22nd April 2021
Konzerthaus Berlin, on Gendarmenmarkt, in the Mitte district.
Part Five. Berlin. Winter 1994
Chris arrived home a little after three in the morning, being quiet, but not too quiet, hoping that if Richard were awake, he could tell him about the new look Czar Bar and how he had seen Jake, Gaptooth and a new German who looked exactly like David Hockney.
He opened the door to the main room, the light from the hall casting a dramatic beam straight up to Richard, arms sprawled, head at an awkward angle, half undressed, not moving, a quilt partially covering him but not a sound.
Chris’ heart stopped. He immediately sobered up and ran to the body, reaching for the pulse and holding his hand in front of the nostrils. The wrist pulsated, the back of Chris’ hand was chilled by breathe.
He got up and looked in the kitchen, turning on the light without any danger of waking Richard. There, on the table, were seven or eight cans of cheap beer, most of them empty and crushed. Then he looked in the bin, and there were three of four more empties.
Chris walked back into the room and did his best to make Richard comfortable, taking off the one shoe he still wore, his watch, in case he caught himself, and put the quilt fully over him, as the Ofen was going out and the room was getting cold.
He stoked up the Ofen and went to sit in the kitchen, taking one of the remaining beers and calmly drinking until his heart could return to a normal rhythm.
It had stirred up a painful memory, one that had haunted his childhood.
At eight or nine, Chris had found his elder sister on the bathroom floor, vomiting and screaming. Not knowing what to do, he just cried and went to hold her, joining in her screams.
And then he felt her slip away.
He sat with her until his parents came home, who told him that she had eaten too many sweets and was now sleeping, aware that this simply wasn’t true, that something very, very bad had happened, but not knowing why or what, except that he really did know what, but would never know why.
Sitting in his Berlin kitchen, sipping the gassy, tasteless beer, his heart still pounding, Chris was unaware that he was crying.
Richard had seemed so happy. He had been dancing around the flat, not complaining about the sudden drop in temperature which would mean another six months of chopping wood, wearing coats indoors and going into the cellar for briquettes.
He had caused a minor sensation at work, by thanking the staff when they brought him dirty plates and singing along to the radio. He was speaking to Chris about Biberkopf one night at the Ankor.
“It’s always on the same station,” he said of the work radio, ”and they only have about fifty records, which they play in various sequences. There’s a few classics, a few modern hits, and a whole bunch of shit. As for those new Elton John songs, postcards and that bloody cat …”
“That’s not Elton John. I know who you mean and it’s some American asshole.”
“Really ? Well, whatdoyaknow ? Oh, I heard that Crash Test Dummies song, you know the one ? Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm ? Fucking freaky goddamn lyrics, kids with weird birthmarks, and white hair. Never heard it before, but there was this drunk guy in London who was humming it on the tube, late one night. Actually it’s a really good song. Can’t stop humming it, myself. Oh, and what’s that Bryan Ferry song about Berlin ? Non-stop Berlin ?”
Chris looked puzzled, then understood.
“Oh, I know what you mean and every word is wrong ! Nearly every word. It’s ‘Don’t Stop The Dance’.”
“Think I prefer my version.”
“Me, too. More appropriate.”
And they burst into an impromptu rendition, much to the surprise of the cute, ginger-haired waitress, who clearly wasn’t impressed.
“I was thinking,” began Richard, “we should have a culture night, The Gang. I was looking through Tip at work, (Tip is one of two listing magazines, the other being Zitty. Both cover a two week period and come out alternate weeks. Tip is the glossier of the two) and there are so many concerts going on. Classical concerts and Opera. Looks quite cheap, too.”
Chris leant back, drank some beer and thought.
“All right. Yeah. A night at the Opera. Let’s go.”
He got up and went to the magazine rack, taking the copy of Zitty (which was favoured by the alternative scene) and opened it to the music pages.
“Here, the Komische Oper, ‘Strange, or funny Opera’. They perform in German, I think. Yeah. Hey, look … Thursday and, yeah, great, Saturday, Carmen by Bizet. I could dig that.”
“You know Bizet never went to Spain ?”
“Would that be true ?”
“Aye, it would.”
“Well, I say. I’m gonna file that under ‘interesting but also boring facts’.”
“Well, you do what ya gotta do.”
The following Saturday, Monika, Chris, Gabi, Lorelei, Arizona Al and Richard all met in the foyer of the theatre. Arizona was last to arrive, and turned up in knee length purple boots, dark green velvet trousers, an old, brown leather flying jacket, and floppy hat, a thin, wooden instrument strung across his back.
He bounded into the theatre, jumping up the steps. He got quite a few interested and happy looks, and even gave a small performance, singing ‘Ring of Fire’ on his curious contraption.
“Hey, like my dulcimer ? Pretty cool, hey ? I did some busking on the U-Bahn earlier and made enough to pay for my ticket.”
The coat-check girl was also amused by the dulcimer as Arizona handed it to her, along with his hat and slightly effeminate, small shoulder bag.
Richard had the tickets and led them into the auditorium, finding the six seats, and was a little put out that Arizona sat down next to Lorelei, leaving him on the outside.
They all looked around the hall, admiring the décor and the atmosphere. The musicians could be heard tuning up, but were out of sight. Arizona Al lifted himself up, straining to see where the music was coming from, and turning to Richard, asked him,
“Hey, where’s the orchestra ?”
“In the pit.”
Arizona couldn’t contain himself, but jumped up and down in his seat, pounding the arms of the chair and inadvertently bashing into Lorelei.
“Hey, listen up, man, I just asked Richard where the orchestra was, and he said, ‘in the pit’. Orchestra pit ! I never knew what that meant before !”
They all enjoyed the show, Arizona especially, who watched it with a child’s innocence, and Richard was continuously nudged, poked and slapped.
After, they went to a bar in the old Nikolaiviertal, one of the oldest areas of Berlin, recently made over and gentrified, but still retaining a definite charm, due to the river Spree forming the western border, and the imposing, brick, twin-spired Nikolaikirche dominating the cobbled-streets of quaint shops and bars.
Gabi meet a friend, Heike, who worked in stage design and had also seen the new production of Carmen.
Chris said, “Oh, hey, did you know, Bizet, the guy who wrote it, never even went to Spain ? Isn’t that just the craziest ?”
The Gang all found this very interesting, and when Richard turned to look at Chris, he saw him lower his eyes and hastily take a long gulp of beer.
Before Richard left for work on Monday, he met Chris, just back from the studio who informed him,
“Arizona had a great time. Told me he made a connection with Heike.”
“Oh, you mean they got on well ?” asked Richard.
“No, dude, he fucked her. Twice, apparently. Said it was his first … ‘connection’ in Berlin.”
“Ah, yes, he broke his duck.”
“He wants to go out with us, again.”
“I bet he does. We’re not his pimps, you know.”
“You mean procurers ? Never mind. You know what’s opening this week ? Pulp Fiction ! The new Tarantino !”
“Man, I’ve been counting the days, big time.”
“We can all go, Saturday. It’ll be at the Odeon, English version with Kraut text.”
“I have to get to my terrible job now, but you get The Gang onto it. That is your mission, should you choose to accept it.”
Chris saluted, as Richard made his way to the elevated U-Bahn station and waited on the chilly platform for the westbound train.
So Arizona had made his first conquest. Chris had already been with a couple of girls, but, so far, Richard had struck out. But he was waiting. Lorelei had left her boyfriend. Maybe he had played at least some small part in her decision ? She had sent over messages, had come to the Opera and he was sure she was expecting him to sit next to her. At the end of the night, she had kissed him on the cheek, and held his arm. He took all this as a sign that he only had to be patient and the girl he was so in love with would be his.
However, only Arizona, Chris, Monika and Richard made it to the cinema. Gabi wanted to see it in German and Lorelei was going with her.
Again, Richard was next to Arizona in the cinema but, once he realized Lorelei wasn’t coming, due to a choice of languages, he sat back, swigged his beer and waited for the excitement to begin. They had been surprised at the cast: John Travolta ? Bruce Willis ?
But from the opening scenes in the diner, and the title music, they knew they were in for one hell of a ride.
The twist contest took place, Richard digging Arizona in the ribs,
“Hey, this cat can really dance.”
Arizona jumped up and pointed to the T-shirt Tarantino was wearing in the kitchen scene, as he recognized the logo and began telling a story about it, making Richard miss untold lines.
The highlight of the night, however, occurred in the last diner scene. The Samuel L. Jackson character has a wallet embossed with the legend, ‘Bad Motherfucker’. The German translation for this, when it appeared, full screen in a classic Tarantino close-up, was, ‘Böser Schwarzer Mann’ (Angry Black Man.)The entire cinema erupted into spontaneously laughter.
From that point on, they re-enacted lines of dialogue and added new words to their vocabulary.
Every time a customer ordered mayonnaise with chips, Richard let out an, ‘Errrchh, they fuckin’ drown ‘em in that shit, I seen ‘em do it!’, to the total mystery of the east German chef.
One night Richard got a call at work. It was Lorelei. She said that Monika was over at the nearby Café Haller, and was wondering if he wanted to come over, when he’d finished his shift.
He worked at double speed the remainder of the evening.
As clean and fresh as possible after a five hour shift in a hot kitchen, he walked over to the bar where Lorelei had started working. She was finishing up her shift, adding up her dockets, and gave Richard a hug, as he cried out how good it was to see her.
As he looked over, he saw Monika waving from a far table. Next to her was a man in a leather jacket. Lorelei explained that it was ‘only’ Werner, a really nice, harmless customer, who was keeping Monika company and keeping the leeches away. She told him to go sit, and she’d send a beer over, and gave him such a lovely smile and wink.
Monika stood up to hug and kiss Richard and Lorelei came over to sit next to Werner. He appeared to be in his mid thirties and had tight curly hair that looked one moment blonde, the next brown. He had rather protruding eyes and slightly buck teeth, but was very friendly and pleasant, the kind of guy you can always depend on to help move furniture, or pick you up from a distant location.
Richard tried speaking in German, which was improving, but still very basic. Lorelei said that it was cute to hear him, so he continued, as long as possible. At one point, he saw Werner look at him, with the kind of look that said, ‘how can two fucks like us be with two beautiful women like these ?’
Before Richard had finished his first beer, Werner said he had to leave, and Richard shook his hand like he was an old friend.
And then it all went wrong.
Lorelei looked at Richard, smiled and got up as well.
Richard thought that he would be the one, finally, to leave with Lorelei.
Instead, she turned to him and held out her hand. They shook, then she went over to Monika, kissed her goodbye, and left. With Werner.
Richard slumped down, feeling lifeless and humiliated and just plain lost.
“I’m never going to be with Lorelei, am I ?” was his rhetorical question.
Monika slowly shook her head, looking at him with real concern, not knowing what to say, and began to feel both uncomfortable and genuinely hurt, as if she could not only sense, but physically feel his pain.
She offered to drive him home, and suggested they go somewhere to drink in Prenzlauer Berg. He agreed and she almost had to help him out of the bar and into her car.
As they drove, Richard thanked her for everything, and told her that he’d be all right. He asked her to drop him by an U-Bahn station, where there would be an Imbiss open and he could buy some beer. It was better if he were alone, but he told Monika that Chris was at home.
She let him out and he waved her on. He didn’t want her to see him buying as many cans as he could carry.