It was the last Saturday in August, and after warming up in a few bars on the Prenzlauer Berg – Mitte border, The Gang headed down in two cars to The Imer club.
As to be expected, there was absolutely no sign that one of the hottest underground scenes of east Berlin was behind the semi-derelict, four storey building that, defiantly, stood solitary on wasteland. Tilted wooden fences and wire meshing lay to one side, suggesting a long gone, unsuccessful used-car lot. The other side faded away into nothingness, bland, nondescript empty buildings.
The pavement in front was barely adequate for two slim people to walk side by side, and most cars, heading to or from Rosenthaler Platz, sped by, oblivious.
Monika, in her car, and Gabi, punishing the suspension in hers, found parking spaces not too far away and The Gang walked to the only beacon of light on the otherwise dark street, in the slightly surreal shadow of the TV Tower.
The small, single door was open and threw out yellow nicotine-stained light. A couple of young guys worked the door, one taking the money, the other stamping people’s hands. Immediately inside, there was a staircase leading up to one dance floor at the top of the building, and some steps leading down to the basement.
Chris and Richard merely followed Monika and the girls up, looking around at the crumbling paint, exposed wires, flyers, peeling posters and young and not so young people, giving random ‘Hey, how ya doing ?’ s to those who caught their eye.
At the first landing, Chris smiled broadly, put his arm around Richard and said,
“Look at this joint; it’s a temple of slack.” Richard had to smile and agree. Upstairs, Monika had her favourite place. It was a large very comfortable sofa that sat four of five people, and was placed on the top landing, outside the blue-lit dance floor. Often, several people were accommodated on it, with girls sitting on boys’ laps, often a precursor to more intimate unions.
Tonight, however, it was occupied by a shabby-looking bunch of teenagers. Silke went up to them and, pointing to Richard, got them all to get up and offer the sofa over.
A small guy, already with a receding hairline, and round glasses, smiled and apologized and proffered the seat with a long bow. Richard played along, striding calmly to the chair, then clicking his fingers and demanding, ‘Beer !’.
Chris explained; Silke had said the sofa was reserved, and that Richard was a V.I.P.
“Typical Deutsch. Speak to them in a stern voice, preferably in a uniform, and they’ll do anything. It’s a regular Captain of Köpenick.”
Richard took the cue, and, shouting about the music, asked the story.
“Man, what a blast. There was this unemployed Dude, tailor or shoemaker, I don’t fucking know, candlestick maker, who gets hold of a uniform, an old, army uniform. He sees a group of soldiers marching up and down, Unter Den Linden, I think, and calls out, ‘Yo, GI’s, get yer arses over here. Follow me’, and he marches them down to Köpenick.”
“Oh, somewhere in the eastern suburbs. So, they get there, he goes up to the Town hall, where the lolly was stashed, and demands that they hand it over. Which they did.”
“Hey, maybe we should try it.”
“We got the seats. Let’s not push our luck.”
Monika and Gabi returned, managing to clasp several beer bottles between them. Richard, as V.I.P. got his first and made the toast, smiling. But it was all image. Inside he was feeling awful and just saw the night ending in an alcoholic blackout. It would be preferable.
It had been two weeks since The Gang had gone out, following the minor melt-down of last weekend. He sensed a coldness on Lorelei’s part, when they met and this was amplified at the first café. Richard had entered and had taken a seat at the bar. Lorelei came in after, but took the stool furthest away from him. There was playing hard to get and there was blatant message and he knew exactly what she was saying to him. He just wasn’t able to accept it.
After the first beer, the girls all went into the dance room and began their moves. Again, Monika smiled and waved to people, some she knew, others she just recognized from the scene.
The DJ was a Black American in his early forties, and he carried real authority in his voice. When he told people not to sit on the stairs, they moved, when he demanded people dance, they danced.
Monika shouted in Chris’ ear and he then beckoned Richard over. They were heading downstairs, to check out the smaller Red Room.
This basement room was packed as people danced to heavy Techno. Chris and Richard simply moved to the incessant beat, in between sips of beer. Silke had found Andreas, who was dancing with Lorelei. Gabi ran into some friends from university and called Monika over. They were introduced, but the names vaporized in the noise. Nice Guy Kai turned up, standing in a doorway, looking cool, along with Gert and his new American girlfriend.
Monika later showed Richard the ‘Chill Out’ Room, a short distance along a corridor, whose thick, carpeted walls dampened the pounding, thumping rhythm. There were some armchairs and another, smaller sofa arranged in a semi circle, with a Seventies-style projection of coloured oil discs rotating on a wall, which reminded Richard of his local cinema which had used them in his childhood … a world away.
They spent the evening, into the early hours, alternating between floors. Monika asked Richard if he would dance with Gabi, as she was too shy to dance alone, so a small group formed and Richard did his best to impress her with his steps and to ignore Lorelei, which was hard as she was in his every thought, and the beer was only making him more maudlin.
Soon after, Gabi wanted to leave and took Lorelei with her. Instead of the usual hugs and kisses that occurred with every greeting or departure, Lorelei barely waved to him. Then she was gone.
Later, Monika wanted to leave, and Andreas and Silke had long since vanished. Gert’s girlfriend was looking for Gert, who had disappeared.
Chris and Richard went back upstairs, where the music had shifted away from pure dance, to Sixties and Classic R ‘n’ B, the DJ now strutting his stuff around the dance floor. The room was barely a third full, plenty of space at the bar, which is exactly where Richard went, ordering two large Jack Daniels.
He went off into a corner and sat, starring at the floor, slowing sipping the whisky. Then, as if on cue, the DJ played ‘I Want You’ by The Beatles. It was such an incongruous song for a Berlin Techno club, that Richard couldn’t help but take it personally. He continued looking down, almost unable to deal with the rejection that was all he ever got from women.
Then something caught his eye, a sight so peculiar that he was dragged out of his self-loathing and depression and, after he had realized just what this extraordinary performance was, actually smiled. And then laughed. Then began to feel better. A little.
There was some dog-like creature, ‘walking’ around the dance floor, tracing a circle and occasionally stopping to sniff people. In intimate places. Except, as Richard saw, it wasn’t a dog. It was Chris. Even more strange was the reaction he got. Everyone laughed and played along. One man scratched behind Chris’ ear, a young party girl rubbed his belly, to which he demonstrated approval by shaking his right leg in the air. Then he continued on his tour of duty. It wasn’t long before someone fell over him and crashed to the floor. The innocent, totally confused raver got up with an aggressive stance and seemed prepared to hit the culprit, but his friends pointed to the lunatic who carried on walking and sniffing, and he ended up laughing and shaking his head. When Chris was directly in front of Richard he stopped, absolutely motionless, petrified on the floor just inches away. Suddenly, the head turned, he looked him in the eye, winked, and continued, now an accepted part of the dance floor, whose arrival was anticipated and applauded.
The Black DJ looked dumbfounded, and stood, open-mouthed, a ‘now I’ve seen everything in this kooky place’ expression, and seemed about to remonstrate, loudly, but evidently couldn’t think of anything, and just went back to his glass of vodka tonic, knowing when he was beaten. He played the original Rufus Thomas version of ‘Walking The Dog’, joining in by whistling into the Mic. Afterwards, he could be seen gesturing to the bar staff, pointing at his depleted cocktail.
It was over an hour later that they began the long walk home, the sun also risen. Richard was far from feeling good; the hang-over already building up, the exhaustion, then the indescribable pain of loving someone that doesn’t love back, a constant weight on the chest obstructing breathing, and so much more. But he hadn’t said a word about how he felt to Chris and Chris hadn’t asked. Obviously, he hadn’t needed to. And instead of making sympathetic sounds and clichéd words of support, he had got down on all fours, like a dog, and made a complete arse of himself, and Richard knew exactly why.
He would never thank Chris for this, but he wouldn’t forget it either.
They walked up the sloping Kastanienallee, the full length, the elevated U 2 line cutting across the horizon, an occasional early morning trains passed, either helping people start the day, or end the previous one.
It had been a great month, in many ways, but perhaps now it was time to go home. The money was running out and unless he found a job, he wouldn’t even have a choice.
But only three days later, he had a complete change of mind. And it was Arizona Al who was the catalyst.
Gabi helped Monika carry the glasses across the road from the bar to the small park where Richard, on his first night back in Berlin, was being inducted into The Gang.
He sat on the brick wall that surrounded the park, as Silke pointed to the large rotunda that rose above the trees on the slope behind them.
“It used to be a water tower, then the Nazi’s used it to torture prisoners. Now it’s flats for Yuppies.”
Silke had short, spiky, blonde hair, which was striking enough, but tonight, in the hot Berlin evening, she wore a skimpy vest and shorts, showing legs which Richard couldn’t help but comment on; loudly,
“Man, she’s got Bond-girl legs.”
Chris felt obliged to look them up and down, apprising them with an expert eye, before concurring.
“And ? You like Silke’s legs, too ?” Asked Monika.
“No, my Darling. Only yours.” They kissed, then Chris turned to Richard, and raised an eyebrow.
Gabi smiled at Richard, and they clinked glasses, and she tried a few, faltering words in English, before giving up in a fit of giggles that charmed Richard to the heart. Of all the women he had suddenly and miraculously been introduced to, it was probably Gabi he would choose, though Silke was all woman, no mistake, and Gabi’s friend, Lorelei, who now began speaking to him, in near perfect English, was equally beautiful.
Andreas walked back to the group, from the bar with the ‘best toilets’, running a hand through his curly, brown hair. He walked over to Silke, grabbed her and kissed her. Richard took this to mean that Silke was off the market. Chris smiled and began the saga.
“So you see, Andreas is with Silke. They’re a pretty incestuous bunch of motherfuckers, but I’ll try to hip you in to what’s what. Not so much a ‘Who’s Who’, more of a ‘Who’s done Who’. Andreas’ best friend is Tommy, the little guy over there, flirting with those two tourists. Silke used to be with Tommy’s brother. Andreas used to be with Gabi. Kind of. They had what is called here, a ‘kissing thing’. Gabi and Lorelei both live in the west, with their boyfriends.”
“Not so fast, Gunga Din; they both hate their boyfriends and want to leave them. Gabi is even thinking of renting a flat here and having a weekend lover. Or renting a weekend lover, who knows ?”
Richard re-enacted a scene from London, hoping that Chris would remember it. He raised his hand.
“I accept the job, sight unseen. Except I have seen … so fucking cute.”
“I’ll put Monika on the case. Oh, more, the plot thickens. Here’s Nice Guy Kai. Kai used to go out with Andreas’ sister, back in Köln.”
Nice Guy Kai was greeted by all, kisses and hugs. With his peroxide blonde hair and goatee, he was the rock star of the Group.
Richard was just beaming. There seemed to be cafés and bars everywhere, full of people drinking and laughing. Waiters, white shirted in some bars, casually attired in others, buzzed around taking orders, delivering drinks. Behind, the trees of the small park gave a relaxing, calming ambience, blocking out all the concrete blocks to the south.
It was an area unknown to him, somewhere tucked away in Prenzlauer Berg, attractive buildings with balconies and decorated doorways, flowers and colour.
People strolled past, two, threes or individuals. Girls cycled past wearing short skirts, lovers held hands and kissed. Strangers said ‘Hello’ to each other and smiled. People were alive and happy. It was so different to the London he had just left and when Richard looked at Chris, he knew that he didn’t need to say a word. Chris understood everything.
“This is your first evening in Berlin ?” Lorelei asked. Chris smiled and went to join Monika, leaving Richard to work his magic.
The Gang coalesced as the evening darkened, speaking in German, various hands pointing in various directions.
Andreas explained to the new comer,
“We have to stop drinking outside, now. It used to be possible to drink all night, but the neighbours all complained,” pointing to the rows of windows above all the bars. “So the bars will only serve people sitting inside.”
More talk and opinions. Kai left with a young girl he had just met, and soon after, a decision was reached. Tommy would borrow a bicycle from a new guy that had turned up, Gert, who was with Jo, his English girlfriend, and go to a store and buy as many bottles of beer as he could carry. Everyone began going through their pockets or purses to find coins.
Chris looked over and saw Richard still talking with Lorelei. He caught his eye, and gave a wink.
Tommy soon returned, cycling along the pavement like a madman, screaming out and making ‘ding-ding’ bell sounds with his mouth. Somehow, he had managed to buy and transport enough beers for everyone.
Monika came over to Richard. They had only met hours before, but they felt a certain affinity, although Richard sensed a slight hardness about her. She was very friendly, yet lacked the easy charm of Ute. Maybe she was exactly what Chris needed.
“Käthe was very pretty. But she is going to stay with her boyfriend ?”
Monika had met them earlier when they, Käthe and boyfriend, had dropped him off in Berlin and been invited inside Chris’ new flat for a beer. The fact that they both preferred non-alcoholic drinks turned Chris off them immediately.
“Yes, and anyway, she lives miles away, some place near … Cottbus ?”
“Ah, wie schade! (what a shame). “
“Chris seems to be getting real good in German, nichts wahr ? (isn’t that right ?)”
“Umm, Ja. So you need A German girl to help to speak German.”
Richard was very close to saying that there were other needs he had in mind, but checked himself.
After the beers there was more discussion. Some people began leaving, but the core of Richard, Chris, Monika, Gabi and Lorelei preferred to go to another bar.
Monika drove Chris and Richard, followed by the two girls. They were heading into Mitte. Monika said that there was a bar that was only open on Fridays and was a good place to hang out.
As Richard had expected of Berlin, it was no ordinary bar. Again, no sign from the street, except the inordinate amount of people coming and going, or just standing around, drinking.
Monika led the way through the arched front house, which opened into a large court, or Hof. It was full of people, dancing to a DJ playing mid-tempo Techno. Some coloured lights were strung up, in a rather half-arsed way, but it didn’t matter to Richard. Chris put his arm around him and they shouted a few sentences in each other’s ears, fighting the volume of the beat.
The bar was another improvised wooden counter in an adjoining low building, half-derelict, half the windows broken.
The choices were limited to beers, cheap wines, vodka and rum. Monika took Richard into the bar, placed her order and leant against the bar, moving to the Techno. She turned to Richard. He felt compelled to confess.
“I’m in love with Lorelei.”
Monika laughed, but in a friendly way. She put her arm on his.
“She has a boyfriend, but it is over. They never go out together. Every weekend, Gabi and her drive over. It’s much more fun in the east.”
“Yes, it is!”
Gabi and Monika joined the dancers, Chris walked around, speaking to complete strangers, sometimes making them dance, against their wishes, sometimes just going up to them and staring them in the face, before grabbing their arm and then hooking it under his calf. Chris knew, of course, that Richard was watching.
Lorelei moved over to Richard.
“What’s he doing ?”
“It’s an old Harpo Marx routine. From ‘Duck Soup’, I believe. You know the Marx Brothers ?”
Richard described the act and then they began speaking effortlessly about anything else that came into their heads. They sat on a log that was just big enough for two, provided those two didn’t mind touching legs, and shared a beer.
Gabi came over. She was getting tired and was going home, if Lorelei wanted a lift. Monika was also thinking of leaving and began looking for Chris, who soon showed himself, trying to teach some ballroom moves to a group of young ravers.
Richard got a hug and a kiss from all three women, the kiss from Lorelei lasting just that little bit longer than a mere social gesture.
“And then there were two,” said Chris, leaning on Richard for support.
They stayed until the sun rose, then began the slow walk back home.
They were both, naturally, swaying all over the pavement. At one point, a car was driving too slowly for their liking, so Richard pulled out his wallet, opening it and flashed it to the driver.
“N.Y.P.D. C’mon, let’s move it, you in the blue car!”
“So, what do you think ? Should have moved here before, hey ?”
“Lorelei is beautiful.”
“I really wanna fuck her.”
Within half an hour, they had made it back home. There were two mattresses already prepared, on the floor, a fridge full of food, clean clothes ready and shampoos in the bathroom.
They threw off their outer clothes and crashed. They were asleep within seconds.
The last image Richard had was of Lorelei’s face. She was, indeed, beautiful.
At the moment they fell asleep, in a flat on the border of Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg, an English woman woke up and went into the kitchen to get some bottled water. Gert, her boyfriend was snoring loudly. She looked out of the street window, seeing the unmistakable TV Tower silhouetted against a morning sky of pure blue.
She had to tell her brother about Berlin. He had finished University and, as far as she knew, didn’t have a job lined up. He would love it here. It was very cinematic, which he would appreciate, as all he ever spoke about was cinema. Gert gave an extra loud snort, which brought her back to reality. She wouldn’t be able to sleep with that noise going on. She went to the other room and got some paper and a pen and began writing;
Richard waited at Tegal for the late afternoon flight from London, and saw Nuno emerge from passport control with a large canvass bag effortlessly slung over his shoulder. 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 Schöneberg where Chris was working, and go out from there. Then it seemed that all the drinking suddenly and violently caught up with Nuno. 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 chilling 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 Ute would be there as well, 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 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. Ute made him feel very welcome, asking him about London and his impression of Berlin. 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.
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.
She had heard that Nuno was expected and came in to check Ross, inevitably, with her. Marina suggested 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, recognised Richard from Bar Biberkopf [where Chris worked] and went on to explain about the flats in the east, and how there must have been a communal wash-room. 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 women 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 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. They exchanged addresses, then Richard went back to Friedrichshain alone.
Three months later, in London, he got a postcard, ’Greetings From Chicago’.
It was five past eight when Will and Melanie turned up at the flat. Richard had stayed in all evening, waiting for them, and had been engaged in chopping wood for the Ofen when they banged on the door, both of them ensconced in leather motorcycle gear and looking faintly ridiculous. Richard, however, knew he was in no position to pass judgement, standing with a flimsy hacksaw over an unyielding pallet. He explained what he was doing, indicating the Ofen and the inappropriate tools he had for the job, for, in addition to the aforementioned and pretty much useless saw, he also had a hammer and a Philips-head screwdriver in his arsenal.
“I think that’s the secret, you get hot by chopping the wood, not from burning it.”
Melanie gave a sneering laugh, and when Richard thought back, he remembered this as the first time he suspected that she was laughing at and not with him.
Chris was working tonight and wouldn’t be back until at least one o’clock, and as he said this, Richard felt the room get a touch colder. Still, he played the host, showing them the flat, and accepting all their sarcasm good-naturedly, apologising as if it were his own apartment. Will went into detail about how easy it was to find the street, yet nearly impossible to find the actual flat, tucked away in its dark corner.
He had some soup ready and warmed it for them, making the kitchen as hospitable as possible with the ambient candle lighting and the blue gas jet from the cooker, left on to give heat. There was wine and beer in the house and they chose the former, a rather low quality bottle that Richard had happily picked up from a Turkish Imbiss for a pittance, (imagine, he told himself, going to a fish and chip shop in London, and being able to buy wine,) and which became the next target for criticism. Not that it stopped them from finishing the bottle.
Richard told them about the great bar they went to, saying that Kinski would be open after ten, and silently counted the minutes until they could go there. He asked their plans.
“Mel’s been here before, so I’m expecting her to know all the places to go and all that’s worth seeing.”
Mel just nodded, while Richard knew that her experience of east Berlin was of a solitary day-trip, and all the places that existed then were probably closed down, while the new places, the squat bars, would have been inconceivable. Will continued in his affected manner, exuding a studied sense of world-weariness, leaning back in his chair, and speaking into the air, rather than addressing his comments to people directly.
“We’ll hang for a couple of days, suss the scene, then move on. Want to get to Warsaw, take a look around, see how they’re embracing the new post-Communist freedom. Freedom ? Ha, right. Poor buggers.”
Eventually, it was time to leave. Philipp was making the bar, but it was quite busy, the distorted guitars sounding even worse, or better, through the faulty CD system. Richard found the music very irritating, mainly because he found the company difficult, and strained to think of anything to say. Chris was the link between them and he wouldn’t be here for hours. Therefore, the only solution was to enjoy himself in the bar, as the novelty of ordering drinks past eleven hadn’t worn off yet. That also gave him a topic.
“Mate,” started Will, with a theatrical sigh, “I could take you to places in Bavaria where everyone’s in bed by ten o’clock.”
Not knowing how to respond, Richard got up to get more drinks. He returned all too quickly, sat down and looked at his watch, when salvation happened in the shape of Shoulder.
A large, impressively powerful hand crashed down on Richard’s own shoulder, with such a grip, that he jumped.
“Ahhh, you’re back. And you sent me that postcard of a painting about nothing! I am never having my hair cut ever again, all Friseur, all barbers, are in the head, verrückt, crazy. And … I will tell you why.”
At that point, Shoulder, as was his style, leant over and rested his arm on Will, who was stunned into a very uncomfortable silence.
Shoulder spoke with quite a deep German accent but otherwise looked nothing like his tall, Aryan friends, being rather short and stocky, his build accentuated by the tight, ‘artist-in-residence’ jumpers he wore. His complexion, which was very dark, and his large, hooked nose actually made him look more like some long-lost Inca and, along with his idiosyncratic communication style of non-sequiturs and gesticulations, Shoulder created such an impression that Mel and Will were shocked, for once keeping their thoughts to themselves. For the first time since his arrival, Richard felt happy, truly happy and so … sit back, drink the Jim Beam and enjoy the show. He wasn’t disappointed.
“One time, I was in Italy, I was fucking an Italian girl, so I went there and she says, (here he affected a ludicrously inaccurate accent of an Italian woman) ‘oh, bambino, you are so beuono, mi-oo, but babeeeeee, can’t we have another lover with us ?’ So I think, Ahh, schön, zwei Mädchen, danke, (‘beautiful, two girls, thanks’) because, here I will tell you why. I thought, Italy, cooking and singing and pasta and women with big, big, biiigggggg, breasts (here Shoulder held out his hands, far from his body, as if struggling to contain said features.) But my baby had small breasts, (here he turned to Will, looked him right in the eye, then punched him, playfully, but with real force, in the chest,) you know what I mean ! Small … (here he looked up, saw Melanie, starred at her chest, all femininity suppressed under tight, black tops) … like you. And she couldn’t cook ! So, I think, I’ll have a nice mama with big, biiggggg breasts, but she say to me, (back to the accent,) oh, no, my babeee, I mean two men. What ! (back to starring at Melanie,) Why do all you women want that ? I have a one-penis policy. I have to leave. Now, (turning back to Will,) at this time, I had all beard and hair and … (miming a face with improbably wild growth of hair,) so, I go to hairshop. ‘Piacere ! Hello, What’s up, Brother ? Take off all the shit. Si, I miei capelli sono dritti al naturale, my head is of course straight, no bumps. Yes, I am from Germany, hallelujah.’ Don’t forget, I have been up all night, many night, fucking, so I am tired like a monkey, and I close my eyes, and clip, clip, clip, I sleep. I wake up. I hear them laughing. Then I see in the mirror. They cut my hair and shave off my beard, but they comb my head over and leave a little Hitler moustache. And they won’t cut it off ! I have to pay a litre of Lira and walk through the town. More. Last week I go to German barber, (turning back to Will) yes, remember, last week, you were here and we were speaking about clown make-up ?”
Here Richard could get a word in, repeating a familiar scene.
“No, Shoulder, it’s his first night here, you haven’t met him before.”
“Yes, he likes big breasts and motorbikes.”
The latter reference spread confusion, being so accurate, and allowed them to gloss over the former. Shoulder merely carried on his interminable tale, “And he wouldn’t cut my hair!’
“Because of the Hitler thing ?” asked Will, desperate to make sense of the situation.
“No, because of this …” Shoulder had been wearing a woollen beanie hat, which he now took off, and in doing so, covered the table with white dust, dust which hung in the air, before falling into their drinks and over their clothes. And then, his act over, Shoulder got up and left, supporting himself on Richard’s shoulder and whispering in his ear,
“His keys,” before shuffling off to harass Philipp.
Richard was unable to decipher the message, until he looked over and saw that Will had his keys, with the Suzuki fob, on the table.
Unfortunately, the two guests hadn’t appreciated the performance as much as Richard, both finding it somewhat offensive and, claiming fatigue after their journey, asked to go back to the flat, where they drank the rest of the beer and waited for Chris. And waited.
The couch could easily sleep three, if not four people, (lengthways) but Richard preferred his sleeping bag on the floor, after making space, propping the procured pallet against the wall and moving the new rucksacks aside. By three o’clock, everyone was exhausted, but didn’t want to go to sleep, only to be woken by a buoyant Chris who would no doubt burst in with fresh bottles and energy. But it didn’t happen. Chris finally showed up at lunchtime, freshly showered and with clean ironed clothes, while the other three looked like refugees, unwashed and walking around in mismatched clothing for warmth, not fashion.
“What the fuck is this ? Look at you fucking, useless people !”
Chris said this with a smile, but there was a harshness in the tone that was telling. Seeing him so clean only highlighted their own state, and the awareness that they smelt unwashed increased their vulnerability. Melanie broke the silence :
“And where have you been ?”
“Ute’s,” was the only response, as Chris left the room immediately, claiming that he was going to make coffee. Will made a show of allowing Melanie use of the toilet sink first, then Richard, and, as they emerged, as clean as possible, they joined Chris in the kitchen.
Richard didn’t take it personally, thinking that Chris had invited people over when he had been alone, and now that they had all come, at the same time, he must have felt invaded. He didn’t want to think that not only were they now not required, but they were actually not wanted.
Will was the last to join them, oblivious to any vibe, and stood drinking, not seeing the lack of space for him at the small table as a symbol of any sorts. He suggested going out for lunch.
“I’m not hungry.” Melanie responded to Chris’ proclamation by saying that they were, and if he knew a good restaurant.
“No, but I know some bad ones.” It was a feeble joke, but it broke the tension. Richard mentioned meeting Shoulder. Will said that if that arsehole came up to the table again, he’d leave. Chris picked up on the cue, to ask him when he was leaving.
“Day after tomorrow, or the next day. Two or three days should do it for Berlin, get the low-down.”
“Yeah, well I’ll be working most of the time. Maybe Richard can take you out.”
“That’s nice, we come to see you and you won’t be here,” said Melanie.
“Hey ! I gotta work. All right ?” No one said anything.
One by one, they finished their coffees, washing up their cups immediately. Richard mentioned that he knew some bars that had a lunch menu and they agreed, glad to get out and Chris glad to get them out. As they were leaving, Richard whispered to Chris, asking if he was OK. He nodded and gave a little smile.
After lunch, Richard suggested that they go for a walk around Alex, but this only led to discussions about the weather, which, in truth, would be a factor, as it was bitter, and already getting dark. Instead, they decided to stay in the bar and order cognac with coffee and just talk. Richard had his guidebook with him and they discussed the merits and demerits of it, the lack of photos or colour maps, the lack of detail on the maps that were included, the layout, which made it more like a novel. Richard pointed out some of the more unusual museums that were hidden among the suburbs of Berlin, a dog museum, a hairdressing museum, which reminded him of Shoulder’s stories and an Ofen museum, apparently a collection of different types of the devise. Melanie said that they had to go, just for the kitsch factor.
They stayed until early evening and went back, all hoping that Chris would be out. In the Hof, Richard pointed up to the window, which was black, showing no one in. They tacitly agreed to stay in and go to the bar later, all being tired from the previous evening and the cold, which forced one to walk with hunched shoulders, heads down.
“So, what have you been doing since you got here ?” asked Melanie.
Richard stood up from the pallet he was trying to dismember and said,
“You must have done something.”
“Well, Chris works a lot, the studio, or the bar. Sometimes he stays with Ute.” Again, Richard saw a change come over Melanie. Keen to change the subject, he continued, “I want to get to the museums. Museum Island, has three or four different ones.”
“Yes, you must go to the Pergamon. The alter’s rather plain, but there’s a Roman gateway that’s outstanding.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” suggested Will, who was now helping Richard to chop the pallet into pieces small enough to fit into the Ofen. Getting the flat warm was a lengthy process, one which required constant attention.
“I’ve been walking around a bit, getting to know the area. Some nice parks. Lots of small statues and interesting things. I like going places that are just different. I want to see Ernst Thälmann, too.”
“Who’s that ?” asked Melanie, disturbed that there was somebody she hadn’t heard of.
“It’s a statue, apparently a giant Soviet-type thing in Prenzlauer Berg, just up the road by Strassebahn. Then, at nights, we’ve been to the Cafe Kinski and, on the way, back, pissed out of our minds, we go looking for wood. This was a Godsend, keep us going for weeks. Hopefully.”
“Just find it on the streets ?” asked Will.
“Yeah. Oh, we check it first. Make sure it’s dry, not too dusty. No dog shit. I’m becoming quite the connoisseur.”
They killed time, for that was all that they could do, by reading and drinking tea. Richard was starting in on Volume One of Proust, which caught Melanie’s eye and she launched into an impromptu review, of sorts, explaining why she wouldn’t read it, accompanied by an expression reminiscent of someone suddenly aware of an unpleasant smell, while sucking bitter lemons. She, in turn, was reading a modern fiction, which she was actually enjoying, but qualified that by saying that she had found it second-hand, and only brought it along due to its compact size.
At ten o’clock, precisely, that fact known by the chimes of the BBC World Service and a pre-war sounding jingle, Richard felt Will staring at him, indicating that it was now time for the bar to open, but Richard didn’t want to say that it was Berlin and that squat bar opening times were perhaps not as reliable as Big Ben (and anyway, Melanie no doubt would have said that Big Ben was the name of the bell, not the tower as most people suspected,) so he put his book down and began the process of dressing to go out. Extra jumpers, coat, gloves, scarf, boots. Melanie, meanwhile showed no sign of moving. Automatically, Richard said,
“Chris won’t be back for hours, yet.”
“Oh, I’m not waiting for him. I want to finish this book, then I can leave it here, reduce weight. I might come, later.”
Outside, Richard guessed that she was just tired and wanted an hour or two of uninterrupted sleep.
“Naw, she just wants to take a shit and’s too embarrassed with us in the house. Might take a dump, myself, in the bar, if that’s all right with you.”
Richard indicated that he was totally fine with the proposition.
It seemed to Richard as if they were shit outter luck again, as soon as he saw Jens at the end of the bar. It was quite busy, so must have opened earlier than usual, probably so Jens could call ‘geschlossen!’ early.
Richard ordered two beers, which were collected, opened and passed to him without comment, save the amount. He had to control himself from screaming ‘what’s your fucking problem ?’ but took a deep breathe and just thought about the cheap price. He took them back to their table, as Will, who was removing some of the outer garments, made his excuses, informing Richard that he should feel free to start without him, as he would be some time.
Richard, naturally, needed no second telling, and had finished the bottle before Will returned, giving the thumbs- up sign.
The pool table area was quite loud, as there was a group of young men playing a sort of tournament, and there was laughing and screaming and playful mock-fighting.
Richard, after he had got Will’s attention, began speaking about their tour and Melanie, hoping that he hadn’t spoken out of line when he accused her of waiting for Chris.
“He’s a real prick-teaser, that guy. Puts her through the ringer and I have to do the clearing up.”
Will then went on to talk about his travels, how he had been in southern Germany, but not Berlin, and mentioned a number of uneventful anecdotes which he seemed convinced were highly relevant and informative. When Richard asked about his work, he explained that he worked nights in a hospital because he liked the quiet, and was unable to deal with people, anymore. All the time, he was looking over at the pool game, perhaps envying the liveliness and fun they obviously were all having, and suggested that they change seats and move to a table by the front window, in front of the players, adding that it would be easier for Melanie to spot them, should she deign to turn up.
They moved and were more or less ignored, until one almost backed into Will with his cue, but was very apologetic. Will made a point of speaking in loud English, and it aroused the curiosity of several guys who introduced themselves and began a conversation.
Walking around the bar was a tall, skinny, long-haired man with round glasses and a distant gaze, who started moving around the pool table, at first asking for a light, then a cigarette, then a beer, then money.
He was politely dealt with, but he persisted in bothering the players, holding one player’s cue as he lined up a shot. One of the men, Mathius, who wore a white polo-necked jumper tucked into his jeans, took hold of the man, and led him outside, with some harsh words in German. Another smaller guy, who wore a blue bandana and mimed guitar solos on his cue, backed him up, and they returned to the game. The man came back in, cursing away and making threatening gestures. Again, he was taken outside and pushed into the street. This only made it worse, for he came back in and began shouting face to face with Mathius. The next thing, Mathius had him on the pool table, arms around his throat, then lifting one to threaten him with a fist. Instead, he lifted him up, roughly pushed him and finally Jens came over and officially barred him from returning. At that point, Melanie turned up, asking what she had missed.
Richard now sat with her, as Will was up and in deep conversation with some of his new friends. Some time after one, Chris appeared, and said sorry for the morning. It appeared as if the studio job was ending and it wasn’t sure if there would be new projects or, as fellow worker Arizona Al predicted, the whole shebang was about to up sticks and hitch over to Japan. Or it may have been Korea. Taiwan ?
Melanie was extra pleased by this more familiar side of Chris, and smiled and found any excuse to touch his arm. Who, she wanted to know, was ‘Arizona Al’ ?
“He’s a guy called Al who’s from Arizona. Cool guy, little bit odd, musician, I think. He works the copy-machine.”
“What, full-time ? That’s all he does ?”
“It’s a full-time job. They’re copying shit left and right and someone always fucks up the machine, so they put one guy on it, permanent. He hangs out there, drinking herbal tea, singing to himself. He told me about going to the Hansa Studio, and touching the piano Bowie used on ‘Heroes’.”
“Cool. Have to meet him.”
The mood must have been infectious, as even Jens was smiling and no one was refused a drink. Around three, they left the bar and walked the short distance home, Chris and Richard conditioned to seek out good wood from among the street debris. Will managed to get Richard’s attention.
“Chris can be an A-One bullshiter, but I think he’ll be OK here. All the stuff he talks about doing, I can see it, now, it’s possible in this city. I’m gonna have to consider a relocation. That Mathius is a cool guy. I’ve invited him to London and I hope he comes. The guy in the bandana, too. Learnt a lot, tonight. Got the handle on the political set-up. Yeah, look forward to coming back.”
He and Melanie left two days later and Chris, in Kinski that night, with beer and Jim Beam, beamed as he informed Richard of another guest, heading over later that week.
Richard thought that it would be a whole different dynamic with Nuno, and he was right, only not in the way that he was hoping.
Chris couldn’t wait to take Richard to his local bar, Cafe Kinski, and to show him how he was already a part of this underground community. They left the house and walked for two or three minutes until Chris stopped Richard outside what appeared to be a closed store front. Chris pointed up. Perched on the top corner of the first floor, looking down on them, was a metal sculpture of a man wearing a hat, fingers pointing outwards. Although the creation was obviously comprised of scrap metal and junk, the figure seemed not only animated, but actually smiling.
“That’s from Shoulder. Maybe he’ll be in, later.”
“Ah, that would be nice.”
Cafe Kinski was one of the more up-market squat bars, especially by Rigaer Strasse standards. There were two sections, a deep room that ended up at the bar, and the main room which had a pool table. There were round tables throughout, with various, non-matching chairs. All tables had candles in bottles, heavy ashtrays and multiple stains and chips. Hanging from the ceiling was a video beamer and another beamer projected an image of the actor Klaus Kinski onto a wall near the bar. Chris was right, it was nothing like an English pub, more like a student bar at university, an observation Richard made shortly after entering.
“Only without the self-righteousness and high bullshit factor,” replied Chris.
The building was all squatted. On the ground floor was the bar, which occupied a former shop space and next to it, another closed shop that was boarded up and awaiting repair. There were four floors of houses above, all occupied, all squated. Three or four of the squatters ran the bar. The system was that whoever was working went to the stores in the afternoon to buy beer in crates, spirits and whatever else they thought would sell. Then they would clean the bar, rarely more than a token sweep and clearing away of ashtrays and bottles, a pretence of cleaning the toilets, and then open around ten o’clock. They closed when the last customer left, or simply when they felt like it.
Chris led Richard straight to the bar and opened his arms, smiling at the barman, who was equally enthusiastic.
“Hi, Silvio, wie gehts (‘how are you ?’). This is my friend Richard, from London.”
“Ah, Ja, hello. Welcome to Berlin. Beer ?”
“Ja,” answered Chris, “naturlische.”
Silvio was slighter taller than them, with short frizzy hair tucked under a John Lennon cap, leather jacket over a T-shirt with German text and old dark jeans, dusty and worn. He also had a permanent smile.
They spoke about Richard’s first impressions of Berlin and had a shot of Jim Beam. Richard got his money out, totally happy to pay so little for so much.
“No,” said Silvio, firmly, hand out, “first we drink, then you pay.”
Around eleven, the bar began getting busier, the music became louder and Chris suggested they move away from the high bar stools to a nearby table.
“Look at this … eleven-fifteen and people are only just starting to go out drinking.”
“What a life, and I’m being serious. I could get to like it.”
“What have you got back home ? Really ? Shit job, high rent, eleven o’clock closing. When you can afford to drink in pubs, which is never.”
“Can’t argue with that. I decided to postpone college for another year. With you out of the way, I may actually have a chance to save up some cash. Which, of course, I’ll blow by coming over here. Do you realise, that if we drink enough, I’ll actually save money by coming to Berlin, rather than going out drinking in London ?”
“Let’s put it to the test. More beers.”
After Chris had returned with fresh beers, pausing for a little chat with a large man with long hair sitting at the bar, Richard thought it best to get some answers before the night got much older.
“What was the emergency, then ?”
“Oh, that, yeah, really scared the crap out of me.” Chris went into detail about his first week, staying with Marina, then Claudia, before getting this flat. “What hadn’t been explained to me was that in addition to the month’s rent, I had to throw her a bung. Rents are so cheap in Berlin, but there aren’t that many empty flats, so it’s a seller’s market. If you have a flat to rent, you see who’s got the most cash, and rent it to them, for a one-off payment. Totally illegal, totally universal. But the landlady …”
“Mrs … Holtzengraff ?”
“Right, she knew Marina, somehow, and has a shop near Claudia, so they worked out a deal. Only thing was, they didn’t tell me.”
“Maybe they did, but there was so much to take in, it must have slipped my mind. Until a week later. I’m all alone, got a bit of a hang-over, night before, I’d met Shoulder actually, anyway, thump on the door, and before I can answer, she’s barged in, with her minder, a reel beefy bastard, and she’s screaming at me in German. Now, I understand nothing and I’m there in my boxer shorts and grungy T-shirt, kind of vulnerable, hoping my old John Thomas doesn’t slip out, and I’m just saying that I’ll check with Marina or Claudia.”
“So what happened ?”
“She knew she was getting nowhere, and I’m waving my rent slip at her, and I’m getting nowhere, so she leaves, slams the door and I can hear her all down the stairs. She called me an English cunt.”
“I don’t know. I’d lay money on it, though. Anyway, I go to work … “
“Yeah, what do you do exactly ?”
“Paint cartoons, but I’ll just finish this story, then we can move on to Claudia the Cat, who I see later that day. I tell her and what’s happened and then she explains that Fr Holzkopf, that’s Wood-head, wanted her five hundred Marks. Which I didn’t have.”
“But then it all worked out … ?”
“Thanks to Marina. She’s taken care of everything. She told Queen Bitch that I’ve just moved here, and so I could pay an extra Hundred Marks a months for five months. Here’s to Marina. Let’s go have another drink with Silvio. Silvio ! Jim Beams, three …”
They were the last to leave, making Silvio more intoxicated that he would have preferred to be in the process. As the night had been fairly quiet, they had moved back to the stools in front of the bar and made Silvio join in with their every round. Most people greeted Chris and he introduced them all to Richard, including the large man to whom he had spoken earlier. He was Russian, and his main feature was a prominent gap in between his front teeth, to which Chris drew Richard’s attention.
“Look at that ! Isn’t it magnificent. ‘Mind the gap!’ ” The chap, henceforth known as ‘Gaptooth’ smiled good naturedly, and displayed his dental disposition on demand.
The next thing Richard knew, he was on the floor of the flat, in a burrowed sleeping bag, with a vague recollection of staggering home, singing ‘Fall On Me’ by R.E.M., the two of them somehow managing the three-part harmonies. He looked up, saw Chris totally crashed on the couch, and decided to try to go back to sleep.
Some hours later, he woke again, to the sound of Chris lighting the first cigarette of the day. Richard sat up and they said their ‘Good mornings’, Chris throwing the packet of West over to him.
“Oh, not sure I can, not first thing. Pretty rough, these.”
“Yeah, real eastern. Pure propaganda. Call it ‘West’ and make it gross, thus associating all things western with nausea and death. Very subtle. How do you feel ?”
“Not too bad. I’ll be better after a sh …”
“You going to say ‘shower’ or ‘shit’ ? “
“Either. But … so what do you do for … ?”
“Ablutions ? As best I can. Oh, one more thing … no hot water in the kitchen.”
“So we boil pots ?”
“Yes. If I had any. I’ve got a kind of large mug come small saucepan and the kettle. You’ve seen the toilet ?”
“Yeah, I meant to ask about that … what’s the situation. I mean … it’s kind of … a ledge ?”
“The plateau. Don’t mention that in the tourist brochures. It’s for examination of … you know.”
“No, I really don’t.”
“Haha. You will.”
Chris had to go to work later that day to pick up some wages and give in his proposed schedule for the next days, so Richard went with him, catching the Strassebahn from Bersarinplatz up to where it terminated, all along Danziger Strasse and past the main intersection with Prenzlauer Berg’s Schonhauser Allee. From there, it was a short walk along a deserted and empty Bernauer Strasse, turning off into some side streets to get to the studio.
They walked to the staff room, where Chris made two coffees and said hello to two or three people. Everyone was very casual and relaxed, dressed unlike anything Richard imagined office staff would wear. There was a mixture of accents, but all conversations were in English. Suddenly, Chris’s face lit up.
A girl of medium height in a loose fitting top and tight jeans shuffled into the room.
“Claudia ! Hey !”
“Oh, hello. I thought you were having a friend over ?”
“I am … he’s over there. Richard, this is Claudia.”
She barely glanced over then went back to Chris, making some small talk and in-jokes about work.
“You know Simon, don’t you ?” She pointed to a tall, well-built young man sitting opposite, who had been speaking with a slight upper-class accent to some of the other staff. He looked up, raised a hand and carried on talking. Richard picked up on the relationship between Claudia and Chris; Chris would try to make jokes, make her laugh, and she would talk down to him, like a slightly simple sibling. He chose to keep this realisation to himself.
After Chris had collected his money and wrote out his schedule, they left and walked to the nearest U Bahn and from there to Alex, where they again walked around, drank a bit, then drank a bit more.
The evening was spent in Cafe Kinski, with Philipp working. This time, the atmosphere was different, Philipp being quiet and withdrawn almost to the point of autism, choosing not to make eye contact or any banter with most customers, just filling the drink orders and barking out the price.
It was a busier night, louder music, as Philipp was very fond of Rage Against The Machine, played loudly. A heated pool game was also in progress.
Once again, they were among the last to leave, but as Philipp tended to close early, they regrettably found themselves vaguely sober, and so decided to walk around.
The post-beer hunger kicked in so, after they crossed Karl Marx Allee, Chris showed Richard a small Imbiss that was opened most of the night, and sold turkish pizza and pizza slices for a Mark or two. The radio was always on, playing what may well have been the exact same song on a permanent maddening loop, a high tempo, Turkish-disco-sounding instrumental. Chris began moving to it, with a rather peculiar belly dance thrown in. The staff just ignored him and carried on turning over the kebab meat and spooning oil over the salads, a vain attempt to make them look freshish.
On the way home, eating turkish pizzas, which were circles of dough, covered in spices and herbs, rolled up and wrapped in foil so as to be eaten by hand, Richard observed,
“You dance like that in London, you’d get you face smashed in.”
“I danced like that in London, I’d deserve to have my face smashed in. But no complaints here, hey, and what have they got to complain about ? Didn’t see them wearing a hair net. As for their fingers, no telling where they’re been. Nowhere near soap, that’s for sure.”
As they got back to Rigaer Strasse, they heard music coming from the squat bar on the opposite corner to the flat. They decided to go in.
The bar had no given name, and was just known by the address, Rigaer 13. It was reached by a side door, and then down a short flight of steps. This bar was simply a square, plain room with an improvised bar area, frequented mainly by punks. Chris vaguely knew the barman and ordered two beers.
They got a table and smoked, several times being asked for cigarettes by other patrons. After another beer, they decided that it was time to leave, Chris working the next afternoon.
Both of them had been a little concerned over the visit, for while they had worked together and socialised, they had never shared a room for longer than a night, and the limited amenities could have strained things further. However, with Chris’ enthusiasm for Berlin and his interest in showing it to Richard, and Richard’s easy-going nature and willingness to be impressed, the time passed quickly and without problem.
The only entertainment in the flat was an old radio-cassette. which was either tuned to American Forces Network or the BBC World Service, along with a small collection of tapes, some of which Chris had brought with him: Dylan’s ‘Self Portrait’ and ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ by Nanci Griffith being the most played.
The lack of central heating wasn’t such an issue until the last days of the visit, when the temperature seemed to drop overnight.
The washing took some time, but even that was cause for laughter, not complaint. Richard tended to wash in the afternoons, when Chris would be at work, and it could take up to an hour, boiling the kettle enough times, blending it with the right amount of cold water, especially when washing the hair and not wanting to either burn or freeze the head. This was, of course, done by candlelight as the kitchen had no lighting of any sort and the toilet sink was too little to be of any practical purpose.
On Richard’s penultimate day, they went for brunch at Marina’s. Richard was enamoured by Mainar, who corresponded not in the least with his mental image, picturing her as possessing long, blonde hair, possibly braided. At the same time, he was repulsed by Ross, who didn’t seem to want them there, and kept asking what time they planned on leaving.
Mercifully, Ross had to go to work, and the atmosphere lightened considerably, with Chris singing along to all the songs that Marina now had chance to play.
They left late afternoon, as Marina had to get ready. She’d gotten a job at a bar-restaurant again, knowing the owner through some convoluted connection.
Back in Friedrichshain, they went to a local Spar store, bought some food and beer. Richard felt a little embarrassed as the drove a trolley loaded with victuals and bottles, while everyone else had hand-baskets containing three or four sad items. Richard passed one shelf, which had bunches of root vegetables wrapped together by elastic bands, all of them looking wrinkled and tired and pitiful.
That night was spent, naturally, in Cafe Kinski, where Richard told Silvio he’d be back soon. He had an idea of Berlin, saw how Chris lived and planned to return.
He had travelled around on his own, while Chris worked, and knew the U-Bahn system, could buy a cheap snack at an Imbiss and had picked up a few words of German.
There were two other people he met on his last two nights; a sculptor called Shoulder and a monster called Steffi.