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.
One night in the Czar Bar, a tall thin man walked in, ordered a beer and, the bar stools all being occupied, stood quietly against a wall and drank alone.
Chris didn’t like the look of him from the start. He was older, probably mid-forties, possibly more. Even in the poor light of the bar, his skin was visibly pockmarked, from disease, drug abuse or both.
He had heard Germans talking about ex-Stasi (the East German Secret Police) informers and knew the incredible statistics; as many as one in four people gave information and spied on their neighbours. The forty odd years of the DDR had generated as much paperwork and files as the rest of German history combined.
This man, alone, out of place, was, Chris decided, a clear ex-informer, probably here to spy on the bar and the customers, to close it down, gather names, prosecute for all the illegal activities.
When he had finished his beer, he walked over to the bar and put the empty bottle carefully on the counter. Chris snarled,
The man shook his head, and said, in English but with a soft accent,
“No, thank you.” Then he smiled. It was a smile of serenity and peace, that completely disarmed Chris who instantly changed his opinion. “Tchüss, Jake,” he said as he left.
“Ah, yeah, tchüss, Ragno,” answered Jake as he put empty bottles into a crate with one hand and pulled out three more beers with the other.
“Who was that ?”
“Oh, Ragno. Haven’t seen him for a while. Good guy. No problems, has his beer then goes.”
“So we ain’t gonna get rich off him ?”
“He’s got a young girlfriend, so . . . “
“Ah,” said Chris, “yeah, why would he get drunk if he’s got a babe waiting for him. Fuck, how does he do it ? Face like that ?”
“No, he’s a nice guy. Well, I dunno, he had a young girlfriend. Not sure if they’re still together.”
Robert, in apparent apropos of nothing, let out a,
“Shit on a stick !” while Peter lifted a half empty beer bottle to his lips and momentarily silenced the bar with an amazingly pure note.
Chris wanted to know a little more about Ragno, but a round of vodkas was ordered and by the time the bar had quietened down, he had forgotten all about him.
Chris took Daniel to meet the Russians at their squat in a remote area of disused offices and railway shunting yards. The area looked like a post-apocalyptic film set: large empty streets save for a few burnt out cars. The buildings all with broken windows, doors hanging off rusted hinges, half derelict and foreboding.
They alighted at Ostkreuz, a major intersection S-Bahn station with several different levels and platforms confusingly set out with various exits leading to metal walkways and staircases.
Daniel noticed the Teutonic water tower, resembling a Prussian army helmet, and desperately tried to memorise other landmarks, in case he should need to come back alone, but he was lost even before he had left the station.
Chris had been here several times now, helping the Russians with carrying stock to the bar, and one or two social calls, and knew that finding the building was just the first problem. The next was getting in.
The address was Pfarrstrasse, but the entrance was actually on the street around the corner, Kaskelstrasse. The building took up a whole block, dozens of flats that had been left to decay and were now squatted.
Chris tried the street door, but knew it was always locked and even the idea of an intercom was laughable.
The first time Andrei had been waiting for him, looking out of a window, and he threw down a bunch of keys. The second time, Chris had to wait for someone to arrive, then, in German, explain who he was and why he was here. Despite living in a squat of his own and having to go over to Richard’s flat to shower, Chris still looked and dressed several notches above the squatters here, who were proudly unkempt, unwashed and untrusting.
Chris shouted up and they waited, shouted again and continued waiting. Daniel looked around, uneasily, not sure what he was doing here, wherever ‘here’ was.
He was experiencing the Czar Bar syndrome. Plans and ideas were expounded, inspired by the atmosphere and the vodka, but when they came to be implemented, there was a sudden lack of enthusiasm, a frequent lack of memory.
For five minutes they waited, and Daniel was prepared to put it down to a good idea that hadn’t panned out, when Chris saw Boris walking towards them with a plastic bag, obviously containing beer cans.
Daniel had met Andrei, Olga and Sascha, but Chris had pointed out that Boris would be the heart of any band, he was the musician, the one who would lift them out of the rehearsal room and onto the stage and then . . .
But Daniel wasn’t prepared for the voice.
Boris was tall and reserved, with dark, tangled, curled hair which he kept meticulously clean with his own home-made shampoo of beer and eggs. Chris even joked if the beers were for them or his hair.
“Ah, yes, yes, the beers, yes is for both, hahahaha.”
The voice was incredibly deep, an accent perfect for a late night horror program voice-over.
Boris let them in and they walked up three long steep flights of stairs, then along a corridor, where he opened another door. Inside, there was a lot of noise and activity.
The door opened straight onto a kitchen area, a large table in the centre of the room. Around this sat Sascha and his German girlfriend, Trudi, who was playing with her black and blue dyed hair. Andrei was shouting in Russian and Olga was screaming back, but they both stopped when they saw the guests, Olga going over and offering her hand to be kissed.
Another long-haired man was in the background, opening some packets of food. Daniel pointed to him and said to Chris,
“He looks like Charlie George,” referring to the Arsenal footballer from the early 1970s.
Boris was a big English football fan and amazed Daniel by picking up on the reference. Their friendship was assured. And the poor Russian, with no German or English, was forever after known as Charlie George.
The three potential band members, Boris, Andrei and Sascha, all had good albeit basic English. Of the three, Andrei was the one the others turned to, in order to clarify or translate a difficult word. However, their German was only basic, at best. Olga was doing well in her new language, but had no English. Trudi was quite fluent in English, when she spoke, which was hardly ever. She professed having zero desire to learn Russian.
“It is hard language to learn,” sympathised Boris. “But it used to be much worse. In English, you have one flower, then another word for two flowers . . . In Russian, too, we had same, but then we had another word for three flowers. After the Revolution, they say we going to make easier . . . “
“Yeah,” Daniel jumped in, “no more flowers!”
Boris had a laugh as disconcerting as his voice, but it was starting to grow on Daniel.
Charlie George brought some dried fish over, and invited Chris and Daniel to take one. They did, then watched how the others picked them up and slapped them hard onto the table, so hard that is caused some empty beer cans to topple over. Andrei saw their bemusement,
“It to make sure they dead.”
Then the vodka came out.
Some hours later, Daniel and a distinctly tipsy Chris left to walk under the railway bridges and along the wastelands to get the Czar Bar opened.
It had been decided that a new band should be formed, and that Daniel should come over on Saturday for a first rehearsal. Walking with Chris, he knew he would never be able to find it again, but Chris wasn’t listening. He was planning.
His income was directly proportional to the amount of customers, or rather, how much they drank, or rather, how much they paid for how much they drank. His expenses were drastically reduced, needing no rent or daily travel money, but he still wanted to be able to buy larger items, or have enough to fly home, if needed, to complete the degree which, by degrees, was seeming less and less probable.
He thought of the stage in the Czar Bar, how it was going to waste, as the only people who used it were themselves wasted, spread out and sleeping, until Jake would unceremoniously kick them up, then out.
The answer was obvious; a house band. Gigs, concerts. Get a whole new crowd in, not just the usual ragbag assortment of punks and squatters and shitkickers, a word he had heard Jake use, and was now part of his daily vocabulary.
What was better, and economically advantageous, was that it would have to be on the nights that he and Jake worked, as neither Boris nor Andrei would want to work and play, and Micha and Serge, the other Russians who got a night or two per week, were unlikely to want the extra effort it would involve.
His enthusiasm to tell Jake made him walk along at such a pace, that Daniel had a hard time keeping up.
Daniel was both excited, and on a nice alcohol buzz, but was concerned over an issue or two. While he was sure he would be able to come up with lyrics, he had never sung before and was wondering if he had any ability. Another point was that, as he sat quietly around the table, getting to know his new friends, and impressing them by his knowledge of Russian authors and of St Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect, he had noticed how Olga looked at Andrei and then at Boris, and the loving way that Boris gazed upon Olga. There was going to be trouble there, he thought. But, until that happened, he was going to get a band started and, according to Chris who had already appointed himself manager, they had a guaranteed residency lined up.
Daniel Roth had waited a week before returning to the Czar Bar. He brought two workmates with him, for support, perhaps, but after they saw that they had come all that way just to sit in a squat bar with uncomfortable stools and a depressing lack of women, they left.
Boris, another Russian who lived in the same squat as Andrei and Olga, was working that night. Before long, Chris walked in, unshaven and unwashed. He walked past Daniel, not seeing him, and sat on the end seat, next to where Boris was leaning. They spoke a little, and Chris ordered a beer before seeing Daniel and ordering three vodkas.
“No, no fucking vodka ! Fucked me up, last time.”
Chris kept the smile to himself.
“Really ? How so ?”
Daniel didn’t answer, but hesitated a question of his own.
“I hope I, er didn’t do . . . anything too . . . I hope I wasn’t out of order, last week. Had a bit too much. Hadn’t eaten and it was a har . . . “
Chris waved it away and invited him over.
“All right, but no fucking vodka!”
“Enough, already, no vodka. Wimp!”
“You what ?”
“Just saying, one minute it’s all, ‘I’ll pick you up with one finger and throw you through the window’, the next it’s, ‘oh, please, no vodka’.”
Daniel looked at Chris without blinking and Chris began thinking he may have overstepped the mark.
Daniel then turned to Boris,
Predictably, these were the first of many. Chris was getting acclimatized and Boris drank without any apparent effect whatsoever.
Daniel, on his fifth vodka, kept apologising for his behaviour and Chris did nothing to allay his fears that he had behaved appallingly. Finally, more to stop Daniel repeat himself, he told him that nothing had happened. Daniel had sung, shouted, screamed, but so had everybody else.
“You’re just doing the ‘Newman Shuffle’,” he explained. “People come in here the first time, drink too much vodka and have a melt down. Then they come back, heads down, shuffle in to face the music. Bet that’s how you walked in, all hunched over.”
“But you don’t realise; this is the Czar Bar. Everyone freaks out, it’s expected, it’s almost the law. And if you really do make scandal, so what ? The next night, it’ll be somebody else, and your indiscretion will be forgotten.”
“Ah, you like big words, hey ? What are you ? Fucking student ?”
“Not any more. But I ain’t the one walking ’round with fucking Emily Zola.”
Daniel laughed and ordered more vodkas, Chris smiling at how quickly he had slipped into the pattern of Czar Bar life. Chris’ comical attempt at Cockney could not pass without comment,
“No need to start dropping your accent. This ain’t England.”
Chris, as being the senior in terms of Berlin life, expounded,
“No, this is Berlin. Just be yourself. Or be who you want to be.”
That last sentence stuck with Daniel.
Before the night descended into vodka madness, Daniel was asking about places to go. He always seemed to go to the same bars in Wedding, with his workmates, and most of these were not so far removed from the East End pubs he has left behind. Picking up on this piece of personal history,
“Ah, gangsters, rippers and wide-boys; the charming myths about the East End,” said Chris.
“The only charming myth about the East End is the myth that the East End is charming.”
Chris liked that turn of phrase and commended Daniel on it, then enquired about his academic background, as Chris still had some vague thoughts about switching from Physics to Literature.
“No, Mate, left school with a boot up the arse and fuck all else. Always read, though. Just couldn’t see why I had to listen to some deadbeat dickhead, when I could learn much more from Tolstoy or Dickens or Shakespeare. I can add and subtract and all that bollocks, but I don’t need Calculus, so fuck Maths. Geography, I know the capitals and rivers and mountains, if not, I’ll look them up, or fucking go there. Chemistry, I know good speed from shit, so that’s covered. History ? I’ll go to a museum or read a book of my own choice, not have some fucking Marxist ideology shoved down my throat. Games ? P.E. ? Fuck that, stand around with your dick frozen off so some old perv can get his jollies looking at you ? It’s the East End, we know how to fucking run. Physics ? Fuck that . . . “
Chris laughed, adding,
“Fuck Physics. Actually . . . I did.”
As for going to new places, Chris had a suggestion. Arizona Al was playing another gig in Mitte on Saturday, and both he and Richard were going, out of obligation. Daniel was invited and Chris wrote down the instructions and made a suggestion where to meet. He also wrote Richard’s phone number down.
Daniel thanked him with a vodka, and was introduced to new people as the bar filled up.
Several hours later, Daniel Roth was shaken awake at Hönow station.
Richard was happy to see Chris sitting at the end of the bar in Biberkopf. Happy, but not surprised. The previous Saturday, it had been Chris’ idea to go to some clubs in Mitte. The reason given was to have a break from the Czar Bar, but Richard knew that Chris was hoping to see Monika.
They had gone to several bars and clubs around Rosenthaler Platz but had just watched other people dance, rather than join in. Going out clubbing was going to be very different without the Gang.
Chris took an immediate dislike to a girl from New Zealand, whom he found loud and brash and not entirely pretty. She was dancing with a German theatre student (they surmised) who was wearing a white polo neck tucked into white jeans, held up with black braces. Chris took an instant dislike to him too.
The dreaded twosome began dancing, acting out some scenario that had her pretending to slap him, and him turning away in agony, with mechanical movements.
“Look the fuck at that. Robot dancing. Fucking hell, what is this, nineteen seventy-four ?”
“Do you think,” asked Richard, trying to salvage the evening, “that in some parallel universe, there are robots who go out, get lubricated, and start people dancing ?”
“Yes. I’m sure that’s exactly what happens.”
Richard felt his joke deserved better than that, but he knew the underlying cause. Chris was devastated over losing Monika. Considering the way the break up happened, there was little chance of a reconciliation.
Just over an hour after leaving the Mitte club, they were back in the Czar Bar, agreeing that they belonged here, with the squatters, punks, hard-core alcoholics, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, not with the would-be beautiful people and Euro Disco.
Having worked there with Jake, Chris was now well known and accepted. He knew nearly everyone by name, and gave Richard the low-down, who was worth knowing, who was best to avoid.
Tonight, it was Andrei and Olga working. Andrei resembled a Viking marauder, more than a Slav, with long blonde hair and a long blonde beard. He wasn’t especially tall, but made up for it by having an amazing girth. He was, quite simply, not a man to mess with. Occasionally some idiot with suicidal tendencies would venture his luck, but it was a short-lived enterprise. With Andrei it was one strike and you’re out. His girlfriend, Olga, was tall and slim, with blonde hair and a majestic bearing, looking like a Russian princess (Revolution notwithstanding). It was painfully easy to fall in love with her. So, of course, Richard did.
Apart from her beauty, she possessed two talents, highly prized. One was that she made the best Bloody Marys . . . ever. It was a remarkable sight to see giant, unwashed, street-fighting men sipping her concoction through a delicate straw.
The second talent was her voice. She would accompany herself on guitar, simple but effective picking, and out of her thin frame came the voice of an angel. An angel, however, with a distinct liking for tequila.
As there was barely a night without someone coming in with a guitar and playing, whether they were requested to or not, and as Olga loved the attention, so deserved, she often gave an impromptu concert .
This night, however, there was a little tension between her and her boyfriend. Richard sensed this, but Chris, drinking quickly and encouraging Richard to do same, was too busy with his own problems.
Then Jake arrived, making all attempts at conversation useless. He bombarded Chris and Richard with a detailed account of the awful food he had just eaten at a late night Imbiss. When he left to use the toilet, Chris said,
“What a fucking voice. Like a foghorn.”
“Yeah, Foghorn Leghorn.”
This unexpected, though remarkably apt comment, together with the beers and vodka, put them into a laughing fit, that continued as Jake returned. He naturally was curious as to the cause. Richard was in the mood for mischief.
“We were speaking about favourite cartoon characters. I used to love Foghorn Leghorn, but we can’t remember his catchphrase.”
Jake stepped up, puffing out his chest and strutting around,
“I say I saw a, saw a, I say, I saw a chicken”
It was too much. Richard was having difficulty breathing and Chris all but fell off his chair. Jake took this as a positive sign, and continued, with appropriate chicken and rooster movements.
Olga was looking at Richard and laughing, knowing he was the instigator.
“Hey, Olga gets it.”
“No, she’s from Moscow, she doesn’t know what the fuck a Foghorn Leghorn is,” Chris argued.
But after that, memories became hazy; there were snatches of Jake strutting around the bar, greeting bemused newcomers with the catchphrase and ordering drinks in the galline manner.
Richard woke up some time Sunday afternoon, having no idea how they had arrived home. He got into a panic and checked his possessions. Travel ticket, watch, wallet, even some money left. All was well with the world and what wasn’t could wait.
The next day Chris was at Richard’s work, joking with the bar staff. Matias was making the bar, a moustachioed bodybuilder type, who had a hands-on policy with regards to the female staff. Ully was being her pleasant self, obviously not too concerned with making large tips and a new girl, Jolande, was also working. Richard described her as that rarest of creatures, a German with a sense of humour.
Seeing that Chris was a friend of Richard’s, she made some jokes with him, and hid his beer when he went into the kitchen to say, “Hi,” to the chef.
Unfortunately, she was the world’s worst at keeping a joke, and couldn’t help bursting out laughing after only a few seconds. But she earned points for the effort.
Later, as she walked into the kitchen, Chris heard a high-pitch shriek, and saw Jolande running out, chased by Richard who, by the position of his hands, had just grabbed her sides.
“What are you doing to her ?” laughed Chris.
“Tickling her, of course,” was the reply, as natural as possible.
After Richard’s shift, they sat and drank together, Jolande joining them as she ate her meal. Chris appeared happy and relaxed, but was clearly looking more cheerful than he actually felt.
By tacit agreement, they took the night buses to the Czar Bar.
Micha and Serge had the bar, and they tended to close relatively early. They didn’t exactly draw the crowds either, playing continuous Death Metal. Though they changed the CD’s periodically, the noise remained the same.
Walking along Rigaer Str, in the early hours, the outdoor lamp of The Czar Bar was usually the only beacon, though hardly of hope, as there may well have hung a sign above the door, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter’. No one here gets out sober.
They opened the door, pushed aside the curtain and found two bar stools easily. The bar was mainly empty, the few drinkers dispersed to all corners.
After ordering two Becks and two vodkas, Chris got straight to the point.
“I have to win Monika back.”
He was expecting an evening of planning and scheming. He wasn’t prepared for Richard’s answer,
It almost knocked Chris off his stool. When he finally spoke, it was defensive,
“I thought you liked Monika ?”
“I did. Do. But you and her together . . . I don’t think so.”
“Wow. Like . . . shit ! You mean it ?”
“Oh, yeah. Lovely girl, and you’re . . . OK, I suppose, but the two of you ? How many fights did you have ? How many times did you break up and get back together ? How many times did you come to me and ask what the fuck to do ?”
“You want individual figures or a combined total ?”
“C’mon. Every time you had to pay rent, it was problems.”
Chris knew only too well, as he had to walk to the flat of Ute’s friend, thus remaining in indirect contact with his ex-girlfriend.
“I know, it was a constant pain. And the work. When I left the Noodle Nuthouse, you hugged me, she almost cut my balls off. She wanted me to stay a Spüler. And then she hated that I was only a Spüler. Frauen !”
“What we need . . . is a new drink. The shots are gonna act too quickly.”
“I don’t think these bastards carry Pimms.”
“What we need is . . . “ Richard looked at the unimpressive, shabby collection of bottles. “Tequila. Tequila ? What goes with tequila ?”
“Cactus-smelling vomit. Wouldn’t mind a Run ‘n’ Coke.”
“Can’t see rum. Or Coke.”
“We’re gonna have to stick to beer and vodka, aren’t we ?”
“Looks like it,” agreed Richard.
There was a thud on the back door, then some keys desperate to find the lock. The door opened and something could be heard dragging itself in. Micha and Serge turned to each other and exchanged curses in Russian.
After some uncomfortable sounds, resembling a man being tossed from side to side in the corridors of a ship in a heavy storm, Jake appeared, somehow remaining upright in the entrance between vestibule and bar. He saw Chris and Richard and greeted them, hugging Chris from behind, but forgetting to let go.
Serge spoke in German, Jake answered and then stopped, as if suspended. He remained like this for some minutes, as the Russians started to close the bar, packing up the crates and chasing the drinkers out.
Richard began to leave, but Chris stopped him.
More talk between The Russians and Jake, then they left, shaking their heads and muttering. Jake screamed after them, half German, half English,
“Kein angst, alles klar (don’t worry, it’s all right) I’ll lock up. Ich habe der Schlüssel (I have the key.) You go to bed.” Then he turned to his two guests,
“You two guys need a drink ? ‘Cause I might have something in back. Don’t know, have to check. Have to check.”
Yet Jake remained standing and Chris had to lead him to the store room. Once inside, he made a series of pleasantly surprised sounds and returned, armed with beer bottles and a half bottle of Stolichnaya.
The remainder of the night was spent with Chris speaking about Monika, Richard speaking about Olga and Jake just speaking.
When Richard began working that night, he still had a hangover, which gradually faded, thanks to the endless coffees he drank. By the time his shift was over, he was in the mood for a drink, and, as luck would have it, Chris was helping Jake in the Czar Bar that night.
Jake was born in Iowa and spent his life in the Mid-West, living first in Illinois, then trying his luck in Wisconsin, in Ohio and finally in Michigan.
He had played in bands, more in garages than on stages, deciding he’d be better off as a solo performer, then changing his bachelor life for that of married man, before his wife decided that she’d be better off, back as a solo performer.
As he had disclosed, without exaggeration or embellishment, he had been working in the fast food sector at the time his wife informed him, by proxy, that his services were no longer required.
What he didn’t say, and what would have made a dramatic and popular coda to his story was the fact that after his young supervisor requested he get back to work, Jake went over to him, picked him up and attempted to deep fry his head. He was deterred by some tall Black co-workers, who later wondered why the hell they had stepped in to save the skinny white guy’s arse.
Jake, predicting that this wasn’t the path to career advancement, left the building. He felt finished in the US and, after taking care of his legal formalities, and totally disregarding other responsibilities, decided to check out his family’s east European roots.
With just one backpack, one guitar and limited funds, he landed in Krakow, in post-Communist Poland.
By busking for tourists, Jake was able to survive, and also to imbibe as much as he liked, due to the incredibly low prices of alcohol. He moved onto Prague, with its large American ex-pat community and found various jobs, helping in bars, shops, being a guide (‘making up most of the facts for fat tourists who didn’t care, anyway’) until he heard that Berlin, just a five-hour train ride away, was even cheaper, with squat houses, and more possibilities.
In 1991, Jake arrived with some names and addresses. He found a number of bars in Friedrichshain and played for drinks. He made most money by playing Neil Young’s ‘Rockin in the Free World’ by The Wall for the remaining American GIs.
The Czar Bar was then a strictly Russian affair, and one vodka-soaked night there was a Slavic stand off when one Russian man accused another of sleeping with his girlfriend, causing a defiant denial and indignation, despite it all being true and everybody knowing it, most people even seeing it, as it had occurred in a dark corner of the bar. The immediate problem was that the two men were supposed to be working together.
As this clearly was not a good idea, Jake, who happened to be there, offered to take over. That night, the Russian cuckold helped himself to his own vodka and sat sulking, sporadically bursting out curses and threats in Russian.
Veterans of the Czar Bar point out that this was the only time that Jake could have been referred to as ‘the sober one’.
Nearly four years later, Jake’s world had shrunk to the bar, the beer shop, Burger King on Karl Marx Allee and his squat flat, next door to the bar.
It was at said flat that Chris arrived at around five in the evening.
He knocked. And a second time. It wasn’t until the fifth knock, when he was on the verge of leaving, that there were rumblings inside, rumblings that morphed into noises that metamorphosed into curses. The door opened and two bulging, red eyes appeared in a forest of facial hair. The hat was, as usual, on, at some impossible angle.
Jake inquired what Chris wanted, then grumbled and mumbled and opened the door to let him in and shuffled back to his room, scratching and pulling at his ripped unholy long johns.
Chris had lived on Rigaer Str, had drunk in all manner of squat bars, and met drunks and junkies on the streets, the streets full of shit and vomit, piss-stained and encrusted with frozen mucus, but nothing had prepared him for Jake’s flat.
There was no furnishings to speak of; all walls were bare, as were all the floors, which had several boards missing. There was little light as it was dark out, and most of the windows were either boarded up after being broken, or had too much stuff piled in from of them. Single bulbs hung like condemned men from noose-like wires.
But most of all, it was the smell. It appeared as if Jake had kept every bit of garbage, and had maybe gone out and collected more. It was piled up against doors, pouring out of rooms, covering the floor. There were cartons, bottles, cans, wrappings, ring-pulls, fast food boxes (grease-streaked and discoloured), papers, flyers, adverts, letters, and a whole, miscellaneous section that defied description.
Chris was rooted to the spot. He didn’t feel safe moving, it was surely a health hazard just breathing.
Jake called out something to the effect that he’d be ready in a minute. Sure enough, he reeled out of his room (from which Chris turned his face), swayed forward, putting on his thick, leather coat and checking his wallet.
“Yeah, Micha and Serge were out, or they’d have let you in.”
Chris couldn’t believe that two other people shared the space.
Jake went down the steps and opened the back door to the bar. The fug hit Chris immediately. Old beer, old stale sweat and tobacco smoke rushed out like a deranged Jinn, one with severe body odour to boot.
Jake was immune, and opened the storage room, taking out the trolley and loading it with empty crates and making a quick inventory. There was a note left for him; Andrei and Olga, who had worked the previous night, had run out of vodka, and borrowed a bottle of his.
“See how fucking clueless they are ? It’s the Czar Bar for fuck’s sake and they had no vodka.”
Chris was starting to think that this may not be the best idea he’d ever had. Drinking in the bar was one thing, actually working there . . .
Jake took Chris to the beer store, around the next corner. He barked in German, placing his order.
“Wednesday, probably not too busy, it’ll be a slow start but’ll pick up by four, five . . . yeah, better make it an extra case of Becks, two bottles of Tequila, gimme a bottle of that whisky as well, six, no, sev, er, eight vodkas, yeah, nine. Nine. That’ll be us covered, hahahaaha.”
Chris knew that Jake wasn’t joking, and that Jake would certainly have consumed at least one bottle of vodka himself, before the night was over, maybe before the bar had even opened.
While Jake began setting up, Chris gave it a cursory sweep, made sure the toilet was at least presentable (i.e. flushed) and collected last nights ashtrays and bottles, putting the empties in Andrei’s crates.
The first beers were already opened as Jake gave Chris some beginners’ tips. This solely consisted of not allowing any credit, because the creditor and debtor would both be too drunk to remember it the next day.
Then they went to Burger King and Jake told him stories of cleaning toilets in McDonalds and they both agreed that the burgers they were eating were some of the best they’d ever had.
It was way after one o’clock when Richard arrived, straight from work, to celebrate Chris’ new job. The very first stool, by the door, was empty, so he took it and gave Chris his shoulder bag to put behind the bar. Before they could have any conversation, Jake, on his umpteenth vodka, came over and extended his hand, booming out above Tom Waits,
“Hey, Richard, what brings you here ?”
“The night bus,” he replied, but only Chris found that amusing.
Jake found it an excuse for a vodka.
Chris was doing well, collecting glasses and bottles and serving the customers immediately. He got into some conversations with people he had previously only known by sight, many of them living in one of the squatted houses either side of the bar.
After returning from the toilet, Richard saw his seat taken by a woman, but as the next one became free, he sat there and they began talking. Then drinking. Having a friend and flatmate as barman was having benefits. Richard had yet to pay for anything and when he offered, Chris just shot him a wink and, with a wink, poured him another shot. His new friend also enjoyed this privilege. Then Richard began a kissing thing, Chris discreetly moving away down the bar, casting an approving eye from time to time.
Jake, however, was proving less fun to work with than to drink with. He allowed Chris to choose the music, then changed it every time, before the first track had finished. He gave instructions, repeated them, then got into a bad mood for no apparent reason and returned to a good mood, hugging Chris, equally without obvious cause.
Richard was kissing and stroking his friend, only for her to say that she had a boyfriend (he resisted the urge to call Chris over and make some reference to the perennial boyfriend problem) but was tempted to go home with him, yet everytime he appeared to have won her over, she pulled back. He didn’t press her, but just thought he better kiss her while he has the chance. So he did.
As Jake forecast, the bar was crowded by four o’clock. The Czar Bar, as Chris later surmised, is where all drunks and punks and skunks end up. When other bars spew out their customers, they end up here. Especially when Jake is working.
Richard gave a last kiss to his friend, as she had to leave. He never did find out her name. He never did see her again.
Chris introduced him to several new people and three or four times, there were communal vodka sessions, where everyone around the bar had a shot of vodka. Then came the business of finding out who was paying for it.
Richard saw Johan again, this time with a small and very pretty blonde girl with glasses, and all three, along with Chris and Jake took a shot. The girl was Veronica, Johan’s new girlfriend.
Eventually, the bar began closing. Richard had spent some time asleep on the counter and several people around the bar were being woken up and kicked out.
All locked up, Jake opened three fresh beers, as if he were ready to start all over, played one of his favourite Neil Young CD’s and sorted out the money. He was pleased; it had been a busy night. He handed Chris two fifty Mark notes.
“It’ll be more on weekends. Gotta get more girls in here, because if we have girls, we’ll get more men.”
They made some drunken suggestions, then fatigue overtook them. Richard knew he had to work that evening and would still be hungover.
Chris and Richard left and were hit by the unforgiving morning light which momentarily blinded them, making them squint.
Staggering wildly around the street, Chris recommending that they take the U-Bahn, because it stopped at Alex, then the U2, which terminated just one station past their’s at Vintastr. should they fall asleep.
At Alex, both of them indeed asleep, they were woken by some of the other passengers and, heading to the U2 line, they found a croissant shop and bought several pastry items, as they smelt so damn good.
When Richard woke up around three-fifteen, he found several bags of half-eaten, cold stodge in the kitchen. He put on coffee and went to wash.
Jake poured four shots and made the introductions. The newcomer was Johan, a Frenchman who had served in the army in the north west of Berlin and stayed on. After the first round of vodkas and a second, for luck, Johan began,
“I thought, yeah, nice day, I cycle to work, I borrow Claude’s bike. I have to go and show a new man what to do, right ? This new man, my God he is how ? Less than useless, then I leave and see the fucking rain, Man. So I get the U-Bahn. Fucking hell, the U-Bahn, weird people. Then I get on the U5 at Alex and go to the special section for bikes and I stand the bike and fix my hair and I can feel someone looking at me, so I turn and it’s a woman, Man, fucking beautiful, do you understand Jake ?”
Jake was leaning on the bar, hat over eyes and nodding.
“No. You don’t. I mean she was . . . ah, Man, like really beautiful. OK, so I look at her, she looks away, but then she looks back at me. Now, I look away. But I look back. And we do this for two stops. And then we look at each other at the same time, and she smiled at me, Man, and I know, I know, you know ?”
“Yeah,” Jake again.
“But then I’m thinking, fucking hell, don’t get off at Weberweise, no go on, go on. And she stays. And now we are looking at each other and smiling and you know, then comes Rathaus and we’re both on and I think, this is it, I just have to get off with her and (here Johan made a long kissing noise). But then I think, oh no, fucking hell, Man, no, no. I have Claude’s bike and he needs it back tonight. So we get to Samariter Strasse and I have to get off. So I give her this look, like, hey, baby, sorry, come on, another time, OK. And I get off and the doors close and you know what she did ? She make with this (here Johan stuck up a middle finger) and make a face like this (here Johan made a very good impression of a shrew). Women. Fucking hell.”
“I think that calls for another round. Jake, if you’d be so kind,” offered Chris, who then proceeded to tell his story, editing and embellishing as he saw fit, tailoring it to the needs of his audience.
Not to be left out, Richard, made loquacious by vodka, told an abridged version of his pointless pursuit of Lorelei.
Jake shuffled back from serving other customers, as business had started to pick up and selected a new CD. He felt that the night had a Nick Cave vibe to it, and played ‘The Weeping Song’.
“Who needs a vodka ?” All hands up. Jake poured, then started to tell his story. As he was about to start, A large German shouted out his order and Jake screamed back in fluent German. The German raised his hand in apology and waited.
“You think you got it bad, I’ll tell you a story. It’s my thirtieth birthday, and I’m working in a McDonald’s in Michigan. Some arsehole in a suit comes in and asks for me, then hands me some papers, ‘You’ve been served’. My wife was divorcing me. Then the manager who was half my age with a squeaky voice and squeaky acne calls me over and tells me not to waste time, and to get back to work. Someone had taken a McShit in the crapper and it had blocked the pipes.”
Jake went over to serve the German and the three contemplated the just-told tale. Johan sucked in his cheeks and proclaimed Jake the winner. The prize, unsurprisingly, was a vodka.
“Yeah, it was the squeaky acne that got my vote,” declared Richard.
By this time, all determination to leave early and sober had been left far behind. The bar was busy, Jake constantly serving and changing CD’s as the mood took him. At one stage, having run out of cleanish shot glasses, he asked Chris to go and collect some, then gave him the key to the storage room, where there was a small sink.
This was rewarded with free drinks, so Chris was pleased to help. Then Jake needed a ‘quick piss’ and Chris covered the bar. Jake pointed to the large blackboard with the range of drinks and prices. Chris enjoyed being behind the bar, as opposed to under it, he quipped, so much that he stayed there and helped out Jake for the rest of the night. And Jake, knowing about him needing work, offered him work for the whole of his next shift, the following Wednesday.
Thus, within a day and a half of jumping out of a pasta restaurant window, Chris had landed on his feet, helping out in an east Berlin squat bar.
“Only in Berlin,” he enthused.
“The beat goes on, Berlin goes on. And not a bad way to get a job. Just turn up at the site, get absolutely vodka drunk . . . ”
“And get offered a position,” concluded Chris, as they shook hands. Then he made an executive decision. It was time for more vodka.
Chris emptied his Brief Kaste, threw away the Werbung (adverts) and took the envelope upstairs. He recognized the handwriting at once, and the British stamp only confirmed that here was another letter from Melanie.
He had promised Richard that he’d go to a travel agents with him, help book his ticket to London, but had just received some bad news from the studio: there would be no more work in the new year. The studio was closing down.
It had created a surreal atmosphere. Anyone who turned up got paid, but nobody was doing any work. People just sat around, drinking coffee and smoking. The room was full of uncertainty, worrying how rents would be paid, some wondering whether they would return to Berlin after their visits home for Christmas.
Chris kept this from Richard, but asked him if he knew what the situation was at Biberkopf, as he could take over the shifts while Richard was away.
The flight was booked with Chris insisting that Richard get back in time for New Year’s Eve, ‘Sylvester’, in Germany.
“You just wouldn’t believe it, it’s like a war zone, people throwing bangers, fireworks, everyone out drinking on the streets. You’ll love it. Hey, new year, new start. It’ll be OK, you know.’
“You sure about that ?”
“Yes. I am.” An optimistic answer from Chris who would start the new year unemployed. He knew that if he told Richard, then Richard would immediately give up the Biberkopf job, insist on giving it back to Chris and would therefore have an excuse to stay in London.
On Christmas Day, Chris fixed himself a breakfast of smoked salmon, day old rolls, some tangerines, and several cups of coffee.
Monika was at her sister’s, just outside Leipzig, Gabi back in Vienna. Silke was in Bavaria, Kai incommunicado and Andreas had somehow found the money to go to Turkey. Lorelei was staying in Berlin, but Chris was sensitive enough not to mention her, or to blatantly not mention her. Tommy was visiting family in Aachen, in the west of Germany and Gert had naturally disappeared somewhere.
In the early afternoon, Chris went for a walk, enjoying the freedom of being totally alone in his city. The roads were almost empty, only an occasional car passing by and beeping hello. The shops were all shut, even the Imbisses had closed, or so it seemed. A side street off Schönhauser Allee had two fluttering flags, showing that at least one fast food joint was open. Chris made a note of it, should he require a Christmas kebab.
With no direction or purpose, Chris turned into Danziger Str and thought he’d walk to Friedrichshain. He walked along this notoriously tedious road, smoking, strolling, feeling quite happy. For the moment. The shit was going to hit the fan, so he may as well enjoy this anomaly of peace and quiet.
In four days time, both Monika and Melanie would arrive in Berlin. Melanie was arriving early evening and expected to be met at Tegal airport. Monika was driving, probably arriving late evening. The next day, the 30th, Richard arrived back, same time flight as Melanie, but he could make his own way home. Chris could stay at Monika’s, leaving Richard with Melanie. That image made him laugh out loud.
Then, how would Monika react to Melanie ? Melanie to Monika ? How would Richard be ? Chris knew he was in a lot of pain, more than he could help him with, and just hoped that his break in London would give him the distance he needed.
After half an hour, he was at Rigaer Str and thought he’d try Café Kinski. It was locked, but there were people inside, so it was probably a private party. He walked on, past more squat bars, squat houses, negotiating the piles of dog shit on the street and the distinctive odours of shit and piss and vomit and sweat and fumes and fast food. He felt at home.
After walking along the Strasse he saw a light above the door of the Czar Bar. It was open.
Coming from the left, there was a large, single pane window, with the Cyrillic ‘bap’ (bar) painted along the lower edge. The window was usually crammed with junk, but it was still possible to see inside, see who was working.
Chris peaked in and saw a figure in a fedora, twisting around, reaching for some glasses and a bottle of vodka. Tidings of comfort and joy.
The Czar bar was entered by walking up a step, into a sheltered vestibule, both sides plastered with flyers and stickers, flapping and peeling off. The door was solid, bottle green, also covered in small posters. Immediately inside was a thick black curtain, which had to be brushed aside.
The bar had changed a lot since Chris dragged an unimpressed Nuno and a repulsed Melanie here. A year ago. A lifetime ago.
There was now a more permanent looking bar, stretching from the door and curving around to the flipper (pinball) room. There were pallets below the bar, making a step up to the tall stools that were bolted down. Drunks may continue to fall, but the chairs would remain standing.
Above the bar, was a flat surface reaching to the ceiling, giving the bar the appearance of a kiosk. Behind the bar was the large dresser, now with more bottles and glasses, and a CD system, playing early Neil Young.
Around the room were placed round tables and along the walls, two old sofas. Chris looked into the far recess of the bar and saw that there was actually a stage, reached by four or five steps.
The room had also been painted; it was now a dull, deep orange, and with the main shutter down, and low wattage bulbs, it could easily have been late evening, not afternoon.
Chris took a seat at the bar, next to some Germans who looked half-way pissed already, but smiled at him warmly. He smiled back.
“Heeeeyyy, Chris, welcome back. Haven’t seen you around here for a while,” said Jake the Barman, extending a hand for a complex series of shakes.
“I was here last month.”
“You were ? Where was I ?”
Chris pointed to the end stool,
“Oh, right, I wasn’t working, I’m only out of it when I’m not working, yeah, Yuri was work .. no, let me … Micha ? Hell, I don’t know, what the fuck does it matter, hey ? Oh, Merry Christmas, can I get you a Christmas cocktail ?”
“What’s in it ?”
“Vodka and … vodka.”
“OK, I’ll have a double.”
This made Jake laugh, and they drank together, Jake introducing him to everyone who came in. By evening, Chris was very tipsy, and the bar, which was also looking tipsy, was full. Tom Waits had at some point replaced Neil Young.
A small, well built man with a dark beard and moustache came in and rested both elbows on the bar, staring intensely at Jake.
“Jake. Vodka,” he barked in German. Jake was having difficulty controlling his eyes, which were scanning the room, back and forth, and he was also trying to dance along to the music, but he managed to open a new vodka, pick up three shot glasses in one hand and pour the vodka to the very top of the glasses without spilling a drop. He spoilt this achievement by licking the drips off the bottle.
“Claude … Chris. Chris. Claude,” said Jake, making the introductions. Claude turned the intense gaze on Chris, looking him right in the eyes from across the bar. Then he raised his glass, said, ‘Santé’, and downed it in one gulp. He let out a vodka sigh, shook his head, slapped himself once or twice and clicked his fingers.
“Jake. Noch drei mehr (three more).” Jake repeated the process, Claude repeated his ritual of sighing and slapping, then slammed down some money on the counter and left.
Chris had no recollection of leaving, or getting home, or indeed, buying his Christmas Döner, but did find the tell-tale tin foil in his dustbin, along with small chunks of meat and purple cabbage that he kept discovering around his flat over the next days.
On the 28th, Monika called, saying she couldn’t wait to see him. It was then that he told her about Melanie arriving.
The line went dead.
But not for long.
There followed a lengthy conversation with accusations and insinuations, despite all of Chris’ assertions that she was, and always had been, a friend and nothing more. Why should Monika know so many men, and Chris not be allowed any female friends ? Monika easily countered that by mentioning all the ladies of The Gang. Then Chris had a moment of inspired genius,
“All right, it’s for Richard. You know he’s heartbroken.” Monika went silent. Chris pressed on, amazed by his brilliance and enjoying the previously unknown sensation of being victor in an argument’
“And why ? I’m not blaming anyone, here, but, well, all I’m gonna say is that Lorelei is your friend. That’s all. I’ll say no more. If Melanie can help him, be a friend to him, then … yeah, it’s good she’s coming.”
He realized his ending was weak, and knew not to press his point, not to allow Monika too much of a chance for a killer comeback.
It ended with Monika telling him what a great friend he was to Richard and how much she really loved him.
He didn’t tell her about losing his job and not knowing how he would pay the rent in February.
On the 30th, Richard arrived back in Berlin. He knew that it would take some time before he felt better, or normal, or whatever was the correct word for recovering from a broken heart, but he was determined to get over Lorelei.
As he passed through passport control, he was greeted by Chris, making high-pitch whistle noises, pretending he was blowing into a party streamer. Next to him was Melanie. Chris, through an exaggerated smile said,
“Look … it’s Melanie !”
“So I see.’
Chris had taken precautions, making sure he had a half bottle of vodka with him for the journey back.
At the flat, they sorted out the sleeping arrangements. Monika wouldn’t be back until late, so she would come over tomorrow and they would all go out. It was all planned.
Richard had brought back some books, an old Sunday Times, some English crumpets, Marmite, and a couple of new CDs for the CD player that Ute had left in the flat.
“Hey … look.” He held up the ‘Reality Bites’ soundtrack and ‘Monster’ by REM.
Chris whooped and grabbed the soundtrack and played it. As soon as the first song, ‘My Sharona’ came on, Melanie began complaining,
“Oh, The Knack, so brainless,” and other disparaging remarks.
There was a definite vibe in the room, and Chris thought the best way to dispel it was to go out drinking. Richard wanted to change his shoes, and put on an old pair of boots. He withdrew his foot, rapidly, as it was obstructed by something. He reached in and pulled out what he presumed was an old piece of rotten cardboard, and threw it away, without giving it a second thought, this was Berlin, after all, but Chris was amazed, not to say perturbed that kebab meat was still turning up.
The celebrations for Sylvester began early, and even from the flat in the Hinterhof, with windows closed, they could hear intermittent explosions as soon as they woke.
Chris was up first, and went out, looking to find any shops, so as to have Sekt and possibly food when Monika arrived.
Melanie and Richard sat drinking coffee together. They compared this flat with it’s gas heater in the kitchen and bathroom, to the flat in Rigaer Str. They talked about that November, motor bike crashes and walking around Berlin in the snow. Richard remembered going all the way to the museum at Karlshort, where the Germans signed the unconditional surrender in may 1945, and finding it closed, but seeing a genuine Russian soldier walking along the road, a rather small specimen, with bright red, dripping nose and hat with ear flaps. Melanie brought up the fire and worried about Chris burning his hands,
“He has the most beautiful hands of any man, ever.”
Richard was also curious how Monika and Melanie would get on.
“I’m going to like Monika, I know,” she said, “we’ll probably go off together and have a good time, a good chat, and bitch all about Chris.”
Richard wasn’t so certain.
Around eight o’clock, there was a furious thumping on the door. Chris opened it, and from the main room, Richard and Melanie could hear him greet Monika, as well as hearing other female voices. Richard recognized Lorelei and took the next seconds to compose himself.
Then Monika, Gabi and Lorelei came in, all smiles and hugs. Melanie kept back, while they all hugged and kissed, then extended a hand to the three women. Richard put on the soundtrack CD, and as the opening drums and bass pounded out, Monika began jumping around and dancing, followed first by Chris, then Richard, then Gabi, then Lorelei.
There was a babel of languages as they tried to decide what to do. Chris had bought some Sekt and insisted the only way to start an evening was with a bottle of Sekt. Richard nodded sagely at this piece of received wisdom and Gabi backed him up. There only being four glasses, the men drank out of cups.
“OK, listen, we’ll go to Arizona Al’s, first. He’s at Eberswalder Str, we can walk there. Then … where’s the first party ?”
Monika answered him,
“Friedrichshain, near Simon Dach Str. There will be … seven of us, no ? Ja, seven, so we need two taxis.”
Then Gabi coughed suggestively. Monika picked up the hint.
“Ah, point, would anyone like a little … something … nice … hahaha ?” She put the back of one finger to one nostril and sniffed through the other one.
Chris lit up,
“Yeah, let’s go!”
“OK, anybody need the toilet first ? Richard ?” asked Monika.
“Are you sure ?”
“What am I ? Six years old ?”
Monika laughed and led Chris into the bathroom. Shortly afterwards, Chris quoting another line from ‘Pulp Fiction’, screamed,
“I say, Goddamn!”
Richard was next, and took the rolled up fifty Mark note, sniffing the trail of white powder off the toilet lid. Monika came back and asked Melanie, who just shook her head.
Finally, they were good to go.
Walking down Schönhauser Allee, Melanie began to fall behind the others and Richard, not wishing to leave her out, walked along with her, listening to her observations, while wishing he were part of that chain up ahead, as they all walked with linked arms, and Lorelei, in three-quarter length coat and black boots, was looking more beautiful than ever.
It became very clear, as the evening wore on, that Steffi was here to do Chris, and if Richard happened to be in the same room, so be it. As he later summarised, he could have been sitting there, stark-bollock naked and she still wouldn’t have acknowledged him. Her position, it may be discerned, was that of a woman on a mission, part of which may well have involved the missionary position.
Steffi, who also worked at the studio and was reasonably new to Berlin, followed Chris, and introductions were made. She threw herself into the room, entirely at home, and sat on the floor, removing her light denim jacket and revealing a charming, loose blouse that in turn revealed more than was decent. She shouted out, in her whiney, Australian accent,
“Got anything to drink ?”
Chris returned with a bottle of cheap vodka drink, a 20% blend of the spirit with blackcurrant, and three glasses. He poured, passed them around and they clinked. In a flash, Steffi had downed her drink. The two men looked at each other.
“Hey, steady on, it’s still early.”
“Ah, you Poms, all wimps, c’mon, drink up.”
They did, and poured the second round. A Repetition. Steffi was quite small, but hardly delicate, she filled out her jeans to straining point and sometimes her top rose up, showing a series of stomachs that appeared to have sampled the delights of German cuisine. Chris spoke up, wanting to leave a bit of time between the second and imminent third round.
“You hair looks good, now.”
He was referring to her dye-job. Her hair, hanging limply past her shoulders, was a deep-purple mauve brown concoction. When Richard looked closely, he was sure that her forehead, as it met the hairline, was also purple, mauve and brown. Chris later confirmed this. He had seen her the morning after her unaided attempt, and she had, indeed, managed to dye most of her forehead, neck and ears.
“Yeah, thanks. Seen any more good films ? Chris took me to a French film. It was great. Real intellectual stuff. Where’s the drinks ? What’s wrong with you ?”
“Just need more ice.”
Chris excused himself and went into the kitchen, clearly meaning Richard to follow. The hint was taken and the two conversed by the fridge. Chris spoke,
“What are we going to do ?” He indicated the bottle that was rapidly emptying.
“I don’t know, but I can’t keep up with her. I’ll be dead.”
“Me too !”
“You went out with her ?”
“No ! Well, yes, yes, we went … out, but I didn’t go … out with her.”
“Does she know that ?”
“Yes, when we were in bed, I told her … “
“You went to bed with her ?”
“No ! Well, yes, yes, I went to bed, no, we were in the same bed together, but I made it clear, the Berlin Wall exists down the centre.”
“Looks like that Wall’s also fallen.”
“What are you two up to ? I’m dying of thirst out here. Where’s my drink ?”
“She’s from the Outback where it’s bold and brash … just like her.”
“Yeah, you couldn’t have left her out back ?”
The third round was duly poured and consumed. Richard felt that he had to recuse himself, citing his flight the following day.
“Oh, you’re leaving tomorrow. Good.”
Then something happened. At first, Steffi became very quiet. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, opposite the men who were on the coach. They were having a little private conversation and listening to the radio playing, some request show. Slowly, Steffi began tilting to her right, then toppled right over, and, adopting the foetal position, fell asleep on the floor. Snoring followed.
The men let out a relieved laugh, and went into the kitchen to slowly finish the bottle before turning to the beers, drinking away, very respectfully, by candle-light, with the faint background of 50s Rock ‘n’ Roll hits. Over an hour passed, pleasantly enough, and it was decided that Richard would come back, as soon as he’d saved enough. They did basic costings and realised that the biggest expense would be the airfare. He could stay rent-free, just help out on food and the beer money. Richard predicted that he could make it back in early November, but that they should look into the possibility of his moving here, as well. Chris would ask about a job at the studio …
Then it happened.
The first rumblings were ominous enough, so much so, that they rose from the kitchen and caught the whole performance live.
On the floor, a little way in front of the sofa, was a pallet, the kind used in factories to transport goods. It served as a table, of sorts, maybe in the Japanese style, with imagination, or maybe Shoulder could have viewed it as a perfect accompaniment to his conceptual chair, ‘a table ? What do you want a table for ?’
Chris had put various everyday items on it, and Richard had taken one side for his passport and airline ticket. In the very centre of the pallet was a large blue-painted metal bucket, to be used for carrying coal or briquettes from the cellar to put in the Ofen. Chris had used this for collecting all his small coins, bronze Pfennings and silver Marks.
Steffi began to make sounds of demonic intensity, a bastard hybrid of belch and hiccup, as she raised herself, resting on her knees and knuckles. In this dignified position, she crawled over to the bucket, put her head in and emptied her stomach.
“This is so far outside my frame of experience,” said Richard.
“I had a lot of money in that bucket. Let’s have a beer.”
It was another hour before Steffi emerged, and they could hear her cleaning up in the toilet. She came into the kitchen, with a lack of self-consciousness that they could only applaud, and asked for a beer.
“I don’t think that’s the best thing for you. Have some water.”
Steffi clearly liked being looked after by Chris and allowed herself to be taken back inside, where they sat and passed the evening, Steffi drinking tea while the men finished off the beers. They decided to stay in and anyway, Jens was working the bar tonight, or ‘Geschlossen’ as they called him due to the fact that the once or twice they had gone there around one in the morning, the bleached-blonde barman had barked out, “Geschlossen !” or ‘closed’ at them, despite the bar being half full and other people seemingly having no difficulty in procuring drinks.
One small incident occurred as they were getting ready to sleep. It was decided, by Chris, that he would take the floor and leave the other two on the couch. While Richard was next to Steffi with very little breathing space, she called out to Chris to join them, as there was plenty of room. Chris declined and gave a very poor impression of a man already asleep and not to be disturbed.
The packing took no time at all, and all three went out for a breakfast in a normal-looking, locals bar. They ordered refills of coffee as they started on the plates of meat and cheese and rolls. It seemed as if Steffi was also going to come to the airport, but, to the delight of the men, she changed her mind and decided to go home instead. She asked Chris what he was doing that evening. He made up a story about helping a friend in Charlottenburg.
They travelled with her as far as Alex, where she changed for the line to Kreutzberg, and they for the S-Bahn.
The journey was slightly melancholic, but they only had to think of the previous night to raise a smile. Anyway, Richard would work and save to fly back. Chris parted from him at the airport gate with a:
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bucket of vomit to deal with.”
He waved and walked away. Richard kept his word, he worked and booked his ticket for early November. Only six weeks had passed since he left, but when he returned, the whole situation was different and he next left, not planning an immediate return, but convinced that he would never come back ever again.