One night in the Czar Bar, a tall thin man walked in, ordered a beer and, the bar stools all being occupied, stood quietly against a wall and drank alone.
Chris didn’t like the look of him from the start. He was older, probably mid-forties, possibly more. Even in the poor light of the bar, his skin was visibly pockmarked, from disease, drug abuse or both.
He had heard Germans talking about ex-Stasi (the East German Secret Police) informers and knew the incredible statistics; as many as one in four people gave information and spied on their neighbours. The forty odd years of the DDR had generated as much paperwork and files as the rest of German history combined.
This man, alone, out of place, was, Chris decided, a clear ex-informer, probably here to spy on the bar and the customers, to close it down, gather names, prosecute for all the illegal activities.
When he had finished his beer, he walked over to the bar and put the empty bottle carefully on the counter. Chris snarled,
The man shook his head, and said, in English but with a soft accent,
“No, thank you.” Then he smiled. It was a smile of serenity and peace, that completely disarmed Chris who instantly changed his opinion. “Tchüss, Jake,” he said as he left.
“Ah, yeah, tchüss, Ragno,” answered Jake as he put empty bottles into a crate with one hand and pulled out three more beers with the other.
“Who was that ?”
“Oh, Ragno. Haven’t seen him for a while. Good guy. No problems, has his beer then goes.”
“So we ain’t gonna get rich off him ?”
“He’s got a young girlfriend, so . . . “
“Ah,” said Chris, “yeah, why would he get drunk if he’s got a babe waiting for him. Fuck, how does he do it ? Face like that ?”
“No, he’s a nice guy. Well, I dunno, he had a young girlfriend. Not sure if they’re still together.”
Robert, in apparent apropos of nothing, let out a,
“Shit on a stick !” while Peter lifted a half empty beer bottle to his lips and momentarily silenced the bar with an amazingly pure note.
Chris wanted to know a little more about Ragno, but a round of vodkas was ordered and by the time the bar had quietened down, he had forgotten all about him.
Chris took Daniel to meet the Russians at their squat in a remote area of disused offices and railway shunting yards. The area looked like a post-apocalyptic film set: large empty streets save for a few burnt out cars. The buildings all with broken windows, doors hanging off rusted hinges, half derelict and foreboding.
They alighted at Ostkreuz, a major intersection S-Bahn station with several different levels and platforms confusingly set out with various exits leading to metal walkways and staircases.
Daniel noticed the Teutonic water tower, resembling a Prussian army helmet, and desperately tried to memorise other landmarks, in case he should need to come back alone, but he was lost even before he had left the station.
Chris had been here several times now, helping the Russians with carrying stock to the bar, and one or two social calls, and knew that finding the building was just the first problem. The next was getting in.
The address was Pfarrstrasse, but the entrance was actually on the street around the corner, Kaskelstrasse. The building took up a whole block, dozens of flats that had been left to decay and were now squatted.
Chris tried the street door, but knew it was always locked and even the idea of an intercom was laughable.
The first time Andrei had been waiting for him, looking out of a window, and he threw down a bunch of keys. The second time, Chris had to wait for someone to arrive, then, in German, explain who he was and why he was here. Despite living in a squat of his own and having to go over to Richard’s flat to shower, Chris still looked and dressed several notches above the squatters here, who were proudly unkempt, unwashed and untrusting.
Chris shouted up and they waited, shouted again and continued waiting. Daniel looked around, uneasily, not sure what he was doing here, wherever ‘here’ was.
He was experiencing the Czar Bar syndrome. Plans and ideas were expounded, inspired by the atmosphere and the vodka, but when they came to be implemented, there was a sudden lack of enthusiasm, a frequent lack of memory.
For five minutes they waited, and Daniel was prepared to put it down to a good idea that hadn’t panned out, when Chris saw Boris walking towards them with a plastic bag, obviously containing beer cans.
Daniel had met Andrei, Olga and Sascha, but Chris had pointed out that Boris would be the heart of any band, he was the musician, the one who would lift them out of the rehearsal room and onto the stage and then . . .
But Daniel wasn’t prepared for the voice.
Boris was tall and reserved, with dark, tangled, curled hair which he kept meticulously clean with his own home-made shampoo of beer and eggs. Chris even joked if the beers were for them or his hair.
“Ah, yes, yes, the beers, yes is for both, hahahaha.”
The voice was incredibly deep, an accent perfect for a late night horror program voice-over.
Boris let them in and they walked up three long steep flights of stairs, then along a corridor, where he opened another door. Inside, there was a lot of noise and activity.
The door opened straight onto a kitchen area, a large table in the centre of the room. Around this sat Sascha and his German girlfriend, Trudi, who was playing with her black and blue dyed hair. Andrei was shouting in Russian and Olga was screaming back, but they both stopped when they saw the guests, Olga going over and offering her hand to be kissed.
Another long-haired man was in the background, opening some packets of food. Daniel pointed to him and said to Chris,
“He looks like Charlie George,” referring to the Arsenal footballer from the early 1970s.
Boris was a big English football fan and amazed Daniel by picking up on the reference. Their friendship was assured. And the poor Russian, with no German or English, was forever after known as Charlie George.
The three potential band members, Boris, Andrei and Sascha, all had good albeit basic English. Of the three, Andrei was the one the others turned to, in order to clarify or translate a difficult word. However, their German was only basic, at best. Olga was doing well in her new language, but had no English. Trudi was quite fluent in English, when she spoke, which was hardly ever. She professed having zero desire to learn Russian.
“It is hard language to learn,” sympathised Boris. “But it used to be much worse. In English, you have one flower, then another word for two flowers . . . In Russian, too, we had same, but then we had another word for three flowers. After the Revolution, they say we going to make easier . . . “
“Yeah,” Daniel jumped in, “no more flowers!”
Boris had a laugh as disconcerting as his voice, but it was starting to grow on Daniel.
Charlie George brought some dried fish over, and invited Chris and Daniel to take one. They did, then watched how the others picked them up and slapped them hard onto the table, so hard that is caused some empty beer cans to topple over. Andrei saw their bemusement,
“It to make sure they dead.”
Then the vodka came out.
Some hours later, Daniel and a distinctly tipsy Chris left to walk under the railway bridges and along the wastelands to get the Czar Bar opened.
It had been decided that a new band should be formed, and that Daniel should come over on Saturday for a first rehearsal. Walking with Chris, he knew he would never be able to find it again, but Chris wasn’t listening. He was planning.
His income was directly proportional to the amount of customers, or rather, how much they drank, or rather, how much they paid for how much they drank. His expenses were drastically reduced, needing no rent or daily travel money, but he still wanted to be able to buy larger items, or have enough to fly home, if needed, to complete the degree which, by degrees, was seeming less and less probable.
He thought of the stage in the Czar Bar, how it was going to waste, as the only people who used it were themselves wasted, spread out and sleeping, until Jake would unceremoniously kick them up, then out.
The answer was obvious; a house band. Gigs, concerts. Get a whole new crowd in, not just the usual ragbag assortment of punks and squatters and shitkickers, a word he had heard Jake use, and was now part of his daily vocabulary.
What was better, and economically advantageous, was that it would have to be on the nights that he and Jake worked, as neither Boris nor Andrei would want to work and play, and Micha and Serge, the other Russians who got a night or two per week, were unlikely to want the extra effort it would involve.
His enthusiasm to tell Jake made him walk along at such a pace, that Daniel had a hard time keeping up.
Daniel was both excited, and on a nice alcohol buzz, but was concerned over an issue or two. While he was sure he would be able to come up with lyrics, he had never sung before and was wondering if he had any ability. Another point was that, as he sat quietly around the table, getting to know his new friends, and impressing them by his knowledge of Russian authors and of St Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect, he had noticed how Olga looked at Andrei and then at Boris, and the loving way that Boris gazed upon Olga. There was going to be trouble there, he thought. But, until that happened, he was going to get a band started and, according to Chris who had already appointed himself manager, they had a guaranteed residency lined up.
Daniel Roth had waited a week before returning to the Czar Bar. He brought two workmates with him, for support, perhaps, but after they saw that they had come all that way just to sit in a squat bar with uncomfortable stools and a depressing lack of women, they left.
Boris, another Russian who lived in the same squat as Andrei and Olga, was working that night. Before long, Chris walked in, unshaven and unwashed. He walked past Daniel, not seeing him, and sat on the end seat, next to where Boris was leaning. They spoke a little, and Chris ordered a beer before seeing Daniel and ordering three vodkas.
“No, no fucking vodka ! Fucked me up, last time.”
Chris kept the smile to himself.
“Really ? How so ?”
Daniel didn’t answer, but hesitated a question of his own.
“I hope I, er didn’t do . . . anything too . . . I hope I wasn’t out of order, last week. Had a bit too much. Hadn’t eaten and it was a har . . . “
Chris waved it away and invited him over.
“All right, but no fucking vodka!”
“Enough, already, no vodka. Wimp!”
“You what ?”
“Just saying, one minute it’s all, ‘I’ll pick you up with one finger and throw you through the window’, the next it’s, ‘oh, please, no vodka’.”
Daniel looked at Chris without blinking and Chris began thinking he may have overstepped the mark.
Daniel then turned to Boris,
Predictably, these were the first of many. Chris was getting acclimatized and Boris drank without any apparent effect whatsoever.
Daniel, on his fifth vodka, kept apologising for his behaviour and Chris did nothing to allay his fears that he had behaved appallingly. Finally, more to stop Daniel repeat himself, he told him that nothing had happened. Daniel had sung, shouted, screamed, but so had everybody else.
“You’re just doing the ‘Newman Shuffle’,” he explained. “People come in here the first time, drink too much vodka and have a melt down. Then they come back, heads down, shuffle in to face the music. Bet that’s how you walked in, all hunched over.”
“But you don’t realise; this is the Czar Bar. Everyone freaks out, it’s expected, it’s almost the law. And if you really do make scandal, so what ? The next night, it’ll be somebody else, and your indiscretion will be forgotten.”
“Ah, you like big words, hey ? What are you ? Fucking student ?”
“Not any more. But I ain’t the one walking ’round with fucking Emily Zola.”
Daniel laughed and ordered more vodkas, Chris smiling at how quickly he had slipped into the pattern of Czar Bar life. Chris’ comical attempt at Cockney could not pass without comment,
“No need to start dropping your accent. This ain’t England.”
Chris, as being the senior in terms of Berlin life, expounded,
“No, this is Berlin. Just be yourself. Or be who you want to be.”
That last sentence stuck with Daniel.
Before the night descended into vodka madness, Daniel was asking about places to go. He always seemed to go to the same bars in Wedding, with his workmates, and most of these were not so far removed from the East End pubs he has left behind. Picking up on this piece of personal history,
“Ah, gangsters, rippers and wide-boys; the charming myths about the East End,” said Chris.
“The only charming myth about the East End is the myth that the East End is charming.”
Chris liked that turn of phrase and commended Daniel on it, then enquired about his academic background, as Chris still had some vague thoughts about switching from Physics to Literature.
“No, Mate, left school with a boot up the arse and fuck all else. Always read, though. Just couldn’t see why I had to listen to some deadbeat dickhead, when I could learn much more from Tolstoy or Dickens or Shakespeare. I can add and subtract and all that bollocks, but I don’t need Calculus, so fuck Maths. Geography, I know the capitals and rivers and mountains, if not, I’ll look them up, or fucking go there. Chemistry, I know good speed from shit, so that’s covered. History ? I’ll go to a museum or read a book of my own choice, not have some fucking Marxist ideology shoved down my throat. Games ? P.E. ? Fuck that, stand around with your dick frozen off so some old perv can get his jollies looking at you ? It’s the East End, we know how to fucking run. Physics ? Fuck that . . . “
Chris laughed, adding,
“Fuck Physics. Actually . . . I did.”
As for going to new places, Chris had a suggestion. Arizona Al was playing another gig in Mitte on Saturday, and both he and Richard were going, out of obligation. Daniel was invited and Chris wrote down the instructions and made a suggestion where to meet. He also wrote Richard’s phone number down.
Daniel thanked him with a vodka, and was introduced to new people as the bar filled up.
Several hours later, Daniel Roth was shaken awake at Hönow station.
Chris emptied his Brief Kaste, threw away the Werbung (adverts) and took the envelope upstairs. He recognized the handwriting at once, and the British stamp only confirmed that here was another letter from Melanie.
He had promised Richard that he’d go to a travel agents with him, help book his ticket to London, but had just received some bad news from the studio: there would be no more work in the new year. The studio was closing down.
It had created a surreal atmosphere. Anyone who turned up got paid, but nobody was doing any work. People just sat around, drinking coffee and smoking. The room was full of uncertainty, worrying how rents would be paid, some wondering whether they would return to Berlin after their visits home for Christmas.
Chris kept this from Richard, but asked him if he knew what the situation was at Biberkopf, as he could take over the shifts while Richard was away.
The flight was booked with Chris insisting that Richard get back in time for New Year’s Eve, ‘Sylvester’, in Germany.
“You just wouldn’t believe it, it’s like a war zone, people throwing bangers, fireworks, everyone out drinking on the streets. You’ll love it. Hey, new year, new start. It’ll be OK, you know.’
“You sure about that ?”
“Yes. I am.” An optimistic answer from Chris who would start the new year unemployed. He knew that if he told Richard, then Richard would immediately give up the Biberkopf job, insist on giving it back to Chris and would therefore have an excuse to stay in London.
On Christmas Day, Chris fixed himself a breakfast of smoked salmon, day old rolls, some tangerines, and several cups of coffee.
Monika was at her sister’s, just outside Leipzig, Gabi back in Vienna. Silke was in Bavaria, Kai incommunicado and Andreas had somehow found the money to go to Turkey. Lorelei was staying in Berlin, but Chris was sensitive enough not to mention her, or to blatantly not mention her. Tommy was visiting family in Aachen, in the west of Germany and Gert had naturally disappeared somewhere.
In the early afternoon, Chris went for a walk, enjoying the freedom of being totally alone in his city. The roads were almost empty, only an occasional car passing by and beeping hello. The shops were all shut, even the Imbisses had closed, or so it seemed. A side street off Schönhauser Allee had two fluttering flags, showing that at least one fast food joint was open. Chris made a note of it, should he require a Christmas kebab.
With no direction or purpose, Chris turned into Danziger Str and thought he’d walk to Friedrichshain. He walked along this notoriously tedious road, smoking, strolling, feeling quite happy. For the moment. The shit was going to hit the fan, so he may as well enjoy this anomaly of peace and quiet.
In four days time, both Monika and Melanie would arrive in Berlin. Melanie was arriving early evening and expected to be met at Tegal airport. Monika was driving, probably arriving late evening. The next day, the 30th, Richard arrived back, same time flight as Melanie, but he could make his own way home. Chris could stay at Monika’s, leaving Richard with Melanie. That image made him laugh out loud.
Then, how would Monika react to Melanie ? Melanie to Monika ? How would Richard be ? Chris knew he was in a lot of pain, more than he could help him with, and just hoped that his break in London would give him the distance he needed.
After half an hour, he was at Rigaer Str and thought he’d try Café Kinski. It was locked, but there were people inside, so it was probably a private party. He walked on, past more squat bars, squat houses, negotiating the piles of dog shit on the street and the distinctive odours of shit and piss and vomit and sweat and fumes and fast food. He felt at home.
After walking along the Strasse he saw a light above the door of the Czar Bar. It was open.
Coming from the left, there was a large, single pane window, with the Cyrillic ‘bap’ (bar) painted along the lower edge. The window was usually crammed with junk, but it was still possible to see inside, see who was working.
Chris peaked in and saw a figure in a fedora, twisting around, reaching for some glasses and a bottle of vodka. Tidings of comfort and joy.
The Czar bar was entered by walking up a step, into a sheltered vestibule, both sides plastered with flyers and stickers, flapping and peeling off. The door was solid, bottle green, also covered in small posters. Immediately inside was a thick black curtain, which had to be brushed aside.
The bar had changed a lot since Chris dragged an unimpressed Nuno and a repulsed Melanie here. A year ago. A lifetime ago.
There was now a more permanent looking bar, stretching from the door and curving around to the flipper (pinball) room. There were pallets below the bar, making a step up to the tall stools that were bolted down. Drunks may continue to fall, but the chairs would remain standing.
Above the bar, was a flat surface reaching to the ceiling, giving the bar the appearance of a kiosk. Behind the bar was the large dresser, now with more bottles and glasses, and a CD system, playing early Neil Young.
Around the room were placed round tables and along the walls, two old sofas. Chris looked into the far recess of the bar and saw that there was actually a stage, reached by four or five steps.
The room had also been painted; it was now a dull, deep orange, and with the main shutter down, and low wattage bulbs, it could easily have been late evening, not afternoon.
Chris took a seat at the bar, next to some Germans who looked half-way pissed already, but smiled at him warmly. He smiled back.
“Heeeeyyy, Chris, welcome back. Haven’t seen you around here for a while,” said Jake the Barman, extending a hand for a complex series of shakes.
“I was here last month.”
“You were ? Where was I ?”
Chris pointed to the end stool,
“Oh, right, I wasn’t working, I’m only out of it when I’m not working, yeah, Yuri was work .. no, let me … Micha ? Hell, I don’t know, what the fuck does it matter, hey ? Oh, Merry Christmas, can I get you a Christmas cocktail ?”
“What’s in it ?”
“Vodka and … vodka.”
“OK, I’ll have a double.”
This made Jake laugh, and they drank together, Jake introducing him to everyone who came in. By evening, Chris was very tipsy, and the bar, which was also looking tipsy, was full. Tom Waits had at some point replaced Neil Young.
A small, well built man with a dark beard and moustache came in and rested both elbows on the bar, staring intensely at Jake.
“Jake. Vodka,” he barked in German. Jake was having difficulty controlling his eyes, which were scanning the room, back and forth, and he was also trying to dance along to the music, but he managed to open a new vodka, pick up three shot glasses in one hand and pour the vodka to the very top of the glasses without spilling a drop. He spoilt this achievement by licking the drips off the bottle.
“Claude … Chris. Chris. Claude,” said Jake, making the introductions. Claude turned the intense gaze on Chris, looking him right in the eyes from across the bar. Then he raised his glass, said, ‘Santé’, and downed it in one gulp. He let out a vodka sigh, shook his head, slapped himself once or twice and clicked his fingers.
“Jake. Noch drei mehr (three more).” Jake repeated the process, Claude repeated his ritual of sighing and slapping, then slammed down some money on the counter and left.
Chris had no recollection of leaving, or getting home, or indeed, buying his Christmas Döner, but did find the tell-tale tin foil in his dustbin, along with small chunks of meat and purple cabbage that he kept discovering around his flat over the next days.
On the 28th, Monika called, saying she couldn’t wait to see him. It was then that he told her about Melanie arriving.
The line went dead.
But not for long.
There followed a lengthy conversation with accusations and insinuations, despite all of Chris’ assertions that she was, and always had been, a friend and nothing more. Why should Monika know so many men, and Chris not be allowed any female friends ? Monika easily countered that by mentioning all the ladies of The Gang. Then Chris had a moment of inspired genius,
“All right, it’s for Richard. You know he’s heartbroken.” Monika went silent. Chris pressed on, amazed by his brilliance and enjoying the previously unknown sensation of being victor in an argument’
“And why ? I’m not blaming anyone, here, but, well, all I’m gonna say is that Lorelei is your friend. That’s all. I’ll say no more. If Melanie can help him, be a friend to him, then … yeah, it’s good she’s coming.”
He realized his ending was weak, and knew not to press his point, not to allow Monika too much of a chance for a killer comeback.
It ended with Monika telling him what a great friend he was to Richard and how much she really loved him.
He didn’t tell her about losing his job and not knowing how he would pay the rent in February.
On the 30th, Richard arrived back in Berlin. He knew that it would take some time before he felt better, or normal, or whatever was the correct word for recovering from a broken heart, but he was determined to get over Lorelei.
As he passed through passport control, he was greeted by Chris, making high-pitch whistle noises, pretending he was blowing into a party streamer. Next to him was Melanie. Chris, through an exaggerated smile said,
“Look … it’s Melanie !”
“So I see.’
Chris had taken precautions, making sure he had a half bottle of vodka with him for the journey back.
At the flat, they sorted out the sleeping arrangements. Monika wouldn’t be back until late, so she would come over tomorrow and they would all go out. It was all planned.
Richard had brought back some books, an old Sunday Times, some English crumpets, Marmite, and a couple of new CDs for the CD player that Ute had left in the flat.
“Hey … look.” He held up the ‘Reality Bites’ soundtrack and ‘Monster’ by REM.
Chris whooped and grabbed the soundtrack and played it. As soon as the first song, ‘My Sharona’ came on, Melanie began complaining,
“Oh, The Knack, so brainless,” and other disparaging remarks.
There was a definite vibe in the room, and Chris thought the best way to dispel it was to go out drinking. Richard wanted to change his shoes, and put on an old pair of boots. He withdrew his foot, rapidly, as it was obstructed by something. He reached in and pulled out what he presumed was an old piece of rotten cardboard, and threw it away, without giving it a second thought, this was Berlin, after all, but Chris was amazed, not to say perturbed that kebab meat was still turning up.
The celebrations for Sylvester began early, and even from the flat in the Hinterhof, with windows closed, they could hear intermittent explosions as soon as they woke.
Chris was up first, and went out, looking to find any shops, so as to have Sekt and possibly food when Monika arrived.
Melanie and Richard sat drinking coffee together. They compared this flat with it’s gas heater in the kitchen and bathroom, to the flat in Rigaer Str. They talked about that November, motor bike crashes and walking around Berlin in the snow. Richard remembered going all the way to the museum at Karlshort, where the Germans signed the unconditional surrender in may 1945, and finding it closed, but seeing a genuine Russian soldier walking along the road, a rather small specimen, with bright red, dripping nose and hat with ear flaps. Melanie brought up the fire and worried about Chris burning his hands,
“He has the most beautiful hands of any man, ever.”
Richard was also curious how Monika and Melanie would get on.
“I’m going to like Monika, I know,” she said, “we’ll probably go off together and have a good time, a good chat, and bitch all about Chris.”
Richard wasn’t so certain.
Around eight o’clock, there was a furious thumping on the door. Chris opened it, and from the main room, Richard and Melanie could hear him greet Monika, as well as hearing other female voices. Richard recognized Lorelei and took the next seconds to compose himself.
Then Monika, Gabi and Lorelei came in, all smiles and hugs. Melanie kept back, while they all hugged and kissed, then extended a hand to the three women. Richard put on the soundtrack CD, and as the opening drums and bass pounded out, Monika began jumping around and dancing, followed first by Chris, then Richard, then Gabi, then Lorelei.
There was a babel of languages as they tried to decide what to do. Chris had bought some Sekt and insisted the only way to start an evening was with a bottle of Sekt. Richard nodded sagely at this piece of received wisdom and Gabi backed him up. There only being four glasses, the men drank out of cups.
“OK, listen, we’ll go to Arizona Al’s, first. He’s at Eberswalder Str, we can walk there. Then … where’s the first party ?”
Monika answered him,
“Friedrichshain, near Simon Dach Str. There will be … seven of us, no ? Ja, seven, so we need two taxis.”
Then Gabi coughed suggestively. Monika picked up the hint.
“Ah, point, would anyone like a little … something … nice … hahaha ?” She put the back of one finger to one nostril and sniffed through the other one.
Chris lit up,
“Yeah, let’s go!”
“OK, anybody need the toilet first ? Richard ?” asked Monika.
“Are you sure ?”
“What am I ? Six years old ?”
Monika laughed and led Chris into the bathroom. Shortly afterwards, Chris quoting another line from ‘Pulp Fiction’, screamed,
“I say, Goddamn!”
Richard was next, and took the rolled up fifty Mark note, sniffing the trail of white powder off the toilet lid. Monika came back and asked Melanie, who just shook her head.
Finally, they were good to go.
Walking down Schönhauser Allee, Melanie began to fall behind the others and Richard, not wishing to leave her out, walked along with her, listening to her observations, while wishing he were part of that chain up ahead, as they all walked with linked arms, and Lorelei, in three-quarter length coat and black boots, was looking more beautiful than ever.
“Yeah, I was in bed when The Wall came down. I’d been out the night before, didn’t get back until seven or eight, and just crashed the whole day.
“Finally got up late at night and went to make some coffee and what do you know ? Got no milk. So I’m thinking, ‘Scheisse ! Gotta go out.’ And I’m feeling like day-old shit, and I’m looking like shit and I smell like shit, but, you know, just go to the store and get some milk, no biggie.
“Now, I didn’t put the TV on, or the radio, I’m just focused on my little world which has a serious milk crises going on.
“I’m on the streets, and yeah, I hear all this noise and cars beeping and shouting, but I just think that a football team’s won, don’t really think too much about anything, but, as I get to the main road, it’s full of people, and flags and banners and these … I don’t know what, cars, there’s all these fucking Trabi’s (Trabants) and it’s true, they only came in two colours; sky blue or spermy white. Sorry, but it’s true, these fuckin’ cum-mobiles crawling along the street.
“Then I’m in the store and it’s usually pretty quiet, but tonight, it’s full, full of people picking up tins of soup, or bananas, and waving them around. But these people … it wasn’t like they were from another country, it was like they were from another planet.
“So, I get my milk, but I have to queue to pay for it, and the queue just isn’t moving, everyone’s talking and shouting, and I’m thinking what the fuck’s this ? It was more like we had been invaded by them, and now we’re going have to spend all day queueing for bread and potatoes.
“OK, I know history can’t stop, just so as I can get some milk, but come on, wait until I’m sober.
“Then at home I put on the TV for background, and it’s on every channel. I was a part of history, the streets of Berlin, November ‘89, and just wished they’d all fuck off back over The Wall. Come back tomorrow.”
Richard took over directing the car, along Karl Marx Allee, then up into the western part of Rigaer Str.
Café Kinski was full and they got the only free table. Tommy held court, shouting loudly, easily projecting over Rage Against The Machine (Philipp was working and gave Richard a cursory nod).
There was an asymmetrical dynamic to the group, two girls and three boys and Anna appeared to be pulling towards Richard. Karin and Tommy had already staked their claims on each other.
However, Richard was in love with someone else, and stepped aside for Andreas, who wasn’t sure where he was with Silke, and within an hour, the two Germans had gone back with the two Danes. Richard had more beer, then made his way home, alone.
Two weeks later, he wished he had chased Anna, as one night of pleasure may have saved him months of pain.
Finally, just before lunch time on Sunday afternoon, Chris woke up, got out of bed and showered. Richard was finishing off his Hemingway, then emptied the fridge in preparing two plates, using all the remaining bits of food.
“Ah, a moveable feast !” joked Chris.
“You OK ?”
“No. Not really.”
Richard didn’t know how to help. Usually they would just drink, but that had only sent Chris into oblivion from which he had returned, yet the pain remained.
“Well, anything, I can do, just ask. Probably won’t be much, but … well, let me know.”
Richard knew that it wasn’t the time or place for his own dog-dance.
Instead, he made up a pretext for going out, so as to give Chris some space.
Left alone, Chris sat and smoked, numbing his mind with the BBC World Service, re-tuning when the news came on in German.
He envied Richard a little. He had Chris to fall back on, to answer his questions and to explain the mysterious workings of this schizophrenic city. Despite being the capital of the newly re-united Germany, the strongest economy in Europe, Berlin still had so many traces of it’s recent, Eastern Block past. Opening hours were seemingly arbitrary, queueing systems non-existent, food often unidentifiable.
The public telephones all worked and he had never seen any vandalism, which was taken as read in England, but they had an irritating choice of being either card operated, or coin, only rarely both. By now, he knew the pattern in his area, but had been caught out, trying to call Monika, happy to find a phone, only to realize he only had coins for a card machine, or vise-versa.
Then there was the paranoia. This was caused by not understanding enough of the language and being confronted by important-looking letters, or notices, or announcements, or street talk, and always having to ask what it meant, and if alone, a sense of powerlessness and vulnerability.
There was one final custom in Berlin that was going to have an immediate effect. The shop opening hours. All shops, with barely a few exceptions, closed all weekend. Food shopping had to be done on Friday mornings, or the only choice would be take out food or restaurants.
Chris looked at the phone, willing it to ring but refusing to call Monika, and smoked his last cigarette. Having to buy more was a good reason to go out and he walked to a street vending machine to buy more smokes, the Vietnamese not working the U-Bahn on Sundays.
But then his spirits lifted slightly. Where else would he find a city with cigarettes available by machine on the street. They wouldn’t last five minutes back home.
He opened the packet of Golden American’s, not his usual brand, but it was from a vending machine, he had to make allowances, and flicked his lighter. The flame flickered and went out and he had to cover it with his hand to keep it burning. He turned up his collar. The air was getting chilly. Winter was on its way.
Richard came back as it was getting dark, and found Chris in much the same position as when he’d left him, sitting in the kitchen, chain-smoking, starring off into space.
But now they were starting to get hungry.
They waited a little, staving off the hunger with cigarettes and coffee, but eventually they had to get food.
Not having the money or mood for a restaurant, their only choice was to find an Imbiss. This is usually not a problem. They were ubiquitous in Berlin, and there were some in Stargarder Strasse, some by the U-Bahn, and in most of the neighbouring streets.
Tonight, they all seemed to be closed.
It took a little time, but by a very circuitous route, they ended up in a Turkish Imbiss on Stargarder. The kebabs, however, were finished. All meat, in fact, was out. All that was left, before the staff emptied the displays to prepare for the new week, were pitiful salads or large, yellow objects.
They looked at each other, their hunger taking precedence over their judgement, and they cleaned out the large, yellow-object tray. They were wrapped in tin-foil and put into a thin plastic bag.
On the way home, more curious than famished, they took their first bites.
Pure, deep-fried fat, barely warm.
Then Chris let out a sound of disgust.
“What the … ?”
Richard echoed the sentiment.
“In the name of … ?”
Hidden in the centre, amidst layers of cold, stodgy fat, were florets of cold, barely cooked cauliflower.
There was silence in the flat. They studied their plates, examining this alien food. Grease oozed out when they prodded the lumpen mass.
Chris slowly put his plate down, took a fresh cigarette and said,
“Fuck this, I’m going for some real food. Not this … fucking, old … Socialist shit. This Commie crap. Mush for the masses. Fuckin’ … I mean, school dinners had nothing on this, this … Cack ! That’s what it is. Cack ! Hello, Mr Imbiss Man, I’d like some cack, please. And, yes, my good man, pile up the cack and put more cack on top. Don’t stop there, give me a side order of …’ “
“Good idea, side order of cack. And, to pass the time, while you’re filling my order, give me a glass of cack. Fucking hell. All right, you wait here, I’ll bring back some proper food.”
Richard waited. Nearly an hour later, Chris returned. He held out a bag, with a bottle clearly delineated.
“OK, here’s the bad news; I could only get Bells Whiskey.”
By the time Richard left for work the following day, he still had a hangover.
Chris hadn’t made it into the studio at all.
One of the first thing that caught Richard’s eye when he began working at Bar Biberkopf was that the crockery, cutlery and glasses matched the ones in Chris’ flat. Sometimes his own naïvety amazed even himself.
He thought back to his early days at café Kinski. A man had sat at the bar, skinning up a joint, in front of Silvio, and this had shocked him, thinking how could he be so blatant, right in front of the barman. He learnt, soon enough, that joints were almost as common as cigarettes.
The work was pretty easy, if not tedious and mind-numbing. In addition to cleaning plates (which a machine did), there were minor preparation jobs, such as peeling vegetables or fetching things from the cellar.
The staff were generally friendly, though no one to match Hannah’s beauty. And he was slowly learning German, albeit kitchen terms and swear words.
The benefit was cash in hand (every night), access to alcohol, free food and, apparently, home furnishings.
On Wednesday night, he got home around one-thirty, the journey requiring two night buses, and found Chris in an even deeper depression.
Richard decided to take him to The Anchor on Stargarder, opposite the red brick GethsemaneKirche, hoping it would still be open and that the cute little waitress would be working. It was, she wasn’t.
Fearing that it would soon be ‘Feure Abend’ (last orders), Chris ordered four beers and two large whiskys.
The next day Chris again missed work, and while Richard was out buying food, he had an idea. He checked his change, making sure he had enough large coins, and went to the coin pay phone. He called Melanie.
When he returned home that night, he found Chris in a much better mood, and there was a bottle of Sekt waiting, which Richard was grateful for, as the whisky drinking was starting to take its toll.
“Melanie phoned. Out of the blue. Can you believe that ? We had a really good talk and … well, dig this, ya ready ? I’m back with Monika.”
“Sekt ! Open the bloody bottle, let me hear that cork pop.”
Chris told how Melanie had helped and, afterwards, he felt strong enough to call Monika. They talked for nearly an hour and decided to get back together.
“Oh,” said Chris, “one more thing. Lorelei’s left her stupid boyfriend and has moved in with some old fruit. Also, there’s an art student, music student open-house event, gathering, thing, on Saturday, and we’re all going. Lorelei sans boyfriend.”
Chris raised his eyebrows up and down several times.
“Just pour the Sekt.”
Richard hid his smile by his ex-Biberkopf Sekt glass.
Richard awoke and, jolting up, looked around the strange flat, wondering where the hell he was. Then it came back to him, with the audio aid of Chris’ snoring. He looked on the sofa and saw that Chris hadn’t moved for … he looked around, feeling for his watch, but it was too dark to make out the time. The next stage was to search for his wallet. It was in his jeans pocket. He opened it and though depleted, there were still some Deutsche Marks remaining.
Domestic noises from behind the large, double doors; footsteps on creaking floorboards, a tap running, a container lid popping open.
A door slowly opened, and Burkhardt peeked in, raising his hand to Richard’s wave. Richard got up, put on his jeans and went to the bathroom, grateful that he always had a travel toothbrush with him.
He would have preferred waking up next to a beautiful German girl, but that would have to wait.
After brushing, and washing his hands and face, he went into the kitchen, where the coffee was waiting for him. Burkhardt offered him one of his Marlboros.
“Your friend is still sleeping. I hope he is OK. I was going to look at him, to make sure he was breathing, then he began snoring. Was it that loud all night ?”
“Oh, yes. The brandy really helped.”
Burkhardt had to go to his shop, so Richard thanked him for his help, and went to wake up Chris But, again, the irresistible force of Richard’s shaking met the immovable object of Chris’ comatosed slumber, until Burkhardt suggested leaving him to sleep it off.
“Well,” said Richard, “that may take a few hours.”
“Do you want to see my shop ? I have to make office things, but we can play records and drink coffee. Just leave a note, saying we’ll be back later.”
“Good idea, but I’m guessing he’ll still be asleep.”
“Haha. We can see.”
The small shop was on Stargarder Strasse, at the Prenzlauer Allee end, which Chris considered the poor man’s Schönhauser Allee. The two north-south main roads ran almost parallel, tapering into Wilhelm Pieck Strasse at the southern end, were linked by the S-Bahn, and dissected by the dreaded Danziger Str.
It was mid morning, and apart from the occasional bakery and general paper-drink-sweet shop, everything was closed and quiet.
Burkhardt opened up, turned on the lights, and told Richard to feel free to look around. Then he went behind the counter to turn on the sound system.
“We have a CD player, cassette deck and stereo, of course,” he laughed, waving his hand over the carefully arranged racks of vinyl records. “Please, play anything you like and I’ll make some coffee.”
“Can I smoke in here ?”
Burkhardt came back and with an expression indicating what he thought of such a silly question, answering,
“Ja, of course!”
Richard looked around, acquainting himself with the organization of the shop, the different areas for different genres.
Records, tapes, books, magazines and CD’s were everywhere, yet clearly ordered. The walls had various picture discs on them, or posters and magazine covers. Behind the counter were more records, either Burkhardt’s choices or rarer pieces.
Richard moved over to the Jazz selection, a small, but quite comprehensive collection, with most of the giants represented. He picked up a Miles Davis disc, ‘Star People’, turning it over in his hands, then a Dizzy Gillespie compilation, a Mingus LP and was studying a Charlie Parker double set.
Burkhardt came back with two mugs of coffee, a Marlboro firmly grasped in the corner of his mouth.
“Anything you want to hear ?”
Burkhardt had on black leather trousers, a shirt of bold colourful vertical stripes, leather jacket and thick square glasses. Richard was expecting some hard-core industrial German noise from the early Eighties. Instead, the jaunty, almost twee introduction of The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice ?’ came on, the thump of a bass drum launching the song into its infectious verses.
“Sixties music is my passion. I try to buy everything I can from that time. It sells OK. I don’t have anything really rare, just some interesting albums from different countries. I wish I had been there. Imagine, living at that time, all this great new music coming out. Not knowing what was going to happen next.”
Richard moved over to the book section and saw that most of them were indeed about Sixties artists.
“Have you read these ? Some of them ?”
“All of them. I’m very boring, I know !”
“No, not at all.”
“But they only tell a part of the story, they only focus on one particular artist, but I think the power of The Sixties was that they were all part of a much larger scene, it was all connected, they all influenced and helped change each other.”
“Like The Beatles hearing Dylan, The Stones hearing The Beatles ?”
“Yes, but much more, much … “ Burkhardt searched for the appropriate word in English, but his gesture and expression were eloquent enough.
“That is what I want to do; write a book on all the music, how it all fitted together. I always read the same things, as you said, Dylan went electric after hearing The Beatles, who began writing longer songs, then The Stones made their concept album. What I want to show is how all of the competition lead to greater and greater music and creativeness.”
He broke off to listen to a particular section of the ‘Pet Sounds’ record that was playing. He continued,
“Let’s take the big three: Dylan, coming from the Folk background, The Beatles from Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Stones from Blues. The Beatles take their influence and give it something of their own. This gives an example to The Stones, to write their own music. The Who follow The Stones, seeing that it was possible to be successful, without looking like Paul McCartney, and that writing original songs was what separated the great bands from all the others. Meanwhile, in America, The Byrds listen to Dylan and Folk, but see ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and Roger McQuinn goes to buy a 12-string Rickenbacker and make one of The Sixties most iconic guitar sounds. They cover Dylan, making his name bigger. He already has critical approval, now comes mass success. All the time the music is going back and forth over the Atlantic, The Beatles hear all these great words, and feel embarrassed by their simplistic lyrics, and Dylan loves the power of the beat. He goes electric at a folk festival, the crowd go crazy, half love it, half hate it, hate him for doing it. Meanwhile, we have these boys, The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson writing, playing, producing. He gets into a contest with Lennon-McCartney, who can write the most perfect, sophisticated pop song ? The Beatles, listening to Dylan, listening to The Byrds, mix jangly guitars with deeper lyrics, come out with ‘Rubber Soul’, The Beach Boys hear this, as well as Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and start working on Pet Sounds.
Burkhardt pointed off behind him at the music coming out of the speakers.
“The Beatles hear Pet Sounds and realize the bar has been lifted, not by a small amount, but higher than they thought possible. McCartney calls ‘God Only Knows’ the best song ever written. They have to top it. Meanwhile, Mr Dylan releases ‘Blonde on Blonde’. In August 1966, The Beatles put out ‘Revolver’, what a collection of songs, what a cover. German artist, naturally. Brian Wilson hears this, begins work on an album to be even better. The first result is soon heard: ‘Good Vibrations’. They use a theremin, and create a totally new sound. Now the race is really on. Who is going to win ? The Beatles are working on what will be ‘Sgt. Pepper’ but rumours come over about a project called ‘Smile’, a work so powerful that it will blow the minds of all who hear it. Then The Beatles had ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’. Brain Wilson, for … whatever reasons, put the ‘Smile’ project aside. And it was never released.”
Burkhardt let out a sigh, a requiem for all the great music that never was.
“Some songs crept out, some bootleg recordings of backing tracks and finally a watered down version, to fill the contract. Never more would The Beach Boys be a major band. Their following LP’s sold bad, some not even making the Top 100.
“Music is like an arrow that never falls, but carries on, forever. Bands get to ride along, for a while, then fall away. After ‘Smile’, The Beach Boys fell away.
“Meanwhile, The Beatles won the contest. ‘Sgt. Pepper’ came out in 1967, the ‘Summer of Love’. Of course, I have seem photos, they recorded it in the freezing cold London winter. Then what happened ? No more Brian Wilson, Dylan had disappeared. And they bring out ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, not exactly a flop, but no masterpiece. And The Stones continue to follow The Beatles, and release ‘Their Satanic Majesty Requests’. I’m a Stones fan, but even I have a hard time listening to that. It seemed as if the arrow has fallen. What better time for Mr Dylan to reappear. Missing all of the hippy scene, in January 1968, one of his best, ‘John Wesley Hardin’. People always write about The Stooges, or The Ramones making simple Rock ‘n’ Roll, or stripping down the music to the bare essentials and starting again. Ah, Mist ! (bullshit). I love those bands, but it is shit, they played like that because they couldn’t play any better ! Johnny Ramone said, in interviews, “We didn’t play any covers, because we couldn’t play anybody else’s songs.” It was Mr Dylan, and The Band who really stripped music, cut out all the excess and brought it all back home. And after Mr Dylan comes back ? The Beatles make ‘The White Album’ and The Stones make ‘Beggar’s Banquet’.
“Then we have the trio of Rock deaths, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. But what about the other trio of drug casualties ? Pink Floyd’s Sid Barrett ? Peter Green, a guitarist as good as, if not better than Clapton ? And, our old friend, Brain Wilson ? If he had finished ‘Smile’, how would he have followed it ? What would The Beatles have written in response ? Not ‘I Am The Walrus’, I’m sure. Who knows what great music was waiting to be written ?
“Do you know what the first bootleg was ?” Burkhardt asked, rather abruptly.
“Yeah, it’s Dylan, ‘Great White Hope’, I think.”
Burkhardt smiled and gave a single nod. He moved over to a corner, to the Classical section that Richard hadn’t seen, and pulled out a record with a dark sleeve, showing a wooden Crucifix.
“Good answer, but not right. This: ‘Miserere Mei’ by Allegri. Do you know the story ?”
Richard didn’t, so Burkhardt changed The Beach Boys for the new disc and waited for the first notes, so as to adjust the volume.
“It was kept by The Vatican. One of the Pope’s thought it was so beautiful, that it mustn’t be allowed to leave Rome. Not only that, it was only to be played in the Sistine Chapel, only at Easter. One year, a young man was able to hear it, maybe once, possibly twice, but certainly no more than that. He went straight to his room and wrote it out, note by note, from memory. The boy’s name was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was facing excommunication from the Church, but the new Pope was so impressed by his talent, that he permitted it. And if Mozart hadn’t been there, in Rome, at the time, maybe we wouldn’t be able to listen to it today.”
They sat in silence, just listening to the extraordinary heavenly singing. Burkhardt spoke, but no longer to Richard, his remarks were addressed to an unseen audience.
“I like to think that the arrow continues, that other bands can get a little of that creativeness and inspiration and, who knows, maybe again, we will have a Golden Age of classic after classic, after classic.”
After the piece had finished, Burkhardt caught up on paperwork, and Richard played Pet Sounds and John Wesley Hardin.
When they returned to the flat, Chris had only just woken up and was feeling hideous. He refused a coffee, made a very embarrassed ‘thank you’ and left with Richard, who agreed to re-visit the store in the near future. He kept putting it off and when he finally did go back, it was gone, a Head Shop taking it’s place, a store selling Oriental merchandise and marijuana paraphernalia.
On returning home, Chris went straight to his bed and was asleep immediately. Richard took a shower, then went to the Kino (Cinema) and later to a few bars in Kreutzberg, just hoping to bump into Monika and therefore Lorelei. But he saw no one and drank alone.
On September 28th 2004, a re-recorded ‘Smile’ was finally released.
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. 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, clutching beer bottles.
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-assed 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;
“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 of 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 really 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.”
“That sounds 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.
The flat situation was solved by the combined efforts of the German girls. Marina knew a woman through an ex-boyfriend who had a shop near where Claudia lived. Claudia had been in touch with her and was monitoring a flat she owned in a different Bezirk (district) of Berlin. It was actually free immediately and Claudia negotiated a fair rent, provided the landlady, a Frau Holtzengraff, could also get an ‘under-the-table’ gratuity.
Five days after arriving in Berlin, Marina was helping Chris move to his new permanent base in the eastern Bezirk of Friedrichshain.
She told him about the costs, but didn’t pry into how much he actually had with him, expecting him to be able to cover the first few weeks. Although she earned a modest amount, Ross had a good wage and her parents were comfortably off, so she had never really known what is was like to be without money or financial aid. Therefore she had no conception that Chris may really be in difficulty.
They were met on the street outside Rigaer Strasse 16 by the stocky figure of Fr Holtzengraff, a middle-aged woman wrapped in a thick, fake-fur coat, despite the late spring weather, and an unsuccessful blonde hair-dye job.
Rigaer 16 was painted in white across the two large wooden swing doors that opened for vehicles. The right hand one also had a conventional inward-opening door. They walked in and the first dozen or so paces were under cover, making it hard to see the names on the post-boxes fixed to the right-hand wall.
The flat was on the fourth floor, through a courtyard that was small and oblong, framed by three sides of the house and a large intimidating blank wall. A door in the far corner of the yard led to the stairs . Marina kept a smile, but was clearly seeing the flat for the first time and trying to remain optimistic. Chris, meanwhile, was amazed. Here was a real artist’s flat, a place where he could read and write and compose and get German girls to pose nude for him.
Marina talked in German and then asked Chris for the first month’s rent. He could just about cover it, but it would leave him with almost nothing. He got a receipt and there was more German, Marina nodding and interjecting, “Ja, ja, alles klar,” – yes, yes, everything’s all right.
“Then Claudia will help with the other.” Chris nodded, not at all sure what the other was, but knowing that now was not the time for schoolboy humour. The keys were handed over, directions given to the U-Bahn and shops, and then Fr Holtzengraff gave Marina a hug and left. Chris put it down to Marina’s personality, that everybody who met her would be compelled to hug her within minutes.
Marina had to work that afternoon, so she left him, making sure he knew the tram or Strassebahn that would take him to his work in Prenzlauer Berg, the next Bezirk to the north-west. He watched her drive off and then he was alone. He noticed a kind of shop next door. The paintwork was faded but still reasonably clean. There was a glass door, with a heavy net curtain behind it and a main window, also netted, but along the window-shelf were a strange collection of miscellaneous items: an old football boot, a ceramic tiger, some kind of metal-working implement, an old fob-style watch, a plastic gnome or elf. Chris looked at the display and tried the door, but it was closed.
He looked up and down the street. It terminated at the western end in a roundabout, close to the tram stop. Diagonally across the street was a squatted building. Some punks were carrying empty beer crates out. Opposite him was another squat house, the whole front daubed in slogans and banners. Several similar buildings led off to the eastern end, which seemingly went on into infinity.
Chris tested the street keys, then the letterbox, or Brief Kaste key. Then he went upstairs to unpack, before making his first solo trip to work.
Luke was another Englishman working at the studio, very much a ‘what you see is what you get’ bloke. He had a London accent and laughed, loudly, at his own jokes, which was helpful as his jokes were generally not particularly funny. His skin showed that he had had more than a few drinks in his time and had probably tried several different drugs, several times. He worked next to Chris and took it upon himself to act as guide to Berlin. He told Chris that he could get paid on the Friday if he asked in time. He was, in fact, full of very useful and pertinent information and friendly, but was also very full of himself, and Chris found him a little overbearing.
Not too pushy, however, that Chris would refuse the offer of a beer after work. He mentioned that his funds were low, but Luke dismissed it, saying that it could be his shout next time.
Several beers later, Chris staggered onto the Strassebahn to get home and it wasn’t until he was walking along Rigaer Str that he realised that he had forgotten to buy a ticket, but he hadn’t been checked and had therefore saved a DM or two.
His rent was paid for the month, and he hadn’t spent anything getting drunk or getting back home. Berlin was going to be cheaper than he imagined. He continued to feel that way until a week later, when Fr Holtzengraff accompanied by a very mean-looking Herr Holtzengraff, pounded on his door, then opened it, catching him in just T-shirt and boxers and demanded, in gruff, blood-curdling German, “Geld!” which he recognised as ‘money’. Waving the receipt had no effect and it was only after chanting, “Claudia, ja. Marina, ja, kein problem” that they turned to leave, amidst finger wagging and black looks of a ‘this is your one and only chance’ complexion.
After they had left, he smoked the last cigarette in the box and walked into the kitchen, burning off nervous energy, as he promptly turned and walked back into the main room, trying to calm his nerves. After he had smoked down to the filter, he got some paper and wrote to Richard.