Samuel Taylor Coleridge awoke from a dream with the words of Kubla Khan flowing, demanding to be transcribed and he immediately collected his ink and paper, no less his thoughts, which were racing through those ancient, mythical, mysterious lands.
His hand, desperate to record those indescribably, wondrous images, not knowing where they would lead him, his mind, knowing he mustn’t a moment waste, compelled him to write, write, write …
And then the wretched Man from Purlock.
A matter of pressing business, must be attended to, forthwith. Coleridge tried to dissuade him, entreating him to return at a later time, but requests and pleas wouldn’t move this persistent Man from Purlock. He decreed that Pleasure Domes, stately or otherwise, could wait, they would still be there after satisfactory conclusion of matter at hand, which must be gone into with the greatest care.
Still The Poet attempted swift conclusion of conversation, but unlike the distorted, other-world time of the vision, the minutes now dragged heavy-weighted, Xanadu receding, shapes blurring, demands to be left in peace to regain the inspiration holding no truck with this intractable Man from Purlock.
And when finally The Poet could return to his desk and thoughts, try as he might, no further impression was vouchsafed him. The poem remained unfinished.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart increasingly felt unable to trust a soul. His genius which had promised so much, had proved to be a curse, a Faustian pact that was rapidly drawing to its inevitable, diabolical finale.
He had hoped the spirituality of his music would elevate him and his audience. Instead he was rooted amongst worldly pettiness, of insidious jealousy and bitter hatred. Far from reaching the Parthenon of the gods, he would sink as surely as his Don Giovanni.
There was no doubt that there was a conspiracy against him. Would he meet his end by swift blade, or slow poison, left to die like a dog.
Just as he was obsessing over such thoughts, he was startled by a heavy pounding of his door. Opening, he was confronted by a tall, dark, masked man who held out the commission.
Mozart was to write a Requiem.
Not only would he die, they would humiliate him, make him know exactly what fate had in store. And in such a fitting way, make him compose music for his own death.
For there was no question. Death had paid him a visit and Mozart knew it wouldn’t be long before they were to meet again.
Ludwig van Beethoven, it is said, was starting work on his fifth symphony, when his landlady knocked on his door, one, two three, four, which gave him the immortal opening that heralded the piece and which, many years later, was broadcast over occupied Europe, four notes that proclaimed that the Allies were on their way, the darkness was over.
“Richard … hey, I’m so sorry,” laughed Chris. “This is Ute.”
She put her hand out, and Richard quickly sat up, automatically patted down his hair, and said ‘Hello’. He attempted to rise, but was weighed down by blankets and clothes. He was the one who had been waiting all day, yet it was he that felt he had to apologise, for his appearance.
“What happened to you? Been bashing people?”
“No, not yet,” he replied with a little too much acid in the voice. He continued, toning down his manner, “Some idiot knocked me with his bag at Stadmitte. Hey, good to see you. At last. Hi Ute, vie gehts ?”
“Oh, you can German ?”
“Yeah. I know, ’Vie gehts ?’, ‘Geschlossen’, ‘Eine Turkische Pizza, bitte.’ All the important words.”
Ute spoke with genuine concern,
“And what is with your eye ? You need something for it ?”
“No, no, it’ll be all right.”
Chris stood there, hiding his guilt behind a wide smile that strained his jaw muscles. He suggested that they all go to Kinski’s, and after Richard gathered himself together, they left the flat.
Chris had woken late that morning in Ute’s Mitte flat, the Ofen still radiating heat. He was in a warm bed, next to a hot woman and was going to make the most of it.
After making love again, Ute rolled a joint, sparked up and passed it over to Chris.
“Don’t you have to go and meet Richard ? What time is his flight ?”
For Chris to be on time, he would have had to get up and leave immediately which he felt, considering his surrounding, was a ludicrous thing to do.
“No, he has keys. He knows his way around Berlin.”
“You sure ? I can drive you there. I’m free all day ?”
“No, don’t worry, he’ll be OK, my Darling ! You are so sweeeeetttt.”
They finished the joint and went back to sleep. When they eventually woke, dressed and got into Ute’s car, it was already late evening.
Jens was working the bar, and the Café was half full, but not with anyone Richard recognised. The music was some generic sub Sonic Youth guitar noise, played too loudly to make conversation easy.
Chris, still with his embarrassed smile, got the drinks while Richard sat and made small talk with Ute. She was small, with dark blonde hair, tied back in a ponytail.
After a beer, she got up to leave, and Richard discretely averted his eyes, while they kissed.
She left the bar, and Chris turned to Richard,
“Wow, what a girl ! I can’t believe I’m with her. Really ! Hey, was it OK, to get to the flat ? It’s just been crazy the last couple of weeks”
“Yeah, it was … if I’d have known, it would have been better. “
“Sorry, sorry. Tonight, the drinks are on me.’
“Oh, you better believe it. If we’re allowed to drink here with that bastard working. Don’t think he likes us.”
“Yeah, bit of a prick, isn’t he ? We’ll be OK. If, not, there’s plenty more bars. Quite a few down the end of this street.”
“Been exploring ?”
“In the interests of science. Gaptooth took me to one, run by Russians. The Czar Bar. Pretty rough in there.”
“What, fights ?”
“No, everyone’s too pissed to fight. It’s just … oh, you’ll see. Pretty basic. You don’t want to go to the toilet in there.”
“Well, I might.”
“No, trust me, you wouldn’t. So, Ute … what do you think ?”
“Yeah, she’s all right.”
“ ‘All right ‘ ? Are you blind ?”
“Half blind ! I’m joking with you. Getting my own back for waiting in a cold flat all day. Hey, what is with the weather ? It’s bloody freezing.”
“No, it’s not.”
“It fucking well is !”
“No, don’t say that. I used to and everyone says, ‘no, wait until it gets really cold.’”
“It’s going to get colder ?” Chris just nodded. “Shit. What do we do ? I only have a few jumpers.”
“Don’t worry about that, got it covered. You can borrow my stuff.”
“That army coat’s good. Fur lining.”
“Going to need it.”
“Because this isn’t cold, wait until it gets really cold.”
“It’s like some kind of pride thing with them, ‘we can survive the cold’. How was Tempelhof ? Did you see the eagles ? And the Luftbrucke ?”
“On the corners ? Yeah. Looks like something out of a war movie.”
“Yeah, the Nazis built it, it’s one of the few Nazi buildings still in Berlin. Speer designed it. The Americans took it over and then had a problem about the eagles, because apart from the Nazi connotations, the eagle is also an American symbol, so they left them. Then they used Tempelhof for the airlift, dropping food and fuel over Berlin.”
“Someone’s been reading up.”
“Too cold to do anything else. Well, nearly anything else.”
“By which we segue way back into Ute. So, what’s the story ?”
“First … more drinks.”
Chris knew how to set up dramatic tension and took his time, going to the toilet, buying cigarettes from the machine and getting two more beers, creating sufficient expectation for the story, which was known to Richard only in barest outline. Chris had the stage and knew how to keep it.
He began filling in the background. Marina now worked at a bar in Schöneberg, the co-owner was her aunt, not really an aunt, but, well, it was complex, and the Spüler (the washer-uper), had quit, or been asked to leave, because he had fought with one of the cooks, threatening to put his head into the deep-fat fryer, so there was an immediate opening and the job paid cash, every night, 12 Marks per hour, working from seven till round about midnight. With the studio in the afternoon, and then five days a week at the Bar Biberkopf, Chris was making the best money of his life. Richard commended him then tried to steer him back on course.
“Right, yes, Ute. So I’m working one night, and I get there early, have a coffee, maybe ten, fifteen minutes before seven, create a good impression by my timekeeping, because my actual work isn’t going to impress anyone. Sitting along the bar are two girls. I kinda recognised one, she was one of the barman’s girlfriends, but the other one … wow !”
“You betcha ! Then they get up to play pool, and we’re making eye contact, she hits a great pot, OK, pure luck, but what the heck, gives me a chance to say, ‘great pot’. She smiled and did this curtsey … I was gone, daddy, gone, knocked out, loaded.”
Chris still seemed mesmerised by the memory of it, as he took a long drag on his cigarette and stared into the distance. Richard coughed.
“What ? Oh, yeah, so, just when I’m about to make my move, play it all cool, the cook comes out and shouts at me, ‘ain’t you working tonight ?’ because it’s like four seconds after seven. Then Ute looked up, made a gesture of pity, and smiled at me. She smiled at me.”
“Ah, I love it when women smile at me.”
“You know what I mean, then ?”
“You think I can work after that ? I’m putting old food in the sink, plates in the trash. I’m just thinking about Ute, and when I can take a break, so as to see her. And, of course, tonight’s really busy, restaurant’s filling up, plates piling up. Then the cook sends me to get some shit in the cellar, which means going back into the bar, so I see her, I play it all cool, she looks over and … another smile. So, that’s it, I’m beaming, Cheshire Cat smile, all night. Not so the cook.”
“Not happy ?”
“The German work ethic don’t apply to cooks, ’cause those fuckers hate having to do shit. He’s getting more and more orders, getting more and more angry, starts kicking the fridge, the pots …“
“I’ve learnt to get outter the way. Point is, I have to keep working, so I can’t mossey into the bar. Now I panic; what if she leaves and I never see her again ? Eventually, I get a break and get some food.”
“What’s it like ?”
“Well, it’s the same as customer food, so it’s pretty grim. But I eat it at the bar … next to Ute. And after I finish, she gives me a cigarette. Gauloise. Blue. Now I’m thinking what to do, should I stay after work and have a drink, or play it cool and leave, but I want her to know, without knowing too much … you follow ?”
“All the way.”
“So, later, I’m about to leave, when I see Ute sitting on the first bar stool, and I have to get my money, so I’m about to go up to her, make my move, when Georg comes over, and starts stroking her hair.”
“And Georg is … ?”
“Oh, yeah, he’s the barman that night. Now, Germans are more physical, they’re always touching each other, you know, it can be kind of, ‘Whoa, Nelly, this isn’t a petting zoo,’ so I don’t read too much into it, but then he whispered something in her ear, and she laughs.”
“That’s not good.”
“It’s a disaster. I mean, touch away, but making her laugh. I knew something was up.”
“So you … what ?”
“What could I do ? Hey, Johnny Cash, ‘what could I do ?’ Life’s a piece of piss for a Spüler named Chris. I got my money and left, hoping that Ute would follow me out with her eyes.”
“And did she ?”
“Well, how do I know ? I had my back to her. Anyway, I hit Kinski’s and I hit it hard that night. Probably why I had the fire and almost died.”
At this point, as Richard could have predicted, Chris broke off, ostensibly to take a drink and light a new cigarette, but really to build excitement. Richard refused to ask, waiting to see how long it would take Chris to follow up. Then Chris recognised some new people who had walked in, and began speaking to them. But if Richard was curious, he knew that Chris must be equally anxious to get to finish his ever-evolving tale.
It was Richard who put an end to the impasse, wanting to get the story out of the way, so that they could get on with the serious drinking, because after the day he had spent, he was in the mood to get seriously drunk. He also knew that his non-story with Claire was a pathetic non-starter and Chris had lived enough for the both of them.
“To recap, Ute is with Georg, you drown you sorrows and end up in a ring of fire. Tonight’s session is brought to you by the songs of Johnny Cash.”
“What do you want to hear first ? The Ute saga, how our hero killed the evil beast and saved the princess, or how I battled the all-consuming fire, representing the flames of my passion ? Pretty symbolic stuff, hey ?”
“Don’t get cocky ! Get on with it. Tell me in chronological order. So, you come here, get hammered, go home and … ?”
“And start a fire in the Ofen. You’ve seen all the wood in the flat ?”
“Couldn’t miss it, Noah. You building an ark or something ?”
“Hey, 5th of November, how about that ? Oh, we can look out for more wood, later.”
“So, I’m getting the Ofen working, got to sit there, burning paper and small bits of wood, to get it started, then bigger pieces, but not too big, or it’ll just put out the flame, and I’m falling asleep, but got to get the Ofen working or I’ll die from exposure, so I keep putting more wood in, opening the vents slowly, let air in, more paper, wood, finally, it’s going, roaring fire and I can start to feel the heat. I load it up and put in a big piece of wood, so big it sticks half way out. I’m thinking that it’ll burn for an hour or so, and that’ll be enough. I just crash, clothes on, shoes on, the works. Next thing I know, I’m woken by the sound of cracking, like logs on a fire. There’s black smoke in the room. There’s a fucking fire outside of the Ofen.”
“What did you do ? Weren’t you still drunk ?”
“Not for long. Nothing like a forest fire in the house to sober a guy up. Well, I panicked, of course, then ran out of the house. I was fully clothed, so it was OK.”
“But the fire .. ?”
“Still raging, yeah. So I have to go back in and put it out, but I’ve got no bucket now, because it was full of purple vomit, so I pick up the log and try to get it into the Ofen.”
“Wasn’t it hot ?”
“Fucking burning ! I scorched my hands, so I put on the gloves, picked it up quickly and carefully and shoved it in, stamping out the flames on the floor … the log had fallen onto some wood and paper and ignited them. Then I had to open the windows, because the room’s full of black smoke, so all the heat goes in seconds and it’s Siberia in there. “
“Fucking Hell ! You were so lucky. The paper fire. Could have had a Django situation.”
“Which is ?”
“Django Reinhardt, the Gipsy guitarist. When he was young, he fell asleep in his caravan and a candle fell onto some paper flowers his wife had made. Whole thing goes up, he gets injured, gets burnt so badly that he’s unable to use two fingers of his left hand. Then he goes on to be one of the greatest guitar players the world’s ever known.”
“So … what’s your point ? ”
“That you were lucky.”
“I was lucky, yeah. The next day’s Saturday, which means that I’m not working, I won’t be back at Biberkopf until Monday and I don’t even know when or if I’ll ever see Ute’s again. Anyway, I close the windows in the morning, and just stay in bed, or couch to be precise, under blankets, because I’m really hung over. By evening, I’m up and decide to see a movie at Babylon, we’ll have to go, by the way, nice cinema, English films, you can get a beer, and I get there early and choose my place, middle row, middle seat. It’s Saturday, so it’s busy and it’s not so large, it’s filling up. I begin to notice that all seats are taken except the ones directly around me.”
“Very. And it’s only when there are absolutely no more seats available that people sit next to me, and even then, they’re on the edge of the seat, leaning away.’
“Well, living without a shower, you have to overcompensate with the deodorant. Just a tip.”
“It was the bloody coat. All my clothes in fact. My hair. I stank like an old bonfire.”
“Yeah, well, it’s only Berlin. Everyone stinks. After walking around for a day or two, the smell filtered out of the coat, and I tried to open the windows a bit, but it was too savage. Right fire story over, on to Ute. And, once again, Marina to the rescue.”
“That woman is your lifeline.”
“Yeah, I had a situation with Ross about that.”
“Oh, he found out about … or … what ?”
“No, he doesn’t know anything. How true. No, I mean, I was at the bar one night, before my shift and Marina’s working, so Ross pops in, and he sits there, with his beer, all pompous, all, ‘keeping an eye on my lassie’, when, just to have something to say to him as much as anything, I call Marina my fixer, you know, one who fixes things.”
“Well, he looks at me all blank. Says nothing. Then he goes all aggressive, and asks , ‘what ?’ So I repeat, repeat and clarify, two-pronged attack. ‘Oh’, he says, ‘I thought you said she was a Vixer.’ Which means ‘wanker’. If anyone was a wanker, it sure wasn’t Marina. Well, he fucks off, and I get a few seconds of Marina time and try to get the low-down on Ute. Marina saw through it immediately, all smiling and stroking my arm.”
“That petting zoo can stay open twenty-four hours.”
“Well, er … I’ve moved on from Marina. Lovely girl, but … I think it’s just seeing her with that arsehole. It’s killed the passion. Still lovely and great and all, but no romantic feelings.”
“And still great breasts.”
Chris wasn’t quite sure how to respond, having a faint recollection of a late night conversation about Marina’s attributes.
“Yeah, anyway, she’s my man on the inside. Here’s the deal. Ute’s an art student. Single. Georg … bit of a situation; he’s smitten, big time, he thinks he’s onto the real deal. No dice.”
“That’ll be the letter where you told me she’d dumped the boyfriend.”
“Right. Only they never were going out. Now, things are working in parallel. Walter, the owner, has made the schedule so that George now works mainly weekends. Ute comes in only on weekdays. I arrive early to spend time with Ute, because she sometimes comes with her friend after college. Sometimes without her friend.”
Here Chris winked before continuing,
“So we’re hanging out, talking, smoking, drinking. She lives in Mitte, and one night, I stay behind to have a drink, all free, by the way, and she offers me a lift home, because Schöneberg is miles away, and I invite her for a drink. Not here, I thought I’d better suggest a normal bar, but she says, ‘no’, prefers these kind of joints, and takes me to one she knows, in some back street. We’re getting on really well. Then she invited me to a movie. She comes to pick me up and, ring those bells, she turns up in this stunning, black number. She meant business and was taking no prisoners. And so … unconditional surrender.”
“What was the movie ?”
“Ah, who cares ? Now, to go back a bit. Georg. Nice guy, I like him. He’s not so big, but he works out, does karate, I think, something that involves kicking people and breaking wood. We were in the changing room once, and we took his shirt off, and even his muscles had muscles. Not the guy you want to fuck with.”
“Or steal a girl from.”
“She never was his girl. But, smalltown Berlin, Georg’s found out about me and Ute … and that night, we’re working together.”
“Doesn’t sound good.”
“I get to work, and there’s just … this vibe, like an electric fence or one of those freaky, bug-zapping, blue lights they have in kitchens, normal kitchens that is, because what they use in Biberkopf is a roll of Sellotape, which gets encrusted with squirming flies. Georg’s looking mean and slamming people’s drinks down. Also, not entirely sober.“
This seemed a good point for fresh beers.
“Where was I ? Oh, right. I’m in the kitchen, and we have all the noise of my machine, water running, the cooker with eight rings a-blazing, soup a-boiling, chips a-frying, and so on, plus the radio’s always on. Plus background noise of a busy bar slash restaurant. Yet … yet, above all this din, I hear it. The cook hears it, even stops working and pokes his fat head out of the kitchen. Massive screaming match between Georg and Walter. Unfortunately, no subtitles. I’d have loved to pick up a carrot and nonchalantly chew on it, inquiring of a bilingual passer-by what was happening, but thought it best to keep working, because they’d find someway of blaming me. Bang, sound of door slamming. Georg went into the changing room. Puts his coat on, comes out, slams the door again and … that’s it … Haven’t seen him since.”
“Did you find out what they argued about ?”
“Georg blamed Walter for destroying his life, Walter accused him of being a no-good alcoholic. And so on. Couple of massive German customers stand up, gather around, but do nothing, just stand there, all serious, probably hoping for free drinks. Quite a night. So, that’s what you’ve missed. One more thing, Melanie’s coming over. Should be here in a couple of days and bringing a friend with her.”
Part Two. London & Berlin. September – November 1993
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 pose in [Richard mentally amended to ‘pose in’]. They saw the books he was reading and came over and talked 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 told him he’d probably see him in Berlin and went over to talk to Nuno.
The contrast was striking. Nuno was pure Latin, 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 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 made his first impression on Ute.
It became very clear, as the evening wore on, that Steffi was here to do Chris, and if Richard happened to be in the same room, so be it. As he later summarised, he could have been sitting there, stark-bollock naked and she still wouldn’t have acknowledged him. Her position, it may be discerned, was that of a woman on a mission, part of which may well have involved the missionary position.
Steffi, who also worked at the studio and was reasonably new to Berlin, followed Chris, and introductions were made. She threw herself into the room, entirely at home, and sat on the floor, removing her light denim jacket and revealing a charming, loose blouse that in turn revealed more than was decent. She shouted out, in her whiney, Australian accent,
“Got anything to drink ?”
Chris returned with a bottle of cheap vodka drink, a 20% blend of the spirit with blackcurrant, and three glasses. He poured, passed them around and they clinked. In a flash, Steffi had downed her drink. The two men looked at each other.
“Hey, steady on, it’s still early.”
“Ah, you Poms, all wimps, c’mon, drink up.”
They did, and poured the second round. A Repetition. Steffi was quite small, but hardly delicate, she filled out her jeans to straining point and sometimes her top rose up, showing a series of stomachs that appeared to have sampled the delights of German cuisine. Chris spoke up, wanting to leave a bit of time between the second and imminent third round.
“You hair looks good, now.”
He was referring to her dye-job. Her hair, hanging limply past her shoulders, was a deep-purple, mauve, brown concoction. When Richard looked closely, he was sure that her forehead, as it met the hairline, was also purple-mauve. Chris later confirmed this. He had seen her the morning after her unaided attempt, and she had, indeed, managed to dye most of her forehead, neck and ears.
“Yeah, thanks. Seen any more good films ? Chris took me to a French film. It was great. Real intellectual stuff. Where’s the drinks ? What’s wrong with you ?”
“Just need more ice.”
Chris excused himself and went into the kitchen, clearly meaning Richard to follow. The hint was taken and the two conversed by the fridge. Chris spoke,
“What are we going to do ?” He indicated the bottle that was rapidly emptying.
“I don’t know, but I can’t keep up with her. I’ll be dead.”
“Me too !”
“You went out with her ?”
“No ! Well, yes, yes, we went … out, but I didn’t go … out with her.”
“Does she know that ?”
“Yes, when we were in bed, I told her … “
“You went to bed with her ?”
“No ! Well, yes, yes, I went to bed, no, we were in the same bed together, but I made it clear, the Berlin Wall exists down the centre.”
“Looks like that Wall’s also fallen.”
“What are you two up to ? I’m dying of thirst out here. Where’s my drink ?”
“She’s from the Outback where it’s bold and brash … just like her.”
“Yeah, you couldn’t have left her out back ?”
The third round was duly poured and consumed. Richard felt that he had to recuse himself, citing his flight the following day.
“Oh, you’re leaving tomorrow. Good.”
Then something happened. At first, Steffi became very quiet. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, opposite the men who were on the coach. They were having a little private conversation and listening to the radio playing some request show. Slowly, Steffi began tilting to her right, then toppled right over, and, adopting the foetal position, fell asleep on the floor. Snoring followed.
The men let out a relieved laugh, and went into the kitchen to slowly finish the bottle before turning to the beers, drinking away, very respectfully, by candle-light, with the faint background of 50’s Rock ‘n’ Roll hits. Over an hour passed, pleasantly enough, and it was decided that Richard would come back, as soon as he’d saved enough. They did basic costings and realised that the biggest expense would be the airfare. He could stay rent-free, just help out on food and the beer money. Richard predicted that he could make it back in early November, but that they should look into the possibility of his moving here, as well. Chris would ask about a job at the studio …
Then it happened.
The first rumblings were ominous enough, so much so, that they rose from the kitchen and caught the whole performance live.
On the floor, a little way in front of the sofa, was a pallet, the kind used in factories to transport goods. It served as a table, of sorts, maybe in the Japanese style, with imagination, or maybe Shoulder could have viewed it as a perfect accompaniment to his conceptual chair, ‘a table ? What do you want a table for ?’
Chris had put various everyday items on it, and Richard had taken one side for his passport and airline ticket. In the very centre of the pallet was a large blue-painted metal bucket, to be used for carrying coal, or briquettes from the cellar to put in the Ofen. Chris had used this for collecting all his small coins, bronze Pfennings and silver Marks.
Steffi had begun to make sounds of demonic intensity, a bastard hybrid of belch and hiccup, as she raised herself, resting on her knees and knuckles. In this dignified position, she crawled over to the bucket, put her head in and emptied her stomach.
“This is so far outside my frame of experience,” said Richard.
“I had a lot of money in that bucket. Let’s have a beer.”
It was another hour before Steffi emerged, and they could hear her cleaning up in the toilet. She came into the kitchen, with a lack of self-consciousness that they could only applaud, and asked for a beer.
“I don’t think that’s the best thing for you. Have some water.”
Steffi clearly liked being looked after by Chris and allowed herself to be taken back inside, where they sat and passed the evening, Steffi drinking tea while the men finished off the beers. They decided to stay in and anyway, Jens was working the bar tonight, or ‘Geschlossen’ as they called him due to the fact that the once or twice they had gone there around One in the morning, the bleached-blonde barman had barked out, “Geschlossen !” or ‘closed’ at them, despite the bar being half full and other people seemingly having no difficulty in procuring drinks.
One small incident occurred as they were getting ready to sleep. It was decided, by Chris, that he would take the floor and leave the other two on the couch. While Richard was next to Steffi with very little breathing space, she called out to Chris to join them, as there was plenty of room. Chris declined and gave a very poor impression of a man already asleep and not to be disturbed.
The packing took no time at all, and all three went out for a breakfast in a normal-looking, locals bar. They ordered refills of coffee as they started on the plates of meat and cheese and rolls. It seemed as if Steffi was also going to come to the airport, but, to the delight of the men, she changed her mind and decided to go home instead. She asked Chris what he was doing that evening. He made up a story about helping a friend in Steglitz, a Bezirk in the South West of the city.
They travelled with her as far as Alex, where she changed for the line to Kreutzberg, and they for the S-Bahn.
The journey was slightly melancholic, but they only had to think of the previous night to raise a smile. Anyway, Richard would work and save to fly back. Chris parted from him at the airport gate with a:
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bucket of vomit to deal with.”
He waved and walked away. Richard kept his word, he worked and booked his ticket for early November. Only six weeks had passed since he left, but when he returned, the whole situation was different and he next left, not planning an immediate return, but convinced that he would never come back ever again.
Shoulder sat down next to Richard, turning the chair around, striding it like a horse, arms waving, fingers pointing, head constantly turning. Richard realised that the metal figure hanging outside could well be a self-portrait.
Both Chris and Silvio, who were also sitting around the table, had trouble containing their laughter. It was Chris who finally had to interrupt the artist as he was half-way through a monologue, the subject of which hadn’t yet made itself known,
“Hey, Shoulder, this is Richard, from London.”
“Yes, I know, I was speaking to him last week.”
“No, you haven’t met him. You were speaking to me last week.”
Shoulder screwed up his eyes, in an expression of pantomime incredulity. He turned to Richard and stared at him.
“Is that true ?”
“Yeah. So, how are you ?”
“Ah, a philosopher. I studied philosophy. I saw another student on the U-Bahn once and I said to him, like you just did, ‘how are you ?’ and he said ‘Well, I don’t know.’ Hey ! Philipp, come and join us.”
Shoulder, of course, wasn’t his real name, but Chris wasn’t able to catch the correct appellation and felt that while asking for a name to be repeated once was acceptable, twice was too much. He was, what may be termed, ‘a character’, or ‘a force of nature’. He dominated every conversation with the sheer power of his enthusiasm, his never-ending gestures and ever-changing expressions.
He called for Philipp to join them, but Philipp preferred to stand alone, looking on, leaning against a wall and swaying slightly, eyes off into the distance. Shoulder clearly decided that Richard was a long-lost friend he had never actually met, and focused all his attention on him, for the rest of the evening. He explained about Philipp,
“He misses the old east, yeah, we’re all Ossies, all from the DDR. Now I work in, you know the Schloss at Charlottenburg, yeah, nice building, yeah, you been there ? No ? You must, or maybe not, I don’t care, I have a studio near there. Many friends have moved to the west and so we don’t see each other so much. I come here, but it’s a long way. We all used to meet three times a week, drink, smoke, joke. Now … “
He made a gesture of hopelessness,
“So I have a joke for you that you will like. A man comes home, you like Surrealism, yes ?”
“after a holiday and he looks around. And can’t believe it … everything in his house, everything, the light bulbs, the windows, the toilet paper, the stains on the walls, the walls, everything, has been stolen. And replaced by an exact replica. The man’s flatmate comes home. The man says to him, in panic, ‘what has happened. Everything has been stolen but replaced by an exact replica ?’ And the flatmate says …… ‘who are you ?’ Hahahahahaaha!”
Shoulder told endless stories, leaning first on Richard, then alternating and leaning on Silvio, to his other side. Eventually Philipp came and sat down, pulling his chair a little distance apart, but clinking his bottle against everybody’s. Richard saw this as a sign that he, too, was accepted. It felt very good.
Shoulder began describing his new work, a kind of psychological chair. Rather than being a mere piece of furniture, it represented a challenge, a philosophical proposition to man: ‘why do you want to sit down ? Do you want to sit down ? A symbol of all the poor people in the world who have nothing to sit down upon. It was rather hard to follow, but the tagline stayed in Richard’s mind:
“Most people sit down to think. But with this chair, you have to think how to sit down”.
When Richard was back in London, he went to the Tate Gallery, and bought a postcard of a Vorticist painting by Wyndham Lewis; geometric lines, bold colours, force, power and energy. He sent it to Shoulder in Berlin. He knew he’d appreciate it.
They had been a number of girls he had spoken to in the Cafe, either up at the bar, or people who had shared their table when it was busy. Being English was a great bonus, as people were interested in why he was in this part of Berlin and what he thought of the city. He tried a few flirty moves, but nothing panned out. For either of them. Chris still had vague hopes of Marina or Claudia, or, when he had taken a few shots of Bourbon, both. Richard was curious as to the extent of his relationship with Marina, but was, as he reminded himself, ‘ too British to ask.’ Yet one night, Chris, in Kinski, did say that she had beautiful breasts. That told Richard all he needed to know, and was happy for whatever conquest Chris had made, yet puzzled as to why women like Marina always stayed with men like Ross.
But the person that left the biggest impression was the young lady he met on his final night.
Chris and Richard had just finished eating and were about to have a mellow drink before the farewell bash at the Cafe, when there was a heart stopping thump on the door. Both had visions of a middle-aged, German woman with a beefy bastard in tow, ready to beat them to the proverbial pulp. The reality was far worse. Chris left the room and as he opened the front door, Richard could hear,
Chris couldn’t wait to take Richard to his local bar, Cafe Kinski, and to show him how he was already a part of this underground community. They left the house and walked for two or three minutes until Chris stopped Richard outside what appeared to be a closed store front. Chris pointed up. Perched on the top corner of the first floor, looking down on them, was a metal sculpture of a man wearing a hat, fingers pointing outwards. Although the creation was obviously comprised of scrap metal and junk, the figure seemed not only animated, but actually smiling.
“That’s from Shoulder. Maybe he’ll be in, later.”
“Ah, that would be nice.”
Cafe Kinski was one of the more up-market squat bars, especially by Rigaer Strasse standards. There were two sections, a deep room that ended up at the bar, and the main room which had a pool table. There were round tables throughout, with various, non-matching chairs. All tables had candles in bottles, heavy ashtrays and multiple stains and chips. Hanging from the ceiling was a video beamer and another beamer projected an image of the actor Klaus Kinski onto a wall near the bar. Chris was right, it was nothing like an English pub, more like a student bar at university, an observation Richard made shortly after entering.
“Only without the self-righteousness and high bullshit factor,” replied Chris.
The building was all squatted. On the ground floor was the bar, which occupied a former shop space and next to it, another closed shop that was boarded up and awaiting repair. There were four floors of houses above, all occupied, all squated. Three or four of the squatters ran the bar. The system was that whoever was working went to the stores in the afternoon to buy beer in crates, spirits and whatever else they thought would sell. Then they would clean the bar, rarely more than a token sweep and clearing away of ashtrays and bottles, a pretence of cleaning the toilets, and then open around ten o’clock. They closed when the last customer left, or simply when they felt like it.
Chris led Richard straight to the bar and opened his arms, smiling at the barman, who was equally enthusiastic.
“Hi, Silvio, wie gehts (‘how are you ?’). This is my friend Richard, from London.”
“Ah, Ja, hello. Welcome to Berlin. Beer ?”
“Ja,” answered Chris, “naturlische.”
Silvio was slighter taller than them, with short frizzy hair tucked under a John Lennon cap, leather jacket over a T-shirt with German text and old dark jeans, dusty and worn. He also had a permanent smile.
They spoke about Richard’s first impressions of Berlin and had a shot of Jim Beam. Richard got his money out, totally happy to pay so little for so much.
“No,” said Silvio, firmly, hand out, “first we drink, then you pay.”
Around eleven, the bar began getting busier, the music became louder and Chris suggested they move away from the high bar stools to a nearby table.
“Look at this … eleven-fifteen and people are only just starting to go out drinking.”
“What a life, and I’m being serious. I could get to like it.”
“What have you got back home ? Really ? Shit job, high rent, eleven o’clock closing. When you can afford to drink in pubs, which is never.”
“Can’t argue with that. I decided to postpone college for another year. With you out of the way, I may actually have a chance to save up some cash. Which, of course, I’ll blow by coming over here. Do you realise, that if we drink enough, I’ll actually save money by coming to Berlin, rather than going out drinking in London ?”
“Let’s put it to the test. More beers.”
After Chris had returned with fresh beers, pausing for a little chat with a large man with long hair sitting at the bar, Richard thought it best to get some answers before the night got much older.
“What was the emergency, then ?”
“Oh, that, yeah, really scared the crap out of me.” Chris went into detail about his first week, staying with Marina, then Claudia, before getting this flat. “What hadn’t been explained to me was that in addition to the month’s rent, I had to throw her a bung. Rents are so cheap in Berlin, but there aren’t that many empty flats, so it’s a seller’s market. If you have a flat to rent, you see who’s got the most cash, and rent it to them, for a one-off payment. Totally illegal, totally universal. But the landlady …”
“Mrs … Holtzengraff ?”
“Right, she knew Marina, somehow, and has a shop near Claudia, so they worked out a deal. Only thing was, they didn’t tell me.”
“Maybe they did, but there was so much to take in, it must have slipped my mind. Until a week later. I’m all alone, got a bit of a hang-over, night before, I’d met Shoulder actually, anyway, thump on the door, and before I can answer, she’s barged in, with her minder, a reel beefy bastard, and she’s screaming at me in German. Now, I understand nothing and I’m there in my boxer shorts and grungy T-shirt, kind of vulnerable, hoping my old John Thomas doesn’t slip out, and I’m just saying that I’ll check with Marina or Claudia.”
“So what happened ?”
“She knew she was getting nowhere, and I’m waving my rent slip at her, and I’m getting nowhere, so she leaves, slams the door and I can hear her all down the stairs. She called me an English cunt.”
“I don’t know. I’d lay money on it, though. Anyway, I go to work … “
“Yeah, what do you do exactly ?”
“Paint cartoons, but I’ll just finish this story, then we can move on to Claudia the Cat, who I see later that day. I tell her and what’s happened and then she explains that Fr Holzkopf, that’s Wood-head, wanted her five hundred Marks. Which I didn’t have.”
“But then it all worked out … ?”
“Thanks to Marina. She’s taken care of everything. She told Queen Bitch that I’ve just moved here, and so I could pay an extra Hundred Marks a months for five months. Here’s to Marina. Let’s go have another drink with Silvio. Silvio ! Jim Beams, three …”
They were the last to leave, making Silvio more intoxicated that he would have preferred to be in the process. As the night had been fairly quiet, they had moved back to the stools in front of the bar and made Silvio join in with their every round. Most people greeted Chris and he introduced them all to Richard, including the large man to whom he had spoken earlier. He was Russian, and his main feature was a prominent gap in between his front teeth, to which Chris drew Richard’s attention.
“Look at that ! Isn’t it magnificent. ‘Mind the gap!’ ” The chap, henceforth known as ‘Gaptooth’ smiled good naturedly, and displayed his dental disposition on demand.
The next thing Richard knew, he was on the floor of the flat, in a burrowed sleeping bag, with a vague recollection of staggering home, singing ‘Fall On Me’ by R.E.M., the two of them somehow managing the three-part harmonies. He looked up, saw Chris totally crashed on the couch, and decided to try to go back to sleep.
Some hours later, he woke again, to the sound of Chris lighting the first cigarette of the day. Richard sat up and they said their ‘Good mornings’, Chris throwing the packet of West over to him.
“Oh, not sure I can, not first thing. Pretty rough, these.”
“Yeah, real eastern. Pure propaganda. Call it ‘West’ and make it gross, thus associating all things western with nausea and death. Very subtle. How do you feel ?”
“Not too bad. I’ll be better after a sh …”
“You going to say ‘shower’ or ‘shit’ ? “
“Either. But … so what do you do for … ?”
“Ablutions ? As best I can. Oh, one more thing … no hot water in the kitchen.”
“So we boil pots ?”
“Yes. If I had any. I’ve got a kind of large mug come small saucepan and the kettle. You’ve seen the toilet ?”
“Yeah, I meant to ask about that … what’s the situation. I mean … it’s kind of … a ledge ?”
“The plateau. Don’t mention that in the tourist brochures. It’s for examination of … you know.”
“No, I really don’t.”
“Haha. You will.”
Chris had to go to work later that day to pick up some wages and give in his proposed schedule for the next days, so Richard went with him, catching the Strassebahn from Bersarinplatz up to where it terminated, all along Danziger Strasse and past the main intersection with Prenzlauer Berg’s Schonhauser Allee. From there, it was a short walk along a deserted and empty Bernauer Strasse, turning off into some side streets to get to the studio.
They walked to the staff room, where Chris made two coffees and said hello to two or three people. Everyone was very casual and relaxed, dressed unlike anything Richard imagined office staff would wear. There was a mixture of accents, but all conversations were in English. Suddenly, Chris’s face lit up.
A girl of medium height in a loose fitting top and tight jeans shuffled into the room.
“Claudia ! Hey !”
“Oh, hello. I thought you were having a friend over ?”
“I am … he’s over there. Richard, this is Claudia.”
She barely glanced over then went back to Chris, making some small talk and in-jokes about work.
“You know Simon, don’t you ?” She pointed to a tall, well-built young man sitting opposite, who had been speaking with a slight upper-class accent to some of the other staff. He looked up, raised a hand and carried on talking. Richard picked up on the relationship between Claudia and Chris; Chris would try to make jokes, make her laugh, and she would talk down to him, like a slightly simple sibling. He chose to keep this realisation to himself.
After Chris had collected his money and wrote out his schedule, they left and walked to the nearest U Bahn and from there to Alex, where they again walked around, drank a bit, then drank a bit more.
The evening was spent in Cafe Kinski, with Philipp working. This time, the atmosphere was different, Philipp being quiet and withdrawn almost to the point of autism, choosing not to make eye contact or any banter with most customers, just filling the drink orders and barking out the price.
It was a busier night, louder music, as Philipp was very fond of Rage Against The Machine, played loudly. A heated pool game was also in progress.
Once again, they were among the last to leave, but as Philipp tended to close early, they regrettably found themselves vaguely sober, and so decided to walk around.
The post-beer hunger kicked in so, after they crossed Karl Marx Allee, Chris showed Richard a small Imbiss that was opened most of the night, and sold turkish pizza and pizza slices for a Mark or two. The radio was always on, playing what may well have been the exact same song on a permanent maddening loop, a high tempo, Turkish-disco-sounding instrumental. Chris began moving to it, with a rather peculiar belly dance thrown in. The staff just ignored him and carried on turning over the kebab meat and spooning oil over the salads, a vain attempt to make them look freshish.
On the way home, eating turkish pizzas, which were circles of dough, covered in spices and herbs, rolled up and wrapped in foil so as to be eaten by hand, Richard observed,
“You dance like that in London, you’d get you face smashed in.”
“I danced like that in London, I’d deserve to have my face smashed in. But no complaints here, hey, and what have they got to complain about ? Didn’t see them wearing a hair net. As for their fingers, no telling where they’re been. Nowhere near soap, that’s for sure.”
As they got back to Rigaer Strasse, they heard music coming from the squat bar on the opposite corner to the flat. They decided to go in.
The bar had no given name, and was just known by the address, Rigaer 13. It was reached by a side door, and then down a short flight of steps. This bar was simply a square, plain room with an improvised bar area, frequented mainly by punks. Chris vaguely knew the barman and ordered two beers.
They got a table and smoked, several times being asked for cigarettes by other patrons. After another beer, they decided that it was time to leave, Chris working the next afternoon.
Both of them had been a little concerned over the visit, for while they had worked together and socialised, they had never shared a room for longer than a night, and the limited amenities could have strained things further. However, with Chris’ enthusiasm for Berlin and his interest in showing it to Richard, and Richard’s easy-going nature and willingness to be impressed, the time passed quickly and without problem.
The only entertainment in the flat was an old radio-cassette. which was either tuned to American Forces Network or the BBC World Service, along with a small collection of tapes, some of which Chris had brought with him: Dylan’s ‘Self Portrait’ and ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ by Nanci Griffith being the most played.
The lack of central heating wasn’t such an issue until the last days of the visit, when the temperature seemed to drop overnight.
The washing took some time, but even that was cause for laughter, not complaint. Richard tended to wash in the afternoons, when Chris would be at work, and it could take up to an hour, boiling the kettle enough times, blending it with the right amount of cold water, especially when washing the hair and not wanting to either burn or freeze the head. This was, of course, done by candlelight as the kitchen had no lighting of any sort and the toilet sink was too little to be of any practical purpose.
On Richard’s penultimate day, they went for brunch at Marina’s. Richard was enamoured by Mainar, who corresponded not in the least with his mental image, picturing her as possessing long, blonde hair, possibly braided. At the same time, he was repulsed by Ross, who didn’t seem to want them there, and kept asking what time they planned on leaving.
Mercifully, Ross had to go to work, and the atmosphere lightened considerably, with Chris singing along to all the songs that Marina now had chance to play.
They left late afternoon, as Marina had to get ready. She’d gotten a job at a bar-restaurant again, knowing the owner through some convoluted connection.
Back in Friedrichshain, they went to a local Spar store, bought some food and beer. Richard felt a little embarrassed as the drove a trolley loaded with victuals and bottles, while everyone else had hand-baskets containing three or four sad items. Richard passed one shelf, which had bunches of root vegetables wrapped together by elastic bands, all of them looking wrinkled and tired and pitiful.
That night was spent, naturally, in Cafe Kinski, where Richard told Silvio he’d be back soon. He had an idea of Berlin, saw how Chris lived and planned to return.
He had travelled around on his own, while Chris worked, and knew the U-Bahn system, could buy a cheap snack at an Imbiss and had picked up a few words of German.
There were two other people he met on his last two nights; a sculptor called Shoulder and a monster called Steffi.
Richard had a romantic view of flying, very much inspired by glamour shots from the Sixties showing immaculate film stars and bejewelled starlets posing next to uniformed stewardesses of the Pan Am or B.O.A.C. line. Therefore he chose a dark-charcoal pin-striped suit for his flight to Berlin. The jacket was taken from him on the plane to be hung up, and when another attendant tried to find the owner, she seemed surprised that he was sitting in economy and not in business. Richard liked that. He had decided that the way to go was with ‘style’.
The co-pilot had already pointed out, as they prepared to make the descent, that anyone familiar with Berlin should be able to follow the roads that led up to the Brandenburg Gate. Richard strained to look out of the window, but could only see cloud. Not matter, he would see it soon enough.
Heathrow had been large and busy and involved queuing and waiting. Tegal, by contrast seemed so much smaller. His bag arrived quickly and after a brief passport check, he walked out into the airport, looked around and saw the smiling face of Chris. They shouted and shock hands. Chris took the bag and they went to wait for the bus in the late summer sun. There was little skyline, Tegal being tucked away in the north west of the city, but Chris did point to a faint glimmer on the horizon, which, when Richard strained his eyes, turned out to be the Mercedes symbol on the Europa Centre.
They smoked and smiled, Chris almost overflowing with things to say and Richard having so many questions, mainly wanting Chris to explain all the information that he had been sending over the Spring and Summer.
Chris had told him not to buy any duty-free; it was all cheaper in Berlin. Something about the Vietnamese Mafia. A lot of talk about Cafe Kinski and squat bars. A list of character names; Marina, Ross, Claudia, Simon, Luke.
The bus arrived and Chris showed how to punch the ticket to validate it, (deciding not to risk travelling black for so long a journey). They drove to Kurt-Schumacher- Platz U-Bahn station, most of the bus alighting for their connections. The station was typical of many in Berlin, dark, dirty, dusty, one platform with trains arriving either side and, seemingly, everybody smoking. Chris pointed out the initial differences; there would rarely be a ticket office, but ticket vending machines. The trains were indicated by their end stops, not by direction, there were no ticket barriers, so, Richard surmised, people could travel without tickets ?
“Yeah, but they do have plain clothes inspectors who issue on-the-spot fines. If you get enough of them, you have to officially apologise to the Minister of Transport.”
“All true. I was speaking to someone in Kinski, I’ll take you there tonight, and she was saying that when she lived in the DDR, that’s the old East Germany, standing for Deutsche Democratic Republic, the ‘Democratic’ bit being an example of German humour, and more of that oxymoron later, she bunked the fare and got caught so many times, that she had to go to some office and formally say sorry. Now, I’ve only been here a few months, but I’ve realised that the German bureaucratic system is a master-work of incomprehensibility. You know those pictures by, Eischer, is it ?”
“All those staircases that appear to go down, but when you follow them, they end up back where they started ?”
“Spot on, yeah, like that, only, more so, I tell you, it’s put a whole new perspective on Kafka. Can really dig him, now. No wonder, I’m living it.”
“So what was the emergency you first wrote about ?”
“Yeah, I’ll tell you tonight. Here’s our train. We get off at FriedrichStrasse, the old border station.”
The train was very basic, with wooden bench seats and no frills. It looked to Richard like a do-it-yourself construction. There were a number of small, unobtrusive adverts periodically displayed, and it gave Richard a sense of travelling back in time. While other metro systems were upgrading, getting lighter and brighter for the new millennium, still several years away, Berlin’s appeared to be frozen in the Cold War era, and Richard, in his suit, tried to exude a façade of cool British agent sent behind the Curtain on a top secret mission, which would naturally involve smuggling a Russian beauty to safety.
The train was too loud for easy conversation, so there were exchanges of glances and laughs. The other passengers were mainly dressed very casually, many unshaven men, women without make-up, some punk types, some pensioners with giant laundry-type bags, some school boys and a girl with a Walkman who caught Richard’s eye. She also got out at Freidrichstrasse, but was soon lost in the crowd. Richard would remember her as the first woman in Berlin whom he liked, but who disappeared out of his life without ever entering it.
Friedrich Strasse was a maze of subterranean corridors, stairs, tunnels and levels. Richard doubted he ever would have emerged without Chris acting Virgil to his Dante. To get to the over ground S-Bahn, they had to exit to street level and enter the main building. Once above ground, Chris made straight for a group of Oriental men, none taller than 5ft 2, and asked for something. One of the men went away and returned with a carrier-bag from which he pulled out a carton of West cigarettes. Chris handed over a coin and received two packets. He gave a formal nod goodbye and they moved on.
“There, the Vietnamese Mafia. They sell cigarettes half-price.”
“Good deal. Isn’t that illegal ?”
“How do you know where to find them ?”
“Oh, they’re always there. You’ll find them all over, same patch, same prices. It’s very well organised.”
“But, and forgive me if I’m being slow, but if they are always in the same place, wouldn’t the Police know where to find them ?’
“And they don’t get caught ?”
“Hummm … don’t know. Maybe one or two, but, it’s … well, it’s Berlin. Black market cigarettes, squatters, unofficial free public transport, girls that actually come up and speak to you.”
“They do ?”
“You can count on it. You’ve gonna like it here.”
“I’m going to love it here.”
They rode the S-Bahn the two stops to Alexanderplatz and it seemed as if all the sights were pretty much concentrated in that small section of Berlin. Under Den Linden, the main thoroughfare of the east could be seen in between streaks of blurred buildings. Chris listed the sights, various churches, a cathedral, a synagogue.
At Alex they changed to the U 5, descending several levels and twisting past corridors that all showed signs of continual or imminent or necessary renovation. From there is was just four short stops. They got out at Rathaus Friedrichshain.
“You see that this station is tiled blue, the others are orange, so it’s a sign to get out. It’s not like London, with the station’s name everywhere, here it’s just once, centre of the platform, so it’s easy to get lost or confused. Come on, let’s go.”
Chris showed Richard the correct exit of the four to use and they emerged half way down Karl Marx Allee, a long, straight, busy road leading from Alexanderplatz straight to Moscow, or so it seemed.
Either side of this wide street were identical examples of Stalinist architecture. The buildings were a uniform height, five or six stories tall, with lines of windows comprised of two long, oblong panes below two small square panes, white frames between, giving the effect of rows and rows of Christian crosses or war graves.
This particular area was somewhat grandiose, with two towers, green domed on white columns standing either side of the Allee. Where Chris and Richard came out, there was a large concreted area, with a department store and some stone steps, low and regal, leading up to a columned area. The pattern was repeated on the south side, giving symmetry, order and a certain overblown pomposity that Richard could already sense was somewhat incongruous to the actual character of the area.
Chris took Richard along the Allee to a small colonnade next to a bank. On top on the columns were some figures whose characteristics had eroded with time, and a large clock that was fixed on Three minutes past Five. A first observation from Richard; there seemed to be clocks everywhere.
They cut through the columns and up the side road that led to Rigaer Str. Behind the columns were residential blocks, car parks and a small shop or two. They got to the top, Chris indicating the squat bar opposite, then turned right and walked to the swing doors with the painted street name and number. Richard paused a little at the shop window, with it’s mysterious display and impenetrable nets, looked at Chris, who looked back and gave a tiny nod. Richard nodded back, as if all necessary information had been communicated. Chris appreciated having someone who was on the same wavelength as him, because despite the benefits and excitements of his new town, he had also been very lonely.
Richard saw the painted street-sign and let out an exclamation. Chris opened the door for him, then pointed out the post-box with Holtzengraff in a top corner compartment and Pearson sellotaped underneath it. Things were becoming clearer.
The first signs were positive; the hall was bright and airy, a room appeared straight ahead and the kitchen to the right. It had large windows, though the only view was the blank wall and the dustbins down below. They went into the main room, fair sized with a high ceiling and another large window. In the corner was a large tiled object, with a flute leading into the ceiling. There were various pieces of wood on the floor and some small implements like screwdrivers and a hacksaw.
“Oh, yeah. The Ofen.” Chris explained in a dismissive tone, knowing that Richard would be as mystified as he had been by this mediaeval-looking contraption.
“Ah, of course,” said Richard, playing along, “the Ofen.”
“It’s really good. Get some good heat out of it. Save money on heating.”
“Ah, I see.”
“You don’t do you ?”
“Not at all.”
Chris continued the tour. Before this room, there was a side door for the toilet where Richard saw a minute sink, suitable only for washing one hand at a time, and that behind the toilet, there was a wire meshing through which a storage area could be seen. The fact that he could be using said appliance and have someone behind him enter and rummage around wasn’t very comforting, but when he came out of the toilet and walked into the kitchen, his face dropped even further. He looked around before asking,
“And the bathroom is … ?”
“Then where do you … wash ?”
Chris pulled the expression that Richard knew well, an exaggerated smile, display of teeth and an intake of breath that produced a high-pitch whine.
“Never mind. Let’s have a drink.”
Chris had bought some provisions and they ate rolls with cheese, tomatoes, salami, beer and Quark. Chris pre-emptied Richard’s question.
“Don’t even ask,” he began, referring to the Quark, a white semi-solid substance like cream cheese, or yoghurt, or crème fraiche, “ comes in all sorts of flavours, most of them, true, being the same. I can’t get no answer as to what it is and believe me, I’ve asked, it just … is. Prost! Cheers!”
After lunch, they went sight-seeing, talking non-stop to the U-Bahn, Chris explaining that Rathaus, which he pronounced ‘rat-house’ meant town hall, and that he’d also learnt another German word, ‘Smuck’ which meant jewellery. If all German words were so ridiculous, he’d have the language down in no time.
They took the U 5 back to Alex, and got out there, planning to walk to the Brandenburg Gate. They decided, first of all, to go up the TV Tower, so bought tickets and went to queue for the lift. At the top, Chris showed him the Gate, from up high, still a mere dot. Then he pointed out his area, and the twin towers were visible. The buildings seen from the S Bahn lay before them as well as the sights slightly more to the west, the Angel on the Siegersauler, the Reichtstag, the S Bahn snaking it’s way to Zoo.
They continued on foot past the Cathedral and the Zeughaus, the statue of Fredrik the Great on horseback and The Opera House, all down to The Gate.
Brandenburg Gate was one of the few sights known to the two back in London and it was impressive while still being a little anti-climatic. More interesting were the rows of souvenir sellers all of whom seemed to be of Indian origin, all carrying trays full of DDR items: watches, hats with the hammer and sickle insignia, belt buckles, also with the symbol, badges, stamps, coins, model Trabants, gas-masks, binoculars and similar items.
Chris suggested they go for a drink and walked back towards Alex, passing the Russian embassy with a large bust of Lenin dumped unceremoniously on the front grass. They crossed the Friedrichstrasse intersection, Chris pointing the way towards Checkpoint Charlie, then on to a small beer garden just before the Opera. Chris went to get two beers and Richard sat and looked around. A few tables away sat a young, blonde girl, wearing only a yellow vest and denim shorts, writing post-cards and drinking a large beer. There was something very right about that image and he was going to smile at her when she looked up, but, unfortunately, she never did.
Just after Chris returned and they were on their second gulp, there was a commotion from the main road. A man who appeared to be in his early fifties and wearing a white shirt, open to the chest, was marching along, screaming in German, trailed by his very embarrassed and much smaller wife, who desperately tried to calm and quiet him. It was all nonsense to Richard who was quite enjoying the scene, until the man began raising his arm in the Nazi salute and the word ‘Hitler’ could be clearly discerned, loudly and frequently. The wife used both hands to pull the arm down, but it was a losing battle, and the man carried on, marching away until the street sounds obliterated him.
The awkwardness pervaded the whole café, a smile or two, a distant laugh, but mostly an uncomfortable silence. Richard and Chris just dismissed it as a random lunatic and London wasn’t short of those, either.
At this point, the blonde girl looked up, but it didn’t seem appropriate now to smile.
The flat situation was solved by the combined efforts of the German girls. Marina knew a woman through an ex-boyfriend, who had a shop near where Claudia lived. Claudia had been in touch with her and was monitoring a flat she owned in a different Bezirk, or area, of Berlin. It was actually free immediately and Claudia negotiated a fair rent, provided the landlady, a Frau Holtzengraff, could also get an ‘under-the-table’ gratuity.
Five days after arriving in Berlin, Marina was helping Chris move to his new, permanent base in the eastern Bezirk of Friedrichshain.
She told him about the costs, but didn’t pry into how much he actually had with him, expecting him to be able to cover the first few weeks. Although she earned a modest amount, Ross had a good wage and her parents were comfortably off, so she had never really known what is was like to be without money or financial aid. Therefore she had no conception that Chris may really be in difficulty.
They were met on the street outside Rigaer Strasse 16 by the stocky figure of Fr Holtzengraff, a middle-aged woman wrapped in a thick, fake-fur coat, despite the late spring weather, and an unsuccessful blonde hair-dye job.
Rigaer 16 was painted in white across the two large wooden swing doors that opened for vehicles. The right hand one also had a conventional inward-opening door. They walked in and the first dozen or so paces were under cover, making it hard to see the names on the post-boxes fixed to the right-hand wall.
The flat was on the fourth floor, through a courtyard that was small and oblong, framed by three sides of the house and a large intimidating blank wall. A door in the far corner of the yard led to the stairs . Marina kept a smile on, but was clearly seeing the flat for the first time and trying to remain optimistic. Chris, meanwhile, was amazed. Here was a real artist’s flat, a place where he could read and write and compose and get German girls to pose nude for him.
Marina talked in German and then asked Chris for the first month’s rent. He could just about cover it, but it would leave him with almost nothing. He got a receipt and there was more German, Marina nodding and interjecting, “Ja, ja, alles klar,” – yes, yes, everything’s all right.
“Then Claudia will help with the other.” Chris nodded, not at all sure what the other was, but knowing that now was not the time for schoolboy humour. The keys were handed over, directions given to the U-Bahn and shops, and then Fr Holtzengraff gave Marina a hug and left. Chris put it down to Marina’s personality, that everybody who met her would be compelled to hug her within minutes.
Marina had to work that afternoon, so she left him, making sure he knew the tram or Strassebahn that would take him to his work in Prenzlauer Berg, the next Bezirk to the west. He watched her drive off and then he was alone. He noticed a kind of shop next door. The paintwork was faded but still reasonably clean. There was a glass door, with a heavy net curtain behind it and a main window, also netted, but, along the window-shelf were a strange collection of miscellaneous items: an old football boot, a ceramic tiger, some kind of metal-working implement, an old fob-style watch, a plastic gnome or elf. Chris looked at the display and tried the door, but it was closed.
He looked up and down the street. It terminated at the western end in a roundabout, close to the tram stop. Diagonally across the street was a squatted building. Some punks were carrying empty beer crates out. Opposite him was another squat house, the whole front daubed in slogans and banners. Several similar buildings led off to the eastern end, which seemingly went on into infinity.
Chris tested the street keys, then the letterbox, or Brief Kaste key. Then he went upstairs to unpack, before making his first solo trip to work.
Luke was another Englishman working at the studio, very much a ‘what you see is what you get’ bloke. He had a London accent and laughed, loudly, at his own jokes, which was helpful as his jokes were generally not particularly funny. His skin showed that he had had more than a few drinks in his time and had probably tried several different drugs, several times. He worked next to Chris and took it upon himself to act as guide to Berlin. He told Chris that he could get paid on the Friday if he asked in time. He was, in fact, full of very useful and pertinent information and friendly, but was also very full of himself and Chris found him a little over-bearing.
Not too pushy, however, that Chris would refuse the offer of a beer after work. He mentioned that his funds were low, but Luke dismissed it, saying that it could be his shout next time.
Several beers later, Chris staggered onto the Strassebahn to get home and it wasn’t until he was walking along Rigaer Str that he realised that he had forgotten to buy a ticket, but he hadn’t been checked and had therefore saved a DM or two.
His rent was paid for the month, and he hadn’t spent anything getting drunk or getting back home. Berlin was going to be cheaper than he imagined. He continued to feel that way until a week later, when Fr Holtzengraff accompanied by a very mean-looking Herr Holtzengraff, pounded on his door, then opened it, catching him in just T-shirt and boxers and demanded, in gruff, blood-curdling German, “Geld!” which he recognised as ‘money’. Waving the receipt had no effect and it was only after chanting, “Claudia, ja. Marina, ja, kein problem” that they turned to leave, amidst finger wagging and black looks of a ‘this is your one and only chance’ complexion.
After they had left, he smoked the last cigarette in the box and walked into the kitchen, burning off nervous energy, as he promptly turned and walked back into the main room, trying to calm his nerves. After he had smoked down to the filter, he got some paper and wrote to Richard.
It still came as a surprise to Claudia that she should have an English boyfriend, whom she had met in her home town of Berlin. Not only that, but they would work, and live, together. And be happy.
She and Marina had been friends for years, probably because they were so different. While Marina was collected and inoffensive, Claudia was spontaneous and blunt, speaking first, unapologetic for any hurt she may have unwittingly caused.
Marina’s sensuality came as something of a surprise, slowly revealing itself through an accumulation of subtle nuances, Claudia’s was full-on and immediate. Her wavy hair, dyed jet black, hung on her shoulders, which were usually bare, exposing a dark bra strap. The loose white T-shirts were low cut and several large pendants or necklaces swayed enticingly around her neck. The jeans were always tight, the bare feet displaying freshly painted toenails, blood red. She gave the impression that her clothes had just been slung on, and generally that is what happened, but the clothes had been carefully selected for maximum effect beforehand.
As students, Marina and Claudia had thought of travelling to London to improve their limited English. Claudia hadn’t liked the city and when she met a fellow German girl at their hostel who was going on to Ireland, she had decided to join her. Marina stayed alone, spending her days in museums and galleries and learning English. When they met again, in Berlin, they would converse in English to practise, Marina in a mannered, polite, formal way, Claudia in a rough drawl, littered with expressions and vernacular.
Neither had yet started on a career path, but earned money in various ways, Marina working in shops or waitressing, Claudia in various offices, filing and photocopying. A customer at a bar where Marina was working told about a film studio that was employing people to paint film cells for animation movies, Marina passed it on to Claudia and she went to work there part time, preferring to spilt her jobs, to divide the boredom as she put it. There she met Simon, a law student from Hampshire, taking the ‘year off’ before settling down to a lifetime of briefs and suits, who had the flat in Ackerstrasse. The two seemed to have nothing in common, yet within six weeks, Claudia had packed up and moved from her western flat in Schöneberg to go slumming in the east ‘where the Proles are’ as she charmingly explained.
Simon of course was crazy about the flat, which was ludicrously cheap by his standards and so atmospheric, and even more ecstatic about Claudia who was surprisingly low maintenance. She was, he told his friends in letters home, ‘amazingly laid-back and mellow’.
Chris would have agreed with this description. She took him to a local bar and spoke to him freely, as if they were old friends, not two people who had only met that day. He still couldn’t believe that this woman was going to let him stay in her flat for a week, it was an offer of help so beyond his experience. It also helped take his mind off Marina, who was clearly going to be with Ross for some time.
Chris got two beers from the bar, Claudia saying it would be good practice for his German, and they clinked and drank from the bottle. He carefully brought up Ross, without expressing an opinion. He hoped to gauge her opinion.
“He’s a fucking nacker.”
Chris laughed and knew that it was going to be all right between them. After a few beers he started forming ideas about how their relationship would develop, but when she spent time talking about Simon and how he was extending his sabbatical so as to stay longer in Berlin, he got the hint.
She told him not to get too drunk, because she had arranged for him to start work tomorrow.
“What, no interview ?”
“No ! Can you hold a brush ?”
“Never tried. Think so.”
“Well, then. I told them you were an art major.”
“What ? “
“Haha, look at you. It’s nothing, easy work. Idiot work, just that it’s in a studio so it sounds cool.”
“What time do I start ? Nine ? Nine-Thirty ?”
“What time do you want to start ?”
“Is this even a real job ?”
“ ‘Course. You go in when you want, work for as long as you want, leave. Get paid by the hour, so you can choose.”
“Hey ! Not really what I’m used to in London.”
“I’m going in about Ten-Thirty, Eleven-Thirty, One … you know ? You can come with me.”
“So that means we have time for another drink ?”
“There’s always time for another drink.”
And Chris thought that here was another wonderful woman who would never be his.