Julie Retoré sat on the grass, looking into her small compact mirror, and adding some more lipstick.
She could feel Alan standing behind her, moving ever so slightly, so as to get the reflection of her mouth in the shot. He called out and she began the scene.
Julie smiled to herself as she heard the motor of the small Super 8 camera twirl. To her it didn’t matter. It was still cinema.
Alan was well organised and worked quickly, consulting a clipboard and telling the actors what to do next. He was shooting in sequence, so they could follow the action and change reactions more naturally.
Of her co-star, Julie wasn’t so sure. She knew about Vincent, had once seen him reciting the poems of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and was looking forward to working together. He was quite the local star in the bars and theatres of east Berlin. The only problem was that he knew it. He was good and he knew it. He was striking to look at and he knew it. Girls tended to stop and look at him and he really knew that.
Vincent was taking over the shoot, advising Alan how to set-up, what angle to use, even how Julie should act. Not wanting to cause a scene or to speak out of place, she kept her peace, but resented him for spoiling what otherwise had been a very pleasant day.
Alan shouted, ‘Cut’ and she relaxed, looked at her director and smiled, asking him how she was. He gave a very flattering answer, which she knew was exaggerated, but when Vincent joined in and appeared genuinely impressed, she blushed slightly, and looked away, hiding her embarrassed smile.
She liked the story and liked helping a new director. She sensed he was a little withdrawn, but once he got started on a subject close to him, he relaxed and actually there was a problem to stop him talking. She found it charming, and refreshing that he was speaking about other people’s work and ideas, not just his own.
Her need to act had already brought her into contact with many artists who began every sentence with either ‘I’, ‘Me’ or ‘My’.
Alan had the whole film planned out, from the location (even noting where the nearest public toilets were and the cafes with good coffee) the position of the sun, for light, the style of clothing and the music.
She found all this very impressive and told him so when they had met to discuss the film.
Étude No 1 opens with a Close-Up of The Man. He sits, thinking, uncertainty on his face. It cuts to The Woman, arranging her hair. The Man now appears in Medium shot, sitting on the grass. He looks over, then back, and down. The next shot is from behind The Woman, applying make-up.
The Man is thinking over his relationship, wondering if it is working, what he is doing, having an existential crises. The Woman goes behind him, ruffles his hair and tries to cheer her up. He gets up and walks away, carrying her shoes, as if to get her follow him.
There are some fast, inter-cut scenes, showing their faces, until finally, The Woman puts her arm around The Man’s waist and he puts his around her shoulders and they walk away.
This would be accompanied by Debussy’s ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’.
“That sounds lovely,” she said, a mere hint of German in her English.
She also asked if it would be in Black & White. He said he would like to, but only had colour film and didn’t even know if he could even get Black & White film for Super 8.
“Of course you can. And you can get it processed here, in Berlin.”
“Yes, my friend made a short film. Very quick. Same week, I think. I’ll phone him and ask, but I am sure.”
“Oh, yes, so much better. As Fellini said, ‘Cinema has two colours: black and white.’”
Julie laughed and Alan just took it as a sign that he was in the right place, the only city in Europe that had a studio to develop that film stock. And that here he was, in a café, discussing films with a beautiful intelligent young woman who loved cinema as much as he did.
During the filming, there was some discussion over the ending. Vincent suggested a whole new climax, totally against the spirit.
“Not only does this man have a giant ego”, she thought, “he’s proud of it, and thinks his ego is bigger than anybody else’s.”
Vincent’s idea was nonsensical, clearly just thought up. She spoke up, siding with Alan and saying that they should keep to the script that they had all decided upon and agreed to.
“I’m just trying to make it better, otherwise the audience won’t know what happens,” he said back, more than a hint of malice in the voice.
“That’s why it works,” she answered, calmly, “the power comes from the open ending. The audience will have to think for themselves. And they will, they will ask each other ‘what do you think happens ?’ No, I like it and we should do it that way.”
Despite making a gesture indicating that he no longer cared, Vincent went along with it, but made a poor first take. Julie whispered something to him, and the second take was much better. Alan only had enough money and film for a maximum of two takes.
After being thanked and told how good he was, Vincent relaxed, and began laughing and dominating the conversation. As they walked back to the S-Bahn station, he put his arm around Julie.
Although she couldn’t see him, Julie could sense that Alan wanted to shout, “Cut !”
Pfefferberg on Schönhauser Allee, Prenzlauer Berg. Google Images
Berlin. August 1995
Life, thought Alan, is incredible. Degree attained, a prestigious job in the City, networking with the movers and shakers, the future investors and producers. A year of being, a year of nothingness. No script, no contacts, no cast of characters, no crew, no shakers, but at least a move.
Now, thought Alan, I am a Putzfrau (cleaning woman), but I have more disposable income. No exorbitant London rents, travel passes, food, the NFT membership, however, had been essential. And I’ve found my cast of characters; I am surrounded by actors and artists. My dreams are no longer abstract plans, but actual possibilities.
Berlin; he loved Berlin. Immediately. Here was a city with real atmosphere, a city to be lived in, to feel alive, every inch a film set
People spoke to you. Neighbours, shop keepers, people on the street. You could go up to anyone in a bar and start talking.
He had been in the city less than a month but was already planning on extending his stay and finding another room, or even his own flat. Such plans were ludicrous in London; a cleaner having his own flat.
Alan was not going to let anything go to waste. Every experience would be stored for reference. Every time he rode the S-Bahn, or an elevated U-Bahn, he took in all the sights, mentally framing them, he took in all the beautiful women in their summer dresses, tilting his inner lens, Dutch angles capturing German angels. He listened to the symphony of this city, he was a man with a movie camera.
Alan tried articulating these thoughts, and many others, writing to his sister. He decided to use the letters as a writing exercises, to make his views lucid. He wasn’t sure if he succeeded.
Where to start ? You were right about Berlin – why didn’t I come last year ? All that time wasted, nothing to show for it. Not anymore – I have seen a camera I like (and can afford !) and will buy it tomorrow.
Kelly is so sweet – she’s really looked after me. I’ve met so many new people. You were right about Vincent – girls love him – what a great actor he’ll be (in my films, I mean !) so charismatic.
The room is big and light – not too girly, with a computer and even some books in English (Nasti – the girl whose room I’m subletting, is a geography student and has to study in English, no text-books in German, apparently).
Kelly got me the first job. I’m up at 5:30 and go to an Irish bar near Tacheles, the arts centre, and clean for about 2 hours. The bar owner is a splendid Irish man called Patrick (no, I’m not making this up). He set me up with another bar where I work for the next two hours. I can walk from one bar to the other.
I get home around noon, in time for lunch – coffee, rolls with jam or honey, some fruit, and start planing my films !
I saw Vincent perform – all in German, so I couldn’t understand it – but he held the stage well and kept the audience’s attention, quite an achievement ! Yes – bars here are very different – any space can open, stock up with crates and sell beer. As you would eloquently say, “It’s bonkers !”
Yes – I have been a little tipsy, sometimes – everyone buys me beers, even when I tell them I don’t want one – they think it’s English politeness !!
Have meet lots of girls ! All very nice. Kelly will take me to somewhere nearby – the Pepperberg (????) – something like Pepper Mountain (???)
I hear there are some second hand bookshops around – really need to find them – read my collection over and over. Went to a special English bookshop but it is SO EXPENSIVE !!!! Books at twice the cover price. Located in a horrid area as well, very bleak, drab, overwhelmingly depressing, decades of failed dreams etched in the brickwork.
Could you save my life and send over my ‘Bazin’ ??? I have two slim volumes (not too much postage – OH, and my ‘Godard on Godard’ – how could I have forgotten THAT !!!)
Brilliant idea of yours – maybe you can pop over at some point ? How is the job ? Won’t ask about London because I don’t care !!!
Lots of love
Next evening, a Friday, Kelly, along with some friends, took Alan from their flat near the Wasserturm and walked to the Pfefferberg.
This was a huge arts complex, whose classical façade dominated the southern stretch of Schönhauser Allee. Paying the entrance at street level, Kelly took Alan up the steps to a wide, open beer garden. People sat on the walls and looked down to the street below, or danced in the centre. Buildings arranged around the courtyard were opened and housed temporary exhibitions of paintings, or were hosting poetry slams.
Alan looked around, so tempted to lift his fingers to his eyes and make a camera shape and pan left to right. What a location, he thought. He couldn’t resist; he made the camera shape and paned left to right.
Through his fingers he spotted Vincent, with some girls, and they came over, Vincent very tall and flamboyant, dwarfing Alan who was under average height.
“So Herr Direktor, did you buy the camera today ?” he asked.
Alan smiled and slowly nodded,
“And projector and three film cartridges.”
“You’re still on your first beer ?” Kelly asked him, concerned that he wasn’t having a good time.
Alan lifted it up and showed that if was over half full. Also, he didn’t smoke, and was starting to believe that he may be the only person in Berlin who didn’t. Then he met another non-smoker who came up and introduced herself.
“They told me I shouldn’t speak to you, because you only talk about cinema. Well, I love cinema too. Hello. My name’s Julie.”
Richard was happy to see Chris sitting at the end of the bar in Biberkopf. Happy, but not surprised. The previous Saturday, it had been Chris’ idea to go to some clubs in Mitte. The reason given was to have a break from the Czar Bar, but Richard knew that Chris was hoping to see Monika.
They had gone to several bars and clubs around Rosenthaler Platz but had just watched other people dance, rather than join in. Going out clubbing was going to be very different without the Gang.
Chris took an immediate dislike to a girl from New Zealand, whom he found loud and brash and not entirely pretty. She was dancing with a German theatre student (they surmised) who was wearing a white polo neck tucked into white jeans, held up with black braces. Chris took an instant dislike to him too.
The dreaded twosome began dancing, acting out some scenario that had her pretending to slap him, and him turning away in agony, with mechanical movements.
“Look the fuck at that. Robot dancing. Fucking hell, what is this, nineteen seventy-four ?”
“Do you think,” asked Richard, trying to salvage the evening, “that in some parallel universe, there are robots who go out, get lubricated, and start people dancing ?”
“Yes. I’m sure that’s exactly what happens.”
Richard felt his joke deserved better than that, but he knew the underlying cause. Chris was devastated over losing Monika. Considering the way the break up happened, there was little chance of a reconciliation.
Just over an hour after leaving the Mitte club, they were back in the Czar Bar, agreeing that they belonged here, with the squatters, punks, hard-core alcoholics, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, not with the would-be beautiful people and Euro Disco.
Having worked there with Jake, Chris was now well known and accepted. He knew nearly everyone by name, and gave Richard the low-down, who was worth knowing, who was best to avoid.
Tonight, it was Andrei and Olga working. Andrei resembled a Viking marauder, more than a Slav, with long blonde hair and a long blonde beard. He wasn’t especially tall, but made up for it by having an amazing girth. He was, quite simply, not a man to mess with. Occasionally some idiot with suicidal tendencies would venture his luck, but it was a short-lived enterprise. With Andrei it was one strike and you’re out. His girlfriend, Olga, was tall and slim, with blonde hair and a majestic bearing, looking like a Russian princess (Revolution notwithstanding). It was painfully easy to fall in love with her. So, of course, Richard did.
Apart from her beauty, she possessed two talents, highly prized. One was that she made the best Bloody Marys . . . ever. It was a remarkable sight to see giant, unwashed, street-fighting men sipping her concoction through a delicate straw.
The second talent was her voice. She would accompany herself on guitar, simple but effective picking, and out of her thin frame came the voice of an angel. An angel, however, with a distinct liking for tequila.
As there was barely a night without someone coming in with a guitar and playing, whether they were requested to or not, and as Olga loved the attention, so deserved, she often gave an impromptu concert .
This night, however, there was a little tension between her and her boyfriend. Richard sensed this, but Chris, drinking quickly and encouraging Richard to do same, was too busy with his own problems.
Then Jake arrived, making all attempts at conversation useless. He bombarded Chris and Richard with a detailed account of the awful food he had just eaten at a late night Imbiss. When he left to use the toilet, Chris said,
“What a fucking voice. Like a foghorn.”
“Yeah, Foghorn Leghorn.”
This unexpected, though remarkably apt comment, together with the beers and vodka, put them into a laughing fit, that continued as Jake returned. He naturally was curious as to the cause. Richard was in the mood for mischief.
“We were speaking about favourite cartoon characters. I used to love Foghorn Leghorn, but we can’t remember his catchphrase.”
Jake stepped up, puffing out his chest and strutting around,
“I say I saw a, saw a, I say, I saw a chicken”
It was too much. Richard was having difficulty breathing and Chris all but fell off his chair. Jake took this as a positive sign, and continued, with appropriate chicken and rooster movements.
Olga was looking at Richard and laughing, knowing he was the instigator.
“Hey, Olga gets it.”
“No, she’s from Moscow, she doesn’t know what the fuck a Foghorn Leghorn is,” Chris argued.
But after that, memories became hazy; there were snatches of Jake strutting around the bar, greeting bemused newcomers with the catchphrase and ordering drinks in the galline manner.
Richard woke up some time Sunday afternoon, having no idea how they had arrived home. He got into a panic and checked his possessions. Travel ticket, watch, wallet, even some money left. All was well with the world and what wasn’t could wait.
The next day Chris was at Richard’s work, joking with the bar staff. Matias was making the bar, a moustachioed bodybuilder type, who had a hands-on policy with regards to the female staff. Ully was being her pleasant self, obviously not too concerned with making large tips and a new girl, Jolande, was also working. Richard described her as that rarest of creatures, a German with a sense of humour.
Seeing that Chris was a friend of Richard’s, she made some jokes with him, and hid his beer when he went into the kitchen to say, “Hi,” to the chef.
Unfortunately, she was the world’s worst at keeping a joke, and couldn’t help bursting out laughing after only a few seconds. But she earned points for the effort.
Later, as she walked into the kitchen, Chris heard a high-pitch shriek, and saw Jolande running out, chased by Richard who, by the position of his hands, had just grabbed her sides.
“What are you doing to her ?” laughed Chris.
“Tickling her, of course,” was the reply, as natural as possible.
After Richard’s shift, they sat and drank together, Jolande joining them as she ate her meal. Chris appeared happy and relaxed, but was clearly looking more cheerful than he actually felt.
By tacit agreement, they took the night buses to the Czar Bar.
Micha and Serge had the bar, and they tended to close relatively early. They didn’t exactly draw the crowds either, playing continuous Death Metal. Though they changed the CD’s periodically, the noise remained the same.
Walking along Rigaer Str, in the early hours, the outdoor lamp of The Czar Bar was usually the only beacon, though hardly of hope, as there may well have hung a sign above the door, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter’. No one here gets out sober.
They opened the door, pushed aside the curtain and found two bar stools easily. The bar was mainly empty, the few drinkers dispersed to all corners.
After ordering two Becks and two vodkas, Chris got straight to the point.
“I have to win Monika back.”
He was expecting an evening of planning and scheming. He wasn’t prepared for Richard’s answer,
It almost knocked Chris off his stool. When he finally spoke, it was defensive,
“I thought you liked Monika ?”
“I did. Do. But you and her together . . . I don’t think so.”
“Wow. Like . . . shit ! You mean it ?”
“Oh, yeah. Lovely girl, and you’re . . . OK, I suppose, but the two of you ? How many fights did you have ? How many times did you break up and get back together ? How many times did you come to me and ask what the fuck to do ?”
“You want individual figures or a combined total ?”
“C’mon. Every time you had to pay rent, it was problems.”
Chris knew only too well, as he had to walk to the flat of Ute’s friend, thus remaining in indirect contact with his ex-girlfriend.
“I know, it was a constant pain. And the work. When I left the Noodle Nuthouse, you hugged me, she almost cut my balls off. She wanted me to stay a Spüler. And then she hated that I was only a Spüler. Frauen !”
“What we need . . . is a new drink. The shots are gonna act too quickly.”
“I don’t think these bastards carry Pimms.”
“What we need is . . . “ Richard looked at the unimpressive, shabby collection of bottles. “Tequila. Tequila ? What goes with tequila ?”
“Cactus-smelling vomit. Wouldn’t mind a Run ‘n’ Coke.”
“Can’t see rum. Or Coke.”
“We’re gonna have to stick to beer and vodka, aren’t we ?”
“Looks like it,” agreed Richard.
There was a thud on the back door, then some keys desperate to find the lock. The door opened and something could be heard dragging itself in. Micha and Serge turned to each other and exchanged curses in Russian.
After some uncomfortable sounds, resembling a man being tossed from side to side in the corridors of a ship in a heavy storm, Jake appeared, somehow remaining upright in the entrance between vestibule and bar. He saw Chris and Richard and greeted them, hugging Chris from behind, but forgetting to let go.
Serge spoke in German, Jake answered and then stopped, as if suspended. He remained like this for some minutes, as the Russians started to close the bar, packing up the crates and chasing the drinkers out.
Richard began to leave, but Chris stopped him.
More talk between The Russians and Jake, then they left, shaking their heads and muttering. Jake screamed after them, half German, half English,
“Kein angst, alles klar (don’t worry, it’s all right) I’ll lock up. Ich habe der Schlüssel (I have the key.) You go to bed.” Then he turned to his two guests,
“You two guys need a drink ? ‘Cause I might have something in back. Don’t know, have to check. Have to check.”
Yet Jake remained standing and Chris had to lead him to the store room. Once inside, he made a series of pleasantly surprised sounds and returned, armed with beer bottles and a half bottle of Stolichnaya.
The remainder of the night was spent with Chris speaking about Monika, Richard speaking about Olga and Jake just speaking.
When Richard began working that night, he still had a hangover, which gradually faded, thanks to the endless coffees he drank. By the time his shift was over, he was in the mood for a drink, and, as luck would have it, Chris was helping Jake in the Czar Bar that night.
Jake poured four shots and made the introductions. The newcomer was Johan, a Frenchman who had served in the army in the north west of Berlin and stayed on. After the first round of vodkas and a second, for luck, Johan began,
“I thought, yeah, nice day, I cycle to work, I borrow Claude’s bike. I have to go and show a new man what to do, right ? This new man, my God he is how ? Less than useless, then I leave and see the fucking rain, Man. So I get the U-Bahn. Fucking hell, the U-Bahn, weird people. Then I get on the U5 at Alex and go to the special section for bikes and I stand the bike and fix my hair and I can feel someone looking at me, so I turn and it’s a woman, Man, fucking beautiful, do you understand Jake ?”
Jake was leaning on the bar, hat over eyes and nodding.
“No. You don’t. I mean she was . . . ah, Man, like really beautiful. OK, so I look at her, she looks away, but then she looks back at me. Now, I look away. But I look back. And we do this for two stops. And then we look at each other at the same time, and she smiled at me, Man, and I know, I know, you know ?”
“Yeah,” Jake again.
“But then I’m thinking, fucking hell, don’t get off at Weberweise, no go on, go on. And she stays. And now we are looking at each other and smiling and you know, then comes Rathaus and we’re both on and I think, this is it, I just have to get off with her and (here Johan made a long kissing noise). But then I think, oh no, fucking hell, Man, no, no. I have Claude’s bike and he needs it back tonight. So we get to Samariter Strasse and I have to get off. So I give her this look, like, hey, baby, sorry, come on, another time, OK. And I get off and the doors close and you know what she did ? She make with this (here Johan stuck up a middle finger) and make a face like this (here Johan made a very good impression of a shrew). Women. Fucking hell.”
“I think that calls for another round. Jake, if you’d be so kind,” offered Chris, who then proceeded to tell his story, editing and embellishing as he saw fit, tailoring it to the needs of his audience.
Not to be left out, Richard, made loquacious by vodka, told an abridged version of his pointless pursuit of Lorelei.
Jake shuffled back from serving other customers, as business had started to pick up and selected a new CD. He felt that the night had a Nick Cave vibe to it, and played ‘The Weeping Song’.
“Who needs a vodka ?” All hands up. Jake poured, then started to tell his story. As he was about to start, A large German shouted out his order and Jake screamed back in fluent German. The German raised his hand in apology and waited.
“You think you got it bad, I’ll tell you a story. It’s my thirtieth birthday, and I’m working in a McDonald’s in Michigan. Some arsehole in a suit comes in and asks for me, then hands me some papers, ‘You’ve been served’. My wife was divorcing me. Then the manager who was half my age with a squeaky voice and squeaky acne calls me over and tells me not to waste time, and to get back to work. Someone had taken a McShit in the crapper and it had blocked the pipes.”
Jake went over to serve the German and the three contemplated the just-told tale. Johan sucked in his cheeks and proclaimed Jake the winner. The prize, unsurprisingly, was a vodka.
“Yeah, it was the squeaky acne that got my vote,” declared Richard.
By this time, all determination to leave early and sober had been left far behind. The bar was busy, Jake constantly serving and changing CD’s as the mood took him. At one stage, having run out of cleanish shot glasses, he asked Chris to go and collect some, then gave him the key to the storage room, where there was a small sink.
This was rewarded with free drinks, so Chris was pleased to help. Then Jake needed a ‘quick piss’ and Chris covered the bar. Jake pointed to the large blackboard with the range of drinks and prices. Chris enjoyed being behind the bar, as opposed to under it, he quipped, so much that he stayed there and helped out Jake for the rest of the night. And Jake, knowing about him needing work, offered him work for the whole of his next shift, the following Wednesday.
Thus, within a day and a half of jumping out of a pasta restaurant window, Chris had landed on his feet, helping out in an east Berlin squat bar.
“Only in Berlin,” he enthused.
“The beat goes on, Berlin goes on. And not a bad way to get a job. Just turn up at the site, get absolutely vodka drunk . . . ”
“And get offered a position,” concluded Chris, as they shook hands. Then he made an executive decision. It was time for more vodka.
Despite his naivety, when he woke up and saw that Chris’ bed was empty, Richard knew what had happened.
He felt uncomfortable, not to mention a little jealous. Once again, everyone else was hooking up, making connections, getting off. Everyone was making love, while he was merely making notes. Even New Year’s Eve, in clubs full of drunken girls, half on them on ‘E’, the kissing drug, he ended up crashing on Arizona Al’s floor. This wasn’t exactly the life he had envisioned for himself.
But there was little time for self pity as, shortly after he had washed and made his first coffee, there was a knock at the door, a knock that indicated it was Monika.
He let her in, and she was so apologetic, asking him to forgive her, and it wasn’t fair that he should have to suffer. She came for business, armed with fresh croissants and a pile of newspapers.
“We look through these until we find Chris a job, OK ? He is in the bath ?”
“No, he is, er . . . out. But he should be back soon. Would you like coffee ?”
They sat in the kitchen and that, reflecting back, was the mistake that lead to Armageddon.
Had they sat in the main room, Chris would have seen them and spoken accordingly. Instead, he saw an empty room, but heard movement in the kitchen.
“Ah, what a night. Unbelievable. So refreshing to have some good old, down and dirty sex. Hot AND heavy. And not have to beg for it, either.”
Richard physically felt his heart stop.
The time between Chris saying those fatal words and realising that Monika was there, hardly more than two or three seconds, seemed endless.
Chris stood in the doorway, attracted by the smell of fresh coffee and croissants but the sight of Monika was so unexpected that he stood there, frozen, petrified.
Richard swept past him, grabbed a book, some money and his coat, and was out of the house and down the stairs before Chris could fully comprehend the extent of the situation.
That the relationship was over was a given. Just how much suffering she was going to inflict was the only variable.
Richard went to The Anker, but the cute waitress wasn’t working, so after a quick coffee, he moved on, further along Stargarder Strasse, past the Imbiss with the deep fried cauliflower, to another bar with a cute waitress who was working, but didn’t appear to recognize him at all. But, by now, Richard saw this as standard procedure.
He read some, looked around, checked his watch and came to the conclusion that he would have to stay out of the house all day. He could hardly phone and ask if it were safe to come home. Then what would Monika think of him ? How awkward would it be when they met again which, Berlin being more like a large town than a big city, they were bound to do.
He walked around for a bit, then decided to see a movie but even the earliest was hours away.
He tried calling on Arizona Al, but no answer and Berlin in February is not usually ideal for strolling aimlessly around. In the end he decided to get an U-Bahn to Alex, then take a long S-Bahn journey. It would keep him warm and kill time.
And that is how he spent his Sunday. It was a stroll in the park compared to Chris’ and Monika’s.
Monika’s first reaction was sheer shock. She sat, not believing what she had heard, softly repeating it. When she stood up, it was with defiance and she stood in front of Chris, just looking at him. Then, spontaneously, she hit him, with all her force, a punch to his chest. It appeared to surprise both of them. Then she hit him again, and was about to punch him a third time, when he caught her hand. She made a scream and he let go and they backed away, Monika cursing in German. She picked up her things and left.
Chris let out a sigh of relief. It could have gone much worse.
Then Monika returned, banging on the door and he had to let her in.
The fight was now really about to start.
She fired questions at him, shouting, spitting in his face with anger and frustration. She brought up all she had done for him, all he hadn’t done for her and kept asking, over and over, to describe in detail his night, what ‘down and dirty sex’ was, how to do it, and wanted to know about each and every time they had made love, how it had been, what was it she had been doing wrong.
She was relentless and Chris, with an almighty hangover was in no condition to argue. He also couldn’t help smiling, partly from still being drunk, partly from fear which, naturally, didn’t help the situation.
He tried to calm her by suggesting some tea, but she picked up a cup and threw it, and it caught Chris on the cheek.
That act subdued her and brought the initial hysteria to a close.
Chris made drinks in silence, not feeling like smiling so much, now. Monika paced up and down.
She then demanded to know all about the girl and Chris found himself making up a story, how he had seen her a few times and she was a nurse, who lived with her parents, rather than the truth, that he had only met her the night before, as he had simulated oral sex with Arizona Al on stage at a club called The Monkey’s Arse.
After came the subject of their sex life, and what did he mean by having to ‘beg’ for it ?
Then a list of all the sacrifices she had made, up to and including that very morning, as she was prepared to give up her free day to help him find a new job.
Just when Chris though she had calmed down, the anger and hatred returned and he instinctively covered his face, making her laugh.
“What a man, what a fucking little man you are. How could I waste such time on a fucking Smurf like you. Arschloch !”
Monika began looking around the room, collecting things of hers, cursing all the time and throwing things around.
“Ja, you just sit there like a fucking mouse.”
She went into the bathroom and Chris was glad of the momentary peace, even thinking about leaving the flat, and cursing the fact that he was too high up to jump out of this kitchen window, an action that had precipitated the whole scene.
It would be nearly an hour before she left, more tears and accusations, shouting and punching. Chris wondered where the hell Richard was.
“Well, you Arschloch, I’m going, why don’t you go to your filthy squat bar and pick up another fucking, dirty whore-cunt ?”
Several hours later, in a filthy Czar Bar, Chris looked around, but there were no women, dirty or otherwise.
“Hey, Man, thanks for coming with me,” he said to Richard as they sat on the end stools, further from the door, in front of the annex with the store room and toilet.
“No problem. Could use a drink.”
“Mustn’t overdo it, though. One, still got a hangover from last night. Two, shell shock from the Monika. It’s like having the bends. Three, work tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Gotta find me a job and that is gonna be work.”
Seeing Chris’ sense of humour return, Richard ventured a joke of his own,
“Still, on the plus side, you won’t have to buy her a Valentine’s card.”
Chris was unfortunately drinking at the time and, laughing, beer began pouring out of his nose. Jake the barman was suitably impressed and, over a round of vodkas, got to hear the story.
“Ever noticed the initials of Valentine’s Day are V.D. ? Either of you expecting any ?”
“Cards or the clap ?” asked Richard.
“No, just death threats,” answered Chris.
“Stick around here. Sunday’s normally quiet but if it gets busy, I could use a hand. Hey, we’ll see how it works out, OK ?”
Chris agreed, but shared Richard’s scepticism, as it was after Midnight and there were only two other people in there apart from them, neither of whom looked as if they were going to be running Jake off his feet.
Then the door opened, and a man known to them only by sight came in, drenched from the rain that been falling with increasing ferocity all evening.
He stood there, hair soaked, dripping, rain falling off his jacket, jeans, gloves, nose.
“Hey, Mr Jake,” he called out in a heavy French accent, “Vodka. Hey, you two, too. Hey, Salut, come on, have a vodka with me. Women, fucking hell, Man. Have I got a story to tell . . . “
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.
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 ?
Chris, leaving Ute’s flat, decided to take the S-Bahn four stops east from Shönhauser Allee instead of the quicker U-Bahn, to get home. He needed to be above ground, to be able to look out of windows, see sky and open spaces. He felt so claustrophobic.
He would get out at Storkower Strasse and have a long walk through an elevated, covered tunnel that straddled a errie concrete wasteland full of disused factories. At the end, just a short walk to Rigaer Strasse, the Czar Bar end, and a slow stroll to number 16. This would be his only time to himself and he intended to make the most of it.
He genuinely loved having his friends to visit, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. Why did they all have to come at once ? Though he remained positive about his flat’s shortcomings, he knew it wasn’t adequate to deal with the needs of people used to basic western standards. Again, one guest at a time would have been fine, but there had been four recently and even now there were still two people crashing on his floor. He thought of Samuel Johnson’s famous aphorism, how guests are like fish; they begin to smell after three days, but in a flat with no bathroom, those three days dwindled to one.
But the resentment he felt lead to guilt. He hadn’t been so pleasant to Melanie or Will and had hardly seen Nuno so far. Then he began to justify his feelings. Will had merely used the flat as a base for further travelling, basically a free hotel. All he had heard about was how they were economizing to pay for the rest of their trip. They hadn’t even offered to buy any groceries.
Nuno was being too much trouble. Ute wouldn’t even speak about him, and he wasn’t welcome back at Biberkopf, so what to do ? It’s not as if they were especially close. Another one just after a cheap holiday. Then again, he had almost beaten the crap out of Ross and for that, he should surely be awarded freedom of the city, or at least the flat.
Richard was happy doing his own thing. He was here for the whole month, so he couldn’t expect Chris to spend every night with him. Besides, they needed time apart, so that they could have things to talk about.
In many ways, this was the best his life had been, and as he walked along the street, covered with rubbish and dog shit, walking past punks and drunks, he thought what a comment that was on his life so far.
He was still in the initial euphoria of a new relationship, thinking Ute the most beautiful woman he had ever met. Certainly the sweetest.
This was the over-riding sensation, the factor that allowed him to deal with all the negative aspects. She was his first really serious girlfriend. All the others had been short-term affairs and it was always the girl that had broken up with him. Now he was scared that the pattern would continue and that Ute would find a reason to leave.
He thought about how happy they were together, but just as he was believing that everything could actually work out, that the guests would soon be gone and that he and Ute had a future, something happened to throw it all into doubt.
That morning, Chris had gone out to buy some bread and food. When he returned, letting himself in with the borrowed key, he heard Ute on the phone. She was speaking emotionally, upset over something, but she stopped as she heard Chris. He was able to understand her say something to the effect of ‘I can’t speak now. We speak later.’
Ute had very pale skin, but now she flushed from her neck up. She walked into the kitchen saying she’ll make coffee.
He asked who she had been speaking to. She replied that it was no one, an old friend.
They breakfasted in silence, then he left, heading north on the U2 for the S-Bahn connection.
At least he would have time to spend with Nuno, which could be just what he needed, a red-blooded Latin view of things. Richard would probably come along. Chris wished he’d go and get his own life, not invade other people’s. But then he couldn’t be rude to Richard, because there was another problem. He hadn’t paid Frau Holtzengraff the extra money. She had let October slide, provided he pay double by the end of November. But he had been taking Ute out and been forced to socialise with his guests, so knew that there was no way he could afford an additional two hundred Marks. He also knew that Richard had at least that amount in travellers checks.
He would have to turn on the charm. Otherwise, he would be truly fucked.