13th October 2021
Part Nine. Berlin. Sylvester 1995 -1996
“She stood you up ! Silke ! Here ! And you kissed, you sonofa…. You should see where she lives, and the shampoo … neon blue, and what a fragrance, designer alltheway, nonea that Schlecker (1) sheiss ! Did ya phone her ? Now, Pimms … no, but have a butcher’s, take a gander at this my friend.” (2)
Thus, Hurricane Chris, back in Rodenbergstrasse, coat still on, hat down over eyes, gloves thrown in different compass points of the room. Thus, Hurricane Chris, a vortex of verbosity, several topics covered in one seemingly endless bombastic tirade, no pause for breath or thought. Now, Hurricane Chris bending and rummaging through travel bags, an auspicious, “Ahhhhhhh, voila !”
Behold, a bottle, one metric-litre, of the finest port, according to Chris, Duty-Free had to offer, who went into pointer dog hunt mode, searching out suitable vessels.
“No port glasses ? Oh, that’s positively Dickensian.” Finally, an intermission for Richard to get a word, but probably no more, into the proceedings.
“Port is quintessentially Dicke …” Almost four words.
“Oh, it’s Melanie, everything, all of a sudden, is ‘Dickensian’. Now, what we need are comma glasses. Hhmmm, OK, these Biberkopf beakers will have to suffice, I want to hear your news, Silke, man ! And ya … where, where did ya kiss her ?”
Richard looked around him:
“Pretty much around here,” pointing to the floor.
“Very funny, no port for you, ya damn kissaholic, I mean, you know what I mean. Anatomy !”
Chris nearly went into orbit:
“The lips ! Silke ! The lips ! Man … man. Silke, on the lips. And … ?”
“And … ? How was it ?”
“It was … nice.”
Chris thought, amateur dramatic style, finger stroking chin.
“Hhhmmm, nice or … nicccccccceeeee ?”
“It was nice.”
“Oh. Yeah, well, go figure.”
Chris shook his head, and seemed to be pondering the deepest of mysteries. Suddenly, he snapped back to the more pressing business of port, leaving behind the disappointing smoochings of Silke (with the Bond-girl legs).
“Stood you up, hey ?”
“And I’ll tell you all about it, but first, we drink, then you tell me about Melanie, I still can’t believe … never mind, then I’ll tell you all that didn’t happen. Which won’t take long. A heads up; nothing happened.”
Chris concurred. They clinked their totally inappropriate glasses, appropriated from Cafe Biberkopf, Chris took off his outer layers as the Öfen had been stoked all day and the room was snug in the extreme, and the catching up began.
“So she’s living at Clapham Junction, near that store Arding and Hobbs …”
“Arding and Hobbs, Arding and Hobbs,” sang Richards to Chris’ utter bemusement until the memory of distant Christmas TV adverts came back.
“Oh, yes, yes, I never, OK, so, Mel’s got this great pad, I mean, Man, it’s so new, so clean, got an intercom, security gates … washing machine.”
“Check out my jumper, no, don’t, it’s already been Berlined, oh, it’s only Berlin, and we have port ! Drink up. Prost !”
“And you didn’t go home ?”
“Well, I planned, but everything was booked, booked or fucking hell, do you have any idea how expensive everything is ? Train to Stafford was more than the flight to Berlin. Then when I saw the flat, I just crashed, I mean, I was ex…haus..tttedddd. I couldn’t move. Bag down, shower … hot water, even the water felt …”
“Cleaner. And the shampoo ! My friend, we have accustomed ourselves to a bargain bin basement lifestyle. Port excepted. Man, this port is beautiful.”
“Yes, it’s like Zola. I love Zola, but I’ve hardly read any. Port is exquisite, we can get it here, I guess, but we don’t. Bumped into Danny Boy on Christmas. Gave me this.”
Richard reached over and held up a Penguin Classic edition of Zola’s ‘L’ Assommoir’, black spine, Degas painting on the cover.
“That looks right up my street, some knackered old slapper drowning her miseries. So, Mel, great pad … ”
“How can she afford it on just a grant ?”
“Ah, the plot … mutates. Sister. Sister avec boyfriend. Boyfriend has one of those jobs. Ditto sister. Merchant banker, him, project manager with development portfolio, her. No fucking clue any which way, me. Landed Mel with a part-time gig as managerial consultant.”
“The only part of that that made any sense to me was, ‘No fucking clue.”
Chris threw his hands up;
“I know, I asked, I asked again, I tried making diagrams, zilch.”
“German chef syndrome. You ask the name, it doesn’t take, you try again, you know, you just know, you can’t ask a third time. So you call him Yorckstrasse, and that really pisses him off. So, Mel graduates next summer ?”
“In reality, yes. In her noggin she’s already Erasmus professor at Harvard, Cambridge being somewhat beneath her.”
“Oh …,” exclaimed Richard as a loud firecracker exploded nearby. “She’s coming to stay … here ?”
“Well I can’t invite her to Rigaer 78, can I ? Can I ? No, she’s too busy. Maybe a weekend visit, but that was her just … ”
“Being herself. Now, what the Dickens ?”
“Oh, that, well one day there was a buzz and the intercom was slightly distorted, which incurred her wrath, ‘Oh, how Dickensian.’ Another day the washing machine didn’t spin, you guessed it, ‘How Dickensian.’ Seems someone had lent her some TV drama, ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’, I believe, on video.”
“Ya mean she didn’t even read the book ? Kids ! You’re waiting to hear about the date, right ?”
Chris nodded and refilled the glasses. Richard sat back to compose himself. Meanwhile Chris had found the Ritters;
“This chocolate is fucking gorgeous. Ok, the floor is yours. You saw me off at the airport, oh, I forgot, ya dumped me at the U-Bahn … ”
“After which I returned home, picking up the pastry, cookin’ the coffee. Suddenly, bang, bang, bang on the door. Enter Silke, legs and all, hug, exchange of body warmth, increase of heart rate. We natter for an hour or so, she just lives over Stargarder now, we drink, we talk, we smoke, we laugh … we kiss. Once. Long but not too long. Lips closed. No invitation for a follow up. It was, I believed, a taste of things to come. So, we are at Kottbusser Tor, by which I mean I was, and I’m making my way through the drunks and bums and the, ‘Haben Sie Kleingeld, bittes ?’ (3) heading for the right exit, get to the bar, I’m early, of course, get a drink, Campari and soda … and casually wait. Bar’s getting busy, Saturday night before Christmas. I look around, take my drink, sit where I can see the door, just waiting for her to arrive. Make a point of not checking my watch, but this is Berlin …”
“And they are ticking away. S’OK, weather’s terrible, delay on the U-Bahn, I know, it’s Berlin there are never delays on the U-Bahn. She’s putting on special make up, or a dress or … so I wait. I allow her thirty minutes, no problem. It’s now forty-five minutes. I’m sippin’ that Campari as slow as possible. Now it’s an hour. I need the bathroom.”
“Do you stay or do you go ?”
“Oh, I had to go, big time ! All that soda. But if I go and she comes, she may think I’ve gone or stood her up. So I stay. Ten minutes pass. I could have gone five times. Finally, just had to go, but I saw a payphone. Gave her a call.”
“Yeah, and … ?”
“Had it all prepared, ‘Guten Abend, darf ich mit Johanna sprechen, bitte ?’ That’s good isn’t it ? Apparently not. Barbaric baritone belchings from hell, and phone slammed down.”
“Not a good sign.”
“Not a good sign. More port, please. Cheers. Ah, this is heavenly. So, I walk back, expecting Johanna to be there, beaming, radiant, apologetic … Nothing. My glass had been taken, new people in my seat. I checked my watch. Over ninety minutes late. I check outside. Dark, bitter, empty, depressing. Only one thing for it.”
“To Alex, to Samariterstraße, to the Czar Bar, to hell with women.”
“I went out to call her the next day. She has no way to contact me and maybe something came up. Several coats on, phone card and coins, slippin’ and a sliddin’ my way across Schönhauser Allee. Got my patter worked out. ‘Entschuldigen Sie bitte, es tut mir lied …’ As far as I got. Really belligerent death threats, I’m sure. Phone slammed down, eardrum gone for a Burton. And that was that.”
They sat and drank in silence. Richard continued:
“We’re both thinking it. Right ? This time last year … ”
“I was with Monika, you were up to no good with Gabi, chasing Lorelai with Silke on the backburner. Arizona Al, the coolest dude ever. Melanie fucked off and nobody cared how or if she got home. Oh, got ya this.” Chris went into another bag and gave Richard a paper bag covering a paperback.
“Feynman ! ‘Six Easy Pieces,’ incredible. Thanks so much.”
They clinked and finished the port.
“You know,” Richard started, “We could go out it you want. Czar Bar ? Maybe just local, maybe try Silke ?”
“No, I’m really tired. I saw some beer in the fridge. That will be OK. One or two, then I really gotta sleep. I’m exhausted.”
Thus, to the sound of fireworks and cheers, two Englishmen spent what would be their last ever Silvester together in Berlin. Within a year, one would no longer be living in Germany, the other would be on his way to achieving a modicum of fame.
Across town, Daniel was drinking Champagne, not German Sket or Prosecco, genuine Champagne out of a crystal glass that cost more than his weekly rent. He was, undoubtedly, on his way to achieve rather more than just a modicum of fame.
Across the Channel, Alan was at his parent’s home having a marathon film night. He didn’t care for the chiming of Big Ben and the linking of arms for ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ He had gone through his video collection and watched F.W.Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’, and was now waiting for Janet Leigh to take that shower in ‘Psycho.’ ‘La Dolce Vita’ was special, that could wait until tomorrow so, after Hitchcock, he thought Truffaut’s ‘La Mariée Était en Noir,’ would be a perfect conclusion.
Across the Atlantic, Eric was on a bus heading into Manhattan. He wanted to see the ball drop for real. Naturally, the crowds were so dense he didn’t get anywhere near, but at least he was in New York, the centre of the Universe. Where else was the night brighter than the day, where else could you buy anything at anytime ? Where else could you go into any bookshop and find exactly what you were looking for, and then some.
Back in Berlin, Jake was both out of his head, and functioning as sole barman, with the occasional help from Peter. The French were in full force, Claude singing, showing off his new girlfriend, a very cute German lady in a very cute peaked cap. Marc, the eagle-headed chap responsible for creating a gravel-based installation, was with his girlfriend, an ice-blonde German who looked stunning, Johan was talking with his brother, and everybody within earshot. For the German contingent, Robert was making his usual proclamation and initiating some old friends from Heidelberg into serial vodka drinking. Thomas and Stefan were holding their own, and even planning some kind of musical collaboration with York T, who tonight had tied different colour papers in his hair. Sascha was performing some weird dance or mating ritual with Iris, his girlfriend, while Olga was shouting at Jake for being too slow with the Bloody Marys. Boris, now with short hair and dark rings under the eyes, was leaning against a wall, making small talk with some newly-arrived Russians.
Back in west Berlin, in Steglitz, an adorable young lady named Nadeem was at a small party, having one, and only one, glass of Sekt. Her closest friend, who could have been a supermodel if she were taller, couldn’t believe Nadeem was single. Everybody was chasing her. The friend was adamant that the time was right for Nadeem to be caught.
Chris was already snoring while Richard began reading Feynman’s lectures. The port was gone, the beer was gone, the chocolate was long gone.
Fireworks and explosions, laughing, clinking and drinking, hugging and kissing.
Welcome to 1996.
(1) Schlecker was a low-budget chemist chain. They sold a lot of own brand items. The company went bankrupt in 2012: https://www.ft.com/content/049ef850-0248-11e6-99cb-83242733f755
(2) Both are British slang meaning ‘have a look.’
(3) Do you have any small change, please ? A request for money from homeless