The shift began as normal. Richard arrived early, tried to order a coffee from one of the waitresses and when it finally arrived, plonked down in front of him, spilling over the side, he had no time to drink, but took it into the kitchen. He made space on a metal shelf, and looked down at all the plates, piled up, stacked on top of each other, taking up the entire work surface. As he did so, a waitress appeared and smashed more plates down, so that some small saucers fell onto the floor and crashed.
The restaurant had been serving since breakfast and no one had bothered to wash a thing. Metal egg-cups encrusted with yoke, bits of dry toast, muesli cemented onto bowls; and the beat goes on, Berlin goes on, work goes on.
Then a new waitress entered, holding up a fork and barking away in German. She clearly wanted new cutlery. Richard held out his watch to indicate that it was five to six, he wasn’t working yet, wasn’t even changed. She continued shouting in German, while Richard muttered, not too softly,
“Who won the fucking War, ya Nazi cocksucker.”
The extra work load generated by the Summer, when the garden was open and had an additional twenty tables, had proved too much for the lazy chef, who had left. The east German chef remained, and a temporary chef filled in as well. Temporary chef was quiet and efficient but tended to treat Richard as a drone worker, not a person worthy of respect or even thought. And he tuned the grease-encrusted radio to a Techno station. All night there was a heavy, unrelenting beat that Richard found impossible to tune out.
Yet, it was a challenge, and Richard threw all the plates into the sink after scraping away the debris, got some cutlery washed, filled and emptied the machine and had cleared the surface within his first half hour.
But then it got busy. The chef demanded help with making side salads and Richard grabbed a handful of lettuce and vegetables and flung them into the saucer, then got shouted at because there were no clean plates.
“Well, I’ve been doing your fucking job and not mine, ya fucking dickhead.” The chef had no English, but understood the tone, and replied with mutterings of his own, rising to shouts and screams.
The washing up kept coming and Richard still had all the other jobs to attend to. The chef needed more Camembert made, so Richard had to get his hands covered in egg and breadcrumbs, then parsley chopped, then things brought up from the cellar.
The waitresses demanded more cutlery or cups, then wanted candlesticks washed and de-waxed.
Just after nine, Richard shouted to the radio to,
“Shut the fuck up!” and went over to retune it to a Classical station. “Doing my fucking head it, that fucking inane shit ! Fuck’s sake!”
Some time later, a waitress brought the chef a beer. Richard hadn’t even been asked. Not that he wanted or had time for a beer, or a piss, but it would have shown some respect to have been asked. He went to the bar, waited for Josef to see him, then asked for a bottle of water.
Richard knew that if he had been holding a bottle, he would have smashed it around the barman’s head.
Instead, he walked away, down into the cellar, and found a bottle of whisky. He picked it up,
“Ah, fuck, it’s only J&B, fucking blend !” but it didn’t stop him from opening the top and taking an almighty swig. He looked at the bottle, surprised and impressed by the amount of space between top and whisky level,
“I’ll just piss in it to refill it,” he thought, but before he did so, took another giant swig. After that, work got a little easier. For a while.
But the buzz of the whiskey soon wore off, leaving a thirst for more and a decreased tolerance for the way he was being treated.
The chef left and Richard, looking around, saw the cooking brandy. It was pretty poor quality, the kind that gets sold in quarter bottles at Imbisses and kiosks on the street to alcoholics who have found a few old coins, but, like them, Richard didn’t care. It was alcohol.
He remembered starting work on the potatoes, but nothing much else.
Except one thing.
He recalled, vaguely, going into the bar and pointing his finger accusingly at all the staff, equating them with the Hitler Youth and warning them that he would be meeting them all again in Nuremberg.
Then he sat on the corner counter in the kitchen, put his head against the tea-towels which were kept on a shelf, and crashed out.
He awoke in his own bed with that feeling. That heart-stopping feeling upon waking. No idea what he had done, but knew it was bad. Very, very bad.
Chris came over in the afternoon, and Richard asked him to phone in and say he couldn’t work, due to a sudden flu, but would be back tomorrow … if,
“Stake out the situation, put feelers out, get the vibe . . . find out if I still have a job there.”
Chris laughed, closed the kitchen door and made the call. He returned, wide-smiled.
“OK, I’ll cover you tonight, could use the extra dosh. Seven hours at twelve Marks an hour, nice. Spoke to Walter. Hopes you are feeling better. Then I’ll come back here. Could use a sober night myself.”
Around two-thirty Chris returned, absolutely not wide-smiling. He crashed in, threw his bag across the room, and let out an uninterrupted flow of abuse.
“I know,” was all Richard said, still suffering.
“All right. Where to start. Now, what we want,” he began, knowing that Richard would like the ‘Hard Times’ reference, “is facts. OK, breaks down like this: you’re all right. Yes, go back tomorrow, no one’s gonna say Jack. Seems you got a little overwrought. Walter had a go at the staff, he’s a god guy, telling them not to treat you like scheiße, to do some of their own washing up, keep the work area clear, help out. How’s that ? It was Walter who drove you to Zoo for the night bus. Oh, Nuremberg, man, so funny, would loved to have seen that.”
“Oohhhhhh, mannn ! I thought I dreamt that ! Shit, shit, shit, shit ! Shit on a stick !”
“Don’t worry, most of them didn’t even understand it. One of the customers had to explain.”
“Well, fuck, have you seen Josef ? Wouldn’t he have made such a fucking great Nazi ? He’d be the guy in the black suit, with the Death’s-head emblem.”
“Oh, the temporary chef has gone.”
“Because of me ?”
“No, got a new guy. You’ll see him tomorrow.”
“What’s he like ?”
“Hhhmmm . . . how to . . . you’ll see. Tomorrow.”
Richard was glad that Chris was there and had covered the work situation. But only weeks later, Chris would not be visiting the flat, but hiding out there, scared for his life.
While Alan Francis was having the time of his life in Berlin, Chris and Richard were about to have their worst.
Richard’s summer was destroyed by his job. He was starting an hour earlier and finishing an hour later, but the extra money was no compensation. Most nights, after working seven hours straight, he went straight to the Czar Bar, and drank as much as he could.
In Chris, in Berlin as in London, he had a willing drinking partner.
Regarding Monika’s request, Richard had dreaded passing on the cease and desist, thinking it too personal, and he really didn’t want to get involved.
He decided to do it at the first opportunity, to get it out of the way, and, to his surprise and relief, found that Chris took it very well, even nonchalantly. But the reason he did so would lead to even bigger problems.
“It’s Veronica,” Chris explained. “Can’t stop thinking about her. Even if I could, I see her all the time.”
“Veronica ? Johan’s Veronica ? Oh, shit !”
“Yeah, oh shit ! I love Johan. I do.”
“Just love Veronica more.”
“It’s not funny.”
“I know. Well, what you gonna do ?”
Chris threw his hands in the air, signifying his lack of ideas.
What he did was to drink. A lot.
Initially, he was daunted by Jake and his capacity for alcohol. Now he tried to match him. As a consequence, Jake had to close up alone as Chris would be passed out, somewhere in the bar. He would go to gather shot glasses, or empty bottles and just not return. Jake at first didn’t mind, even found it amusing, but as it happened every shift, the joke was wearing pretty thin.
Yet, Jake couldn’t deny that Chris was good for business. He got the crowd laughing and drinking, and the weekly Sawhead The Bear concerts had brought in a lot of new people and made a significant increase in takings. The band could even get a small fee as well as free drinks.
On balance, Jake tolerated Chris’ drunken behaviour and laughed at his more outrageous antics, laughed at Chris’ pathetic hopeless doomed attempts to keep up with him. Yet, Chris did have some ‘marketing’ ideas which were proving doubly beneficial.
One such innovation was to offer free vodka shots to any woman, provided it be administered mouth to mouth, either by Jake or Chris. Surprisingly, they both got takers, though when Johan asked for a free shot, Chris declined.
“Ah, you fucking English, so scared of love!” Johan laughed, as he ordered a whole row of vodkas for friends and anyone else who happened to be seated around the bar.
Chris, of course, was hoping that Veronica would take him up on his offer, but she hardly drank, preferring orange juice or maybe a single beer, and she didn’t seem willing to try a free vodka.
Daniel, meanwhile, was living something of a double life. He worked hard all week, maybe had a beer or two with workmates just to be sociable, and made it to Ostkreuz once or twice. Saturdays, he rehearsed with the band (Micha and Serge agreed to work the lucrative Friday evenings so both Andrei and Boris would be fresh for the gig) then played the concert, after which he always went off with a new woman and reappeared on Sunday, to give a graphic account of the experience and to hang out, before returning to his normal weekday existence, normal that is by Berlin standards.
One Sunday, Chris had requested that Richard meet him in another squat bar, one tucked away south of Karl Marx Allee. Chris was going to see Pavel, a Czech squatter who was responsible for the bar. Maybe Sawhead The Bear could play there, get them out of the Czar bar; different venue, different audience.
Richard didn’t know the bar or the area, so was a little late, a little hungover and very pissed off at the thought of another week working as a Steglitz Spüler.
He walked up the metal steps and saw Chris at the bar.
“Yeah, all set, Sawhead play here next Saturday. Only they want some more bands, make a whole night of it. I mentioned Arizona Al.”
“Fuck, you sure ?” asked Richard, ”he’s not exactly . . . “
“Any fucking good, yeah, I know, but give the fucker a song or two. Either him or those fucking cunts from the first Sawhead gig.”
“Maybe we could get The Wiggling Kellys ?”
“I’d like to see them,” Chris agreed. “They’ve got a band or two here, some bozos called Perry Coma. Death ballads, I guess.”
Richard suddenly got a laughing fit. Chris thought it was due to his joke, but, when Richard finally got his breathe back and wiped the tears away, he explained,
“Did I hear you use the word, ‘bozo’ ?”
“ssss . . . bozo-sssssss. Plural, as in more than one of them, Bozo and his bozo friends. Whole place is run by bozos. Whole fucking city is full of bozos. We, my friend, are in one bozo-friendly environment.”
“Perry Coma’s kinda funny too.”
“They don’t even know they’re being funny. They’ve got no fucking idea some guy’s actually called Perry Como.”
Richard had a feeling that they were here and not the Czar Bar for other reasons, as well.
“Yeah, OK, just couldn’t face Danny going on tonight about how he pulled and what he did and what she did and how many times he did what he did and how much she liked what he did when he did what he did to her.”
The beer that Richard was drinking went all over the bar and poured out of his nose.
“That guy certainly has the moves,” he said, wiping the beer away as best he could. “I could learn a lot from him. I know he’s a singer, but he’s not especially attractive or has a sparkling personality. Nice enough guy, but, I mean . . . ?”
“Exactly, I know what you mean. He’s a bit of a yob. A thug. But, everytime he gets talking to a woman, whatever he says, it works, ’cause next thing you know, his tongue’s down her throat and his hands are homing in on the good stuff.”
“Oh, thanks, I needed that. Haven’t had a laugh like this for . . . I don’t even know. Work’s fucked. Bunch a fucking cunts, all of them. Have to leave, got to find something else. Anything else.”
“Yeah, do it.”
“I have to. Can’t stay here, otherwise. Have to leave.”
“And do what ?”
“Well, that’s the fucking problem. No matter how bad it is here, it’s a quantum leap from what it would or will be back in London.”
“You boys shouldn’t be so cynical.”
The boys stopped talking and laughing and turned around. A punk squatter with her hair in pigtails, and ripped tights sat down between them. Her accent, despite her clothing, placed her from the Home Counties, somewhere close to London but not too close.
Richard asked her what she meant, but she refused to elaborate, instead choosing to criticise the music.
“Oh, Nirvana; are people still listening to him ? He’s dead, move on, get over it. I fucking hate Nirvana.”
“Really ?” asked Chris incredulously,
“Why ?” demanded Richard.
“Because my name’s Polly, and those unwashed bastards have fucked up my life.”
And then, right on cue, a tall, unwashed bastard walked in, saw her and asked,
“Hello, Polly, want a cracker ?”
Polly soon got bored of her two compatriots, even though Richard was wondering if she was hitting on him, and left because he wasn’t responding. He asked Chris for his views. Chris puffed himself up, before pontificating,
“Uuummmm . . . hard to say. Don’t think so. Would you like to fuck her ?”
“Wouldn’t mind. Not my first choice, but, hey . . . she was kinda cute.”
“Uuummmm … Nice rack. Breasts.”
“I know what a rack is. OK, I thought a ‘rack’ was ass.”
“No, I’m pretty sure it’s breasts,” and Chris looked around, searching for anyone American-looking. ”I’ll ask Jake. He’s a Godsend. He understands all the R.E.M. lyrics. Who the fuck’s Mr Fred Blassie, and why is he such bad eater ? Just ask Jake.”
“Cool. I could have pulled that Polly. Oh, who am I kidding ? I tell you, next time Daniel goes to work, I’m gonna be right there, making notes. Any more about Veronica ?”
Chris let out a long sigh,
“She’s an art student.”
“Another one ! What is with you and … Is she more Ute or Melanie ?”
“No ! Not like Melanie, not like that sphincter-mouthed, Ninja Turtle. A real art student. Actually draws and paints, not just reads books and regurgitates other people’s opinions. She showed me some of her paintings.”
“’Sphincter-mouthed’ ? Didn’t you kiss her ?”
“No ! No, no, well . . . yes, but . . .”
“OK, back to the art. Any good ? Her paintings ?”
“What do I know, I’m a science student. No, they were good. Abstract, but with . . . form.”
Richard laughed and ordered more beers. Chris carried on,
“She’s got a friend coming, too, Italian girl called Carla. Another student.”
“Is she cute ?”
“Is she cute ? What, like that fucking Psycho Polly ? Is she cute ? She’s a friend of Veronica’s, she’s an art student, she’s fucking Italian, yes, she’s fucking cute. Something else, too. I happen to know that Johan is going away soon, back to France. For two weeks. Maybe more. Think that calls for a vodka.”
They got more drinks and toasted Veronica and Carla (sight unseen).
What they didn’t know was that soon, they would both act in such a way that Richard would be afraid to go to work, and Chris would be afraid to go back to Rigaer Strasse.
In the Spring of 1850, five novels behind him, Herman Melville began work on ‘Moby Dick’. He had promised his publisher a romantic adventure, or adventurous romance, much in the style of his earlier work. However, this novel was going to be greater, without doubt his greatest. He felt it.
After moving to a farm in Massachusetts, Melville met and became close friends with author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Discussions with the older writer, and copious reading of The Bard, encouraged Melville to expand the scope of his novel into something quite different.
From Spring to the Autumn of the following year, Melville worked with a fervour of creative energy, often going without food or rest until late afternoon, crying out, “Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand.”
Finally … it was finished, and sent over the ocean, to Richard Bently in England, his publisher, as his books premiered there, before becoming available in his native land.
Melville was a confident man, and was sure that this monumental achievement would establish his literary reputation for all time.
But the reviews, from England, were rather mixed. While some praised the work, its originality, characters and plot, others were vociferous in their damnation.
To compound the situation, the British edition, named ‘The Whale’, had been edited by Bently, so as not to cause offence to political or social sensibilities. Bently also, for some unfathomable reason, omitted the epilogue. It was published without the final page.
Unfortunately, the American critics preferred to read their British counterparts, and not their compatriot author, and the novel sold poorly, the initial pressing of 3 000 copies not selling in Melville’s lifetime.
The drama’s done. Instead of elevating Melville to the Parthenon of genius, he was cast adrift in waters of increasing turbulence.
The following book, ‘Pierre, or The Ambiguities’ of 1852 was both a critical and financial disaster, with Bently even refusing to publish it. Melville’s family had also noticed a change come over him. Writing this darker novel, the disillusioned author would lock himself away, only emerging at night.
He turned to the more accessible form of the short story, desperate for the income generated by magazines, as he was unable to support his family and had to depend on handouts from his father-in-law.
After 1857, he wrote no more prose, exclusively composing poetry.
He undertook lecture tours from 1857 – 1860, but these were also unsuccessful. He was forced to leave his farm, and return to New York to work.
He got a job in the New York Custom’s House, but was prone to ill health and financial worries.
He died in 1891, almost forgotten. His passing was noticed in just one obituary.
Pfefferberg on Schönhauser Allee, Prenzlauer Berg. Google Images
Berlin. August 1995
Life, thought Alan, is incredible. Degree attained, a prestigious job in the City, networking with the movers and shakers, the future investors and producers. A year of being, a year of nothingness. No script, no contacts, no cast of characters, no crew, no shakers, but at least a move.
Now, thought Alan, I am a Putzfrau (cleaning woman), but I have more disposable income. No exorbitant London rents, travel passes, food, the NFT membership, however, had been essential. And I’ve found my cast of characters; I am surrounded by actors and artists. My dreams are no longer abstract plans, but actual possibilities.
Berlin; he loved Berlin. Immediately. Here was a city with real atmosphere, a city to be lived in, to feel alive, every inch a film set
People spoke to you. Neighbours, shop keepers, people on the street. You could go up to anyone in a bar and start talking.
He had been in the city less than a month but was already planning on extending his stay and finding another room, or even his own flat. Such plans were ludicrous in London; a cleaner having his own flat.
Alan was not going to let anything go to waste. Every experience would be stored for reference. Every time he rode the S-Bahn, or an elevated U-Bahn, he took in all the sights, mentally framing them, he took in all the beautiful women in their summer dresses, tilting his inner lens, Dutch angles capturing German angels. He listened to the symphony of this city, he was a man with a movie camera.
Alan tried articulating these thoughts, and many others, writing to his sister. He decided to use the letters as a writing exercises, to make his views lucid. He wasn’t sure if he succeeded.
Where to start ? You were right about Berlin – why didn’t I come last year ? All that time wasted, nothing to show for it. Not anymore – I have seen a camera I like (and can afford !) and will buy it tomorrow.
Kelly is so sweet – she’s really looked after me. I’ve met so many new people. You were right about Vincent – girls love him – what a great actor he’ll be (in my films, I mean !) so charismatic.
The room is big and light – not too girly, with a computer and even some books in English (Nasti – the girl whose room I’m subletting, is a geography student and has to study in English, no text-books in German, apparently).
Kelly got me the first job. I’m up at 5:30 and go to an Irish bar near Tacheles, the arts centre, and clean for about 2 hours. The bar owner is a splendid Irish man called Patrick (no, I’m not making this up). He set me up with another bar where I work for the next two hours. I can walk from one bar to the other.
I get home around noon, in time for lunch – coffee, rolls with jam or honey, some fruit, and start planing my films !
I saw Vincent perform – all in German, so I couldn’t understand it – but he held the stage well and kept the audience’s attention, quite an achievement ! Yes – bars here are very different – any space can open, stock up with crates and sell beer. As you would eloquently say, “It’s bonkers !”
Yes – I have been a little tipsy, sometimes – everyone buys me beers, even when I tell them I don’t want one – they think it’s English politeness !!
Have meet lots of girls ! All very nice. Kelly will take me to somewhere nearby – the Pepperberg (????) – something like Pepper Mountain (???)
I hear there are some second hand bookshops around – really need to find them – read my collection over and over. Went to a special English bookshop but it is SO EXPENSIVE !!!! Books at twice the cover price. Located in a horrid area as well, very bleak, drab, overwhelmingly depressing, decades of failed dreams etched in the brickwork.
Could you save my life and send over my ‘Bazin’ ??? I have two slim volumes (not too much postage – OH, and my ‘Godard on Godard’ – how could I have forgotten THAT !!!)
Brilliant idea of yours – maybe you can pop over at some point ? How is the job ? Won’t ask about London because I don’t care !!!
Lots of love
Next evening, a Friday, Kelly, along with some friends, took Alan from their flat near the Wasserturm and walked to the Pfefferberg.
This was a huge arts complex, whose classical façade dominated the southern stretch of Schönhauser Allee. Paying the entrance at street level, Kelly took Alan up the steps to a wide, open beer garden. People sat on the walls and looked down to the street below, or danced in the centre. Buildings arranged around the courtyard were opened and housed temporary exhibitions of paintings, or were hosting poetry slams.
Alan looked around, so tempted to lift his fingers to his eyes and make a camera shape and pan left to right. What a location, he thought. He couldn’t resist; he made the camera shape and paned left to right.
Through his fingers he spotted Vincent, with some girls, and they came over, Vincent very tall and flamboyant, dwarfing Alan who was under average height.
“So Herr Direktor, did you buy the camera today ?” he asked.
Alan smiled and slowly nodded,
“And projector and three film cartridges.”
“You’re still on your first beer ?” Kelly asked him, concerned that he wasn’t having a good time.
Alan lifted it up and showed that if was over half full. Also, he didn’t smoke, and was starting to believe that he may be the only person in Berlin who didn’t. Then he met another non-smoker who came up and introduced herself.
“They told me I shouldn’t speak to you, because you only talk about cinema. Well, I love cinema too. Hello. My name’s Julie.”
Eric Schwarz walked into a book store in Los Angeles and headed for the Philosophy section. He clapped his hands and opened them wide, as if to embrace the whole subject, from Aristotle to Zeno (from either Citium or Elea; at this stage he wasn’t able to differentiate between them.)
He looked sternly at the titles, some jumping out, some incomprehensible. Then he ran a finger along the book spines, loving how they felt and smelt. He picked out some editions, read their backs, flicked through them, checked the prices, put them back. Then he came to a collection of Plato, including ‘The Republic’ and ‘Symposium.’
Eric put a hand through his carefully arranged hair and stroked his goatee as he tried a random page. He laughed as he read about Aristophanes having first hiccups, then a sneezing fit.
He decided to buy the book and pulled his wallet out of his oversized shorts, then, at the till, stretched to show the cashier girl his physique and biceps through his tight T-shirt, indicating that though he may read Philosophy, he also had a hot body.
Of course, she didn’t notice, but vacantly rang up the book and announced the price in a bored monotone. Eric tried some repartee and made some expressions like an extra overplaying his role. The same lack of success.
As compensation, Eric treated himself to an oversized ice cream cone with several unharmonious flavours juxtaposed in one gooey multicoloured mess.
What did it matter ? Women here were too superficial. In only a week or so he’d be on the East Coast. Intellectual women. Women in glasses. Hot intellectual women (in glasses) walking around reading Schopenhauer.
This thought cheered him so much, he didn’t even care about the splat of ice cream that was melting into his T-shirt.
This was not how things were supposed to be. Alan was meant to be making contacts, writing scripts, raising funds, shooting test footage, hanging out in cafés discussing Neo-Realism and the Nouvelle Vague, dissecting scripts and camera set-ups, meeting gorgeous actresses, he was meant to be making cinema.
Instead, he was working forty hours a week and spending an extra ten hours on the Tube. Most of his money went on a bedsit that he hated, and travel money, which he resented. He went to the cinema on Mondays when it was cheaper, but often fell asleep half way through a film.
He was twenty-two but felt old and exhausted. It was a time when he should be energetic and enthusiastic, but he saw his life fading away, not in great, dramatic spurts, but like a slow puncture, the air irreparably escaping.
He hated his life, his job, London. He was barely surviving and had spent a whole year since graduating with absolutely nothing to show for it.
But he couldn’t see any way out, except to make a great film and have it shown at festivals and from there be offered a chance to make a real film.
This great film needed to be written and cast and shot and printed and edited and screened. So far, a scattering of disconnected ideas and theories. Nothing else.
It was his sister that offered a way out.
He loved his older sister, she was probably his closest friend, though he bemoaned her taste in cinema. While he was at the National Film Theatre, seeing old Black and White subtitled art films, she’d be in the multi-screens with popcorn and giant Cokes immediately forgetting the film she had just seen.
She agreed to differ about their taste in film. He didn’t.
It was during one of these harangues that she casually mentioned an offer from Berlin that she’d have to decline. Kelly, her friend in Berlin, had a spare room, as her flatmate was going travelling the whole summer, and wondered if she would like to rent it. However having just started a new job, Jo Francis thought it best to try to build a career, rather than have fun; besides, she had ‘done’ Berlin.
“Maybe you should go,” she said to Alan, in an off-hand, flippant way. Then she sat up. “Yes, maybe you should. Kelly’s boyfriend is an actor. Does readings and performances, based on some old French poems.”
“Rambo ? Are you bonkers ?”
“No . . . the symbolist poet, the . . . how is it possible we are from the same gene pool ?”
“Well, the milkman was awfully sweet, I’ve been told.”
“Very droll. But . . . an actor ? What’s he like ?”
“Stunning. Long flowing hair, big old army coat, all brass and ribbon. Always wears boots. Good idea in Berlin. Lots of dog poop. “
“How much is the rent ?”
Alan heard the amount needed.
“Per week ?”
“No, Sweetheart, per month. Can probably get work there, too. Vincent, oh, that is the boyfriend . . . “
“I know, flowing hair and boots.”
“Yes, really yummy ! Vincent knows just everybody. Would you like me to write to her.”
“Could you call instead ?”
“Oh, you’re all enthusiastic, how adorable.”
After booking his flight, with money borrowed from his sister, Alan went into Fordham’s Books & Tapes and picked up a ‘Complete Rimbaud’, ‘Poems of Villon’ and an anthology of French poets from Nerval to Valery. Naturally, he had to visit the Cinema section, where he found ‘Godard on Godard’ in paperback. Finally, on the ground floor, Alan found the ‘Rough Guide to Berlin,’ the illustrated cover showing a decidedly European cafe scene, very cinematic. What better omen ?
Without even meeting Vincent, he decided that he would be his actor, a Belmondo to his Godard, a Mastroiani to his Fellini.
Potsdamer Platz, the centre of Berlin, in 1995. Google Images
Part Seven. Berlin. June 1995
Josef, the new barman, came into the kitchen and slammed the phone down, barking at Richard that it was for him, his mouth salivating with contempt. Richard thought fuck Josef, and he really meant it.
He answered, expecting Chris to invite him to the bar, but instead it was Monika inviting him to Café Haller.
Hardly able to wait for his unspeakable shift to finish, he finally walked to the bar, both curious and nervous. He had thought about what could Monika possibly want. Probably to just see him, have a drink and renew the friendship; just because she was no longer seeing Chris, didn’t mean that they had to stop seeing each other. Maybe she had news of a new job for him; even another Spüler job would get him out of the awful Biberkopf and there would be a novelty period before that monotony set in. Or . . . possibly, there was news of Lorelei. He tried to dismiss that idea, but he couldn’t, and that was why he entered the bar both hoping and fearing that Lorelei would be working. He would only need to see her once to fall in love all over again. He would get his heart broken all over again, but even the remote possibility was worth the risk.
But, no Lorelei, and it was some seconds before he saw Monika. She smiled, but it lacked warmth. Richard’s heart sank. He felt she blamed him, and, in a way, he had lied to her, as well.
There was some small talk about work, before Monika got to the point. Could he tell Chris to stop calling her. It was a demand, not a question.
Richard told her that he knew nothing about this, that Chris hadn’t told him. Then he thought back to the concert, the way Chris kept looking at every one coming in.
“Did he invite you to a concert on Saturday ?” he asked.
“Ah, yes, in the shitty Czar Bar. You really think we want to go to a bar that has no water in the toilet ? Women need to wash their hands.”
Richard gestured that he understood. Then he asked if he could speak openly. He apologised for that Sunday morning, explaining that he really had left the club without Chris and didn’t know where he was. He said that he suspected that Chris may have crashed at Arizona Al’s, though this was somewhat disingenuous. Monika suddenly turned gentle and friendly, as if she were dying to finally speak about it and clear the air. She said she didn’t blame Richard at all, but had felt sorry for him caught in-between.
The conversation continued, both saying sorry and how they had missed each other. They caught each other up with the gossip.
Silke was now seeing a new man. Andreas was furious and hurt that she had a new boyfriend so soon after splitting up. Nice Guy Kai was seeing a journalist and appeared happy, though in no hurry to enter into a committed relationship. Gabi was now dating a lawyer and was talking about moving in with him. Lorelei had found someone who often worked in Munich, so she was considering a relocation. Richard appreciated her sensitivity when speaking about her. He knew his eyes gave away his pain.
To change the atmosphere, he was about to ask her about her love life, when a man in shirt and tie walked out of the kitchen and came over and kissed Monika.
It was Carsten, an old boyfriend of hers that had come back into her life . . . sort of . . . maybe . . .
Carsten stayed for a beer and Monika explained that Carsten ran a club in Wilmersdorf, and knew the chef (1) at Haller.
Carsten knocked on the table, (2) shook Richard’s hand and gave Monika a slightly exaggerated goodbye kiss.
After he had gone, Monika shrugged,
“Ja, Richard, I don’t know, I am alone, he is alone, it is nice. But . . . Ja, we see. We see. You drink something ?”
They stayed until the bar closed.
“And, Richard . . . how do you get home ?”
“Ah, mist (bullshit) I drive you.” It was a generous offer, really out of her way.
The journey from Steglitz to Prenzlauer Berg gave them more time to speak. Richard asked to go through the city and was amazed at how Potsdamer Platz was changing. The route was now totally different from his last trip here. New roundabouts and traffic lights amidst the wooden walkways, the iron-wire fences, the giant water pipes that spanned the roads. Tiny red lights suspended in the darkness of the night, warned planes of the ever-present cranes.
And empty roads, only an occasional night bus, or car. Almost no neon, sometimes no street lamps. Richard mentioned the fact that they were in a main European capital, yet there was hardly any light. They could well have been in some provincial village.
“And, um, Richard, I ask you something ? If it’s OK ?”
“You still think about Lorelei.”
“Yes, but it’s getting better. Now it’s down to about ninety-six per cent of the time. The other four per cent I’m thinking about not thinking about Lorelei.”
“And you have no one else you like ?”
“No. Not yet. I’m sure I will.”
“No one at work ?”
“I’m the Spüler . . . I don’t count. I liked one new girl, Jolande, you know her ? But, well, she wised up. As for the others . . . even Ully looks down at me. Her, with the thing. My fault, really, me and Chris. We were there one night, she was working, and we were kinda flirting with her. Because she does have quite a nice body. Very nice, in fact. But . . . anyway, she’s now walking around like she’s Claudia Schiffer. Now, a girl like Claudia Schiffer. That would get my mind off Lorelei. But I don’t think they exist. She’s probably been genetically modified. If so, here’s to genetics.“
“Ah, you haven’t seen Nadeem. New waitress at Haller.”
“Oh, very cute. All the men want to fuck her. Even I want to fuck her.”
Richard got out by the U-Bahn on Schönhauser Allee, hoping to get some fast food and cheap beer from one of the Imbisses. A young girl was there, slighty tipsy, and they began a short conversation. Then Richard paid and went home.
He later wondered what would have happened if he had asked the girl to come back with him.
But, he didn’t, and once more he went to bed, alone.
The first thing Daniel saw as he entered the Russian’s kitchen was Olga sitting naked in the large sink, preserving her dignity by an arm across her breasts. Neither Andrei nor Sascha paid her any attention and Daniel, after first consigning the image to memory, discretely looked away and walked into the next room where Sawhead The Bear rehearsed. Boris, who had been behind Daniel, followed some seconds later.
There was a palpable tension in the air. The first gig was the following evening, and although Daniel had dismissed all the other bands he had seen as ‘utter shite’, he was feeling the nerves.
The other members were going through their own emotions. Andrei had worked the previous night and was finding it hard to even hold his bass, let alone play it. Boris was quieter than usual and was taking his time tuning up. Sascha was smiling behind his drum kit, trying to twirl his sticks, a trick he had never and would never master.
One thing that had amazed Daniel was the musical knowledge the Russians possessed. He had imagined them being subjected to nothing but patriotic work songs, but they knew bands as diverse as The Ramones, Genesis, The Move and The Breeders. They had quite an impressive collection of records which they had brought from Moscow, impressive in its diversity, as Punk records sat next to Progressive Rock acts or American Country. They hadn’t been able to choose the records that had come their way, so were grateful and curious about any western music.
Unfortunately, Daniel thought, this eclecticism manifested itself in the music they played. They would make an adequate covers band, but when it came to writing their own material, there was work to be done.
They had six originals and were going to pad out the set by playing some of their favourite songs. Once they had decided upon their favourite songs.
The whole afternoon drudged by, with only three cover songs anywhere close to being ready. Daniel knew it wasn’t working.
Boris was the real musician, but he was playing without inspiration or excitement. Andrei’s bass was meant to pin the whole sound down, but it sounded sleepy and lethargic, while Sascha was always going to be the fun guy of the band, the one with the smile and the drum kit, without necessarily the ability to play it.
Daniel had first identified this weakness, but sought to turn it into an attribute, politely requesting that he stop trying to play complex fills, and just keep a steady beat, like The Velvet Underground. Sascha had smiled and happily complied.
Then every time the band seemed to get into a groove, Charlie George or someone would walk in and ask something, and the band would stop to answer.
After another insipid run through of a Ramones song, Daniel threw down his mic and exploded,
“What the fuck is this ? It’s supposed to be the fucking Ramones, energy, aggression, power, anger, rock and fucking roll. Not this limp-wristed shit. What the fuck’s wrong ? Hey ? If you don’t fucking pick it up, I’ll find a proper band that actually want to play. I’ll tell you something else, if this is how it’s going to be, I ain’t playing tomorrow. Don’t want to fucking embarrass myself with you wankers.”
Silence. Boris starred at the floor and shrugged his shoulders, while Andrei just stood looking at Daniel. Daniel was quite a big guy, he worked on building sites and could easily take care of himself, was handy with his fists, but against Andrei . . .
He wouldn’t have had a hope in hell.
So he was relieved when Andrei finally spoke, and was apologetic,
“You right, today I play shit, I play like . . . “ he searched for the words and ended up by making gestures to convey his lack of energy. Sascha came up with some words in Russian that made them all laugh, even Daniel, as the tension had finally been broken. Andrei took up his bass,
“OK, one more time, come on, one, two, three, four . . .”
They launched into ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ all guns blazing, Boris thrashing the chords out, Andrei threatening to snap the thick, bass strings and Sascha doing an admirable job keeping not only a steady beat, but adding some high-hat crashes, as well as screaming out the ‘hey-ho, let’s go’ refrain.
Daniel walked with Boris to the Czar Bar, offering to help him set up. It gave them a chance to talk. They smiled as the nearer to Rigaer Str they got, the more flyers they saw advertising their first gig. Chris had made a collage of some photos of Giacometti sculptures and text that conveyed all the necessary information.
‘Man Pointing, Band Playing’ read the headline, then the address and approximate time. They were scheduled to appear at eleven.
Daniel mentioned the gig, the rehearsal, the practicalities of getting the equipment to and from the bar, and, finally, about Olga. However loquacious Boris had become on all matters to do with the band, he remained tight-lipped on that subject. Daniel took the hint and changed the subject.
The plan was to get a taxi to take the drum kit and amps to the bar, as all attempts to borrow a van, or elicit help had fallen through. Daniel also hinted, with delicacy, that Boris may want to take it easy tonight with the vodkas. Boris agreed and kept to his word.
The following day, Chris arrived at the Russians house only half an hour later than he had promised. By now, Daniel was used to Berlin timekeeping, and wasn’t too worried.
The taxi was hired and Sascha immediately got in and waited to go, before Daniel physically dragged him out and made him help loading up. As there was no space, only Daniel drove along, the rest walking, Andrei and Sascha spending the whole time moaning about why Daniel got to ride and they didn’t.
Chris had the key to the bar, Jake telling him to be back in time for them to stock up. Jake was predicting a busy night and he wanted to be prepared.
Outside the bar, Daniel guarded the equipment and gave out some small flyers to some passing women.
The setting up took a long time, lots of discussions where the sockets were, who was going to stand where, and Sascha appearing very unhappy with his drum stool.
Chris told them to carry on, while he went to the store with Jake.
Jake began playing a CD, loudly, just as the band were finally ready to start sound checking. He also lost patience, wondering how they could have spent so much time and not achieved anything, saying that he had to set the bar up.
Chris arranged a compromise. They would get the bar set up, while the band had a beer and took five. When the bar was ready, Jake could go and eat, and the band would have time to get their levels set.
The beers did the trick. It was also a little victory for Jake, as he was secretly a little envious and wanted to be part of a band again. The setting up was all finished within ten minutes and Jake left.
The band began rehearsing. Chris said who needed to be higher or lower, though he had little if any experience. Daniel had equated his Physics studies with acoustics and sound engineering, and there was nobody else anyway.
Unfortunately, Jake had left the back door unlocked and a stream of people poured in, stood around, looked and listened, asked what was going on, who the band were and made suggestions about sound levels and where the amps should go. Andrei then left the stage, arguing with the two other Russians, before walking out of the door and going home.
Daniel and Chris looked at each other, wondering if there was even going to be a gig. Before they could clarify, two new men walked in, one a brash Middle-Eastern looking man, the other, a lank-haired, bug-eyed, old hippy sort.
Brash Man shouted out,
“There is a gig tonight – we want to play.”
“Another time, mate, we’re busy,” said Chris.
“No, we want a gig. We can use your equipment.”
“The fuck you will,” answered Daniel, “You heard him, you ain’t fucking playing, this is our gig, now fuck off.”
Hippy Sort spoke,
“Hey, man, that isn’t cool, we are all musicians, we should share and help each other. Hey, Boris, wie gehts ?”
Boris and Sascha both recognized Joe, a regular and long term squatter, and said hello back. Boris had some words with Sascha in Russian, then turned to Daniel,
“Maybe it is good they here. They play first, we go on after.”
“Well, let’s face it,” Daniel spoke, looking at Chris, ”how fucking good can they be ? If they’re shit, we’ll sound better.”
“If they’re shit, we’ll have no fucking customers and I’ll make no fucking money.”
Joe began speaking to Boris. He was talking about what they needed. The Russians were happy to lend their equipment; it would just mean altering the mic stand, and Boris explained this to Daniel.
“And would someone mind telling me where the fuck our bass player is ?” implored Daniel. Brash Man answered,
“You need bass player ? I am bass player, I play with you.”
Boris took over,
“Andrei forgot his lucky jacket. He go get it.”
“Lucky, fucking jacket, fuck me!”
Chris had to laugh at Daniel’s outburst. Then Jake returned,
“Who are all these fucking idiots ? Get them out of my bar.”
Chris explained the situation, as best he could, when another set of squatters walked in, asking the same set of questions.
“Right, everyone that doesn’t work here, or is playing here, fuck off, now !” Joe and Brash Man didn’t move. Joe preempted Jake by telling him that there were also playing tonight. Then Brash Man asked about wages.
“Errrr . . . wages ? Nothing, fucking nothing.”
“Hey, Jake, come on, let’s give them free beer,” said Chris.
“Two free beers each. Nothing else.”
Brash Man looked at Joe, and got the nod.
“Good. Can we have them now ?”
At that point, Andrei returned, wearing a hairy furry waistcoat.
Everyone was silent as they looked at him. Andrei realised he was being scrutinized,
“What ?” was all he said.
The bar was busier than usual, much busier, much earlier. It had become the place to start the evening, that Saturday, not where to end up when all else was closed. Jake and Chris were kept constantly busy, and happy that there were more women here than they had ever seen.
Then the first band walked on stage. Aside from Joe, who played his own guitar, a lovely shiny red semi-acoustic, and Brash Man who had brought his own bass, there was a third member, a thin, emaciated man, with a Rasta-style hat and marijuana symbols stitched to his denim jacket. He played bongos. Apparently.
They had a long discussion on stage, Brash Man not surprisingly being the leader. They began sound checking and talking and appeared about to start, when they abruptly stopped for Brash Man to tune up.
The audience who were curious, without being especially excited, quickly began losing interest, and there were shouts for them to get on and play. Then when they got around to playing, there were calls for them to stop.
Their music could probably best be described as Free Jazz . . . with bongos. The discussions about the mic stand were moot, as their set was entirely instrumental. Brash Man played repetitive patterns on his bass, no doubt believing he was creating hypnotic ragas, while Joe doodled about on guitar. The bongos were just there. Unfortunately.
The positive vibe in the bar was draining away. Casual visitors began leaving, others asked for the CD to be put back on. Still the band played. Richard walked in, knowing that it would never start on time, but pulled a Munch ‘Scream’ face at Chris when he heard the support band.
Daniel was livid, pointing to all the people either standing outside, or walking away,
“They’re going to think that these arseholes are Sawhead. Chris, you got to get those wankers off.”
Chris agreed and Jake was thinking along the same lines. Andrei was drinking his beer allowance freely and Boris appeared to be slightly shaking with nerves.
The piece of music finally came to an end. No applause, but there was a definite sense of relief. Jake went over and indicted that their beer was ready. But the hint wasn’t taken and another dirge was about to get under way.
Jake just unplugged the amps and shouted at Chris to hit the CD player. Joe was offended and weakly protested, but Jake didn’t even notice. The bongo player didn’t seem to care either way, but Brash Man insisted on finishing his piece, with or without amplification. Jake left him to it.
After half an hour, during which Jake decided to serve drinks and play music as a means of audio disinfectant, Sawhead The Bear walked onstage, cheered by the locals. They had all the awkwardness of a new band, unsure and unready, except, of course, Sascha, who couldn’t wait to launch into the first song. He looked at his band mates, tapped his sticks and shouted in his high-pitched, laughing voice,
“One, two, three, four . . . ”
Thirty minutes later, they came off stage heroes.
The band commandeered the last stools, by the Flipper room, and got hand shakes, pats, hugs, kisses and a lot of vodka. Richard had his arm around Daniel and told him how impressed he was by the singing and the lyrics. Olga was with some Russian girlfriends who tried flirting with Boris, but he just keep looking at Olga. She kept looking back. Trudi made sure Sascha didn’t speak to any other girls. Then Richard allowed Daniel to mingle, as lots of girls were waiting around, and it wasn’t for the comforts of the Czar Bar.
He was glad it had been a success. If this kept up, Chris would have a real income and a real life here. But he was already thinking that his time was Berlin was coming to an end.
Chris was thinking too, that this was only the beginning. They could play the bar at least once a week. Then other clubs in other parts of Berlin. He could really manage them, get them a recording contract.
Jake was wondering if he had enough beer, as Sawhead The Bear were on free drinks and those bastards could really put it away.
Richard noticed one more thing. Chris was constantly watching the door and was constantly disappointed by whoever came in.
At some point between the end of May and the beginning of June, Richard Marshall was struck by a severe case of the Berlin paranoia, and apart from the journey to and from work, he was practically unable to leave his flat.
The causes were easy to ascertain; one was not speaking German. This meant that all but the most basic transactions required a translator or he would be, and feel, utterly helpless.
He shopped in the small Spar store, being able to pick up items and see the price on the till display, but he couldn’t open a bank account, pay a bill, understand why a train had stopped in a tunnel, why a street was closed, read any official letters or get a proper job.
Biberkopf was now a painful, humiliating ordeal, more and more work from the lazy chef, and being all but ignored by all other members of staff. He was certain that Walter, the owner, looked right through him as if he wasn’t even there. Jolande, the cute waitress, had recently started seeing a customer who drove an expensive car, and now she barely acknowledged his presence. He responded in the only way he knew how; by being completely silent and refusing to speak to anyone, creating an impenetrable wall that kept everyone out. He was good at keeping things in.
There were also sleepless nights worrying about his interrupted studies, and it now being too late to get onto a course when term started in September. He would have to wait another year.
There was also the certainty that he would never meet a woman, that he would go to bed alone and wake up alone every day for the rest of his life.
He didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything, or rather, felt that he simply couldn’t.
After about three weeks he knew he had to snap out of it, or leave Berlin. He also knew that the life he had here was far better than one he could expect back in London, but washing up for a living was hardly living. The Orwellian honeymoon period was well over.
He was thinking about this, standing by a giant, industrial pot of potatoes that he had to peel, when he put his mind to a problem posed by Chris and Daniel; what to name the band.
He thought of some tag lines, based around the fact that three of them were from Russia, coming up with things like ‘Country & Eastern’ and such like. Then he threw the potato he was peeling into the sink of greasy water and smiled. He ordered a beer from the first waitress who came into the kitchen and though it took an eternity to arrive, he didn’t mind. He had the band’s name. It gave him a reason to go to the Czar Bar where, even if Chris wasn’t working, he’d be drinking. That had become a certainty.
Chris knew all about the paranoia, having experienced it himself.
He’d spoken to others and it was quite common, a sense of homelessness mixed with a feeling of having no home, being unwanted and uncared for. A realisation that he would never understand the language and would be cheated and laughed at and insulted. Most of the time, Chris had been with Marina or Claudia, then his own Ute, and then Monika, who would help him.
But he had his own freakouts. He had once turned a plastic bag inside out, because it had English writing on it and he felt it marked him out as a target for fascists and skinheads.
His answer to Richard was to drink. Richard had noticed that Chris’ answer to everything now seemed to be to drink.
As expected, Chris was holding court, on his favoured end stool, Andrei listening to him while Olga was busy with customers.
“Richard !” cried Chris, immediately ordering him a beer and vodka. Richard welcomed them, knowing that there would be many more before he staggered home.
After the initial moments of hysteria, when Chris filled him in on what he had missed over the last weeks, Richard made an announcement concerning the band. Chris called Andrei back, as it affected him directly.
“The name of the band is,” said Richard, copying Chris’ talent for building excitement, “Sawhead The Bear.”
“YES!” screamed Chris, eyes lighting up. Andrei looked puzzled,
“What is ‘Sawhead’ ?” Chris had a reply ready,
“Nothing ! Everything ! Doesn’t matter. What a great name, what a perfect name, it is the only name for the band. Well, drinks all round, vodka ! Hey, Jake, just in time, you must be able to smell vodka.”
Jake swayed over to them,
“Yeah, I can smell something!”
Andrei was busy translating, as best he could, the nonsensical ‘Sawhead’ into Russian. Olga looked even more puzzled and turned to Richard, going up close to him and asking him something in German, but he didn’t listen, he just wanted to grab her, but Andrei, being built like the Kremlin, probably would have raised an objection.
Chris meanwhile told him what Olga had wanted, namely, how on earth he came up with such a peculiar name ?
“I was at work,” was all he said, and Chris understood,
“Making the Camembert ?” he asked, referring to one of the nightly duties, covering the half blocks of cheese in egg and breadcrumbs, ready for deep-frying.
The remainder of the night was spent toasting the new band name, with Andrei greeting each new customer with,
“Yes, Sawhead ?”
Needless to say, both Richard and Chris awoke with very sore heads. Chris suddenly understood the band name. As he was getting dressed, he looked out of the window and saw Johan’s girlfriend, Veronica, walk across the Hof and enter the door of her boyfriend’s block.
He suddenly understood something else, as well. Even with a thumping sore head, Veronica was a sight for sore eyes.
Ragno Bicceri put down the telephone receiver. He had just said the final goodbye to the girl he loved, a girl he loved so much that it scared him. A girl that he couldn’t live without except now, she was gone; there was no longer any reason to live.
He lifted the phone and left it off the hook.
He tried to control his nerves, but he could actually hear his heart pounding after feeling numb. For a few agonising seconds, he had stopped breathing, his heart had stopped beating.
Not knowing what to do, he left his flat, hoping the walk would give him some kind of clarity, some purpose, some idea.
Everything was altered.
He couldn’t process the various sounds or sights. They were elsewhere, somehow not of this time and place. Or he was. He could see himself, as if he were a totally separate entity, walking aimlessly, pointlessly, no point in existing.
He had hoped that he would be able to get his heart rate down, get air into his lungs, but he felt exactly the same. He was in such pain and had no idea how to cure it.
Then came the idea. He went back home. There was a half bottle of brandy. He also got his aspirin out and saw that there were enough.
He was unable to sit down, but had to get up and walk around his room, corner to corner, with all the futility of a trapped animal, desperately trying to escape from it’s snare.
Finally, the draw of the alcohol and aspirin made him sit. He undid the bottle and began counting out the pills.
One of the office girls had jokingly asked him what was the last film he had seen, then offered a suggestion, a film from the early 80s. Ragno laughed it off, but knew there was an element of truth in it; he hadn’t been to the cinema for years. Apart from bars, he hadn’t really been anywhere in years.
There was a big new film that everyone was talking about, and he said he would go and see it. The young office girl teased that she would ask him about it, so he’d better keep his word. The possibility that she may have been hinting for a date never occurred to him.
He went to the mid-week screening, deciding that it would be quieter, no teenagers or couples kissing.
He sat through the film, optimistically at first, but soon began to lose interest. It was a Hollywood movie; the star was popular with young women, evidently more to do with his looks than his talent.
Not wanting to leave at the same time as everyone else, Ragno waited for the credits then left. As he did so, he noticed a purse on the floor. He looked up and saw the young woman who had sat further along his row leave the cinema. He caught up with her in the foyer and handed it to her.
She was so surprised and pleased, that she insisted on buying him a drink.
The girl was in her early twenties, twenty-five at most and Ragno, twenty years older, smiled and said that it wasn’t necessary.
But the girl looked so hurt, that when she asked again, he conceded.
Luisa, the girl, was twenty two. She was charming and very attractive, and Ragno was very happy when he asked her if she would like another drink, and she accepted.
She shared his opinion about the film, and they laughed at how bad it was. They spoke about music and she wrote down a list of her favourite bands, and unsurprisingly, none of the names meant anything to him.
Before long, they began speaking a little about themselves. Luisa explained that she was single, allowing Ragno to make a compliment, unable to believe that a girl so sweet could be alone.
Luisa promised she would explain . . . maybe . . . after another drink. Ragno smiled. He hadn’t been in the company of any woman for a long time. In the company of an attractive young girl . . . he couldn’t remember when. He couldn’t really remember if.
For the last three months, Luisa had been alone. Alone and scared.
“The thing I am afraid of most is loneliness.”
That short sentence conveyed so much to Ragno. He understood what she was saying. He sensed her shame at having done things that she had regretted, even as she had been doing them. He could feel her self-loathing and disgust. And he felt himself being drawn to her. He knew where these feelings were heading and had to stop them. Now.
But, when he said goodbye and she gave him a soft kiss on the cheek, he was defenceless. She told him that she enjoyed speaking to him that he made he feel secure, safe that she could tell him anything.
He nodded and made her a promise; he would never tell anything she had told him. Whatever happened, he would share it with no one.
She asked for his phone number and he wrote it down, not expecting to ever hear from her again.
But she called the following night. Half an hour after her call, Ragno was in a bar, waiting for her.
They began meeting two, three times a week. She sometimes worked in Köln (Cologne), so she suggested they make the most of her time in Berlin. Other nights, there were phone calls, increasingly frequent, increasingly lengthy.
Ragno had been totally honest from the beginning. About his age, his job, (a dead-end office job in a factory), and that he was married. He just hadn’t seen or heard from his wife for three years.
Luisa found him easy to speak to and trustworthy. She even liked that he was older. She had had enough of men of her own age. Now she wanted maturity and experience, someone who would just talk and listen, and not suddenly make a leap or try to get her into bed, with or without her consent.
She loved his voice, his accent. Even speaking in German couldn’t disguise those soft Italian tones. He loved her laugh. He made it his mission to make her laugh as often as possible. He made it his job to be there for her and help her, how ever he could.
Just by being there, just by listening, Luisa felt him helping. No one had ever just listened to her before.
No one had ever spoken to him before, not like this.
But Ragno was worried.
He had told himself that at his age, he would be a father figure, an avuncular friend to give advice and to comfort when this precious butterfly got hurt.
He tried to exclude romantic ideas about her. That would be too ludicrous. He wouldn’t even think about it. He would be a friend until . . . until she met someone, someone her own age, someone who would make her happy, someone who would get all the love this beautiful girl was so desperate to give. Ragno was already jealous of this someone.
But he was mature and experienced enough to know one thing. There is nothing so attractive and sensual as honesty. Nothing more erotic that to open yourself to another person, to let them in, to see you emotionally naked, to tell them your story, your ideas, your dreams, your desires.
It was Luisa who said it first.
One late night phone conversation when neither one was truly expressing themselves, so anxious to say but not to say what they were feeling.
“I’m falling in love with you.”
The effect these words had on Ragno were indescribable. He hadn’t felt anything like it for many years. He hadn’t felt this intensity ever.
He tore down his walls. He stopped hiding and stood without his defences. He told her that he had already fallen in love with her.
That night they both slept calmly.
They said that they wanted to be with each other, to sleep in each other’s arms. They couldn’t be together, Luisa was in Köln, working, but would come back to Berlin the following weekend.
Until then, there were constant phone calls.
Ragno was confident enough to tell her how much he wanted her, wanted to undress her and kiss her. Luisa encouraged him to keep talking. He did.
But they both had a past they were ashamed of. Luisa had hinted several times that she had done things that would drive him away. He said that he couldn’t change her past, but could forgive it. It was the present that now mattered. And their future.
It was never spoken, but they knew they had to share before they became lovers.
One night, in Ragno’s flat, he began.
His main fear was rejection. Emotional, sexual. He had been with only a handful of women in his life. He had gone years without being with a woman. He had tried, but he just didn’t seem to appeal to women. He was the kind that women want as a friend. He was sweet and kind. Not someone who was worthy of being taken into a bed and loved, and fucked.
So he had accepted it. He had married the first woman who had agreed to date him. By this time, he was already in his late thirties.
Then came a familiar pattern. She began going out, alone. She began coming home later and later. Soon she began coming home at eight or nine in the morning, telling stories about falling asleep in bars, or going to new underground bars that stayed open all night. It was Berlin. It was possible. So he chose to believe.
One night she just didn’t come back. Some days later, she entered the flat while he was working, took as much as she could carry and left a brief note.
Nothing since, though he constantly expected a divorce request by post.
Luisa sat on his lap and kissed him. He wasn’t finished, though.
“There’s something else, my Beauty. I was an addict. I know it now. I never considered it then, but it was true. I thought an addict was someone who woke up shaking and had to inject himself in order to function. I was never like that, so I convinced myself I was OK. But I began taking drugs. Anything I could get. Uppers. Speed. Anything to feel good. I’d spend my wages on drugs, go to bars where I knew I could get some. Then try to get girls by sharing my drugs. Even then, nothing. They’d share my drugs, then leave. And, of course, I did some things. As far as I can remember. Mostly I was in clubs, where everyone was stoned or drunk, but I got into fights, began screaming at people, pushing people. Probably tried to pick up women. Became one of those awful men that harass women. And, or course, on drugs, I could drink all night and, well, I did. Began missing work, missed out on some promotions. Began getting high at work. Thinking that nobody would notice. Of course, they all did. I had to stop. The way I chose to was, how can I say ? Something like Zen, or Buddhism. To free myself of desire. I wanted to feel a woman’s love so much, but it wasn’t possible, not for me. If I could just accept this, I would no longer want it, and therefore no longer have to take anything to kill the pain. So, that is what I did. I told myself that I would never be attractive to or attracted by a woman. I would never again go through all the agony of not being wanted, not being desired, not even being seen. I would never suffer when I saw women I like go with other men. It maybe wasn’t ideal, but, it worked . . . until . . .”
“Until . . . ?”
“I met you. And I tried to fight it, and to push you away and to tell myself that nothing would ever happen, but . . .”
They kissed, deeply, warmly. Luisa stroked his hair and gave him the softest kisses on his head. Then she nestled her head against his neck. She had her own story to tell, but couldn’t bear to look at Ragno as she spoke, in case the love in his eyes turned to disgust, or hatred.
“Me too … with drugs. I could never be alone. I did what I had to do to get company. It was easy. I didn’t always go home with them. But most of the time. I thought they would like me. But that didn’t happen. I was used for one night. Then felt even more alone. And I hated myself. Told myself I wouldn’t ever do it again. But I was back. Then someone gave me some coke. First time I felt nothing. But after a time . . . I would do anything to get it. Or do anyone. I won’t tell you, but . . . I can’t even say it. I would do whatever they asked me. Anywhere. To anyone.”
Ragno had been gently stroking her hair, but Luisa felt him stop. She could also feel his heart. It had been beating increasingly fast. The stroking continued, as he kissed her head.
“This was all long ago. But every time I go to a bar, I have a panic attack that someone will recognize me. That’s why I like to go to local bars, with you. If I go to a club, it is a certainty that some people will know me. That’s why I looked for work in Köln. I wanted to move there. Start over. Not know anyone. Never come back to Berlin. Then I had a boyfriend and I stopped. And at first he was so sweet to me and he really helped. I didn’t want to go out, or to drink or take drugs. I didn’t feel lonely anymore. Then something happened. We were out one night and having a nice time, just laughing and he was kissing me and holding me. He went to the toilet, but when he came back, he had changed. Totally. He was all cold. Wouldn’t touch me, wouldn’t even look at me. When I tried to hold him, he pushed me away, but, he was hard. He hurt me. I began crying. He said, ‘shut up you fucking slut!’ I would have preferred he shoot me or stab me. We walked out. He never said what happened, but someone must have recognized me and told him. After that, he wouldn’t sleep with me or touch me. He looked at me with hate. I asked him, I begged him to kill me, it would be kinder. I asked him to tell me, but he wouldn’t. I told him everything, but he wouldn’t listen and he threw things at me. Then he came over and began punching me and he wouldn’t stop. But I didn’t scream. I deserved it, and wanted more, I wanted him to punch and kick and strangle me, I wanted this life to be over.
“I was on the floor and he stood back and kicked me in . . . he kicked me. I thought I would die. And I felt happy. But in pain, such pain. First it was numb, but soon, each second, it hurt more and more. Then I screamed and began crying and couldn’t stop. I was hysterical. That stopped him. I don’t blame him because I know how hurt he was. I still don’t blame him. I only blame myself. But even worse, he knelt down and began calling me all names. Then he spat in my face and packed my bags. I was still on the floor in agony. He picked me up and threw me out, down the stairs. I still felt I deserved it and that I was glad it was out. I went to my parents. I must have put them through hell. I took it all out on them. Wouldn’t answer any of their questions. Made them think the worst, enjoyed torturing them. It made me stronger, that I could hurt someone. So I just wanted to hurt everyone. Of course, the only people I had around me were family and old friends. And I made them all suffer. Yes, suffer and I loved the power.”
Luisa was unable to continue. She was crying so much, but Ragno knew the best he could do was to just hold her. He did. After nearly half an hour of constant crying, Luisa fell asleep, on his lap. Ragno may have slept once or twice, but soon awoke, and carried on with his job, his job to comfort and love her, to kiss her all night, to stroke her hair, to rest her head under his, his lips never to stop kissing, so she would feel his love, feel safe, feel worthy, feel.
Ragno wanted this night to last forever. But day was breaking. Luisa would at some point wake up, get off his lap and leave. It was possible that they would never share such a moment again, and Ragno panicked. She may feel so dirty and ashamed that she would be unable to face him. He thought back to some of her words. She was fond of saying that people must learn to enjoy the present. Not to make impossible plans, but to appreciate that everything dies, so make the most of happiness.
Luisa stirred. She woke up, looked at Ragno, but instead of jumping up and away, she snuggled into him and he held her tighter. She responded and kissed his neck. Then she asked to use his shower. When she returned, wearing a towel, she kissed him, then looked into his eyes. He looked into hers and she smiled and nodded. He took off her towel.
As they made love, Ragno felt it was such an emotional, spiritual moment. He loved her so softly, like she was the most precious, delicate, angelic girl. He kissed her all over and made her cum twice before he entered her, and when he did, holding her hands, he was so gentle, that she couldn’t hold back the tears.
As for Ragno, he felt what it was to be in love. He felt what it was like to be loved back, to be needed and wanted and cherished.
For Luisa, she learnt what it felt like to be respected and loved. And loved. And loved. She felt safe.
They had moments of fear, when small misunderstandings seemed about to destroy everything. Luisa spoke German and English, Ragno Italian, basic English and good, very good German, but he wasn’t fluent. He often missed nuances and inflexions, took jokes seriously, didn’t understand references or know that a number of words had several different meanings in different contexts.
He had complimented Luisa on the amount of love she had to offer. It was abundantly clear that she was the kind of girl that stays friends forever. The kind who loves helping people, that need to be needed. Ragno mentioned this one day on the phone, when she called from Köln.
Luisa had managed to find some work, albeit piecemeal, in Köln but not enough to sustain moving to the city. She knew this was going to be a difficult conversation, but it would be honest. As they were honest with each other, Ragno would understand.
Her old boyfriend had called. Despite all their history, she had loved him, and said that love never dies. How could it ? And she knew that as a way of making up for her past, she must offer herself to whoever needs her. If anyone were lonely, or lost or confused, she would go to that person and love them.
Ragno was silent.
Luisa continued. The boyfriend was having trouble and needed her.
Ragno felt his throat tightening, wasn’t sure if he could even speak.
“So, you’re going to . . . go to him ?”
“No, he’s here. In Köln.”
“But . . . what about us ?”
“I still love you. But you’re not here and I have to love people, so . . .”
“Luisa, please, listen, what are you saying ?”
“I’ll still be here for you, Sweetness, but now he needs me.”
“I’m supposed to be OK with this ?”
“Oh, you’re being silly. There is love enough for both of you. I go to Berlin and love you, now he needs me.”
“Are you really … ? You’re going to sleep with him ?”
“You know me, know I have to give my love, I have enough to give.”
“Please, Luisa, answer me ! Are you going to sleep with him ?”
But, again, Luisa spoke on a different subject and showed no sign of answering the question. He stressed how important it was, but she began on a totally new subject. Ragno interrupted,
“Then . . . it’s over. I can’t see you anymore.”
“What ? Why ?”
“You really have to ask ? How can you do this to me ? Are you just out for revenge ? Are you trying to get back at men ? Well, if so, you can stop, now. You’ve won.”
“Wait, look, I didn’t say anything . . .”
“No. Exactly, I asked and asked . . .”
“But I didn’t say . . . “
“I gave you two, three chances, to tell me, but I got the answer. You didn’t give me a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but you answered. I can’t do this. I can’t. Goodbye. I wish I didn’t love you. I really do.”
Ragno put the phone down, having said the final goodbye to the girl he loved.
She would call back, so he lifted the receiver off the hook.
He looked at the brandy and poured out a large glass. He looked at it, but didn’t yet drink.
She was in Köln. Working. Wouldn’t be back until the weekend.
How would that be ? She’d come here, and no answer at the door, or phone. Have to ask the neighbours. No, no one’s seen or heard him.
Soon have to call the Politzei to smash the door down. And she would see him. In front of the phone. Empty bottle of alcohol, empty container of pills. And she would suffer for the rest of her life.
Ragno took the glass and lifted it to his mouth, but the smell made him stop.
Did he really want to do this ?
He kept the glass raised while he thought.
What had she meant ? How, how, how could she mean this ? He had told her how vulnerable and damaged he was. It wasn’t possible. But she hadn’t denied it. Hadn’t confirmed it. Why had she toyed with him, though ? What sadistic pleasure did she get from that ? But she was so sweet and loving, how could she really mean it ? And so sensitive. Or was it all an act ? But why act ? No one would go to all this trouble just to hurt him.
He sat and asked himself question after question.
He put the glass down.
He put the phone back on the receiver.
Less than two minutes later, the phone rang. He didn’t answer.