3rd April 2021
Part Five. Berlin. Autumn 1994
Finally, just before lunch time on Sunday afternoon, Chris woke up, got out of bed and showered. Richard was finishing off his Hemingway, then emptied the fridge in preparing two plates, using all the remaining bits of food.
“Ah, a moveable feast !” joked Chris.
“You OK ?”
“No. Not really.”
Richard didn’t know how to help. Usually they would just drink, but that had only sent Chris into oblivion from which he had returned, yet the pain remained.
“Well, anything, I can do, just ask. Probably won’t be much, but … well, let me know.”
Richard knew that it wasn’t the time or place for his own dog-dance.
Instead, he made up a pretext for going out, so as to give Chris some space.
Left alone, Chris sat and smoked, numbing his mind with the BBC World Service, re-tuning when the news came on in German.
He envied Richard a little. He had Chris to fall back on, to answer his questions and to explain the mysterious workings of this schizophrenic city. Despite being the capital of the newly re-united Germany, the strongest economy in Europe, Berlin still had so many traces of it’s recent, Eastern Block past. Opening hours were seemingly arbitrary, queueing systems non-existent, food often unidentifiable.
The public telephones all worked and he had never seen any vandalism, which was taken as read in England, but they had an irritating choice of being either card operated, or coin, only rarely both. By now, he knew the pattern in his area, but had been caught out, trying to call Monika, happy to find a phone, only to realize he only had coins for a card machine, or vise-versa.
Then there was the paranoia. This was caused by not understanding enough of the language and being confronted by important-looking letters, or notices, or announcements, or street talk, and always having to ask what it meant, and if alone, a sense of powerlessness and vulnerability.
There was one final custom in Berlin that was going to have an immediate effect. The shop opening hours. All shops, with barely a few exceptions, closed all weekend. Food shopping had to be done on Friday mornings, or the only choice would be take out food or restaurants.
Chris looked at the phone, willing it to ring but refusing to call Monika, and smoked his last cigarette. Having to buy more was a good reason to go out and he walked to a street vending machine to buy more smokes, the Vietnamese not working the U-Bahn on Sundays.
But then his spirits lifted slightly. Where else would he find a city with cigarettes available by machine on the street. They wouldn’t last five minutes back home.
He opened the packet of Golden American’s, not his usual brand, but it was from a vending machine, he had to make allowances, and flicked his lighter. The flame flickered and went out and he had to cover it with his hand to keep it burning. He turned up his collar. The air was getting chilly. Winter was on its way.
Richard came back as it was getting dark, and found Chris in much the same position as when he’d left him, sitting in the kitchen, chain-smoking, starring off into space.
But now they were starting to get hungry.
They waited a little, staving off the hunger with cigarettes and coffee, but eventually they had to get food.
Not having the money or mood for a restaurant, their only choice was to find an Imbiss. This is usually not a problem. They were ubiquitous in Berlin, and there were some in Stargarder Strasse, some by the U-Bahn, and in most of the neighbouring streets.
Tonight, they all seemed to be closed.
It took a little time, but by a very circuitous route, they ended up in a Turkish Imbiss on Stargarder. The kebabs, however, were finished. All meat, in fact, was out. All that was left, before the staff emptied the displays to prepare for the new week, were pitiful salads or large, yellow objects.
They looked at each other, their hunger taking precedence over their judgement, and they cleaned out the large, yellow-object tray. They were wrapped in tin-foil and put into a thin plastic bag.
On the way home, more curious than famished, they took their first bites.
Pure, deep-fried fat, barely warm.
Then Chris let out a sound of disgust.
“What the … ?”
Richard echoed the sentiment.
“In the name of … ?”
Hidden in the centre, amidst layers of cold, stodgy fat, were florets of cold, barely cooked cauliflower.
There was silence in the flat. They studied their plates, examining this alien food. Grease oozed out when they prodded the lumpen mass.
Chris slowly put his plate down, took a fresh cigarette and said,
“Fuck this, I’m going for some real food. Not this … fucking, old … Socialist shit. This Commie crap. Mush for the masses. Fuckin’ … I mean, school dinners had nothing on this, this … Cack ! That’s what it is. Cack ! Hello, Mr Imbiss Man, I’d like some cack, please. And, yes, my good man, pile up the cack and put more cack on top. Don’t stop there, give me a side order of …’ “
“Good idea, side order of cack. And, to pass the time, while you’re filling my order, give me a glass of cack. Fucking hell. All right, you wait here, I’ll bring back some proper food.”
Richard waited. Nearly an hour later, Chris returned. He held out a bag, with a bottle clearly delineated.
“OK, here’s the bad news; I could only get Bells Whiskey.”
By the time Richard left for work the following day, he still had a hangover.
Chris hadn’t made it into the studio at all.
One of the first thing that caught Richard’s eye when he began working at Bar Biberkopf was that the crockery, cutlery and glasses matched the ones in Chris’ flat. Sometimes his own naïvety amazed even himself.
He thought back to his early days at café Kinski. A man had sat at the bar, skinning up a joint, in front of Silvio, and this had shocked him, thinking how could he be so blatant, right in front of the barman. He learnt, soon enough, that joints were almost as common as cigarettes.
The work was pretty easy, if not tedious and mind-numbing. In addition to cleaning plates (which a machine did), there were minor preparation jobs, such as peeling vegetables or fetching things from the cellar.
The staff were generally friendly, though no one to match Hannah’s beauty. And he was slowly learning German, albeit kitchen terms and swear words.
The benefit was cash in hand (every night), access to alcohol, free food and, apparently, home furnishings.
On Wednesday night, he got home around one-thirty, the journey requiring two night buses, and found Chris in an even deeper depression.
Richard decided to take him to The Anchor on Stargarder, opposite the red brick GethsemaneKirche, hoping it would still be open and that the cute little waitress would be working. It was, she wasn’t.
Fearing that it would soon be ‘Feure Abend’ (last orders), Chris ordered four beers and two large whiskys.
The next day Chris again missed work, and while Richard was out buying food, he had an idea. He checked his change, making sure he had enough large coins, and went to the coin pay phone. He called Melanie.
When he returned home that night, he found Chris in a much better mood, and there was a bottle of Sekt waiting, which Richard was grateful for, as the whisky drinking was starting to take its toll.
“Melanie phoned. Out of the blue. Can you believe that ? We had a really good talk and … well, dig this, ya ready ? I’m back with Monika.”
“Sekt ! Open the bloody bottle, let me hear that cork pop.”
Chris told how Melanie had helped and, afterwards, he felt strong enough to call Monika. They talked for nearly an hour and decided to get back together.
“Oh,” said Chris, “one more thing. Lorelei’s left her stupid boyfriend and has moved in with some old fruit. Also, there’s an art student, music student open-house event, gathering, thing, on Saturday, and we’re all going. Lorelei sans boyfriend.”
Chris raised his eyebrows up and down several times.
“Just pour the Sekt.”
Richard hid his smile by his ex-Biberkopf Sekt glass.