“Ironic, isn’t it ?” asked Chris. “All that time Monika asked, told, me to move, now, after I dumped her, I’m leaving this flat.”
Richard was going to question some of the points, namely about Chris dumping Monika, but let it slide. He was helping Chris pack up, and trying to contain his excitement about having his own flat.
“After all, we can’t live together forever,” said Chris.
“Like Laurel and Hardy. Besides, they’d be no room for a horse in here. Be fun trying.”
“Think of the mess. You need to think things through.”
Richard laughed. They sorted out the books, not by ownership, but by who had read what.
Richard kept ‘The Soft Machine’ by William Burroughs and Chris took the short stories by Kafka. After devouring ‘The Trial’, Richard had toured the English language bookshops and second-hand stores for more of his work. They had collected a good sample of literature from these moments of serendipity. Chris eyed the library and exclaimed,
“Fucking hell. Just look at these titles: ‘Bleak House’. ‘Dead Souls’.”
Richard continued the list
“’Heart of Darkness’,’The End Of The Affair’, ‘The Plague’.”
“’Slaughterhouse 5′, ‘Death In The afternoon’”
“’Life Is Elsewhere’, ‘Memoirs From The House Of The Dead’, ‘Critique Of Pure Reason’. Hhmmm . . . must be your one.”
“Well I don’t want it.”
“Sure ? Could get you a lot of points, walking around museums, holding it ?”
Chris thought about museums full of impressionable young female students. He grabbed the book.
They walked to the U-Bahn station, Richard to go to work, Chris to get the adjacent S-Bahn to Storkower Strasse.
Some of the Czar Bar locals had asked Chris why he hadn’t move into a squat, especially as he was now an honourary squatter by dint of working in the Czar Bar. Jake’s squat became the model for how he imagined all such flats to look, but it was Johan who gave him a different perspective, as he too was a squatter, yet always managed to appear clean and respectable. At least by comparison.
The houses either side of the Czar Bar were squatted. There was an organized community with meetings, rules and (Chris later discovered) endless plenums and interminable meetings. Rooms were allocated to newcomers only after careful consultation. Free vodkas were a persuasive argument.
One night Johan was drinking and Chris working, when some men walked in and sat with Johan. They were Josef and Klaus, two men who had been living in the squat the longest and were the men to see about moving in. Johan told them about Chris needing a place to stay, how he had to go all the way back to Prenzlauer Berg after a whole night’s work (all of four S-Bahn stops) and, assisted by the aforementioned free vodka, they agreed to hold a plenum.
This word would come to haunt Chris, as every time there was a decision to made about absolutely anything … anything … someone would raise their hand and shout ‘plenum’, and everyone would have to gather around and hear the merits of whatever piece of nonsense was being discussed. But this first time, it gave him a chance of moving in, moving on.
Johan lived in Rigaer 77, and had a room in the Hinter Hof. The 77 squat also ran a bar of its own, the Temple du Merde, but it opened just on special occasions, and as the entrance was nothing more than a thin, rusted iron door, most people were oblivious of its existence.
It was in this building, not Jake’s, to the other side, into which Chris moved. He had a small room in the left-hand side of the Hof. The ground floor had ateliers, for the artists, and there was a constant coming and going and banging and shouting and screaming and smoking and drinking and generally a whole lot of nothing being accomplished, while a whole world of plans were being made.
Chris had the use of a kitchen, and there was a toilet on the floor below, but there was no bathroom. Yes, he was back in Rigaer Str.
Richard was eager to get home, to what was now his own flat.
Chris hadn’t always managed to pay his share of the rent, but as it was so cheap, it wasn’t a problem and anyway Chris had allowed Richard many nights of drinking, either free or, at most, a nominal charge.
Now he sat, listening to music and reading. He could sleep when he wanted and not worry about waking up, or being woken up by Chris.
It was quiet. Peaceful. Somewhat boring.
He was both tired, after work, but mentally active and knew that he wouldn’t be able to sleep. Chris wasn’t working tonight, that he knew, but he would certainly be in the Czar Bar. And maybe Olga would be there.
He put his shoes and coat back on and headed to the bar.
Jake was born in Iowa and spent his life in the Mid-West, living first in Illinois, then trying his luck in Wisconsin, in Ohio and finally in Michigan.
He had played in bands, more in garages than on stages, deciding he’d be better off as a solo performer, then changing his bachelor life for that of married man, before his wife decided that she’d be better off, back as a solo performer.
As he had disclosed, without exaggeration or embellishment, he had been working in the fast food sector at the time his wife informed him, by proxy, that his services were no longer required.
What he didn’t say, and what would have made a dramatic and popular coda to his story was the fact that after his young supervisor requested he get back to work, Jake went over to him, picked him up and attempted to deep fry his head. He was deterred by some tall Black co-workers, who later wondered why the hell they had stepped in to save the skinny white guy’s arse.
Jake, predicting that this wasn’t the path to career advancement, left the building. He felt finished in the US and, after taking care of his legal formalities, and totally disregarding other responsibilities, decided to check out his family’s east European roots.
With just one backpack, one guitar and limited funds, he landed in Krakow, in post-Communist Poland.
By busking for tourists, Jake was able to survive, and also to imbibe as much as he liked, due to the incredibly low prices of alcohol. He moved onto Prague, with its large American ex-pat community and found various jobs, helping in bars, shops, being a guide (‘making up most of the facts for fat tourists who didn’t care, anyway’) until he heard that Berlin, just a five-hour train ride away, was even cheaper, with squat houses, and more possibilities.
In 1991, Jake arrived with some names and addresses. He found a number of bars in Friedrichshain and played for drinks. He made most money by playing Neil Young’s ‘Rockin in the Free World’ by The Wall for the remaining American GIs.
The Czar Bar was then a strictly Russian affair, and one vodka-soaked night there was a Slavic stand off when one Russian man accused another of sleeping with his girlfriend, causing a defiant denial and indignation, despite it all being true and everybody knowing it, most people even seeing it, as it had occurred in a dark corner of the bar. The immediate problem was that the two men were supposed to be working together.
As this clearly was not a good idea, Jake, who happened to be there, offered to take over. That night, the Russian cuckold helped himself to his own vodka and sat sulking, sporadically bursting out curses and threats in Russian.
Veterans of the Czar Bar point out that this was the only time that Jake could have been referred to as ‘the sober one’.
Nearly four years later, Jake’s world had shrunk to the bar, the beer shop, Burger King on Karl Marx Allee and his squat flat, next door to the bar.
It was at said flat that Chris arrived at around five in the evening.
He knocked. And a second time. It wasn’t until the fifth knock, when he was on the verge of leaving, that there were rumblings inside, rumblings that morphed into noises that metamorphosed into curses. The door opened and two bulging, red eyes appeared in a forest of facial hair. The hat was, as usual, on, at some impossible angle.
Jake inquired what Chris wanted, then grumbled and mumbled and opened the door to let him in and shuffled back to his room, scratching and pulling at his ripped unholy long johns.
Chris had lived on Rigaer Str, had drunk in all manner of squat bars, and met drunks and junkies on the streets, the streets full of shit and vomit, piss-stained and encrusted with frozen mucus, but nothing had prepared him for Jake’s flat.
There was no furnishings to speak of; all walls were bare, as were all the floors, which had several boards missing. There was little light as it was dark out, and most of the windows were either boarded up after being broken, or had too much stuff piled in from of them. Single bulbs hung like condemned men from noose-like wires.
But most of all, it was the smell. It appeared as if Jake had kept every bit of garbage, and had maybe gone out and collected more. It was piled up against doors, pouring out of rooms, covering the floor. There were cartons, bottles, cans, wrappings, ring-pulls, fast food boxes (grease-streaked and discoloured), papers, flyers, adverts, letters, and a whole, miscellaneous section that defied description.
Chris was rooted to the spot. He didn’t feel safe moving, it was surely a health hazard just breathing.
Jake called out something to the effect that he’d be ready in a minute. Sure enough, he reeled out of his room (from which Chris turned his face), swayed forward, putting on his thick, leather coat and checking his wallet.
“Yeah, Micha and Serge were out, or they’d have let you in.”
Chris couldn’t believe that two other people shared the space.
Jake went down the steps and opened the back door to the bar. The fug hit Chris immediately. Old beer, old stale sweat and tobacco smoke rushed out like a deranged Jinn, one with severe body odour to boot.
Jake was immune, and opened the storage room, taking out the trolley and loading it with empty crates and making a quick inventory. There was a note left for him; Andrei and Olga, who had worked the previous night, had run out of vodka, and borrowed a bottle of his.
“See how fucking clueless they are ? It’s the Czar Bar for fuck’s sake and they had no vodka.”
Chris was starting to think that this may not be the best idea he’d ever had. Drinking in the bar was one thing, actually working there . . .
Jake took Chris to the beer store, around the next corner. He barked in German, placing his order.
“Wednesday, probably not too busy, it’ll be a slow start but’ll pick up by four, five . . . yeah, better make it an extra case of Becks, two bottles of Tequila, gimme a bottle of that whisky as well, six, no, sev, er, eight vodkas, yeah, nine. Nine. That’ll be us covered, hahahaaha.”
Chris knew that Jake wasn’t joking, and that Jake would certainly have consumed at least one bottle of vodka himself, before the night was over, maybe before the bar had even opened.
While Jake began setting up, Chris gave it a cursory sweep, made sure the toilet was at least presentable (i.e. flushed) and collected last nights ashtrays and bottles, putting the empties in Andrei’s crates.
The first beers were already opened as Jake gave Chris some beginners’ tips. This solely consisted of not allowing any credit, because the creditor and debtor would both be too drunk to remember it the next day.
Then they went to Burger King and Jake told him stories of cleaning toilets in McDonalds and they both agreed that the burgers they were eating were some of the best they’d ever had.
It was way after one o’clock when Richard arrived, straight from work, to celebrate Chris’ new job. The very first stool, by the door, was empty, so he took it and gave Chris his shoulder bag to put behind the bar. Before they could have any conversation, Jake, on his umpteenth vodka, came over and extended his hand, booming out above Tom Waits,
“Hey, Richard, what brings you here ?”
“The night bus,” he replied, but only Chris found that amusing.
Jake found it an excuse for a vodka.
Chris was doing well, collecting glasses and bottles and serving the customers immediately. He got into some conversations with people he had previously only known by sight, many of them living in one of the squatted houses either side of the bar.
After returning from the toilet, Richard saw his seat taken by a woman, but as the next one became free, he sat there and they began talking. Then drinking. Having a friend and flatmate as barman was having benefits. Richard had yet to pay for anything and when he offered, Chris just shot him a wink and, with a wink, poured him another shot. His new friend also enjoyed this privilege. Then Richard began a kissing thing, Chris discreetly moving away down the bar, casting an approving eye from time to time.
Jake, however, was proving less fun to work with than to drink with. He allowed Chris to choose the music, then changed it every time, before the first track had finished. He gave instructions, repeated them, then got into a bad mood for no apparent reason and returned to a good mood, hugging Chris, equally without obvious cause.
Richard was kissing and stroking his friend, only for her to say that she had a boyfriend (he resisted the urge to call Chris over and make some reference to the perennial boyfriend problem) but was tempted to go home with him, yet everytime he appeared to have won her over, she pulled back. He didn’t press her, but just thought he better kiss her while he has the chance. So he did.
As Jake forecast, the bar was crowded by four o’clock. The Czar Bar, as Chris later surmised, is where all drunks and punks and skunks end up. When other bars spew out their customers, they end up here. Especially when Jake is working.
Richard gave a last kiss to his friend, as she had to leave. He never did find out her name. He never did see her again.
Chris introduced him to several new people and three or four times, there were communal vodka sessions, where everyone around the bar had a shot of vodka. Then came the business of finding out who was paying for it.
Richard saw Johan again, this time with a small and very pretty blonde girl with glasses, and all three, along with Chris and Jake took a shot. The girl was Veronica, Johan’s new girlfriend.
Eventually, the bar began closing. Richard had spent some time asleep on the counter and several people around the bar were being woken up and kicked out.
All locked up, Jake opened three fresh beers, as if he were ready to start all over, played one of his favourite Neil Young CD’s and sorted out the money. He was pleased; it had been a busy night. He handed Chris two fifty Mark notes.
“It’ll be more on weekends. Gotta get more girls in here, because if we have girls, we’ll get more men.”
They made some drunken suggestions, then fatigue overtook them. Richard knew he had to work that evening and would still be hungover.
Chris and Richard left and were hit by the unforgiving morning light which momentarily blinded them, making them squint.
Staggering wildly around the street, Chris recommending that they take the U-Bahn, because it stopped at Alex, then the U2, which terminated just one station past their’s at Vintastr. should they fall asleep.
At Alex, both of them indeed asleep, they were woken by some of the other passengers and, heading to the U2 line, they found a croissant shop and bought several pastry items, as they smelt so damn good.
When Richard woke up around three-fifteen, he found several bags of half-eaten, cold stodge in the kitchen. He put on coffee and went to wash.
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.