“So I met this guy at Café Radetzky and we’re having a good talk, and he’s, you know, cool an’ all, digs the right music, but I can’t shake this feeling that I’ve met him before. So we’re talking and I say where I’m from and, you know, the usual, what I’m doing in Berlin an’ all, when he stops me and says, ‘Hey it’s so cool to meet another dude from Arizona, because I met a real crazy shithead from there a coupla weeks back, and he was just out of it, talking non stop about nothing, and he had all this hair and beard and shit’. And I suddenly realized; he was talking about me ! Yeah, I hadn’t cut my hair, and I had this Fu Manchu thing going on, and that’s where I knew him from … some bar I’d been to, totally out of it. I’m gonna have to stop doin’ that kinda shit.“
Chris turned his head away, so as to wink at Richard. They were meeting in a Café on a late Summer afternoon.
“But, you know, so much of Berlin is hidden, it’s like I can see tourists coming here and going to the usual sights …”
“Which won’t take long,” interrupted Chris.
“… right, an Arch, an old sports stadium, a bit of old Wall, the Death Star.”
Both Richard and Chris laughed at Al’s description of the T.V. Tower, a giant, glass globe surmounting a tall, fluted concrete tower.
“Then going home and wondering why Berlin’s got such a reputation, when nothing appears to be happening. But you know what ? It’s not that things happen in Hinterhof’s, things happen in the hinter of Hinterhof’s. In basements, behind closed doors, over disused shops. When I was first here and didn’t know where to go, I’d just look for cool people and follow them, see where they’re going. Found some great bars that way.”
Richard glanced over at Chris, who waved him in.
“But … didn’t you ever end up just following people home, sometimes ?”
Chris followed through,
“And they didn’t mind ?”
“Well, they thought it was a little odd, guess, but … no, not really. Oh, I did ask one guy where the hip bars were and he told me to ‘piss off!’ ”
Chris thought for a minute.
“Are you sure ? Could he have been saying, ‘Pass auf ‘ ?”
“Well, it was a ways back. But … yeah, ‘spose. Why ?”
“It means listen, pay attention, watch out. He was probably about to give you directions …”
“Oh, man ! I ask him to get some place, he says, ‘OK, dude, listen up’ and I just walk away. What must he’d a thought of me ?”
“That you were a crazy shithead ?” joked Richard.
The subject moved from general rubbish to women, Al approving of Lorelei, describing her as ‘bodacious’, then onto work, which was why Al had requested this get together.
“OK, just a heads-up, there’s gonna be some changes at the studio. They’ll gonna be laying a lot of people off, making some big changes.”
“No ! Shit. I like it there.”
“You should be all right, but they’re changing the schedule, the whole ‘come as you are, go whenever the fuck’ routine. Good thing, too, ‘sa crazy way to runa business. They want people putting in minimum twenty hours a week, and booking in. Get these guys coming in, hour or two, costs more to keep track of them. There’s at least one big project coming up, and they’re gonna need staff they can rely on. I mean, costs are still low in Berlin, but there’s always talk of shipping the work to some Third World place, and pay ‘em Jack shit. And there getting heavy on the paperwork, too, no more casual work, everyone’s gotta have their Lohnsteurkarte’s and Angemälden … you got those yet, Richy ?”
Al was the only person who could say ‘Richy’ and not make it sound like an insult.
“No. Got nothing yet.”
“Wait. I’ve got an idea,” said Chris. “They need full timers; cool. And I’ve got all the bloody German paperwork. But I can’t do both jobs. If I do the Studio, forty hours, I won’t need the washing-up shit. Then Richy, er, Richard can have it. No paperwork, no questions, cash in hand, free beer, cute waitresses … “
“What, like Ully ?”
“With the thing, yes, I know, but there are others.”
Al followed the conversation as if it were a tennis match, but with the players hitting some unusual, suspect backhanders.
“Yeah, like, whatever happened to Hannah ? She was gorgeous.”
“Left. Got a proper job. Never saw her again.”
“I know. To think … I almost got her to come out with us. I think Melanie scared her off.”
“I think so, too. Marina’s leaving. Did I tell you ? Leaving Berlin.”
“Yeah, that Arschloch Ross is doing some building project in Köln. Maybe just for six months, but … we won’t see her again, either.”
“What about Claudia ?”
“Hardly ever see her. She comes in when I’m not there, or … I think she has other jobs.” Chris sought to bring Al back into the conversation. “You know her, Al, Claudia. I stayed with her when I first got here.”
“Claudia … nope, don’t think so.”
“Yes, German girl, really foxy, Irish accent, walks like a cat, looks like she’s just woke up. I introduced you to her. A few times.”
“No, pullin’ a blank. What about her ?”
“I don’t know. Richard, what about her ?”
“That’s what I asked you ?”
“I don’t know. Al, what about Claudia ?”
“Which one’s Claudia … ?”
And so the afternoon wore on. Chris left for work, promising to ask Walter if Richard could take his job, knowing that not only would they not care, they probably wouldn’t even notice, one Spüler being pretty much like any other.
Al and Richard went to get some cheap food, then Al promised to take him to some bars around the southern end of Schönhauser Allee that he had discovered by the ‘follow the cool guy’ method.
At the same time as Chris got to work, Ross entered a bar in Köln, along with some new colleagues. He spoke about the job opportunities in Berlin, but said that he wanted both a new challenge and to live in a city that had a higher standard of living.
The next day, one of his new colleagues told some Irish friends over lunch break about Berlin. One of these was leaving soon for London, where he would work on a building site and tell his new mates about Germany. One of these left to go to another site, where he told his new mates on tea break. One of these workers was a young man called Daniel Roth who had left school with three low grade qualifications, much to the chagrin of his teachers who couldn’t understand how so intelligent a boy would refuse to study. Daniel had been working around building sites for five years, making a living, but finally waking up to the fact that the only person he was hurting by his rebellion was himself.
Throughout the afternoon, Daniel pumped the new man for information, making him repeat all he had heard, about work, paperwork, the practicalities about living in Berlin and how to actually go about finding a job there.
At the end of the shift, Daniel was invited to the pub and was expected to accept. Instead, he told his mates that he had a hot bird that he wanted to shag before he lost interest, and he was excused.
Instead, he went directly to his small, local library, and though the stock was limited, he managed to pick up a history of modern Germany, a guide book to Berlin and a basic German language course.
Before he went to sleep, he had taught himself the verbs ‘to have’ and ‘to be’ in German and had started to conjugate them. Then he began inventing a story about the woman he had spent the night with, because his work mates would be expecting it and would want to hear all the details.
Silke was quite fond of Chris. Despite thinking him a little immature and attention-grabbing, not to mention hard work when he began his drunken monologues in English, she knew how good he was for Monika. At least in the short term.
Gabi thought he was very cute, though had certain reservations, namely the way that he looked at her, usually after they’ve been drinking, appearing very interested in what was under her clothes. But Monika was happy, when, that is, she was happy.
Lorelei was convinced that Chris would be true to Moni, but was rather upset that he didn’t seem as attracted to her, as he clearly was to Gabi and Silke. Not that she was at all interested, but it does a girl’s vanity no harm to have admirers. The ideal situation would be for Chris to pay her more notice, Richard to pay her far, far less and for Andreas to break up with Silke. At this moment, none of the above seemed likely.
Silke brought the discussion to a conclusion, as they had so many other matters on the agenda.
“Oh, so, he has contact with an old girlfriend. I have old boyfriends I sometimes see.”
“What does Andreas think about that ?” Asked Lorelei.
“Doesn’t care. How could he ? He has hundreds of ex-girlfriends crawling around.”
That answer made Lorelei go very quiet. Gabi agreed with Silke, reminding Monika of a incident last Christmas.
“When we went home. And who did you see at the club ? Ralf ? Ex-boyfriend. And what happened ?”
“OK, a Christmas fuck. It was nice. And ? It was cold, and at least I knew him, knew what to expect. Saves going through all that time talking to a new guy, just to find out he’s an idiot.”
“All guys are idiots unless proven otherwise.” Advice from Silke.
“But would you do it again ? I mean, this year, if you went back home ?” Lorelei returned to the conversation.
“You mean would she let tourists into her Vienna Woods ?”
Gabi screamed in embarrassed laughter, not sure where Silke got her sewer-mouth from, but enjoying it, nevertheless.
“No, not if I’m still together with Chris. No, no way.”
“Yeah, you say that, but see what happened after two Jägermeister’s, and Ralf comes up, ‘Hey baby, want a piece of prime, Austrian …’ “
Lorelei then turned to her and asked,
“And you ? Would you ever cheat on Andreas ?”
“What makes you think I haven’t ?” she replied with a wink. Gabi lowered her eyes and drank her cocktail through its straw. Monika also recalled an occasion, or two, when Silke had strayed.
“Yes, so, Monika, the trick now is to get back with Chris, but to make him apologize. For everything.”
“Oh, that,” said Monika, “is going to be easy.”
The girls went on to talk about several other related or tangent subjects, but the conversation had reminded Monika of Ralf, and how she came to meet him.
At eighteen, she became acquainted with a man who used to travel around on business, and regularly stayed over in Vienna, her hometown. She was drawn to older men, the local boys holding no interest for her, and even liked the fact that he was married and lived in Linz. They would meet, usually on Fridays at her favorite club and either go to his hotel, or her small place. And it worked fine, she got the excitement but none of the domestic boredom. All the time, she told herself that it was just for fun, no deeper emotions, and she continued telling herself this while she waited for his call or letters and deterred other men from asking her out. And she continued telling herself that it was only fun, as they began to discuss his getting a flat in the city where she could stay and he could visit, and she promised not to see anybody else, and he told about how his marriage was over and that he was, since meeting her, thinking of divorce, and she continued the illusion as she prepared to move in with him, and began telling her close friends that she was not only moving in with, but probably going to marry him when his divorce became final. Then she finally conceded and realized how lucky she was, to fall in love with her first serious boyfriend, who loved her so much that he would end his marriage.
And then came the letter.
The man had been offered promotion and was taking a position in Hannover. His wife would be joining him, and it was a chance for him to save his marriage.
Monika had a hard time believing men after that.
Several weeks later, in desperation, Gabi had insisted that they go to a new club, just for a drink or two. Monika turned that one or two into seven or eight and woke up next to a stranger whose name she didn’t even bother to ask.
Some weeks later, at another bar, she ran into him again, and he remembered the effect tequila had on her.
That was the scope of their relationship. Random meetings in bars and drunken sex. Monika had no chance of being hurt, because she didn’t care about him and didn’t care if she hurt him.
She told herself that she was cold, but Gabi refused to accept that, pointing out that no one who was such a true friend could be frigid. She was just defensive. But Gabi did agree about something. Vienna was way too small for them, and when Gabi was accepted at a Berlin university, Monika planned to leave, too. She would just stay away from married men.
It was at the end of the day that they were first seen. The farm hands, their pitches and scythes, were gathering. Animals into their pens, herded. Backs were rubbed, and arms stretched. If only the day’s hardships and troubles could so easily alleviated, be. The House of Religion began it’s bells to chime and to its evening service, the villagers drew.
Little Lotte claimed it was her. Her brother asserted no, falsehood, it was he. The scrofulous old maid, desperate for recognition, said it was she, the crippled tinker, till his dying die, would brook no argument, for he was the one, the one who, on that cold, windy evening, did first, the strangers, see.
They appeared, no matter who first spied them, on the southern hill, overlooking the settlement, four curious figures, encumbered by implements ill defined.
First one, then two, then more and more, the villages, their tasks abandoned, looked towards the hill, following the little finger of Lotte and the crooked staff of the tinker.
A vision for the eyes, strange indeed, but now other senses assaulted, were. As if by accord, both common and rare, they took up their singular burdens and did, by bow and breathe, sounds quite unknown, make.
The entire village, motionless, were. Enraptured, captivated, held by forces both mysterious and mystic. All faced south, and tried to make rational, sounds so obscure. A melody at times hauntingly beautiful, at others, beautifully haunting, did the entire vale, fill, a music of such power, that even the beasts of the field were tamed into submission.
Then, with a solitary low note hanging in the air, the music faded.
But nobody dare move.
Slowly, did heads turn and the grey, bearded leader of religion his way to the hill, made. The younger men did their leader follow, picking up their tools as arms, because nothing inspires fear more than the unknown.
There they stood, four figures, framed against the greying clouds, holding shapes unearthly in appearance and sound.
Now they walked, as one creature, down the hill, in line, with calmness divine. Down they walked, showing no ill will, and discerning who was held in highest esteem, to the bearded one, words of introduction were made.
But mistrust was still in the air, their strange appearance did their strange sound, match.
Disconcerting were these concert makers, when as a quartet, taken, though, when up close, viewed, not one of the four was particularly abject to the eye.
The first, it was true, was of a height taller than most, the second was rotund, the third showing advance in years and the fourth, a leg impaired.
But, though disguised by accent harsh, the language was the same, and the hand proffered in good faith, was heartily, by the leader shook.
Weapons fell as smiles rose, as the men, as men do, clasped hands and patted shoulders, and the young maidens as maidens do, coyly peeked, then blushed and hid, only to return and peek once more.
To the House of Religion, did they move, where their story would be made known to all.
As could be told by their voices, without words, travelled long and far, these strangers had. The tall one began their tale.
When young, no taller than Little Lotte (who smiled so brightly at being singled out) they were summoned, from poor country homes, to the court of a cultured nobleman, with varied tastes and experience, but music, paramount to him, was.
From his distant journeys, he brought back masters of music of esoteric origin. It was his command that this music be reproduced at his court, for the glory of all, and due to the technical virtuosity involved, the only way was to find minds untainted and fresh, to instruct.
But, how cruel can Fate be ? Having spent their youth in study and practise, having acquired skill and ingenuity far beyond their years, having performed but a score of times, the nobleman did pass away and with him, was his court divided and impoverished. There was no place for the musicians who, to earn their bread, from town to town, village to village, forced to wander, were.
Though unsaid, all felt the cold winds of winter and the scorching heat of summer, the days of empty stomachs, the nights bereft of love. The whole village, by a wave of melancholy, infected, were.
Then the second man, of proud girth, did comment make, and all laughed as joy was restored. The Leader proclaimed, they were here and here they must stay. No ! No objections, harvest was good, water pure, houses warm and women … were they not the embodiment of all things Heavenly ? And, though he could not for certain say, if the Duke was made aware and approved of their art, then their future was surely safe.
That happy note struck, a feast was arranged, and though poor in substance, did in good spirit and cheer, abound.
And, indeed, it was within the passing of only three days, that messenger did appear, demanding acquaintance with the strangers of whom rumour did resound.
They needed no forced command, but with pleasure did take up instruments and begin to play. Performance proved, nay, surpassed all expectation, and back to court did messenger speed. Before nightfall, he did return, requesting their company by the grace of The Duke.
A quick farewell with shakes and pats and waves, and a tear or two from Little Lotte.
Then almost as quickly and suddenly as they had appeared, where they gone.
The court was no great distance hence, and to it did they travel by coach and liveried horse. Thundering across arched bridge, they raced to the castle, high on the hill, a commanding presence whose power was felt further than could even be seen from its summit on a clear day.
But no time to stop and admire, to work were they immediately put. A banquet, this time the genuine article, was taking place, and divers coaches filled the yard. Servants in rich attire lined corridors, rich, intricate tapestries hung off every wall, and laughter and talking rippled from the central room.
Tables of exquisite design were over-flowing with food and drink of every description, men and women dressed in such garments as defied all imagination. The poor itinerant musicians were ashamed to look up, dazed by such splendour. But their appearance provoked the same reaction. An immediate silence. All eyes upon the newcomers, unique.
From the top table, the grandest chair, the most elaborately dressed man, The Duke, himself, summoned them closer.
They walked, eyes still lowered, but, like all men, couldn’t help but be drawn towards the lady next to The Duke. She was young, with hair of honey gold, eyes of deepest, purest blue and lips like roses. She was perhaps, them most beautiful women any man had seen.
The Duke need merely clap, and the musicians knew their duty. With no consultation, the tall man took up his bow and played a note, then the others joined in.
And while they played, nobody spoke. And when they had finished, there was silence.
Everyone looked towards The Duke. He rose, majestically, raised his hands and with all magnanimity, did cause thunderous applause to echo around the stately room. His example followed and exceeded, all rose and cheered approval before The Duke spoke. By decree, the musicians will be staying as guests, then enter his service, where, for providing music for entertainment, they would be lavishly rewarded.
Cheers went up, applause, shouts and they even allowed themselves to raise their eyes from the ground and look at the eyes of all the young women devouring them, and even, though fleetingly, cast a furtive glance at the lady by The Duke, for she was the most beautiful of all.
So they lived, playing for parties and composing music in The Duke’s honour.
One day they were ordered to appear before him. They looked at each other, each one feeling the same palpitations, the cold sweet of pure fear. Slowly, to the chamber did they go, announced by court guard.
Within seconds did their fear subside. The Duke, in fact, did appear nervous and searched in vain for words correct. His wife, he explained, had decided she would like to add music to her list of accomplishments. Though he was an educated and sophisticated man, and knew that such talents came not overnight, but by lifetime of practise and devotion, loved his young wife more than life, so had consented to her wish, as he did to everything she, of him, asked.
The musicians, took no time to confer, the elder of them saying it would be a honour for them, and that they would do their best to instruct the young lady in all the skills she should desire.
The lady being young and impatient, the lessons began that very day.
But the lady, by her entourage of maidens, accompanied was. In the chamber, away from the guidance of the men, did give way to the foibles of their youth, giggling, whispering, pointing and, before end of lesson, in normal tones did speak.
Of progress was there but little. Nor was any made on subsequent days.
Back into the presence of The Duke, were the musicians ordered.
Now the elder virtuoso did venture to speak. ‘Twas such a pity that talent so evident should remain undeveloped. When asked to expand, the fourth, lame and bent, did make known the distracting influence of the young ladies who, not being of the same elegance, were not able to appreciate the art.
The tall and the rotund were forced to agree, and bemoan the waste of a gift so rare.
Then did The Duke think. With respect, did his cast his eye over the four. One tall and lean, awkward in co-ordination and protruding teeth. One over-weight and bearded, shining from sweet. Another old and toothless, perhaps lacking both desire and ability, and one who dragged a useless leg around. He could risk breaking court protocol, in the service of his wife’s advancement.
So it was arranged, the four would have the honour of private audience with the beautiful and gifted wife.
But The Duke, other troubles, did face. On the council of his young bride, who saw weakness and possibility in a neighbouring duchy, did The Duke an army raise.
Success came swift, until first one, then another setback experienced were. Now both armies were entrenched with gain on neither side.
But rumour moved fast, and told of succour asked and received, another army marching forth and defeat looking certain. The Duke must, to other lands go, requesting help and offering spoil.
Thus, after but a week of private tutoring, The Duke, with retinue, left the castle, but the lessons did continue.
The young bride was in centre, sat, the Sun around which the satellites did wander. Hair of honey-gold, eyes blue as ocean, lips as red roses.
As honey is from bees who sting, oceans swallow and drown and roses have thorns that pierce flesh, so the young lady did shout at and berate her instructors.
Then did change occur. First one, then another, did their garments discard, and appearance alter. Protruding teeth were plucked, revealing a healthy set, padding around another’s middle part removed was, another shook off signs of his advanced years, the last stretched a leg and demonstrated an agility quite unsuspected.
Despite such a metamorphosis, still the young lady had no idea who they were or why they were here, but a cry, heart-rending did she let out. Yet, on the strict orders of The Duke, they was no one to hear it.
Then did cloudy fear and terror cross the sunny countenance, as colour drained from wilted lips.
She turned to the second of the group, a healthy man, fit and lean, no longer constrained by fat, but clean.
And she remembered.
It had begun, many years before, in a small, poor collection of huts, too small to be village, too poor to be of importance. The low-lying ditch seemed always covered in fog, to be. Out of the mist, one discernible sight, one distant beacon of hope. The Castle so far away, on the hill.
The girl had to get there, but how ? No background, no attributes except a radiant beauty that would all too soon, lost be, working the land, and giving birth.
She must cultivate skills and learning to get her out of her hopelessness. There, in her birthplace, was a man famed for his culinary skill. No matter what scant source, he could turn all into a feast, with flavour abundant. He had knowledge of plants and herbs and knew how the taste to extract.
To him, the girl went, wanting to learn, but sensed a reticence on his part. The secrets came from and must go to, his family. So, an easy answer, she would be his, offer herself, be his wife, if he would first divulge.
So he did, secrets old and new, the knowledge of the fields was hers. But, before they could be for eternity joined, did the girl disappear.
The man, lost his skill, his will and sickness could he not escape. No longer able to provide for the people, was he by them, chased out, like an animal, to roam the lands.
The girl, meanwhile, had moved on to the next settlement.
The people here were plentiful and able to hunt in all weathers, for one knew the secret of turning animal hide into warm, protective garment.
Now the lady turned to one before her, formerly old and withered, now young and with renewed energy, filled. A second recognition beheld her.
To this large settlement, did her services in food preparation, offer.
Received was she, well by one and all, promising to impart her knowledge, but looking for a partner, she made it known.
By now, had she start to bloom, and many an eye in her direction turned. With such a choice, she told the one gifted with material that it was he, she desired.
The man was overcome, emotions he had never known. But first, all she asked was a show of trust. How did he make clothes so fine and grand out of such base material ?
The answers gushed forth, as he thought of his new life, he clothing, his wife feeding the settlement, starting a family and making it into a village for the betterment of all.
Yet, once more, after learning all that she could, she vanished, destroying a heart so true. As the heart suffered, so did the fingers, no more able to sew and stitch, and his worth being no more, was forced to find abode anew.
The Lady now turned to a man who before could barely walk, but was reminded of a man who had rode as if he and animal were one.
The Girl was now able to progress to a small village where her skills were of such high value, that she had to turn suitors away. She made it clear that her virtue was of importance utmost, and could not be even seen with a man, unchaperoned. How awkward, therefore, to find herself come across a young man, whilst out in the field gathering herbs. Awkward enough that she felt compelled to flee, but, in so doing, did twist an ankle so pretty and delicate, that the youth gladly offered her his mount to carry her back.
Oh, how proudly he rode, such a skill would serve any lucky young lady in good stead. With his command over the animals, surely this was a sign, divine, that he was to be her master. If only he would teach her, then could they together, ride. But, of course, such a secret would surely be reserved for one who would share life and bed.
Upon that spot, did Youth propose and Girl accept. Lessons began at once, how to tame, to ride, to sport.
But, once again, after she had learned all she could, into the very air did she disappear. The poor Youth, refusing all food and kind word, lay himself down to die. ‘Twas only the sound of his grieving horse that restored him, but no better would he get. No riding now, to deliver news, but to towns to procure alcohol and drink himself into stupor. So his life continued, till he was replaced and forced to leave the village, never to return.
Finally, The Lady, to the last one, looked.
A girl, so talented in providing food, warmth and riding was now able to have her choice among the bachelors of the town she had come to. But he heart was still in one place; The Castle whose shadow now extended over her new home, a town so close, that The Duke frequently passed through, and who would surely notice one so new and fair.
Yet her manners were not up to court standard, nor could she yet read. But there was a young teacher.
Once more, she chanced advances that advanced her chances. First, did she learn to read and with the tall young man, whose shyness was quite painful to see, did great progress make.
Now to other purposes. He was special adviser to the court, in matters of translation. She decided she would be his secretary. She asked, over and over, adjusting her dress, shaking out her hair, but could not break down his defences. A fortress around his heart, had he constructed, unable to believe that any woman, let alone a beauty, could ever want him.
The Castle was a hallowed building, admittance through it’s doors, a rare privilege. But not to a wife ? The Girl asked, reaching for a volume of romance verse, suggesting they read together, and their fingers touched, underlining words of love. One more fortress down.
Promising to be his and his alone, for evermore, she made him make her a lover’s promise: to bring her along to the next Castle visit. It would be the correct move, for The Duke to be informed of any changes in the life of so valued a servant.
The visit followed shortly after, some vernacular text needing translation. The Girl went along and The Youth listened to his assignment. No suspicions were aroused when he was allowed to retire to a study and his bride to be asked to remain, only pride that The Duke approved of his choice.
The unfortunate Youth had no idea what transpired between them, only that The Girl remained in The Castle after he was sent home, and that the next morning, scarcely after sunrise, was he awoken by armed guard and banished. No books was he allowed, just the clothes he wore, some bread, and a warning was he given that dare he ever to show his face again, it would be removed from the rest of his body.
Now that face was before her, hatred in his and all the other eyes.
And she had brought her downfall on herself.
She was aware that there was a Prince allied to the next Duchy. Any conflict there would bring The Prince into the fray, a Prince with such an army at his command, that he could not but help prove victorious. A Prince, as of yet, unwed. A Prince, destined to become King of a great land, in need of a Queen with knowledge of cooking, sewing, sportsmanship, reading, writing and his special weakness, music.
But as she mused on these thwarted plans, the Musicians began, in one movement, to disassemble their singular instruments, and reveal sharp knives, blades that glistened in the sunlight that poured through the stained glass windows which were soon to be stained with the blood of the treacherous Lady.
Although she was powerless, not once did she ask for mercy, but, they said, with a sly smile accepted her fate. It was over very quickly. None of the four had the heart for the kill, nor considered her death justifying damnation. Instead, four slashes across her face were traced, not fatal, but causing permanent scar and rendering a once beautiful face, hideous.
As she covered her wounds, she had another memory. She recalled the first man, the one with the art of cooking. He also could create music, from the finely worked bone of an animal, from blades of grass between his lips, from a piece of string, pulled taut, from horse hair over tight wire.
She let out a scream, but it was covered by a general Pandemonium. Trumpets blasted, messengers screamed, The Castle was in uproar. There had been a terrible battle, forces of another Prince had entered the fray. It was slaughter. The beloved Duke had fallen on the field. All was lost.
In such confusion, the Musicians could their escape, easily make. They simply vanished, as mysteriously as they had arrived. There are no records of any of them ever being seen again.
As for The Lady ? She was imprisoned in a remote tower in the north of the country, prey to the elements of that harsh climate, freezing in winter, burning in summer, empty of belly and alone both night and day.
After a time, she was forgotten completely, and it wasn’t until some years later that her skeleton was discovered. It is said that the skull appeared to be smiling, as if planning one final scheme …
“So one of the chefs tells me to clean out the large, vegetable freezer and I’m in there, scraping frozen crap off the shelves and sweeping up lumps of … I don’t know what. Then, this other chef appears, young guy, tall and gormless, carrying a clipboard. It’s part of his job to make routine checks on the temperatures, every day, same time. Now, the door’s open because, right, I’m in there, doing their shitty work. Gormless looks at the temperature gauge and, naturally, it’s way up, and he freaks out. This has never happened before, it’s an anomaly, except, of course, he wouldn’t know what an anomaly was, because he’s a chef, and of all the qualifications needed for that job, intelligence ain’t one of them. “
“So,” asked Melanie, unaccustomed to keeping quiet for long, “you’re saying he’s not too bright ?”
“As two short planks. Now, here’s the rub; he has to think.”
“In spades, and he really does, no bullshit, man, stand there, gob wide-open, dribble trickling down, you can hear the spokes turning, slow, slow, then … light bulb above the head, he comes up with a solution, though he’s probably more used to sniffing solutions that in coming up with them. Be that as it may, he says, proud as Punch, ‘I’ve gotta closer door, Mate.’ And proceeds to do same.”
“What did you do ?”
“I objected, of course. I’m in a bloody freezer, in just a T-shirt, and he wants to close the door on me. Apart from the fact that the temperature is going to go down to minus Twenty-Five or whatever, the perishing light will go out ! They’ll go back to get some peas, and find me frozen like Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’.”
“The situations you find yourself in,” joked Melanie as Richard once again got the sense that she was laughing explicitly at him, not his anecdote.
“But he wouldn’t be told. I tried to explain the law of manslaughter to him, and that being a fucking moron was no defence. No avail. So I just left it. I mean, the freezer’s working, everything is stone cold and the only reason the gauge is up is because the door’s open. Use some initiative; fake the temperature. But no, he can’t do that, has to carry out his orders, do his duty. Then his girlfriend walked past and gave one of those, ’look what I have to put up with’ expressions, deep intake off breathe, then followed by the,’But I love him all the same, the big lumock’ look.”
“What’s she like ?”
“Not bad, kinda cute. OK, bit on the chubby side, but good features. Lovely eyes. Too good for him. What I should have done was to hit him on the head with a bag of frozen cauliflower. We got time for one more, or shall we go ?”
For the past month or so, Richard had been meeting up with Melanie and seeing movies or just having a drink. This evening, they were in a small pub by Leicester Square, before going to see a film based in post-war Berlin. It was a disappointing mess of a co-production, with a British actor giving a one-dimensional portrayal of an American, an American actor giving an unconvincing, stiff-upper lipped rendition of a Englishman and an Italian beauty attempting to be an ugly German. But, at one point during the film, there was an interior scene showing a room with an Ofen. Richard and Melanie poked each other on the leg and laughed. They left as soon as the film finished, heading straight back to the pub. They covered the usual topics: Richard’s awful job, awful love-life, awful everything. It seemed to cheer Melanie up.
“No regrets about leaving the record store ? I mean, it was regular work.”
“Not really. Couldn’t go back there, anyway, they would have sacked me for taking off too much time. And for what ? Berlin in Winter. Barely even saw Chris.”
This was the link Melanie was waiting for, and she barely listened to the rest of his speach.
“I can understand what Will meant, now, about not being able to work with people. I mean, my job really is shit, but at least I don’t have to deal with … the public. Book shops and classical music, sounds like ‘green and pleasant land’ material, but it’s the Mean Streets. In Fordham’s I devised a theory. People were in a bad mood because they came in to buy books that they couldn’t find, couldn’t afford and didn’t want. As for the Classical Music lot … I tell you, you won’t find a more arrogant bunch of self-loving Arschlochs than music students. Makes me miss my old physics gang. “
If Richard hoped Melanie would take up this cue, he was mistaken.
“Speaking of Chris, I got a letter from him recently. Are you still in touch ? You know he’s moved, now, and got a new girlfriend ? Oh, yes, much better by the sounds of it. I didn’t like Ute at all. I knew it wouldn’t last.”
This was all news to Richard, who hadn’t heard from Berlin since he left, the previous November. Melanie brought him up to speed, taking secret pleasure in being the one with the information.
Ute had decided to go back to Hamburg, possibly having something to do with the suspicious phone calls and letters that periodically arrived and which she read privately and hid at the back of a cupboard. Chris seemed somehow prepared, as if expecting it. Soon after, he was in love with a new woman. Her name was Monika and she was Austrian.
“She doesn’t stand any nonsense, by the sounds of it. She’ll keep Chris in line. My kind of girl. That’s what you need, a good, strong, Germanic girl.”
Richard was very close to admitting that right now he’d settle for any kind of girl, but didn’t want to give Melanie too much ammunition.
“So he’s still at the restaurant ?“
“Oh, yes, he says they’ll probably make him a chef before long.”
“Please, no more talk about chefs.”
“And the new place. In Prenzlauer Berg.”
“Oh, that’s much better. The flat in Rigaer Strasse … I’ve tried telling people about it and no one believes me.”
“I know, they look at me and think how could someone like me possibly spend time there.”
“Quite. Oh, there was something else weird happen after you left. Every night, about six o’clock for an hour, the water from the toilet sink had an electric charge.”
“There you are, trying to wash yourself, two inches at a time, and no cheap cracks, Lady, and suddenly … the water gives you an electric shock. Only in Berlin. Still … “
“What, you miss it ?”
“Yeah. Sometimes. I don’t know. I’ve never lived there. Maybe November was especially bad. The weather. Chris being preoccupied. So, Monika … ? “
Richard enjoyed these after-work evenings and found Melanie good company. She introduced him to a lot of films and authors he wouldn’t otherwise have know, and got him out of the bedsit. The film about Berlin, and the conversation about Chris had provoked conflicting thoughts about that city. The November nightmares began to fade, as the good times of September asserted themselves; amazing squat bars, friendly, open people, an easier pace of life. U-bahns that arrived on time. A population less than half of London’s. Women, girls, young ladies. Hannah. Maybe she was still at the bar … or Monika … she must have friends. Maybe it was time to re-open diplomatic ties between London and Berlin.
It wasn’t just the flat, but the whole of Berlin that seemed quieter after Nuno had left. Richard had really enjoyed hanging out with him, and seeing east Berlin through his eyes. He recalled Nuno’s expressions as he experienced first hand what it was like to live here; boiling pots of water for washing, chopping wood for heating, drinking in squat bars. He remembered the first time Nuno had used the toilet, the morning after the jazz club night, with Nuno struggling to articulate the ordeal;
“Don’t go in there … you will die ! Why … why is it … like … ?”
“The plateau ? Who knows ? To make people’s lives even worse.”
The resulting Nuno laugh.
Naturally, it would be Nuno that would meet a young, American girl and go off to Paris with her, while Richard would be trying to light the recalcitrant Ofen and recline with some light Proust reading.
Chris came home, bursting into the room with an energetic, ‘let’s go get ‘em’ smile, only to loose it seconds later.
“Where the fuck’s Nuno ?”
The tone seemed to be asking ‘what have YOU done with poor Nuno ?’ and Chris didn’t seem very impressed when he heard that the Portuguese had left. Richard emphasized the beauty of the American, exaggerating somewhat, and skipped over the part about Nuno’s disappointment of him as host.
Chris remained silent, regretting the lost opportunity but also glad that it was one thing less to worry about. He offered to make coffee, and when he came back, both the room and the atmosphere was warmer. No longer were there bags dumped around, blocking available space. Richard spoke about walking along the streets with a drunken Nuno, trying to keep him out of the perilous cycle lanes at the edge of the pavement, and pointed to where Nuno had fallen, inches from the sharp edge of the pallet.
“How did you get him up ?”
Again, Richard could only reply that he had no idea.
Chris began opening up, speaking about his worries over Ute and her continual retinue of psychopathic ex-boyfriends. After coffee, he brought up the subject of a loan. But he had over-estimated Richard’s finances. Two hundred Marks was all he had in checks.
“I’m paid every night at Biberkopf, so I’ll come back and give you money, so you’ll be OK for the next day.”
Richard agreed, suggesting they go to a bank immediately. Chris strained to think:
“Not sure if they’re open.”
“Why, don’t close for lunch, do they ?”
“It’s not that … this is Berlin, don’t forget. Banks don’t keep banking hours.”
Richard couldn’t believe it, but it proved to be true. The first bank was closed, but had posted its random opening hours on the door. Not open until mid morning the next day. They got lucky with the third bank along Karl Marx Allee, Richard warned to bring all his paperwork with him.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in the flat, reading and catching up with the World Service. Even Chris knew it would have been inappropriate to borrow all Richard’s money and then invite him out with it.
Instead, they both went to Biberkopf, where Richard could sit and read and drink coffee and maybe get a bit of food and a few beers for a special price. And when Chris got paid, he gave it all to Richard, then half of that went straight to Silvio who ran Kinski that night.
The next day, Chris had to go to the studio, then to Biberkopf, so Richard was planning a day of sight-seeing with his limited funds, which actually was adequate for his itinerary. But two things happened to alter his plans.
That day, the temperature had dropped further, to an impossible to believe minus 25, but, even worse, Melanie reappeared.
Now it was Richard’s turn to experience the ominous ‘thump on the door’.
He opened it with trepidation, prepared to face the dreaded Herr Holtzengraff.
Instead, the small, leather-clad figure of Melanie, with small backpack. No explanations, as she marched into the flat, flinging her bag onto the couch. Richard took a deep breathe and went to make coffee, wishing he’d had alcohol in the house.
He knew that Melanie was unable to keep quiet for long, and, over coffee and candles in the kitchen, the story came out.
Somewhere outside of Szczecin, heading back towards Germany, the bike had skidded on some ice and Melanie and Will had been thrown off. Luckily, they had chosen small, country roads, so there had been no other traffic. They appeared to have suffered more from shock than actual physical harm, though Melanie assured Richard that she had bruises in her more delicate places.
The bike had some minor damages, so Will was going to stay in Poland fixing them and Melanie decided to get the train straight to Berlin. Will may turn up, may not, but by the way she said it, Richard wasn’t expecting him. He kept this to himself. There had been enough skating on thin ice.
“Where’s Chris ? Is he still with that pretend artist ?”
Richard sipped his coffee to buy time and control his response. He confirmed that Chris was still together with Ute, who was really nice. The temperature took another drastic fall.
However, being back in Berlin, without Will and sitting in a warmish kitchen with hot coffee relaxed her, and she began telling stories about her travels, then gave him a packet of Russian cigarettes that she had picked up. Richard examined them. Small and thick, but the most distinctive feature was that half the length was the filter. He smoked one, offered one to Melanie, who also smoked one, and they passed time by drinking and smoking and talking.
But Melanie had another piece of good news; she had no money. The train ticket had taken up the last of her savings and she wasn’t sure how’d she’d get back home. Richard understood that this implicitly confirmed that Will would not be making a guest appearance. He also found himself having to apologise for not having any money to help her with, though without explaining why.
“I’m sure Chris will help us,” she said. Richard merely nodded.
Thankfully, Melanie was tired after her travels and elected to stay in that evening, maybe sleep early and go out with Chris when he came back. So they had a little food and relaxed in the main room, Richard tending the Ofen every half hour. He was tired and cold and also took a rest, waiting for Chris. But that night, Chris didn’t come home which meant he had only a few Marks to provide for two people.
If one evening alone with Melanie had been Ok, Richard wasn’t sure how a whole day would be, especially as there was little money in the house and inches of snow, still falling, outside.
“Maybe we can go to Biberkopf, score some money off Chris ?” was her suggestion. There seemed little alternative and at least Chris would be aware that Melanie was back in town.
At the bar, which was fairly busy, they took a far table and Richard was delighted to see that Hannah was working as waitress tonight. He had met her the last time he’d been there, reading and waiting for Chris to finish. It had been her night off and she’d popped in to check her schedule and have a quick drink. They began talking and she had stayed over an hour. Richard was amazed. She was like a glamour model, thick, flowing, blonde hair, bright, blue eyes, long lashed, a full, sensual mouth and a dream of a body, every inch a beauty queen. It also amazed every one else in the bar, as she had a reputation as an ice maiden, at best, arrogant, stuck-up bitch, at worst.
“I just don’t want to speak to every brainless drunk, or have men ‘accidentally’ brush past me, so they say I have an attitude. Arschlochs,” she had confided to him.
Now she waved and came over, Richard over-eager to introduce Melanie as Chris’ friend.
“She’s pretty,” admitted Melanie after she had left to get their beers, though she said it as if she were describing the most repulsive and vilest of beggars.
Even better than seeing Hannah, or a close second, was Chris’s reaction, just moments later. He came along the corridor from the kitchen, to go to the cellar whose entrance was in a corner of the bar. He automatically looked up, did a double-take as he saw Richard at an unfamiliar table, then a treble-take when he saw Melanie sitting next to him.
After a quick recap of events, Chris told them to order what they liked and he’d cover it from his wages.
Richard found it hard to concentrate on Melanie’s endless babel, as he managed to catch Hannah’s eye once or twice, each time followed by a smile.
By eleven o’clock, the bar began to quieten down, and spaces opened up at the bar. Chris made some fleeting appearances and there was the not surprising decision to go to Kinski’s. Richard made sure Hannah was within earshot and then asked her if she’d like to come along.
“Thank you, but I have to stay until one, maybe later. And it’s in the east and I don’t like to go there.”
“Oh, it’s too far from your home ?”
“Yes, and it’s full of Proles. I’ve been there once. I got a taxi to Alexanderplatz and came straight back. Many people were afraid to go there, in case they rebuilt The Wall.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen tonight, Dear,” added Melanie with rather too much sarcastic delight.
“Yes, I think you are right. Sorry.”
With that, Hannah moved away and out of Richard’s fantasy life. The idea of a woman like that in a flat like Chris’ was ridiculous in the extreme. It was probably for the best.
Jens was working the bar, and as soon as they entered, they were assailed with cries of, “geschlossen, Feuer Abend!” (Closed, Last Orders!), so Chris took them to the Czar Bar. It was even grottier than last time.
Tonight, two men worked the bar, or rather one took the drink orders, the other was slumped on a chair in a corner, sometimes resting his head on the bar, sometimes jerking awake, only to slump again. They were playing some kind of Death Metal in an indistinguishable language and one of the denim-clad, unwashed drinkers was shouting along to it. Several dogs were running around, being screamed at when they decided to lift a leg or worse. Again, lots of people just sat alone, clutching a beer for company, a Teutonic version of Degas’ ‘L’Absinthe’.
Around the bar sat the bearded man who had run the bar last time, still with the hat covering half his face. He sat drinking shots of vodka and shouting in loud, repetitive German to the barman, inviting him to drink along, an invitation that was generally accepted. Chris went to get beers and had a little conversation with the vodka drinker, declining a vodka himself.
Melanie was less impressed than Nuno had been, clearly uncomfortable. As the CD finished, a commotion was heard from across the room in a little annex where the toilet was. It was obviously engaged, much to the chagrin of a short-haired, blonde punk, who kicked the door, then marched outside. Tonight, the shutter over the main window was up, and Melanie and Richard were able to follow her with their eyes as she walked into the gutter, undid her belt, pulled down her jeans and squatted in the road. Within seconds, she was back inside.
“That’s very impressive,” said Richard, “anyone that can expose themselves in this weather has my admiration.”
“You’re easily impressed.”
“Always been my problem.”
“One of them.”
At this point, Chris brought the beers over, but was gone after only a minute or two, to talk to someone he recognized. Melanie began speaking about films.
“I should be an editor, because I know exactly how a film should be cut, how long a take should be, what set-ups work best.”
Before Richard could respond, or be obliged to say something, Chris returned;
“Jake wants to have a vodka with us.”
“All right,” said Richard.
“Which one’s Jake ?” asked Melanie.
“Not the one who pissed on the Strasse, I hope.” Chris had missed that little scenario, so had no idea to whom or what Richard was alluding.
“Jake, the bar man, the one who was working last time.”
“You‘ve been here before ?” inquired Melanie of Richard. He immediately pointed to Chris;
“He made me.”
“You two are just speaking bullshit, aren’t you ? Come on, let get vodka-ed.”
“I don’t think I want one. You two boys go.”
They both cringed at that comment, but went all the same.
Two vodkas later, Richard began to see the appeal of this bar. He had thought Kinski was a dramatic, underground alternative, but this bar made Kinski’s look like a Home Counties family pub on a Sunday afternoon.
Suddenly, the second barman sprang to life with a loud exclamation in Russian. He wiped drool from his mouth and reached inside his coat for a cigarette, spitting on the floor and rinsing his mouth with a fresh beer. Chris called for another round of vodka, but then Melanie tapped him on the shoulder, with all the force she could muster, to inform him that she wanted to go.
“So ? Go. Go, capital ‘G’, capital ‘O’ GO! Like Dexter Gordon. GO!”
“I need the keys.”
“Maybe we should, after this round,” suggested Richard.
“Look at you two, what a couple of Beat legends. You want to go, why don’t you go, fuck off, fuck off back to shitty London. Go !”
Jake lifted up his head and raised his glass high;
“Here’s to shitty London,” and downed the shot in one.
“Come on,” said Richard, seeing that Melanie was fighting back tears, “one more for the road. OK, two, two more. Jake, you in ?”
“Am I in ? “ he answered his own question by laughing.
The ruse however, worked. It gave Chris more drinking time whilst giving a time frame for Melanie.
Soon they were outside, swaying home, the walk seeming to take forever in the bitter wind and snow and the uncertain motions of locomotion influenced by vodka.
In the flat, Chris fell asleep immediately, barely bothering to undress. Melanie got a blanket and managed to lay next to him, while Richard returned to the sleeping bag on the floor. He was looking forward to going home.
Richard awoke first, and knew he was unlikely to go back to sleep, so he used the private time to wash and get dressed. After a quick coffee, he left the flat, with just a bag and guidebook, deciding to see something of Berlin’s free sights.
He choose to go and see the Olympic Stadium, far away in the west, penultimate stop on the red U2 line. The journey there should be at least an hour. On the way, he read his guide. This was the famous stadium built for the 1936 Olympics and where Jesse Owens won three Gold’s. Richard now had some context for that famous piece of footage showing The Führer walking out in disgust. He, of course, declined to shake the athlete’s hand. What Richard didn’t know was that Owens also missed out on a handshake by his own President, when he returned to The States.
The stadium was open for tours, but he couldn’t afford to spend the admission, so walked around the outside. Behind, leading off to snow covered woods, a military jeep passed him, with two soldiers. They may well have been British and as such, would have thought nothing of seeing a compatriot taking a stroll in the snow.
There were two other sights in the area that seemed to be of interest. One was the Corbusierhaus, designed in the late 1950’s as an model example of urban living, but Richard wasn’t sure if he found it or not. He certainly saw something, yet couldn’t believe that the nondescript complex in front of him warranted such attention. It appeared to be just another concrete block of cheap housing.
The book also mentioned a sculpture collection, the George-Kolbe-Museum, but as it was a ten minute walk along a wide and otherwise featureless road, and as he probably wouldn’t be able to go in, he decided to head back, slowly making his way to the U-Bahn station, and waited for his train.
It had been less than thrilling, maybe, but he had seen one famous building and, more importantly, had some time to himself, even if he had to walk in the snow in sub zero temperatures to get it.
He arrived back at the flat at mid afternoon, knowing from experience that after Two-Thirty, it would only get colder and colder. And when he got there, Chris was stressed and Melanie was out.
There was only time for a coffee and a smoke before Chris left. He said he was going to the studio, but Richard wasn’t sure if he believed him, or even cared. Melanie returned later that evening. Chris had come through for her, she said, paying for her coach ticket to London. It left early evening of the following day. Chris didn’t make it back to say goodbye.
Richard spent most of the remainder of his time alone, going out sight-seeing, to the large Jewish cemetery in Weissensee and the memorial at Plötzensee, where political prisoners were killed, including 89 from the July 20th Bomb Plot. He walked around the local Volkspark, checking out the collection of political statues and memorials and made it to the giant monument to Ernst Thälmann, a Communist murdered in Buchenwald.
Chris did come back for Richard’s last night and they went straight to Kinski’s and had a great time. But for Richard, it was the cliché of too little, too late.
Chris came with him to the airport, insisting on holding the 1000 page Proust Volume 1, which Richard had half finished with all his spare time. Chris reassured him that he’d send over the money, or hold it until Richard came back. The silence that followed this comment showed that both of them understood that it may be a while before they met again.
At least the plane was on time, and Chris had given Richard the army coat that he’d requisitioned. He reflected on his trip. Chris had a new life, a flat, job and girlfriend and all these friends from the past were just that; from the past.
One piece of uplifting news came when the Co-Pilot announced the ground temperature. For the first time in weeks, it would be above zero. After they landed at London’s City Airport, his bag was one of the first off, and he took it and made his way to the exit. Until a uniformed man asked Richard to follow him. It took half an hour for the Inspector to go through the bag carefully, then check his wallet, asking if he had any drugs, pornography or weapons. The bag only had museum guides and dirty laundry, the Inspector informing him that he personally had no time for culture or galleries, “if I can’t eat it, I don’t care about it.” The delay meant that Richard had missed one bus and had no money for a taxi, so he had to wait in the cold London evening.
He had been waiting to come back, and now he was home. Then it hit him. So I’m back in London: Now what ?
One night, after the departure of Melanie and Will, and before the arrival of Nuno, Chris and Richard were having a drink with Silvio in Kinski, talking about women. Behind them, sitting around a table, some young German men were also talking about women. One of them was speaking of a girl he had been on a few dates with, but was, so far, unable to make the relationship physical. He asked his friends for advice. After some joking and teasing, one man, some years older than the others, sat back, lit up a cigarette and began a story:
“She’s like the girl who was afraid of love. You know that story ? It’s pre-Wende, ’86, ’87. West Berlin, real Cold War scene, spies and gangsters, underworld criminals, informants, government sponsored prostitution, hit men, an unbelievable, crazy scene, no rules; anything could happen and most things did.
“There was this girl, Firefly, who was … well, guess you’d call her a P.I. She was the one to go to if you wanted to find someone. If that person was in West Berlin, no matter where, she’d be onto him. “
“And she would take them out ?”
“Not usually her scene. She’d find the target and relay the info. Not to say that she hadn’t … anyway, she was one tough lady. No one messed with her, or if they did, only once.
“What made her even more iconic was her outfit. She’d dress like some goth-queen; short skirt, black tights, leather jackets, boots. Legend has it she was quite small, platinum blonde, incredibly cute.”
“And afraid of nothing except love, right ?”
“It started one hot, summer morning. Firefly was on her bed; tight, black shorts, skimpy vest top. Suddenly, there was a loud thumping on her door …
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.
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. 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 50’s 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 had begun 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 Steglitz, a Bezirk in the South West of the city.
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.