“I just don’t know what to do. One minute everything’s fine the next, Armageddon, four horsemen charging through the flat.”
“Still doesn’t like that it’s Ute’s flat ?”
“Her friend’s flat ! C’mon, I’ve been with her six months, doesn’t she get it, yet ?”
Chris had taken Richard out drinking, ostensibly to celebrate, but another argument with Monika had dampened the atmosphere.
They had walked, without purpose, along Stargarder Strasse, taking a random right turn into one of the side streets that leads into Danziger Str (which they had christened the most boring street in the world, after they had once taken an interminable Strassebahn journey along it’s interminable characterless length).
They saw another new bar that had emerged overnight and which may go on to be a legend, or closed and forgotten by winter. Being still mild, they decided to sit on the wooden benches outside, against the large, single pane of glass, facing the street. Knowing how suddenly the Berlin summer turns into Autumn, this could well be their last chance for open air drinking.
There were only a few other drinkers at a table on the other side of the door, and some individuals inside. The waitress had curly blonde hair and was friendly, so it would do.
The celebration was due to the fact that Chris had managed to orchestrate the job switch. Last night, a Friday, had been his last shift. He would work at the studio full time, or at least twenty-five hours a week, starting Monday, the same day that Richard would begin washing-up, Monday to Friday, seven till midnight.
It wasn’t until Richard began working that he could really consider himself living in Berlin and the timing couldn’t have been better; he was just about out of money. Chris would have to pay for tonight’s session.
Once again, a projected evening out with The Gang had splintered into sub-sects along partisan lines. While the girls discussed if Monika should leave Chris, he was desperately trying to explain the latest argument, but was unable to give a reason himself.
“I just don’t know how it starts. We’re talking, suddenly, one wrong word, or look, and all hell breaks loose. I can’t even repeat the conversations, they are so banal. I know there is a language barrier, but, hey, c’mon, it’s not that. It’s not even the flat. No matter what I do, it’s wrong, no matter what I say … “
“Right. I mean, you’re right, I’m wrong. Obviously. I’m always wrong. Have you heard her ? Every time I say something, ‘No !’ whatever, doesn’t matter, ‘No !’ Sky is blue, “No !’ ‘Course, we know it’s not blue, it’s just the only colour that filters through, ‘No !’ Darling, I love you,’ No !’, Monika, ‘No !’ Bloody tin-pot dictator.”
At this, Richard couldn’t hold-in his laughter any longer, and almost choked on his beer, which, naturally, set Chris off on a laughing fit of his own. Richard had noticed that the angrier Chris got, the funnier he became, and it was hard to lend a sympathetic ear while listening to Chris’ inventory of abuse, his serious countenance only making it funnier.
The waitress walked past, so they ordered more beers, an action repeated four or five times.
The young curly-haired blonde girl was returning with more beers for them, on a large tray with several other drinks, as the bar was getting busier. Meanwhile, three other men were now sitting opposite Chris and Richard.
She walked to the side of the bench and balanced the tray on her right hand, leaving her left free to hand out the bottles and glasses.
And then it happened.
Richard jumped up as a Glass of Coke and something went over his jeans. This initial spill was enough to upset the whole equilibrium and in a microsecond, the entire tray had fallen, and although most of it fell on the table or floor, Richard got his right leg and waist soaked in an unsavoury cocktail of alcohol and sticky fizzy drinks.
The men opposite jumped back, avoiding the streams of liquid, and Chris had been covered by Richard, who was now doing his best to comfort the waitress, holding her hand and telling her it was all right. She began to dry him with a small bar towel, while Chris and another man were constructing intricate sluices for the alcohol to flow away, using beer mats, approaching the subject as if it were a major hydraulics project.
Still the waitress apologised, not that Richard could understand much of it, and he held out his hands to calm her, then asked the way to the Toilette, where he did his best to dry up, using paper towels. There was no hot-air dryer.
When he came out, he found Chris relocated at the bar, with two fresh beers. The waitress was seen outside, still mopping. The barman, who was probably the owner, also apologised, Richard again waving it away, as he did when the waitress returned and started her routine all over.
“I’m kinda liking the attention,” he said to Chris, with a wink, because the waitress was getting cuter by the minute.
He was also glad that The Gang hadn’t gone out, as he didn’t really want to see Lorelei, except, of course, that he really, really did.
The highlight of the evening was yet to come. When they asked for the Rechnung (the check), they were only charged for the last two beers. The waitress was still apologising as they left.
Outside, Chris said,
“Good thing, too. I only had enough for two or three beers.”
“So … I don’t have much money, either … what were you going to do ?”
Chris shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and walked on.
“Damn, I should have asked her out,” exclaimed Richard.
“She wouldn’t have said ’No !’ Unlike another German girl we know.”
“Quite right. She would have been morally obliged to say ‘Yes’”
The exchanged a knowing glance, and nodded to each other.
“Anyway,’ said Chris, “too late now.”
“I could always go back and … “
“No, you had the chance …”
“And blew it. Damn, she was cute.”
“They’ll be others.”
“Maybe a new waitress at Biberkopf. There’s always Ully.”
“With the thing ?”
“Wouldn’t notice with the lights out.”
“You probably would.”
“You’re probably right. You know what ya shoulda done ?”
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.
Monika let out an exclamation of happiness. There was a parking space outside of Chris’ street door. She gathered her bag, and a carefully selected handful of tapes from the car’s floor.
“And this one,” added Chris, “Husker Du,” then began singing ‘Could You Be The One ?’.
They got out, Monika checking the locks on her beloved, yellow Toyota and Chris entered the block, getting out his keys to unlock the Briefkaste. He mimicked her exclamation, pulling out a letter with its distinctive handwriting and British stamps.
Chris’ flat was on the second floor of the back block, or Hinterhof. Ute had organised it for Chris, as it had belonged to a friend of hers who was moving in with her boyfriend. Ute had left some bits of hers there, a source of constant irritation to Monika. It implied that she would be back and when she returned, Chris would go back to her.
Inside, the second ceiling was immediately above the door, an improvised storage space,overflowing with Ute’s belongings and general junk. Monika rarely failed to make at least one allusions to this, per visit.
The small hallway had a door, to the left, which was the bathroom. A toilet with old-style chain, but a normal sized sink and a bath with shower attachment. There was also a small gas heater. A quantum leap from the previous flat.
The main room was larger, as well, and the windows received more light from the small courtyard. There was the Ofen in one corner and the door to the kitchen in the corner diagonally opposite.
The kitchen was smaller, but big enough for a table and could easily sit two and cosily sit three.
Chris played the tape that had Husker Du on one side and Jane’s Addiction on the other. Monika had introduced him to both bands and now he couldn’t hear enough of them. There were the soundtrack to his new life.
Richard’s letter was also full of enthusiasm, and Chris let out a series of whoops and ut-oh’s periodically.
Monika busied herself, allowing him space. She knew he would tell her everything, anyway, in great detail, some of which she may even understand. As soon as Chris had finished the last word, he called Monika over.
“He’s in love, too.”
“Ah, that’s nice.”
“Nein, not nice.”
“It’s not nice your friend is in love ?”
“Yes, I mean, no, it’s not nice, not nice. Nice is a bad word, very weak, it doesn’t mean anything. If you go somewhere and watch someone, I don’t know, act, or play a song and you have to say something, you say,’ it was nice’.”
“So, it is … great ? Great he’s in love ? Super !”
“Yes. Except, no, it’s not.”
“And why ?” A very strong demand from Monika.
“It’s Richard. Nothing ever seems to work out for him in that department. OK, he’s in love with this girl called Käthe. Yes, a German girl.”
“Ah-ha! And where did he meet her ? In Berlin ?”
“No, at work, in London. She and her boyfriend work at the same place. Seems Richard got offered a permanent position, so it means more money. Still shit, but better. Let’s see … “
“But … boyfriend ?”
“That’s all you need to know about Richard. Always falls in love with girls who are in committed relationships. Never mind, we’ll find him a girl here. You got any single friends ?”
“What about Ully at Biberkopf ?”
“What about her ?”
“She’s single, no ?”
“Yeah, I’m sure of it. Are you surprised ? She’s got … the thing.”
“She’s got a lovely smile.”
“And the … thing. No, we can do better than that.”
Monika looked out of the window.
“Ah, it looks a nice day, no, a great day. I don’t want to go to work.”
“What would you like to do instead ?”
Later that afternoon, Chris re-read the letter. In it, Richard had mentioned his routine; seeing films on Mondays, when there are cheaper, maybe drinking with Melanie, then getting home and heating up a pizza slice and watching some American shows, something called ‘NYPD Blue’, another being ‘Northern Exposure’. Richard also exalted a book called ‘Generation X’ that everybody was reading and told him to look out for a film about slackers which had Winona Ryder dancing in a convenience store. They all sounded fantastic.
Chris had been in Berlin for over a year. He had two jobs, his own flat, a great new girlfriend and enough money to live comfortable on.
However, he realized from the letter how out of touch he was. He hadn’t read an English newspaper or a new book since being here. He could just about fumble through a German paper, but it was either too complex or too boring. The new bands he was listening to had all been around for a while, but had it not been for Monika, he wouldn’t have had any way of knowing about them.
Chris needed Richard to be here as much as Richard needed to be out of London. He felt that he had a lot of catching up to do.
“Says he’s working for a temp agency again. As kitchen porter. Fucking Hell! “
Chris broke off to explain to Monika about Richard’s job, then continued reading the letter.
“And he misses Berlin. Good. He should come back. We could find him a job, couldn’t we ?’
“For sure. He has been here, before ?’
The story of how they met and Richard’s two trips to Berlin were briefly related. Chris took a bite of toast as Monika poured more coffee, and read further, nodding. It wasn’t in the letter, but he had obviously seen Melanie, as he had the new address. One line made him exclaim;
“Yeah, that’s right, Dude, you coulda.”
Monika looked over, her icy blue eyes asking for clarification. Her English was only basic and Chris’ use of slang and Americanisms sometimes threw her.
“Oh, he’s just saying how he if he’d stayed at Uni, he’d of graduated by now. Last year, in fact. Ha, then he jokes about what he’s done, instead. A year at a bookshop, six months at a record store, six weeks in Berlin, the rest washing kitchen floors. What’s this ?”
“What is ?” asked Monika, in her heavy accent.
“I dunno, something about being locked in a freezer. ”
“So ? Is he coming over ? I think you would like that, no ?”
“Yeah, I would.”
“Does he need a flat ? I could ask The Gang.”
“No, he’ll stay here. After Rigaer Strasse, this is a palace. What time do you start ?”
“One. I told you.”
“Just checking. So we have time.”
“For what ?” asked Monika, with mock innocence. Chris raised his eyebrows and smiled.
It wasn’t just the flat, but the whole of Berlin that would seem quiet after Nuno 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 lose 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 Chris as host.
The host 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 the fuck 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, an’ 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, with 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 he didn’t explain why.
“I’m sure Chris will help us,” she said. Richard merely nodded, the irony undetected.
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 bearable, 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 model: thick cascading blonde hair, sapphire-blue eyes (he knew that was a cliché , but it was true), long lashed, a full, sensual mouth and a dream of a body, every inch a beauty queen. It also amazed everyone 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, put their stinky arms around me, try and kiss me with beer breathe, 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 are 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 lady, 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;
“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 Golds. 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 (or would have had to shake every winner’s hand). What Richard didn’t know was that Owens also missed out on a handshake by the US 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 Georg 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 One, which Richard, with all his spare time, had half finished. 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 gave Richard the army coat that he’d more or less requisitioned. On the flight, Richard 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 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. I’m back in London: now what ?
“Richard … hey, I’m so sorry,” laughed Chris. “This is Ute.”
She put her hand out, and Richard quickly sat up, automatically patted down his hair, and said, ‘Hello’. He attempted to rise, but was weighed down by blankets and clothes. He was the one who had been waiting all day, yet it was he that felt had to apologise, for his unseemly appearance.
“What happened to you? Been bashing people?”
“No, not yet,” he replied with a little too much acid in the voice. He continued, toning down his manner, “Some idiot knocked me with his bag at Stadmitte. Hey, good to see you. At last. Hi Ute, vie gehts ?”
“Oh, you can German ?”
“Yeah. I know, ’Vie gehts ?’, ‘Geschlossen’, ‘Eine Turkische Pizza, bitte.’ All the important words.”
Ute spoke with genuine concern,
“And what is with your eye ? You need something for it ?”
“No, no, it’ll be all right.”
Chris stood there, hiding his guilt behind a wide smile that strained his jaw muscles. He suggested that they all go to Kinski’s, and after Richard gathered himself together, they left the flat.
Chris had woken late that morning in Ute’s Mitte flat, the Ofen still radiating heat. He was in a warm bed, next to a hot woman and was going to make the most of it.
After making love again, Ute rolled a joint, sparked up and passed it over to Chris.
“Don’t you have to go and meet Richard ? What time is his flight ?”
For Chris to be on time, he would have had to get up and leave immediately which he felt, considering his surrounding, was a ludicrous thing to do.
“No, he has keys. He knows his way around Berlin.”
“You sure ? I can drive you there. I’m free all day ?”
“No, don’t worry, he’ll be OK, my Darling ! You are so sweeeeetttt.”
They finished the joint and went back to sleep. When they eventually woke, dressed and got into Ute’s car, it was already late evening.
Jens was working the bar, and the Café was half full, but not with anyone Richard recognised. The music was some generic pseudo Sonic Youth guitar noise, played too loud to make conversation easy.
Chris, still with his embarrassed smile, got the drinks while Richard sat and made small talk with Ute. She was small, with dark blonde hair, tied back in a ponytail.
After a beer, she got up to leave, and Richard discretely averted his eyes, while they kissed.
She left the bar, and Chris turned to Richard,
“Wow, what a girl ! I can’t believe I’m with her. Really ! Hey, was it OK, to get to the flat ? It’s just been crazy the last couple of weeks”
“Yeah, it was … if I’d have known, it would have been better. “
“Sorry, sorry. Tonight, the drinks are on me.’
“Oh, you better believe it. If we’re allowed to drink here with that bastard working. Don’t think he likes us.”
“Yeah, bit of a prick, isn’t he ? We’ll be OK. If not, there’s plenty more bars. Quite a few down the end of this street.”
“Been exploring ?”
“In the interests of science. Gaptooth took me to one, run by Russians. The Czar Bar. Pretty rough in there.”
“What, fights ?”
“No, everyone’s too pissed to fight. It’s just … oh, you’ll see. Pretty basic. You don’t want to go to the toilet in there.”
“Well, I might.”
“No, trust me, you wouldn’t. So, Ute … what do you think ?”
“Yeah, she’s all right.”
“ ‘All right ‘ ? Are you blind ?”
“Half blind ! I’m joking with you. Getting my own back for waiting in a cold flat all day. Hey, what is with the weather ? It’s bloody freezing.”
“No, it’s not.”
“It fucking well is !”
“No, don’t say that. I used to and everyone says, ‘no, wait until it gets really cold.’”
“It’s going to get colder ?” Chris just nodded. “Shit. What do we do ? I only have a few jumpers.”
“Don’t worry about that, got it covered. You can borrow my stuff.”
“That army coat’s good. Fur lining.”
“Going to need it.”
“Because this isn’t cold, wait until it gets really cold.”
“It’s like some kind of pride thing with them, ‘we can survive the cold’. How was Tempelhof ? Did you see the eagles ? And the Luftbrucke ?”
“On the corners ? Yeah. Looks like something out of a war movie.”
“Yeah, the Nazis built it, it’s one of the few Nazi buildings still in Berlin. Speer designed it. The Americans took it over and then had a problem about the eagles, because apart from the Nazi connotations, the eagle is also an American symbol, so they left them. Then they used Tempelhof for the airlift, dropping food and fuel over Berlin.”
“Someone’s been reading up.”
“Too cold to do anything else. Well, nearly anything else.”
“By which we segue way back into Ute. So, what’s the story ?”
“First … more drinks.”
Chris knew how to set up dramatic tension and took his time, going to the toilet, buying cigarettes from the machine and getting two more beers, creating sufficient expectation for the story, which was known to Richard only in barest outline. Chris had the stage and knew how to keep it.
He began filling in the background. Marina now worked at a bar in Steglitz, the co-owner was her aunt, not really an aunt, but, well, it was complex, and the Spüler (the washer-uper), had quit, or been asked to leave, because he had fought with one of the cooks, threatening to put his head into the deep-fat fryer, so there was an immediate opening and the job paid cash, every night, 12 Marks per hour, working from seven till round about midnight. With the studio in the afternoon, and then five days a week at the Bar Biberkopf, Chris was making the best money of his life. Richard commended him then tried to steer him back on course.
“Right, yes, Ute. So I’m working one night, and I get there early, have a coffee, maybe ten, fifteen minutes before seven, create a good impression by my timekeeping, because my actual work isn’t going to impress anyone. Sitting along the bar are two girls. I kinda recognised one, she was one of the barman’s girlfriends, but the other one … wow !”
“You betcha ! Then they get up to play pool, and we’re making eye contact, she hits a great pot, OK, pure luck, but what the heck, gives me a chance to say, ‘great pot’. She smiled and did this curtsey … I was gone, daddy, gone, knocked out, loaded.”
Chris still seemed mesmerised by the memory of it, as he took a long drag on his cigarette and stared into the distance. Richard coughed.
“What ? Oh, yeah, so, just when I’m about to make my move, play it all cool, the cook comes out and shouts at me, ‘ain’t you working tonight ?’ because it’s like four seconds after seven. Then Ute looked up, made a gesture of pity, and smiled at me. She smiled at me.”
“Ah, I love it when women smile at me.”
“You know what I mean, then ?”
“You think I can work after that ? I’m putting old food in the sink, plates in the trash. I’m just thinking about Ute, and when I can take a break, so as to see her. And, of course, tonight’s really busy, restaurant’s filling up, plates piling up. Then the cook sends me to get some shit in the cellar, which means going back into the bar, so I see her, I play it all cool, she looks over and … another smile. So, that’s it, I’m beaming, Cheshire Cat smile, all night. Not so the cook.”
“Not happy ?”
“The German work ethic don’t apply to cooks, ’cause those fuckers hate having to do shit. He’s getting more and more orders, getting more and more angry, starts kicking the fridge, the pots …“
“I’ve learnt to get outter the way. Point is, I have to keep working, so I can’t mossey into the bar. Now I panic; what if she leaves and I never see her again ? Eventually, I get a break and get some food.”
“What’s it like ?”
“Well, it’s the same as customer food, so it’s pretty grim. But I eat it at the bar … next to Ute. And after I finish, she gives me a cigarette. Gauloise Blue. Now I’m thinking what to do, should I stay after work and have a drink, or play it cool and leave, but I want her to know, without knowing too much … you follow ?”
“All the way.”
“So, later, I’m about to leave, when I see Ute sitting on the first bar stool, and I have to get my money, so I’m about to go up to her, make my move, when Georg comes over, and starts stroking her hair.”
“And Georg is … ?”
“Oh, yeah, he’s the barman that night. Now, Germans are more physical, they’re always touching each other, you know, it can be kind of, ‘Whoa, Nelly, this isn’t a petting zoo,’ so I don’t read too much into it, but then he whispered something in her ear, and she laughs.”
“Oh, that’s not good.”
“It’s a disaster. I mean, touch away, but making her laugh. I knew something was up.”
“So you … what ?”
“What could I do ? Hey, Johnny Cash, ‘what could I do ?’ Life’s a piece of piss for a Spüler named Chris. I got my money and left, hoping that Ute would follow me out with her eyes.”
“And did she ?”
“Well, how do I know ? I had my back to her. Anyway, I hit Kinski’s and I hit it hard that night. Probably why I had the fire and almost died.”
At this point, as Richard could have predicted, Chris broke off, ostensibly to take a drink and light a new cigarette, but really to build excitement. Richard refused to ask, waiting to see how long it would take Chris to follow up. Then Chris recognised some new people who had walked in, and began speaking to them. But if Richard was curious, he knew that Chris must be equally excited to return to his ever-evolving tale.
It was Richard who put an end to the impasse, wanting to get the story out of the way, so that they could get on with the serious drinking, because after the day he had spent, he was in the mood to get seriously drunk. He also knew that his non-story with Claire was a pathetic non-starter; Chris had lived enough for the both of them.
“To recap, Ute is with Georg, you drown you sorrows and end up in a ring of fire. Tonight’s session is brought to you by the songs of Johnny Cash.”
“What do you want to hear first ? The Ute saga, how our hero killed the evil beast and saved the princess, or how I battled the all-consuming fire, representing the flames of my passion ? Pretty symbolic stuff, hey ?”
“Just get on with the bloody story. We’re scientists, we deal in facts. Tell me in chronological order. So, you come here, get hammered, go home and … ?”
“And start a fire in the Ofen. You’ve seen all the wood in the flat ?”
“Couldn’t miss it, Noah. You building an ark or something ?”
“Hey, 5th of November, how about that ? Oh, we can look out for more wood, later.”
“So, I’m getting the Ofen working, got to sit there, burning paper and small bits of wood, to get it started, then bigger pieces, but not too big, or it’ll just put out the flame, and I’m falling asleep, but got to get the Ofen working or I’ll die from exposure, so I keep putting more wood in, opening the vents slowly, let air in, more paper, wood, finally, it’s going, roaring fire and I can start to feel the heat. God bless the first law of thermodynamics. I load it up and put in a big piece of wood, so big it sticks half way out. I’m thinking that it’ll burn for an hour or so, and that’ll be enough. I just crash, clothes on, shoes on, the works. Next thing I know, I’m woken by the sound of cracking, like logs on a fire. There’s black smoke in the room. There’s a fucking fire outside of the Ofen.”
“What did you do ? Weren’t you still drunk ?”
“Not for long. Nothing like a forest fire in the house to sober a guy up. Well, I panicked, of course, then ran out of the house. I was fully clothed, so it was OK.”
“But the fire .. ?”
“Still raging, yeah. So I have to go back in and put it out, but I’ve got no bucket now, because it was full of purple vomit, so I pick up the log and try to get it into the Ofen.”
“Wasn’t it hot ?”
“Fucking burning ! I scorched my hands, so I put on the gloves, picked it up quickly and carefully and shoved it in, stamping out the flames on the floor … the log had fallen onto some wood and paper and ignited them. Then I had to open the windows, because the room’s full of black smoke, so all the heat goes in seconds and it’s Siberia in there. “
“Fucking Hell ! You were so lucky. The paper fire. Could have had a Django situation.”
“Which is ?”
“Django Reinhardt, the Gipsy guitarist. When he was young, he fell asleep in his caravan and a candle fell onto some paper flowers his wife had made. Whole thing goes up, he gets injured, gets burnt so badly that he’s unable to use two fingers of his left hand. Then he goes on to be one of the greatest guitar players the world’s ever known.”
“So … what’s your point ? ”
“That you were lucky.”
“I was lucky, yeah. The next day’s Saturday, which means that I’m not working, I won’t be back at Biberkopf until Monday and I don’t even know when or if I’ll ever see Ute again. Anyway, I close the windows in the morning, and just stay in bed, or couch to be precise, under blankets, because I’m really hungover. By evening, I’m up and decide to see a movie at Babylon, we’ll have to go, by the way, nice cinema, English films, you can get a beer. So, I get there early and choose my place, middle row, middle seat. It’s Saturday, so it’s busy and it’s not so large, it’s filling up. I begin to notice that all seats are taken except the ones directly around me.”
“Sounds like me in the lecture halls.”
“And it’s only when there are absolutely no more seats available that people sit next to me, and even then, they’re on the edge of the seat, leaning away.’
“Well, living without a shower, you have to overcompensate with the deodorant. Just a tip.”
“It was the bloody coat. All my clothes in fact. My hair. I stank like an old bonfire.”
“Yeah, well, it’s only Berlin. Everyone stinks. After walking around for a day or two, the smell filtered out of the coat, and I tried to open the windows a bit, but it was too savage. Right fire story over, on to Ute. And, once again, Marina to the rescue.”
“That woman is your lifeline.”
“Yeah, I had a situation with Ross about that.”
“Oh, he found out about … or … what ?”
“No, he doesn’t know anything. How true. No, I mean, I was at the bar one night, before my shift and Marina’s working, so Ross pops in, and he sits there, with his beer, all pompous, all, ‘keepin’ an eye on me lassie’, when, just to have something to say to him as much as anything, I call Marina my fixer, you know, one who fixes things.”
“Well, he looks at me all blank, saying nothing. Then he goes all aggressive, and asks , ‘what ?’ So I repeat, repeat and clarify, two-pronged attack. ‘Oh’, he says, ‘I thought you said she was a Vixer.’ Which means ‘wanker’. If anyone was a wanker, it sure wasn’t Marina. Well, he fucks off, and I get a few seconds of Marina time and try to get the low-down on Ute. Marina saw through it immediately, all smiling and stroking my arm.”
“That petting zoo can stay open twenty-four hours.”
“Well, er … I’ve moved on from Marina. Lovely girl, but … I think it’s just seeing her with that arsehole. It’s killed the passion. Still lovely and great and all, but no romantic feelings.”
“And still great breasts.”
Chris wasn’t quite sure how to respond, having a faint recollection of a late night conversation about Marina’s attributes.
“Yeah, anyway, she’s my man on the inside. Here’s the deal. Ute’s an art student. Single. Georg … bit of a situation; he’s smitten, big time, he thinks he’s onto the real deal. No dice.”
“That’ll be the letter where you told me she’d dumped the boyfriend.”
“Right. Only they never were going out. Now, things are working in parallel. Walter, the owner, has made the schedule so that George now works mainly weekends. Ute comes in only on weekdays. I arrive early to spend time with Ute, because she sometimes comes with her friend after college. Sometimes without her friend.”
Here Chris winked before continuing,
“So we’re hanging out, talking, smoking, drinking. She lives in Mitte, and one night, I stay behind to have a drink, all free, by the way, and she offers me a lift home, because Steglitz is miles away, and I invite her for a drink. Not here, I thought I’d better suggest a normal bar, but she says, ‘no’, prefers these kind of joints, and takes me to one she knows, in some back street. We’re getting on really well. Then she invited me to a movie. She comes to pick me up and, ring those bells, she turns up in this stunning black number. She meant business and was taking no prisoners. And so … unconditional surrender.”
“What was the movie ?”
“Ah, who cares ? Now, to go back a bit. Georg. Nice guy, I like him. He’s not so big, but he works out, does karate, I think, something that involves kicking people and breaking bones. We were in the changing room once, and he took his shirt off; even his muscles had muscles. Not the guy you want to fuck with.”
“Or steal a girl from.”
“She never was his girl. But, smalltown Berlin, Georg’s found out about me and Ute … and that night, we’re working together.”
“Doesn’t sound good.”
“I get to work, and there’s just … this vibe, like an electric fence or one of those freaky, bug-zapping, blue lights they have in kitchens, normal kitchens that is, because what they use in Biberkopf is a roll of Sellotape, which gets encrusted with squirming flies. Georg’s looking mean and slamming people’s drinks down. Also, not entirely sober.“
This seemed a good point for fresh beers.
“Where was I ? Oh, right. I’m in the kitchen, and we have all the noise of my machine, water running, the cooker with eight rings a-blazing, soup a-boiling, chips a-frying, and so on, plus the radio’s always on. Plus background noise of a busy bar slash restaurant. Yet … yet, above all this din, I hear it. The cook hears it, even stops working and pokes his fat head out of the kitchen. Massive screaming match between Georg and Walter. Unfortunately, no subtitles. I’d have loved to pick up a carrot and nonchalantly chew on it, inquiring of a bilingual bypasser what was happening, but thought it best to keep working, because they’d find someway of blaming me. Bang, sound of door slamming. Georg went into the changing room. Puts his coat on, comes out, slams the door again and … that’s it … Haven’t seen him since.”
“Did you find out what they argued about ?”
“Georg blamed Walter for destroying his life, Walter accused him of being a no-good alcoholic. And so on. Couple of massive German customers stand up, gather around, but do nothing, just stand there, all serious, probably hoping for free drinks. Quite a night. So, that’s what you’ve missed. One more thing, Melanie’s coming over. Should be here in a couple of days and bringing a friend with her.”
One of the surprises Richard received upon his return to London was an invitation to a dinner party at Melanie’s. She informed him that Nuno, the chef that had worked with Chris and Marina, was also coming and bringing his girlfriend, Raphaela.
It took place the following Saturday and Melanie seemed very interested in hearing about Chris and his new life. All about his new life, and kept asking about Marina, but seemed vexed with every answer, especially when Nuno eulogised about how wonderful and cute she was.
Among the other guests was a rather serious and intense man, some years older than Richard, called Will, who, like Chris and Melanie, was from the Midlands. After the dinner, which was a pretty indifferent affair, the party broke into small groups and Will sought out Richard to hear more about Berlin.
“Yeah, we’re thinking of passing through, Mel and me. Mel and I. Never know which to use.”
Instead of enlightening him, Richard asked:
“Oh, where are you headed ?”
“Russia, if we can get in. If not, Poland, tour around a bit, get the crack. Probably hang out in Berlin. Use it as homebase.”
“How are you getting there ? Train, or … ?”
“No, got my hog.” He pulled out some keys with a Suzuki fob. “Do the whole ‘On The Road’ thing. Are you going back there ?”
Richard explained how he planned to, soon as possible then Will explained how he had met Mel and Chris, both of whom were working in a café he would patronise [Richard mentally amended to ‘pose in’]. They saw the books he was reading and began talking to him, giving him free coffee refills. All three began hanging out, going to movies and gigs and laughing at the other students who were all so pretentious and opinionated. Richard admitted that he didn’t know too much about Chris’ life pre-London.
“Yeah,“ started Will, “I’ve been through the scenes with him. Mel, too, been there, done that, the whole fucking spectrum of emotions. Sorry, didn’t mean to lapse into the vernacular. Yeah, we’re been through it all.”
He didn’t elaborate and Richard, eyeing an exit, told him he’d probably see him in Berlin, then went over to talk to Nuno.
The contrast was striking. Nuno was pure Latino, tall and dark-complexioned, thick eyebrows and large expressive eyes that appeared to be deep in thought, then sparkled into life, as he smiled. He seemed a bit lost here, not knowing anyone apart from his girlfriend and Melanie. Raphaela was simply gorgeous, also dark, but delicate and sensual.
Richard introduced himself, and they spoke, naturally, about Chris and Berlin. Nuno also expressed an interest in coming over. Richard looked at the wine and recognised the label as being from the Howard’s store. He mentioned to Nuno that he thought it tasted familiar and then he saw the full extent of the Nuno smile, with a slap on his back for emphasis.
The night finished with Melanie making Richard promise to call her, to go for a drink, or see a movie.
Back at work, Richard had a slight problem getting more time off. He was only allowed a further two weeks but wanted four, so decided to book the two he could have and then deal with the consequences when he got back. A new girl started, Claire, and they got on well, sometimes even taking lunch together, and then one day she casually dropped ‘the boyfriend’ into the conversation. The next day, Richard used his lunch break to go to a travel agent and book a ticket to Berlin … for four weeks.
He reduced expenses as best he could, only occasionally buying a bottle of wine to drink at home. He somehow kept putting off the call to Melanie.
After buying a packet of air-mail letters, Richard would write to Chris two or three times a week. It came as no surprise that of the two, Chris was the one with the news, of developments, of things happening.
First, he had a new, part-time job in the bar where Marina worked, doing the washing up. He underlined how much he earned, and the fact that he was allowed, even encouraged, to drink on duty. The studio work was patchy, and it was rumoured that the whole operation might close down.
He had met a German girl at work, then, a week later, he wrote that things were looking good, but she had a boyfriend, (of course), then, later that week, that she had dumped the boyfriend, then, the following week, that they were going to a movie, then, finally, that they were together. Oh, and that there had been a fire in the flat, but everything’s OK.
The second flight to Berlin was from London’s City Airport, to Berlin’s Tempelhof, just south of the centre. This airport was even smaller, being mostly used for inland flights, and he cleared passport control and picked up his bag remarkably quickly, which he took as a good sign for the visit. He had written to Chris that the arrival time would coincide with lunch, so they could go to the Cinema Café, a bar they had seen but not gone into, at Hackerscher Markt, and drink their way home before having a reunion bash at Kinski’s.
He thought over these ideas as he waited for Chris. And waited. He walked around the airport which was basically one large open space, with check-in desks around the side, mostly closed, then walked outside, looking around the car park for any sign of his friend.
And he waited. Eventually, after half an hour, he decided to go the the flat alone. Chris had cut him a set of keys, so that was no problem. Still, it was disconcerting. He surmised that Chris had been called into work and had no way of contacting him.
Richard took the U-Bahn, and as he left one train, to change lines, he got a knock in the eye from a bag that a man had slung over his shoulders. The man didn’t even look back, let alone apologise.
He continued his journey, frequently wiping his weeping eye with his handkerchief, and this time, when he left the station, at Rathaus Friedrichshain, the late blue of summer had been replaced by the unrelenting grey of winter. It was several degrees colder than London and even though he was dressed in coat and jumpers, he felt a sharp chill.
At the flat, there was no note, but it showed more signs of life, more clothes, tapes, a lot more wood next to the Ofen, an extra chair and the kitchen now had two large cooking pots. But there was still no light.
Richard waited for an hour, then left to get some lunch at the Imbiss, taking his time and expecting to see the wide, apologetic smile of Chris when he returned, but as the door was double-locked, he knew he would still have to wait.
By late afternoon it was dark and the lights had to go on. He went out again, to eat, but it was now so cold, that he got back inside as quickly as he could. By mid evening he was tired from his early start, so thought he’d try and get a rest, but it was too cold to sleep. He put a blanket over him , but it had no effect. He got up, put on a jumper that was lying on a chair, and tried again, but still the cold pierced through. Finally, he put on a green army-style coat that was hanging in the hall. He threw the blanket over his head and, cold and angry, fell into a light, disturbed sleep. He thought he heard some rumblings and poked his head out from the blanket. And that was how, confused by sleep, contorted by the cold, hair amiss and eye bruised and streaming, Richard first appeared to Ute.
From medieval Florence to modern-day Berlin, a film shot on both Super 8 and digital video, with a professional actor and professional sound engineer / cameraman. And all on no budget, as usual.
This is a retelling of ‘Inferno’ or Hell, an epic poem by Dante.
Dante Alighieri born around 1265 in Florence during a turbulent time of political infighting. He studied to be a pharmacist, and books actually were sold in pharmacies at this time.
Dante is most famous for his Divine Comedy, a three-part poem, starting in Hell, Part 2 in Purgatory and finally Part 3 in Paradise. Of these, ‘Inferno’ is by far the most widely-read.
The poem starts with Dante in a dark wood, having ‘lost his way’. The poem is full of allegory and symbolism, the dark wood representing uncertainty and danger, as he has stepped off the path to God and salvation. He meets the Roman poet, Virgil (70 BC – 19 BC), who acts as a guide. Virgil will help to get Dante back ‘on the right path’ but this will mean going through the Inferno.
What follows is a journey where Dante sees the souls or ‘shades’ of the dead who are being eternally punished, in appropriate ways, for their sins on Earth. The Inferno is arranged in nine circles, the ninth being reserved for Lucifer.
As the two poets descend, the crimes, and the punishments get worse, until, finally, in the lowest circle, Dante sees the Devil.
This poem is a major work of European and World art, inspiring countless artists, including the German Gustav Dore, who etched these pictures.
Dante had an idealised love, a young lady called Beatrice, and her purity gives Dante the courage to continue his horrific quest.
In the film, I have a young lady (Katerina) who reads by a small river holding a lily (the symbol of Florence). A man sees her and goes to speak to her, but she goes, leaving a book behind – the book is the Aenid by Virgil.
The Man then walks through modern day Berlin, to reach his salvation.
I used the new dome of the German Parliament building, the Reichstag, to represent the circular arrangement of Dante’s Inferno, and the Man walks over, or by, several rivers, symbolising the rivers of Hell.
For the crimes against nature, I updated the book to mean environmental issues; the Man walks against a skyline criss-crossed with electric wires and factory smokestacks, like Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’.
We also filmed at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which is in north Berlin, to represent the unspeakable horrors of genocide, all genocide perpetrated by any nation against any person due to race, religion, sexuality or politics.
Many thanks to my team who all worked and contributed their time and talents for free:
Mr Martin O’Shea, Mr Philipp Pressmann, Ms Manuela Fresard & Ms Katarina Worner.
All the technical, digital camera-work and editing was done by Herr F.T. Pen, and the incredible foley artist Herr Max Bauer.