1st December 2020
Part Two. Berlin. November 1993
Richard waited at Tegal for the late afternoon flight from London, and saw Nuno, a large canvass bag effortlessly slung over his shoulder, emerge from passport control. He seemed to be capable of only two expressions; menacing inquisition, and unrestrained joviality. He wore the first when he came out into the small crowd that congregated around the gate, and changed into the second, the second he saw Richard.
This is going to be pure pleasure, compared to the recent guests, thought Richard, as the hulking mass of Nuno approached, arms open wide and smile even broader.
“You can’t believe it, can you ? I’m here, I’m here !”
But as soon as there was contact, Richard suspected that the bonhomie was induced not just by visiting Berlin in winter. The smell of alcohol was overpowering and Nuno made no effort to hide the fact, immediately producing a half bottle of Johnnie Walker Red from his coat pocket and offering it to Richard. It was, of course, accepted.
Richard repeated the journey that Chris had taken him on; bus, U-Bahn, S-Bahn, back to U-Bahn. Nuno leaned against the cheap wood panelling of the train, staggering, trying to keep balance with the jolting, and defying anyone to challenge him, looking as if he were here to take Berlin by the scruff of its scruffy, unwashed neck and shake some sense into it.
There was an attempt at commentary on Richard’s side, telling the newcomer a little about this singular, schizophrenic city, but it obviously wasn’t sinking in, and the best thing would be to get home and get coffee.
There were the usual explanations starting from the U-Bahn at the Rathaus, how things worked, what to expect.
And then Nuno was in the flat, dominating the living room, throwing the bag down, and offering the last dregs of whisky to Richard. He looked around, pointed to the Ofen, then laughed, as he recalled being told about collecting wood at two in the morning, and burning it inside the house.
After coffee, they decided to eat, and went to a restaurant near the U-Bahn, that looked half-way decent for this part of Berlin. Richard knew he had made a wise choice when the waitress appeared, with her chestnut hair, great figure and cover-girl looks. He also realised that Nuno had some natural magnetism that drew women, and the waitress found every excuse to keep returning to their table. It was the best service Richard ever experienced in Berlin.
So, in keeping with the surroundings, and to impress the waitress, who introduced herself as Anna, they ordered Camparis and Soda, then, to show that they were red-blooded males, ordered the Grill Platter for two, a respectable homage to a medieval banquet, a huge, silver tray overloaded with various meat selections and garnished with roast potatoes and carrots and an overdose of parsley.
Nuno was in the house and the poor platter stood no chance.
Anna, who was happy to increase Richard’s German vocabulary by making him repeat the word for ashtray, glass, cutlery and so on, asked them what their plans were, were they going out dancing ? Richard mentioned a Jazz club in Prenzlauer Berg he wanted to check out and it wasn’t until he was in the club, some hours later, that he began to consider that she may have been asking to come along. Ordinarily, he was sure Nuno would have caught such an overture, but was numbed by the whisky. Damn that Johnnie Walker. Have to go back, some time, and make amends.
The Jazz club was a disappointment. It was situated, like so much in Berlin, not on the street, but in an unlit back yard, with no discernible means of ingress or egress. Thankfully, a light flashed on the first floor, and some people came down an iron staircase, so they knew where to go.
After paying a relatively high cover charge, they got a table and two beers. The band, instead of being a wild, hot bebop combo, as Richard had automatically presumed, were a group of young white boys with electric bass, drums, keyboard and acoustic guitar. And singer, a short-haired, very camp man, who scatted his way through the American songbook, screeching into unnecessary high notes at the drop of a high-hat.
The idea was to stay for an hour or so, then head over to Steglitz where Chris was working. Suddenly it seemed that all the drinking caught up with Nuno, violently. The head sagged, the body lost its muscular form and the eyes were off into infinity. Time to leave.
Outside, Richard thought of getting a Strassebahn, but then became aware that he had under-estimated the size of his problem, for Nuno could barely stand. He held onto Nuno, one hand on his elbow, the other around and supporting him, but if he fell, they would both be going down. Hard.
Richard hailed a taxi, then tried to force Nuno into it, who, by this time, had developed an attack of hiccups and appeared to be about to vomit. The driver was naturally concerned and was going to drive off until he understood that Richard was also coming.
Half supporting, half carrying Nuno, Richard got him back into the flat and into the main room. He left him to undress and went to make coffee. In the kitchen he heard an almighty thump and ran back to find Nuno, fallen onto the floor, just missing the edge of the table/pallet by inches. Attempts to wake him were futile, but he couldn’t be left where he was. Richard took a deep breathe and got him up, moved him to the sofa and let him fall gently onto it. From there, he was able to lift his legs and swing them over, without much effort. He made some tiny adjustments, to make sure Nuno was on safely, then covered him with blankets, took off his shoes and went back to drink his coffee.
It had been quite a night and, as he wasn’t expecting Chris to return, he too turned in, wearing an extra jumper as the Ofen had long gone out and the room was quite literally freezing.
Richard was trying to summon the courage to get out of his bag in the morning, when Nuno got up and lit a Malboro cigarette, which made Richard feel slightly sick. He got up and went to make coffee and to sit around the cooker’s gas ring, until he could face the daunting task of washing in a tiny sink in a frozen room.
After several coffees and as best a wash as possible, he waited for Nuno. He had seen many drunks before, had been out of control himself, far too many times for comfort, but there was something about last night that disturbed him. The answer came soon enough. Raphaela, Nuno’s girlfriend of the past four years, had just left him and had returned to Portugal.
Nuno couldn’t apologise enough, although he had no idea what he had done. He only vaguely recollected the restaurant, but couldn’t place the waitress, appearing hurt when he heard how attractive she was, and the face he pulled when he heard he had been to a Jazz club just made Richard burst out laughing. Then Richard told him about falling and nearly cracking his head.
“How did you lift me ?”
Richard was blank, as the enormity of his task sank in.
“I don’t know,” was the best he could offer.
Once again, Chris came home in the afternoon, immaculate, and had a big embrace with Nuno, saying that he had waited so long at his bar for them, that in the end it had been easier to stay with Ute, a clear fabrication, but one that Richard let go. To make up for last night, Nuno accepted the offer to go to work with Chris, as Marina had promised to be there, and Richard wanted to go to the cinema anyway.
They went to Alex and showed Nuno some of the sights in the immediate vicinity, before going into a bar for cognac and coffee then separating, Chris and Nuno taking the S-Bahn to Friedrich Strasse, Richard to walk to the Zeughaus [the German History Museum], which had a small cinema attached and was currently showing a retrospective of early Antonioni films.
When the movie ended, Richard slowly made his way home, needing an early night and enjoying some peace and an alcohol-free evening with Proust.
Nuno made sure that Chris’s evening wouldn’t be so passive.
It had begun innocently enough, as Nuno took the nearest bar stool to the kitchen, tucked away down a small corridor, but clearly audible in the quiet bar. Chris had to work, and Nuno indicated that it was no problem for him to stay in a bar drinking for five hours. It just became a problem for everybody else.
Typically, the night was busy, some regular crowds turning up and ordering food at the same time, throwing the east German chef into a near paroxysm of frustration and anger and disbelief. When Chris managed to slip away for a cigarette break, he found Nuno altered, non-communicative, distant. Around nine Ute arrived, met Nuno and made him feel very welcome, asking about his impressions of Berlin. More drinks.
It wasn’t until just before midnight that Chris could finish and join his girlfriend and friend at the bar and by this time, Ute had had enough of him. Chris found him demanding more beer, then, after the barman half filled the glass, to allow the head to settle for a few minutes, Nuno screamed out,
“Hey, where’s my fucking beer ?”
“Nuno, Nuno, hey, it’s OK, they always pour it like that.”
“I don’t care, I want my beer and I want it now!”
Chris saw Walter speaking angrily to Florian, the barman, who soon came over and spoke to Chris,
“Chris, I’m sorry, but Walter says that your friend has to go. Now.”
Chris felt a cold wave of panic, not knowing how he was going to accomplish that, when, as usual, Marina solved the problem. Temporarily, at least.
Knowing that Nuno was expected, Marina, along with Ross, inevitably, suggested, after a brief private conversation with Walter, they all go to another bar.
Outside, Ute declined to come along, saying that Chris should spend time with his friend, then, after Chris failed to take the hint, bluntly told him that she didn’t ever want to see Nuno again and got into her car and drove home.
Nuno, meanwhile, was all over Marina, harmlessly laughing and making in-jokes that didn’t amuse Ross at all.
The four walked to an Irish bar a street or two away and ordered four Guinesses. Inside, Ross called out to an extremely tall Irishman, and beckoned him over.
“This is Brian. He’s the best person I’ve met in Berlin. He’s brilliant.”
Brian stood there, beaming. Chris asked what he did, but totally misheard Ross’s answer above the loud music and pub din, hearing that Brian collected children. This did sound brilliant, commendable, as Chris had visions of the gentle giant going to remote villages with medical supplies, vaccinating the young and saving lives, or placing east European orphans with loving families in the west. But Ross was pointing to the wall behind him, which was covered in Americana, especially car license plates from different states. The penny finally dropped.
“Oh, you collect car-tags ?”
“Yes,” was the brilliant reply. Then Marina let out one of her trademark laughs. She was having a real calming effect on Nuno, who had settled down and seemed to be enjoying himself. He said one or two comments and again, the same reaction, louder, from Marina. Some people, probably known to them, looked over, knowing that sound so well, but Ross wasn’t impressed and reprimanded her,
Mari- naaaa!” with a stern look. Nuno immediately turned on him,
“Hey, what the fuck is that ? Why do you speak to her like that ? You have no idea how to treat this beautiful woman. “
“Well, Nuno, I think you should stop drinking and mind your own business.”
General mayhem, as Marina tried to calm everyone down, Nuno shouted, Ross shouted back, Brian just made noises and Chris restrained the urge to smile. Suddenly Nuno got up and grabbed Ross, pulling him to his feet and raised a fist, when several men around the bar intervened and shuffled him to the door, quite gently in the circumstances, pushing him out, and telling him that he was welcome back tomorrow, but that he’d better sleep it off tonight.
Ross took out his anger at Marina, saying what lovely friends she had, obviously including Chris in his comment, and went to a corner with Brian, with various locals coming up and patting his shoulder, saying that the other fellow was lucky and that Ross would have pummelled him.
Marina made a helpless gesture and Chris was left to get Nuno home, cursing Richard for not being there, and selfishly going to the cinema, instead.
However, the explosion of testosterone and adrenaline had a sobering effect on Nuno, and the long journey home by night buses was pretty painless. Nuno began explaining about Raphaela.
Having told them both about his situation, Nuno slowed his drinking and became great company for Richard as Chris was either at work, or with Ute. The next night, Richard took him to an English-language film at the large Odeon cinema at Schöneberg. Afterwards, they found a bar and sat talking.
They laughed about the primitiveness of the flat, and the cold unrelenting weather. They began speaking of the USA. Why on earth had they come to Berlin ? Why hadn’t they gone to Florida, or California. They began talking about travelling together, Nuno expressing an interest in seeing Chicago, a city he had always been drawn to.
Another man began looking over, and Richard seemed to recognise him.
“Excuse me, I heard you mention Chicago. Are you American ?”
“No, I’m English, but, more to the point, do you have a shower in your apartment ?”
It had become something of a joke, to ask strangers about their bathroom situation. Klaus, the guy at the bar, went on to explain about the flats in the east, and how there must have been a communal washroom. He also told them about The Wall, how it made West Berlin an island surrounding by the DDR and how difficult it could be for West Germans to enter the east, having to use special papers and enter at certain border points.
After this bar, Nuno and Richard found another, just before the S-Bahn entrance, an old-style Berlin bar run by an old Turkish man and his young assistant, who was much more interested in chatting to the two ladies who were the bar’s only other customers. Before long, Nuno also got speaking to them, and flirting, while Richard sat and had a quiet whisky, glad to see Nuno happier.
Then they got back to Friedrichshain and went to Café Kinski, where Chris had arranged to meet them. After a quick beer, Chris decided that because Philipp was working, they should try their luck at the Czar Bar, so they walked down Rigaerstrasse, past the first squat bars, to a residential section, then onto a more fitting section of squatted buildings. Chris entered a door that, naturally, showed no sign of life. Inside was something of a shock, even to Richard.
The Czar Bar was a large open space, whitewashed, but had grey stone and concrete showing through. And no heating. To the left of the door was a makeshift bar. Behind the bar was a large dresser, used to store glasses and the bottles of vodka or tequila. Under the counter were crates of beer, evident when the barman bent down out of sight and re-emerged with three bottles for Chris. The barman was covered with a bushy beard and battered 1940’s-style hat, drawn over his eyes.
But what gave the bar it lost-souls atmosphere were the drinkers. It was as if every other squat bar had spewed out their dregs and forced them to come here. There were some repellent punks, some unattractive girls with painful-looking piercings, and people who looked as if they had simply just given up.
Everyone seemed to be drinking alone, there was no background noise, just some old Tom Waits songs coming from a cheap cassette player.
One man, dressed in old, dark trousers and a cheap jacket over a moth-eaten jumper, was perched on a precarious bar stool, the kind of chair that Shoulder may well have made. It was very tall and thin, incredibly top-heavy with a solid metal back but only a small, circular base. The man began swaying, the chair began lifting off the ground. Eventually, he toppled over and crashed onto the concrete floor, and lay there, unmoving. Nobody went to help him, nobody even seemed to acknowledge him. Richard asked Nuno if they should lift him.
“No, I’m not touching that !”
Nuno, in fact, was very unimpressed by the bar and wanted to leave. On the way home, he turned to Richard;
“Would you fuck any of those women in there ?”
Then Chris surprised them both. He informed them that he wasn’t staying in the flat, but would gather a few items of clothing and stay with Ute.
Over coffee, Nuno was upset.
“What the fuck is this ? He invites me over and then doesn’t see me ! Yes, I know I was bad, but … What is wrong with him ?” Then he began speaking about Raphaela. “We used to live together, eat together, sleep together, shit together … not really shit together, you know … ? “
They decided that they should spend the next day sightseeing, as Nuno was keen to see Checkpoint Charlie which he merely referred to as ‘Charlie’. Being so cold, every day seeming to drop more and more degrees, they decided to go to the gallery by Museum Island. It should at least be heated.
After spending the afternoon there, they were deciding what to do next, when a young woman with long hair and designer glasses came up to them. She pointed to Richard’s guide, surprised that there could be a whole book on Berlin, as she had one that covered the whole of Europe, one that, she insisted, wasn’t much bigger.
All three agreed to take a coffee and Nancy told her story, about planning to come to Europe over summer with her boyfriend, but he had changed his mind, and made excuses why they should go later, something about cheaper flights and less tourists, which did make sense. However, the boyfriend’s real motive was to stay and keep seeing another girl. Nancy only found out three weeks ago, so she took his car, sold it and bought the airline ticket with the money.
She had landed in London, then toured Europe by train and stayed in the cheapest possible accommodation. She was currently in a six-bed dorm in Kreutzberg, which alarmed the two men, but seemed totally natural to her.
Tomorrow she would leave for Paris. Nuno lit up. He had always wanted to go there. He began asking her about costs, where she would stay, how much she expected to spend. Did she mind him coming along, too ? Of course not, and there was a telling exchange in the eyes.
Nuno then asked the key question;
“Does your dorm have a shower ?”
It did, and a spare bed or two as at least one occupant was checking out.
With unbelievable speed, Nuno & Richard were in the dorm, Nuno checking in and insisting that Richard take first shower. As he was drying himself, he heard a wall-shaking, Nuno laugh.
“Hey, Richard, listen to this … She’s from Chicago !”
All three went for a final drink. Nuno hugged Richard, thanking him for everything, then Richard went back to Friedrichshain alone.
Three months later, in London, he got a postcard:
’Greetings From Chicago.’
He never heard from Nuno again.