,” asked Melanie, unaccustomed to keeping quiet for long, “you’re saying he’s not too bright ?”
“As two short planks. Now, here’s the rub; he has to think.”
“In spades, and he really does, no bullshit, man, stand there, gob wide-open, dribble trickling down, you can hear the spokes turning, slow, slow, then … light bulb above the head, he comes up with a solution, though he’s probably more used to sniffing solutions that in coming up with them. Be that as it may, he says, proud as Punch, ‘I’ve gotta closer door, Mate.’ And proceeds to do same.”
“What did you do ?”
“I objected, of course. I’m in a bloody freezer, in just a T-shirt, and he wants to close the door on me. Apart from the fact that the temperature is going to go down to minus Twenty-Five or whatever, the perishing light will go out ! They’ll go back to get some peas, and find me frozen like Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’.”
“The situations you find yourself in,” joked Melanie as Richard once again got the sense that she was laughing explicitly at him, not his anecdote.
“But he wouldn’t be told. I tried to explain the law of manslaughter to him, and that being a fucking moron was no defence. No avail. So I just left it. I mean, the freezer’s working, everything is stone cold and the only reason the gauge is up is because the door’s open. Use some initiative; fake the temperature. But no, he can’t do that, has to carry out his orders, do his duty. Then his girlfriend walked past and gave one of those, ’Look what I have to put up with’ expressions, deep intake of breathe, then followed by the, ’But I love him all the same, the big lumock’ look.”
“What’s she like ?”
“Not bad, kinda cute. OK, bit on the chubby side, but good features. Lovely eyes. Too good for him. What I should have done was to hit him on the head with a bag of frozen cauliflower. We got time for one more, or shall we go ?”
For the past month or so, Richard had been meeting up with Melanie and seeing movies or just having a drink. This evening, they were in a small pub by Leicester Square, before going to see a film based in post-war Berlin. It was a disappointing mess of a co-production, with a British actor giving a one-dimensional portrayal of an American, an American actor giving an unconvincing, stiff-upper lipped rendition of a Englishman and an Italian beauty attempting to be an ugly German. But, at one point during the film, there was an interior scene showing a room with an Ofen. Richard and Melanie poked each other on the leg and laughed. They left as soon as the film finished, heading straight back to the pub. They covered the usual topics: Richard’s awful job, awful love-life, awful everything. It seemed to cheer Melanie up.
“No regrets about leaving the record store ? I mean, it was regular work.”
“Not really. Couldn’t go back there, anyway, they would have sacked me for taking off too much time. And for what ? Berlin in Winter. Barely even saw Chris.”
This was the link Melanie was waiting for, and she barely listened to the rest of his speach.
“I can understand what Will meant, now, about not being able to work with people. I mean, my job really is shit, but at least I don’t have to deal with … the public. Book shops and classical music, sounds like ‘green and pleasant land’ material, but it’s the Mean Streets. In Fordham’s I devised a theory. People were in a bad mood because they came in to buy books that they couldn’t find, couldn’t afford and didn’t really want. As for the Classical Music lot … I tell you, you won’t find a more arrogant bunch of self-loving Arschlochs than music students. Makes me miss my old Physics gang. “
If Richard hoped Melanie would take up this cue, he was mistaken.
“Speaking of Chris, I got a letter from him recently. Are you still in touch ? You know he’s moved, now, and got a new girlfriend ? Oh, yes, much better by the sounds of it. I didn’t like Ute at all. I knew it wouldn’t last.”
This was all news to Richard, who hadn’t heard from Berlin since he left, the previous November. Melanie brought him up to speed, taking secret pleasure in being the one with the information.
Ute had decided to go back to Hamburg, possibly having something to do with the suspicious phone calls and letters that periodically arrived and which she read privately and hid at the back of a cupboard. Chris seemed somehow prepared, as if expecting it. Soon after, he was in love with a new woman. Her name was Monika and she was Austrian.
“She doesn’t stand any nonsense, by the sounds of it. She’ll keep Chris in line. My kind of girl. That’s what you need, a good, strong, Germanic girl.”
Richard was very close to admitting that right now he’d settle for any kind of girl, but didn’t want to give Melanie too much ammunition.
“So he’s still at the restaurant ?“
“Oh, yes, he says they’ll probably make him a chef before long.”
“Please, no more talk about chefs.”
“And the new place. In Prenzlauer Berg.”
“That sounds much better. The flat in Rigaer Strasse … I’ve tried telling people about it and no one believes me.”
“I know, they look at me and think how could someone like me possibly spend time there.”
“Quite. Oh, there was something else weird happen after you left. Every night, about six o’clock for an hour, the water from the toilet sink had an electric charge.”
“There you are, trying to wash yourself, two inches at a time, and no cheap cracks, Lady, and suddenly … the water gives you an electric shock. Only in Berlin. Still … “
“What, you miss it ?”
“Yeah. Sometimes. I don’t know. I’ve never lived there. Maybe November was especially bad. The weather. Chris being preoccupied. So, Monika … ? “
Richard enjoyed these after-work evenings and found Melanie good company. She introduced him to a lot of films and authors he wouldn’t otherwise have know, and got him out of the bedsit. The film about Berlin, and the conversation about Chris had provoked conflicting thoughts about that city. The November nightmares began to fade, as the good times of September asserted themselves; amazing squat bars, friendly, open people, an easier pace of life. U-Bahns that arrived on time. A population less than half of London’s. Women, girls, young ladies. Hannah. Maybe she was still at the bar … or Monika … she must have friends. Maybe it was time to re-open diplomatic ties between London and Berlin.