Monika was happy as she’d found a Parkplatz close to where Chris lived. They got out of the car, smiling and joking with each other, and walked, arms around each other, to the street door.
Monika worried about Richard, who had been alone for two nights, while Chris had stayed in Kreutzberg, but Chris told her that he was all right. Inside, Chris opened the Briefkaste and sorted out letters from adverts and junk.
Monika saw a letter addressed by hand. She inquired who it was from.
“It’s from Hamburg.”
The smiles quickly faded.
Chris rang the bell, before opening the door, just in case Richard had managed to get Lorelei or anyone else back, but found him alone, reading. Monika gave a curt greeting and went straight into the kitchen.
Chris asked how he’d spend his time, trying to give the illusion of some kind of normalcy, and what he thought of the book he was reading, Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’.
Then he pointed to the brown phone on the floor.
“The East German chef was furious when he heard I had a phone.”
“Yeah. Why ?”
“Oh, because it took him over two years to get one, under the old system. He had to put his name down and join the waiting list and, you know … wait. Over two years. Then I turn up, a Spüler, and an Ausländer (foreigner) to boot, and get a flat with a phone.”
“Everything … OK ? We still on for tonight ? The movie ? Winona dancing ?”
“Yeah. I think.”
“Anyway, I was just about to go out, get some sun, walk around a bit, read some. I may be gone for a couple of hours.”
Richard said goodbye to Monika and left the flat, walking through Prenzlauer Berg to the Thälmann park where he found some shade and read about The Lost Generation in Twenties Spain.
Back in Chris’ kitchen, Guernica was about to be recreated. Monika knew that the letter was from Ute and Chris was scared to open it, even though he knew it would just be harmless questions about the flat.
“So, don’t you want to open your love letter ?”
“It’s not a love letter. You know that.”
“No, I don’t know anything. I know you move into her flat, have all her shit here and get letters from her.”
“Her friend’s flat. How can you be jealous, after last night ?”
“Maybe you just fuck me while she is in Hamburg. So, when is she coming back ?”
“And you miss her ? You want her to come back ?”
“Of course not. I don’t even care, we’re finished, it’s over, understand ?”
“I know she left you. Maybe you still have feelings for her.”
“No, we are just friends now, c’mon, you know that.”
“You have many letters from her ?”
“No. Not many.”
“But others ?”
“Yes, of course.”
“ ‘Of course’ ? Oh, now I understand, you keep writing to her so you can get back together and just use me.”
“What ? What is wrong with you ?”
“No, what is wrong with you ?”
“Listen, if you’re going to argue, can you do it in German ?”
“You can’t speak German.”
“Oh, that is so very funny, fucking idiot. Open the letter.”
“No, it’s private.”
Chris knew that wasn’t the best response he could have given.
“Ah, so you have private things going on. Maybe I should leave. It’s been a fun summer fling, but now it can be over.”
“Right, sit there and listen.” Chris opened the letter and read it aloud. It was very innocuous, asking him how he was, how the flat was, was he paying the bills all right, was he still at Biberkopf ? But she signed it ‘Love Ute’ and wrote three kisses at the bottom with a little heart symbol. Monika seized on that blatant sign of affection and the argument gathered fresh momentum and followed its own illogical logic.
When Richard returned, late in the afternoon, Monika had long gone. They had planned to go to the Babylon Cinema in Kreutzberg all together, by car, but that clearly wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, they took the U-Bahn and Chris made sure Richard followed closely, as the cinema was in a back street, and Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn was on a busy intersection with exits at all points of the compass. The ground level, from the lower U 8 to the elevated U 1, was also a popular hang out for drunks and junkies and punks and Penne’s (beggars) who would buy cheap beer and spirits from the kiosks on the platform and have an unofficial social club on BVG (Berlin Transport Authority) property.
Chris pointed out that though it may look seedy and dangerous, he had never been bothered by anyone there, and that the BVG constantly patrolled the area with guard dogs that looked as if they’d much rather be chasing balls than breaking them.
The cinema was another Berlin experience that Richard loved. London’s cinemas were mostly franchised, staff all in the same uniform, décor the same, smell the same. Here, they were more like private clubs, looking like old cinemas that had been taken over by squatters, or squatted spaces that had been turned into cinemas.
The Babylon was reached by coming out of the north-west exit and walking through a arch behind some shops and Imbisses, under a large block of flats that imposed itself like a Colossus, over Adalbertstr.
The twin-screen cinema looked quite conventional from the outside, a marquee with film titles in red lettering, glass displays with film posters, stills and handwritten screening times.
Inside was a small vestibule, with posters for forthcoming films and reviews from the papers of current movies. The ticket desk was to the left, a counter with a display case showing the sweets and beers available. Tonight, the clerk had brought her son along, and the young boy was happily sitting on the counter, removing the lids from people’s beer bottles.
They bought the tickets and obligatory beers, tipping the lad, and walked into the main hall, which had flyers and adverts on one side and free postcards on the other. Richard used the bathroom, a graffiti-ed stool whose window opened-out onto the houses next door.
The hall was full of people, this being the busiest night, and the film had created a real buzz. The cinema door opened, people moved in. Chris liked middle row, middle seats and they got these, sat back and prepared themselves for a burst of pure Slacker entertainment.
Some adverts followed, then, with no censorship card that opens every film in England, the sights and sounds of Generation X embraced them and they surrendered themselves to ‘Reality Bites’, as Chris forgot how his current reality actually sucked.
They just waited for the scene that Richard had seen in a trailer, where Winona and her friends start dancing up and down in a convenience store-gas station. It surpassed all expectation.
They sat through the end credits, smiling as four girls slinked up the aisle, dancing to the music and humming ‘My Sharona’ the soundtrack to the store dance.
Afterwards, there was no discussion, they just had to go to a bar, and found a quiet bench in a Kreutzberg bar. Two beers ordered, two Jack Daniels to go with them.
Winona dominated the conversation, as they slipped in more and more Americanisms, even sports references and metaphors that they didn’t fully understand. They should be in America, not tired, old Europe. Everyone had so much energy and life and excitement and money, even the poor people. The sports were so much more colourful, the scores were far higher, there were cheerleaders. And all the women were Über-cute. The decision was taken; they had to get American girlfriends, cheerleaders, then go back with them to the States.
Which brought them back to the events of the afternoon. Chris thanked Richard for his diplomacy and apologised for any awkwardness. He had witnessed just one part of an on-going conflict. Monika didn’t trust Chris. She accused him of still loving Ute and was just waiting to be dumped by him.
“All of which is pure bullshit, man. I’m crazy about her, like, totally wacko, eyes-poppin’ out of the head crazy. But she won’t believe me. It’s all about the flat, an’ Ute’s stuff.”
“So you going move out ?”
“If that’s what it takes, but ain’t gonna solve the problem. Just be something else. Besides, I love that flat. D’you remember Rigaer Str ?”
“Like I could forget.”
“And it’s real hard to get hold of a flat, here. I only got it by luck.”
“You see, your mistake was in overdoing the heartache in the first place. What got you Monika, now creeps up to bite ya in the touche.”
“Shot by my own gun, gawddammit !”
“Could of course get dumped by Monika and use that to get a new chick.”
“I don’t want a new chick. I want Monika. Just …”
“Right on. De-quirked.”
“Well, good luck with that.”
“So can’t you come up with anything ?”
“If I could I wouldn’t be sitting here with you, I’d be with Lorelei, or Gabi. Or both. Like, what’s with Lorelei ? I think I may have played my hand too soon.”
“Time out, Brother, is the Monika situation solved ? C’mon, focus, don’t drop the ball on this.”
Just then, Elvis came on the bar’s sound system, singing ‘Suspicious Minds’. Chris threw down his beer mat,
“Oh, very funny, Elvis!”
“So where did she go tonight ? Monika, that is ?”
“To see the film ! With Silke, I think, I dunno. But German version. Can you imagine ?”
“Winona, dubbed into Kraut ? Oh, man !”
“Tell me about it. It’ll blow over. Always does. Problem is, it always blows up again, right in my face. Screw it, more beers. So, what’s the deal with Lorelei ? Progress report.”
“Don’t have the exact date, but around the end of July. I can’t believe it. Back to Berlin.”
Richard had to shout a little above the noise of the pub. There were highlights of a World Cup game showing Bulgaria beating the mighty Germany, and the London pub was cheering as loudly as any in Sofia. Richard’s attention wandered to the screen when he thought Melanie wasn’t looking, but he was caught out and had to suffer her views on football and football supporters, but knew enough to keep his views on her views, to himself.
It was also the first time he had seen her in a skirt, a pretty skimpy one, that showed off legs that were smooth and shapely. He was prepared to contemplate a complete review of the Melanie situation.
Maybe it was the skirt, the warm Summer night, or the joy of seeing Germany beaten without the inevitable heartbreak of watching England lose (as they hadn’t even been able to qualify), but the conversation, after three or four drinks, became the most revealing the two ever had. No reviews of art, or humorous small-talk, usually with Chris as the butt, or hints of truths that suddenly pulled back. They actually got to know a little about each other.
After ten o’clock, they decided to spend the last drinking hour at the Coach and Horses, a pub famous for it’s artistic clientele, actors, painters and writers and therefore infamous for its collection of would-be actors, painters and writers. A simple “excuse me”, or a “hello” would be met by a laboured and over-rehearsed half-witticism, or a meaningless epigram.
They got two seats at a large table and had to politely smile as a man with long, straight hair and a cane, offered salutations. Then they got down to business.
Richard asked about her relationship with Chris. What exactly was it ? He wasn’t prepared for the answer.
“Oh, we’re married.”
Richard paused, the wine glass half-way to his lips.
Then Melanie laughed.
It was an even greater shock, now, to discover that Melanie had a mischievous sense of humour. And great legs, that inspired alcohol-fueled aspirations. She clarified.
“No, but we did go out for a time. Yeah, we were dating. Boyfriend and girlfriend. But, there was no sex, obviously.”
“Well, Chris, you know, and I … you know … it was cool.” Melanie was biting her lip and nodding her head, expecting Richard to be able to fill in the gaps.
“What, you didn’t have sex ?”
“No, of course not. I mean we were … intimate … with each other … but there was control … ” Back to the nodding.
Richard was having difficulty processing, and restraining the “WHAT ?” that was screaming to be let loose.
“Well … what’s the point in that ?”
“What do you mean ?”
“To have a girlfriend and not … have … not … Just … what’s the point ?”
“It was what we both wanted …”
“Yeah. I mean, you must know about Chris … ?”
“No ? What do you boys speak about ?”
Again, that phrase, ‘you boys’. Richard let it slide, the revelation was too big.
“Man stuff. TV programs. Quantum Mechanics; had some quite heated debates over that. Football. Sweets from our childhood that no longer exist. ‘Spanglers’, for instance.”
“And women ?”
“No, sir, never. Almost never. OK, but not always. Yeah, a lot of talk about women. I didn’t know with Chris it was just all talk. I’m going through a fallow patch, admittedly, but that’s just to replenish the oats. I’ll be back ploughing soon enough …”
“Ah, don’t gross me out.” Just then, the music stopped and there was a momentary volume drop in the bar. Richard continued, at his previous level;
“That’s why it’s more fun with men.”
The long-haired man next to Melanie slowly turned towards him, and raised his glass. Music re-started.
“Talking, I mean. So, you and Chris … never … ?”
“That’s right. Can’t believe he’s not told you. That’s why I knew it would never work out with Ute. She’s used to sex. It’s hard to go from being sexually active to celibacy.”
Something wasn’t quite right about this, thought Richard, but again, he thought he shouldn’t push any further. He envisaged some very interesting conversations when he got back to Berlin. And Monika ? Did Melanie think she was also in a celibate relationship with Chris ? Was that what she meant, claiming she was ‘her kind of woman’ ? Was Melanie gay ? Tonight, it seemed, anything was possible. But, in the best tradition of show business, or, in this environment, show-off business, Richard was saving the best till last.
“I’m in love. And she’s German.”
“Wow ! That’s great. Who is she ?”
“Her name’s Käthe. She has platinum blonde hair, dark eyes and is just gorgeous. And she going to be driving me to Berlin. Along with her boyfriend.”
“So one of the chefs tells me to clean out the large, vegetable freezer and I’m in there, scraping frozen crap off the shelves and sweeping up lumps of … I don’t know what. Then, this other chef appears, young guy, tall and gormless, carrying a clipboard. It’s part of his job to make routine checks on the temperatures, every day, same time. Now, the door’s open because, right, I’m in there, doing their shitty work. Gormless looks at the temperature gauge and, naturally, it’s way up, and he freaks out. This has never happened before, it’s an anomaly, except, of course, he wouldn’t know what an anomaly was, because he’s a chef, and of all the qualifications needed for that job, intelligence ain’t one of them. “
“So,” asked Melanie, unaccustomed to keeping quiet for long, “you’re saying he’s not too bright ?”
“As two short planks. Now, here’s the rub; he has to think.”
“In spades, and he really does, no bullshit, man, stand there, gob wide-open, dribble trickling down, you can hear the spokes turning, slow, slow, then … light bulb above the head, he comes up with a solution, though he’s probably more used to sniffing solutions that in coming up with them. Be that as it may, he says, proud as Punch, ‘I’ve gotta closer door, Mate.’ And proceeds to do same.”
“What did you do ?”
“I objected, of course. I’m in a bloody freezer, in just a T-shirt, and he wants to close the door on me. Apart from the fact that the temperature is going to go down to minus Twenty-Five or whatever, the perishing light will go out ! They’ll go back to get some peas, and find me frozen like Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’.”
“The situations you find yourself in,” joked Melanie as Richard once again got the sense that she was laughing explicitly at him, not his anecdote.
“But he wouldn’t be told. I tried to explain the law of manslaughter to him, and that being a fucking moron was no defence. No avail. So I just left it. I mean, the freezer’s working, everything is stone cold and the only reason the gauge is up is because the door’s open. Use some initiative; fake the temperature. But no, he can’t do that, has to carry out his orders, do his duty. Then his girlfriend walked past and gave one of those, ’look what I have to put up with’ expressions, deep intake off breathe, then followed by the,’But I love him all the same, the big lumock’ look.”
“What’s she like ?”
“Not bad, kinda cute. OK, bit on the chubby side, but good features. Lovely eyes. Too good for him. What I should have done was to hit him on the head with a bag of frozen cauliflower. We got time for one more, or shall we go ?”
For the past month or so, Richard had been meeting up with Melanie and seeing movies or just having a drink. This evening, they were in a small pub by Leicester Square, before going to see a film based in post-war Berlin. It was a disappointing mess of a co-production, with a British actor giving a one-dimensional portrayal of an American, an American actor giving an unconvincing, stiff-upper lipped rendition of a Englishman and an Italian beauty attempting to be an ugly German. But, at one point during the film, there was an interior scene showing a room with an Ofen. Richard and Melanie poked each other on the leg and laughed. They left as soon as the film finished, heading straight back to the pub. They covered the usual topics: Richard’s awful job, awful love-life, awful everything. It seemed to cheer Melanie up.
“No regrets about leaving the record store ? I mean, it was regular work.”
“Not really. Couldn’t go back there, anyway, they would have sacked me for taking off too much time. And for what ? Berlin in Winter. Barely even saw Chris.”
This was the link Melanie was waiting for, and she barely listened to the rest of his speach.
“I can understand what Will meant, now, about not being able to work with people. I mean, my job really is shit, but at least I don’t have to deal with … the public. Book shops and classical music, sounds like ‘green and pleasant land’ material, but it’s the Mean Streets. In Fordham’s I devised a theory. People were in a bad mood because they came in to buy books that they couldn’t find, couldn’t afford and didn’t want. As for the Classical Music lot … I tell you, you won’t find a more arrogant bunch of self-loving Arschlochs than music students. Makes me miss my old physics gang. “
If Richard hoped Melanie would take up this cue, he was mistaken.
“Speaking of Chris, I got a letter from him recently. Are you still in touch ? You know he’s moved, now, and got a new girlfriend ? Oh, yes, much better by the sounds of it. I didn’t like Ute at all. I knew it wouldn’t last.”
This was all news to Richard, who hadn’t heard from Berlin since he left, the previous November. Melanie brought him up to speed, taking secret pleasure in being the one with the information.
Ute had decided to go back to Hamburg, possibly having something to do with the suspicious phone calls and letters that periodically arrived and which she read privately and hid at the back of a cupboard. Chris seemed somehow prepared, as if expecting it. Soon after, he was in love with a new woman. Her name was Monika and she was Austrian.
“She doesn’t stand any nonsense, by the sounds of it. She’ll keep Chris in line. My kind of girl. That’s what you need, a good, strong, Germanic girl.”
Richard was very close to admitting that right now he’d settle for any kind of girl, but didn’t want to give Melanie too much ammunition.
“So he’s still at the restaurant ?“
“Oh, yes, he says they’ll probably make him a chef before long.”
“Please, no more talk about chefs.”
“And the new place. In Prenzlauer Berg.”
“Oh, that’s much better. The flat in Rigaer Strasse … I’ve tried telling people about it and no one believes me.”
“I know, they look at me and think how could someone like me possibly spend time there.”
“Quite. Oh, there was something else weird happen after you left. Every night, about six o’clock for an hour, the water from the toilet sink had an electric charge.”
“There you are, trying to wash yourself, two inches at a time, and no cheap cracks, Lady, and suddenly … the water gives you an electric shock. Only in Berlin. Still … “
“What, you miss it ?”
“Yeah. Sometimes. I don’t know. I’ve never lived there. Maybe November was especially bad. The weather. Chris being preoccupied. So, Monika … ? “
Richard enjoyed these after-work evenings and found Melanie good company. She introduced him to a lot of films and authors he wouldn’t otherwise have know, and got him out of the bedsit. The film about Berlin, and the conversation about Chris had provoked conflicting thoughts about that city. The November nightmares began to fade, as the good times of September asserted themselves; amazing squat bars, friendly, open people, an easier pace of life. U-bahns that arrived on time. A population less than half of London’s. Women, girls, young ladies. Hannah. Maybe she was still at the bar … or Monika … she must have friends. Maybe it was time to re-open diplomatic ties between London and Berlin.
It was five past eight when Will and Melanie turned up at the flat. Richard had stayed in all evening, waiting for them, and had been engaged in chopping wood for the Ofen when they banged on the door, both of them ensconced in leather motorcycle gear and looking faintly ridiculous. Richard, however, knew he was in no position to pass judgement, standing with a flimsy hacksaw over an unyielding pallet. He explained what he was doing, indicating the Ofen and the inappropriate tools he had for the job, for, in addition to the aforementioned and pretty much useless saw, he also had a hammer and a Philips-head screwdriver in his arsenal.
“I think that’s the secret, you get hot by chopping the wood, not from burning it.”
Melanie gave a sneering laugh, and when Richard thought back, he remembered this as the first time he suspected that she was laughing at and not with him.
Chris was working tonight and wouldn’t be back until at least one o’clock, and as he said this, Richard felt the room get a touch colder. Still, he played the host, showing them the flat, and accepting all their sarcasm good-naturedly, apologising as if it were his own apartment. Will went into detail about how easy it was to find the street, yet nearly impossible to find the actual flat, tucked away in its dark corner.
He had some soup ready and warmed it for them, making the kitchen as hospitable as possible with the ambient candle lighting and the blue gas jet from the cooker, left on to give heat. There was wine and beer in the house and they chose the former, a rather low quality bottle that Richard had happily picked up from a Turkish Imbiss for a pittance, (imagine, he told himself, going to a fish and chip shop in London, and being able to buy wine,) and which became the next target for criticism. Not that it stopped them from finishing the bottle.
Richard told them about the great bar they went to, saying that Kinski would be open after ten, and silently counted the minutes until they could go there. He asked their plans.
“Mel’s been here before, so I’m expecting her to know all the places to go and all that’s worth seeing.”
Mel just nodded, while Richard knew that her experience of east Berlin was of a solitary day-trip, and all the places that existed then were probably closed down, while the new places, the squat bars, would have been inconceivable. Will continued in his affected manner, exuding a studied sense of world-weariness, leaning back in his chair, and speaking into the air, rather than addressing his comments to people directly.
“We’ll hang for a couple of days, suss the scene, then move on. Want to get to Warsaw, take a look around, see how they’re embracing the new post-Communist freedom. Freedom ? Ha, right. Poor buggers.”
Eventually, it was time to leave. Philipp was making the bar, but it was quite busy, the distorted guitars sounding even worse, or better, through the faulty CD system. Richard found the music very irritating, mainly because he found the company difficult, and strained to think of anything to say. Chris was the link between them and he wouldn’t be here for hours. Therefore, the only solution was to enjoy himself in the bar, as the novelty of ordering drinks past eleven hadn’t worn off yet. That also gave him a topic.
“Mate,” started Will, with a theatrical sigh, “I could take you to places in Bavaria where everyone’s in bed by ten o’clock.”
Not knowing how to respond, Richard got up to get more drinks. He returned all too quickly, sat down and looked at his watch, when salvation happened in the shape of Shoulder.
A large, impressively powerful hand crashed down on Richard’s own shoulder, with such a grip, that he jumped.
“Ahhh, you’re back. And you sent me that postcard of a painting about nothing! I am never having my hair cut ever again, all Friseur, all barbers, are in the head, verrückt, crazy. And … I will tell you why.”
At that point, Shoulder, as was his style, leant over and rested his arm on Will, who was stunned into a very uncomfortable silence.
Shoulder spoke with quite a deep German accent but otherwise looked nothing like his tall, Aryan friends, being rather short and stocky, his build accentuated by the tight, ‘artist-in-residence’ jumpers he wore. His complexion, which was very dark, and his large, hooked nose actually made him look more like some long-lost Inca and, along with his idiosyncratic communication style of non-sequiturs and gesticulations, Shoulder created such an impression that Mel and Will were shocked, for once keeping their thoughts to themselves. For the first time since his arrival, Richard felt happy, truly happy and so … sit back, drink the Jim Beam and enjoy the show. He wasn’t disappointed.
“One time, I was in Italy, I was fucking an Italian girl, so I went there and she says, (here he affected a ludicrously inaccurate accent of an Italian woman) ‘oh, bambino, you are so beuono, mi-oo, but babeeeeee, can’t we have another lover with us ?’ So I think, Ahh, schön, zwei Mädchen, danke, (‘beautiful, two girls, thanks’) because, here I will tell you why. I thought, Italy, cooking and singing and pasta and women with big, big, biiigggggg, breasts (here Shoulder held out his hands, far from his body, as if struggling to contain said features.) But my baby had small breasts, (here he turned to Will, looked him right in the eye, then punched him, playfully, but with real force, in the chest,) you know what I mean ! Small … (here he looked up, saw Melanie, starred at her chest, all femininity suppressed under tight, black tops) … like you. And she couldn’t cook ! So, I think, I’ll have a nice mama with big, biiggggg breasts, but she say to me, (back to the accent,) oh, no, my babeee, I mean two men. What ! (back to starring at Melanie,) Why do all you women want that ? I have a one-penis policy. I have to leave. Now, (turning back to Will,) at this time, I had all beard and hair and … (miming a face with improbably wild growth of hair,) so, I go to hairshop. ‘Piacere ! Hello, What’s up, Brother ? Take off all the shit. Si, I miei capelli sono dritti al naturale, my head is of course straight, no bumps. Yes, I am from Germany, hallelujah.’ Don’t forget, I have been up all night, many night, fucking, so I am tired like a monkey, and I close my eyes, and clip, clip, clip, I sleep. I wake up. I hear them laughing. Then I see in the mirror. They cut my hair and shave off my beard, but they comb my head over and leave a little Hitler moustache. And they won’t cut it off ! I have to pay a litre of Lira and walk through the town. More. Last week I go to German barber, (turning back to Will) yes, remember, last week, you were here and we were speaking about clown make-up ?”
Here Richard could get a word in, repeating a familiar scene.
“No, Shoulder, it’s his first night here, you haven’t met him before.”
“Yes, he likes big breasts and motorbikes.”
The latter reference spread confusion, being so accurate, and allowed them to gloss over the former. Shoulder merely carried on his interminable tale, “And he wouldn’t cut my hair!’
“Because of the Hitler thing ?” asked Will, desperate to make sense of the situation.
“No, because of this …” Shoulder had been wearing a woollen beanie hat, which he now took off, and in doing so, covered the table with white dust, dust which hung in the air, before falling into their drinks and over their clothes. And then, his act over, Shoulder got up and left, supporting himself on Richard’s shoulder and whispering in his ear,
“His keys,” before shuffling off to harass Philipp.
Richard was unable to decipher the message, until he looked over and saw that Will had his keys, with the Suzuki fob, on the table.
Unfortunately, the two guests hadn’t appreciated the performance as much as Richard, both finding it somewhat offensive and, claiming fatigue after their journey, asked to go back to the flat, where they drank the rest of the beer and waited for Chris. And waited.
The couch could easily sleep three, if not four people, (lengthways) but Richard preferred his sleeping bag on the floor, after making space, propping the procured pallet against the wall and moving the new rucksacks aside. By three o’clock, everyone was exhausted, but didn’t want to go to sleep, only to be woken by a buoyant Chris who would no doubt burst in with fresh bottles and energy. But it didn’t happen. Chris finally showed up at lunchtime, freshly showered and with clean ironed clothes, while the other three looked like refugees, unwashed and walking around in mismatched clothing for warmth, not fashion.
“What the fuck is this ? Look at you fucking, useless people !”
Chris said this with a smile, but there was a harshness in the tone that was telling. Seeing him so clean only highlighted their own state, and the awareness that they smelt unwashed increased their vulnerability. Melanie broke the silence :
“And where have you been ?”
“Ute’s,” was the only response, as Chris left the room immediately, claiming that he was going to make coffee. Will made a show of allowing Melanie use of the toilet sink first, then Richard, and, as they emerged, as clean as possible, they joined Chris in the kitchen.
Richard didn’t take it personally, thinking that Chris had invited people over when he had been alone, and now that they had all come, at the same time, he must have felt invaded. He didn’t want to think that not only were they now not required, but they were actually not wanted.
Will was the last to join them, oblivious to any vibe, and stood drinking, not seeing the lack of space for him at the small table as a symbol of any sorts. He suggested going out for lunch.
“I’m not hungry.” Melanie responded to Chris’ proclamation by saying that they were, and if he knew a good restaurant.
“No, but I know some bad ones.” It was a feeble joke, but it broke the tension. Richard mentioned meeting Shoulder. Will said that if that arsehole came up to the table again, he’d leave. Chris picked up on the cue, to ask him when he was leaving.
“Day after tomorrow, or the next day. Two or three days should do it for Berlin, get the low-down.”
“Yeah, well I’ll be working most of the time. Maybe Richard can take you out.”
“That’s nice, we come to see you and you won’t be here,” said Melanie.
“Hey ! I gotta work. All right ?” No one said anything.
One by one, they finished their coffees, washing up their cups immediately. Richard mentioned that he knew some bars that had a lunch menu and they agreed, glad to get out and Chris glad to get them out. As they were leaving, Richard whispered to Chris, asking if he was OK. He nodded and gave a little smile.
After lunch, Richard suggested that they go for a walk around Alex, but this only led to discussions about the weather, which, in truth, would be a factor, as it was bitter, and already getting dark. Instead, they decided to stay in the bar and order cognac with coffee and just talk. Richard had his guidebook with him and they discussed the merits and demerits of it, the lack of photos or colour maps, the lack of detail on the maps that were included, the layout, which made it more like a novel. Richard pointed out some of the more unusual museums that were hidden among the suburbs of Berlin, a dog museum, a hairdressing museum, which reminded him of Shoulder’s stories and an Ofen museum, apparently a collection of different types of the devise. Melanie said that they had to go, just for the kitsch factor.
They stayed until early evening and went back, all hoping that Chris would be out. In the Hof, Richard pointed up to the window, which was black, showing no one in. They tacitly agreed to stay in and go to the bar later, all being tired from the previous evening and the cold, which forced one to walk with hunched shoulders, heads down.
“So, what have you been doing since you got here ?” asked Melanie.
Richard stood up from the pallet he was trying to dismember and said,
“You must have done something.”
“Well, Chris works a lot, the studio, or the bar. Sometimes he stays with Ute.” Again, Richard saw a change come over Melanie. Keen to change the subject, he continued, “I want to get to the museums. Museum Island, has three or four different ones.”
“Yes, you must go to the Pergamon. The alter’s rather plain, but there’s a Roman gateway that’s outstanding.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” suggested Will, who was now helping Richard to chop the pallet into pieces small enough to fit into the Ofen. Getting the flat warm was a lengthy process, one which required constant attention.
“I’ve been walking around a bit, getting to know the area. Some nice parks. Lots of small statues and interesting things. I like going places that are just different. I want to see Ernst Thälmann, too.”
“Who’s that ?” asked Melanie, disturbed that there was somebody she hadn’t heard of.
“It’s a statue, apparently a giant Soviet-type thing in Prenzlauer Berg, just up the road by Strassebahn. Then, at nights, we’ve been to the Cafe Kinski and, on the way, back, pissed out of our minds, we go looking for wood. This was a Godsend, keep us going for weeks. Hopefully.”
“Just find it on the streets ?” asked Will.
“Yeah. Oh, we check it first. Make sure it’s dry, not too dusty. No dog shit. I’m becoming quite the connoisseur.”
They killed time, for that was all that they could do, by reading and drinking tea. Richard was starting in on Volume One of Proust, which caught Melanie’s eye and she launched into an impromptu review, of sorts, explaining why she wouldn’t read it, accompanied by an expression reminiscent of someone suddenly aware of an unpleasant smell, while sucking bitter lemons. She, in turn, was reading a modern fiction, which she was actually enjoying, but qualified that by saying that she had found it second-hand, and only brought it along due to its compact size.
At ten o’clock, precisely, that fact known by the chimes of the BBC World Service and a pre-war sounding jingle, Richard felt Will staring at him, indicating that it was now time for the bar to open, but Richard didn’t want to say that it was Berlin and that squat bar opening times were perhaps not as reliable as Big Ben (and anyway, Melanie no doubt would have said that Big Ben was the name of the bell, not the tower as most people suspected,) so he put his book down and began the process of dressing to go out. Extra jumpers, coat, gloves, scarf, boots. Melanie, meanwhile showed no sign of moving. Automatically, Richard said,
“Chris won’t be back for hours, yet.”
“Oh, I’m not waiting for him. I want to finish this book, then I can leave it here, reduce weight. I might come, later.”
Outside, Richard guessed that she was just tired and wanted an hour or two of uninterrupted sleep.
“Naw, she just wants to take a shit and’s too embarrassed with us in the house. Might take a dump, myself, in the bar, if that’s all right with you.”
Richard indicated that he was totally fine with the proposition.
It seemed to Richard as if they were shit outter luck again, as soon as he saw Jens at the end of the bar. It was quite busy, so must have opened earlier than usual, probably so Jens could call ‘geschlossen!’ early.
Richard ordered two beers, which were collected, opened and passed to him without comment, save the amount. He had to control himself from screaming ‘what’s your fucking problem ?’ but took a deep breathe and just thought about the cheap price. He took them back to their table, as Will, who was removing some of the outer garments, made his excuses, informing Richard that he should feel free to start without him, as he would be some time.
Richard, naturally, needed no second telling, and had finished the bottle before Will returned, giving the thumbs- up sign.
The pool table area was quite loud, as there was a group of young men playing a sort of tournament, and there was laughing and screaming and playful mock-fighting.
Richard, after he had got Will’s attention, began speaking about their tour and Melanie, hoping that he hadn’t spoken out of line when he accused her of waiting for Chris.
“He’s a real prick-teaser, that guy. Puts her through the ringer and I have to do the clearing up.”
Will then went on to talk about his travels, how he had been in southern Germany, but not Berlin, and mentioned a number of uneventful anecdotes which he seemed convinced were highly relevant and informative. When Richard asked about his work, he explained that he worked nights in a hospital because he liked the quiet, and was unable to deal with people, anymore. All the time, he was looking over at the pool game, perhaps envying the liveliness and fun they obviously were all having, and suggested that they change seats and move to a table by the front window, in front of the players, adding that it would be easier for Melanie to spot them, should she deign to turn up.
They moved and were more or less ignored, until one almost backed into Will with his cue, but was very apologetic. Will made a point of speaking in loud English, and it aroused the curiosity of several guys who introduced themselves and began a conversation.
Walking around the bar was a tall, skinny, long-haired man with round glasses and a distant gaze, who started moving around the pool table, at first asking for a light, then a cigarette, then a beer, then money.
He was politely dealt with, but he persisted in bothering the players, holding one player’s cue as he lined up a shot. One of the men, Mathius, who wore a white polo-necked jumper tucked into his jeans, took hold of the man, and led him outside, with some harsh words in German. Another smaller guy, who wore a blue bandana and mimed guitar solos on his cue, backed him up, and they returned to the game. The man came back in, cursing away and making threatening gestures. Again, he was taken outside and pushed into the street. This only made it worse, for he came back in and began shouting face to face with Mathius. The next thing, Mathius had him on the pool table, arms around his throat, then lifting one to threaten him with a fist. Instead, he lifted him up, roughly pushed him and finally Jens came over and officially barred him from returning. At that point, Melanie turned up, asking what she had missed.
Richard now sat with her, as Will was up and in deep conversation with some of his new friends. Some time after one, Chris appeared, and said sorry for the morning. It appeared as if the studio job was ending and it wasn’t sure if there would be new projects or, as fellow worker Arizona Al predicted, the whole shebang was about to up sticks and hitch over to Japan. Or it may have been Korea. Taiwan ?
Melanie was extra pleased by this more familiar side of Chris, and smiled and found any excuse to touch his arm. Who, she wanted to know, was ‘Arizona Al’ ?
“He’s a guy called Al who’s from Arizona. Cool guy, little bit odd, musician, I think. He works the copy-machine.”
“What, full-time ? That’s all he does ?”
“It’s a full-time job. They’re copying shit left and right and someone always fucks up the machine, so they put one guy on it, permanent. He hangs out there, drinking herbal tea, singing to himself. He told me about going to the Hansa Studio, and touching the piano Bowie used on ‘Heroes’.”
“Cool. Have to meet him.”
The mood must have been infectious, as even Jens was smiling and no one was refused a drink. Around three, they left the bar and walked the short distance home, Chris and Richard conditioned to seek out good wood from among the street debris. Will managed to get Richard’s attention.
“Chris can be an A-One bullshiter, but I think he’ll be OK here. All the stuff he talks about doing, I can see it, now, it’s possible in this city. I’m gonna have to consider a relocation. That Mathius is a cool guy. I’ve invited him to London and I hope he comes. The guy in the bandana, too. Learnt a lot, tonight. Got the handle on the political set-up. Yeah, look forward to coming back.”
He and Melanie left two days later and Chris, in Kinski that night, with beer and Jim Beam, beamed as he informed Richard of another guest, heading over later that week.
Richard thought that it would be a whole different dynamic with Nuno, and he was right, only not in the way that he was hoping.
Unlike Richard, who had left University more or less spontaneously, Chris had planned his gap year.
He had travelled so many times to London from the Midlands to see concerts and films, or just to savour the atmosphere of a city, that he thought he should live there for a year. He knew about the crowds, the rudeness of people, the near impossibility of making friends not to mention the astronomical cost of everything, but was prepared for this and welcomed the experience, before returning to complete the degree and then to embark on a brilliant career.
He explained this to Richard one Tuesday night in a small, quiet pub they liked near Soho Square. They had decided that it being only a Tuesday, they needed a drink. Debbie was going to join them, but cancelled and although Charlotte did come, she left after fifteen minutes, a fact that Richard vocally blamed Chris for. Chris took full responsibility.
So they were left to themselves and compared notes on their studies and on the whole student experience, both of them expressing severe disappointment and boredom. Both of them had had images of idealised college life, inspired by books and films and they, in their separate campuses, were having an increasingly difficult time reconciling fantasy with reality.
They simultaneously decided to end that conversation and broadened the topic from student life to life in general.
Their tastes in the arts, seemed to be so similar that Richard wondered if Chris was just agreeing to be polite.
Chris kept checking his watch and even ran outside, just to check the name of the pub.
“She’ll be here, soon,” he said, but didn’t elaborate.
And then Melanie arrived. For many years after, Richard was still unsure as to the extent of the relationship between her and Chris.
At that first meeting, she seemed to be just an old friend of his from the Midlands, in town for a few days, but over subsequent meetings, all in pubs or on the way to pubs, he detected that there may have been something deeper. Her manner of speaking to and about Chris showed a certain familiarity. The mocking tone and disparaging comments which alternated with sometimes quite embarrassing compliments, seemed to border on the obsessive.
A further clue may have been the fact that she was transferring to London to complete her art history course, stating that it was the obvious move, with all the galleries and resources in the capital. Richard couldn’t be certain, but he thought he saw Chris shudder upon hearing this news. She had already found a place to stay, a place which sounded far better than where either Chris or Richard lived and there was the implicit offer that Chris could move in, but that point hung in the air, unresolved.
Despite her seeming openness, and slightly forced affability, Melanie exuded an air of confidence that veered uncomfortably close to arrogance, especially when the subject of conversation was the arts.
She apparently had seen all the films worth seeing (in her irreproachable opinion), all the exhibitions worth attending, and read all the latest books worthy of her time.
She also continually caressed her short, dyed-blonde hair, as if hunting a stray hair that was causing her irritation, continually talking or drinking or gesticulating. But there was no doubt that there was something very attractive about her and Richard found her very friendly, if a little talkative.
He mentioned this to Chris when they were momentarily alone.
“She’s nice. Can certainly talk.”
“Oh, you noticed. Yes, she has opinions. Whole bloody manifestos. Don’t start her on art, there’s no off-switch. She suddenly turns into back-of-book blurb.”
Richard laughed at this reference to their work, then added, quickly,
“Quite cute, too. You and her … ?”
“She’s like a tap,” was all Chris allowed, obtusely. “Runs hot and cold.”
Before Richard could ask further, Melanie returned and more drinks were ordered and the night blurred into drinking, walking and tube tunnels that seemed to go on forever.
Melanie became such a regular drinking partner that by January, it was taken as read that she would be joining them whenever she was free, which was at least twice a week. The three went to films together, generally those selected by Melanie, the occasional museum and once or twice, money permitting, an Indian restaurant. Chris noticed that when she came to the Fordham’s staff drink, her presence seemed to deter others from speaking to them, so he tried to discourage her, to little effect.
By this time, there had been changes at Fordham’s. Angela and Debbie had both moved on to jobs in publishing, Simon and Ben had simply moved on. Derek, a full timer from Transport was now acting head of Technical and as Richard had requested a department change, he was also relocated to Chris’ section. Work now played a very poor second to ever increasing jokes.
Richard would develop a serious limp every time persistence customers demanded that he go and check the shelves for them. Chris would pretend to be a customer and stand between a genuine shopper and the shelves, blocking their view, whilst keeping a serious, searching look on his face and continuously shifting position to maintain the blockade. They would both try on new accents, a favourite being an invention of Richard, The Cockney, who would appear only when a pompously aristocratic customer demanded attention. The Cockney would normally open procedures by a friendly
“Yes, Squire, what can I do ya for ?” then loudly asking another member of staff to take over as he, “was dying for a slash.” The Cockney would often interrupt transactions, shouting across the shop floor to passing staff, “go git a cut-a-teee, there’s a luv.” which even Chris found somewhat impenetrable. However, Chris was intent not to be outdone, and on one occasion, he came into the staff room, one lunchtime, while Richard was massaging Charlotte. He didn’t have time to pass comment, as he was accosted by the most senior member of staff, an ex-public school type, wanting to know if Chris was, “The vending boy ?”
Gilbert, always dressed in blazer and tie, was having trouble getting a cup of tea. Without a flinch, Chris studied the machine and slowly drew his hand to his chin and nodded.
“I see. Forgive the question, Sir, but did you by any chance use a coin of foreign denomination ?”
“No French Franc ? It’s easily done. You may answer without prejudice.”
“No, I used two ten-pence coins.”
“Twisted or in any way deformed ?”
“Not that I was able to ascertain.”
“Ah, ‘able to ascertain’, I see, I see. I don’t have my tools with me. They’re in the van. OK, you stay here, you stay right here and I’ll be back promptly.”
With that, Chris left, taking his coffee in the second floor staff room. He kept a low profile all afternoon as he realised that Gilbert must, at some point, emerge, and would, he predicted, not appreciate the humour.
One Saturday, Ed brought in two fez hats and dared Richard and Chris to wear them, all day. Without hesitation, they both put them on, with earnest ceremony, and won the dare. There was a tricky moment, when Chris had to deal with an irate customer who wanted to return a book, but had no receipt, and something of an Egyptian stand-off occurred, neither side backing down, until the customer threw the book into a pile and fled the shop, cursing.
There was widespread applause and laughter. Ed stood open-mouthed, and had some difficulty in asking,
“How … how did you do it ? I would have cracked up. Oh, that’s it, you’re the main man, I swear.”
General sounds of concurrence.
“You were so calm, I thought he was going to hit you. When he threw the book. And with the hat on.” Admiration from Sophie, a new girl in Biology.
“It was because I had the hat on. It’s impossible to be angry at someone in a Fez.”
“Really ?” asked Sophie, as if it were a piece of received wisdom that had so far eluded her.
“You saw for yourself,” said Richard, gesturing to the invincible Chris.
Their department became the place to hang out, not least because Chris always brought in a small radio for live football commentary. Every Saturday, Dave from the ain desk in General Fiction would pass by around ten to six, and hang out and chat while the scores came in. The rest of the week, he wouldn’t even acknowledge them.
“Our fair-weather friend,” pointed out Richard as he saw Dave coming up the escalators on cue. This time he knew about the fez incident as seemed keen to discuss it. It had been telegraphed all around the shop and everyone was impressed. Everyone, except the manager who summoned Chris to his office the following Monday and gave him an official warning. Chris observed the order of the fez by not mentioning that Richard had also sported the hat, a fact that entitled him to free drinks that night, after they decided that it was only Monday and therefore cause enough for a session.
As Spring came, Richard knew that his time was nearing its end, unless he were to be made full time. As that didn’t seem to be in the offing, he began looking around for other jobs and finally got accepted as assistant manager in a small classical record shop in the City. He had a genuine love of Classical music and that along with his experience and ability to improvise quick, impressive answers, got him the position. His happiness was tempered when it was revealed to him that the other candidates couldn’t tell their arias from their Elgars.
The timing coincided with a new, permanent manager in Technical. Nigel was in his late twenties but could well have been late forties in both appearance and mentality. He had been the manager of a bookshop in the Home Counties and acted as if he were manager of the entire Fordham’s, sometimes even referring to himself as Floor Manager, a post that simply didn’t exist.
Naturally, his style clashed with Richard, who was on his last week, and Chris, who had been happy drifting, not being told what to do. He also asked for a transfer, but with his disciplinary record, it was never going to happen. And then the incident occurred that forced the hand of the management and, indirectly, the course of their lives for the next few years.
It was a Wednesday morning in London in Spring, which meant it looked like a black and white film. The sky was grey, the roads were grey, the building were grey, the people looked grey. There was a light, persistence drizzle outside, constant and irritating.
Richard and Chris were talking about the film that Melanie had dragged them to.
“She knew who the D.P. was … I didn’t even know what the D.P. was,” said Chris.
“What a turkey. I don’t care how many festivals it won. Megabore.”
Their review was interrupted by a stern-looking customer who dripped onto the desk and looked over his glasses at them with a look of disdain and impatience. Without any introduction, he shouted out the name of a certain book, as if expecting it to be there waiting for him. Chris rose to the occasion.
Adopting a similar expression as the middle-aged man, he walked slowly, yet purposefully out from behind the desk, somewhat in the manner of a somnambulist forced to obey an inner command. He didn’t change his expression once as he told the man, in such a close repetition of his own voice that it startled Richard, to, “Follow me.”
Chris went to the nearest bookshelf and scanned first one, then another and another shelf. Slowly shaking his head, he progressed to the reverse of the unit and repeated his performance. Then onto another unit. And another, all the time, the unwitting victim trailing him and seeming to actually grow in confidence that the book would soon be discovered.
Minutes passed and Chris had covered half of the shop floor and was now busy on the second, but increasing his pace, knowing that timing is all important. Then, without a word, he disappeared down the escalators, never looking back. The man was visibly perturbed and unable to decide what to do, when he suddenly made a dash for the escalators and ran after Chris.
Richard moved over to the window, but couldn’t believe it when he saw Chris on the street below, closely followed by the hapless chap, walking over the side street and into a neighbouring bookstore. Some minutes later, Chris came out and, seeing Richard in the window, gave a thumbs up sign, which slowly sank as he saw Nigel behind Richard’s back.
Several hours later, in their usual pub, Chris explained what had happened in the manager’s office. It had been quick and painless. His pay check was already made out in cash, along with his paperwork. From that moment on, he was free to seek other employment.
“I’ll ask at Warren’s,” said Richard, referring to the new company he was to work for, “but it’s only a small shop. Maybe there’s other branches.”
“Yeah, thanks. I have to find something. I’ve got my rent covered this week, but next week could be troublesome. This,” tapping the pay pocket in his chest pocket, “isn’t going to last long, especially the way you drink.”
As reward for such an impressive joke, Richard insisted on paying, but Chris was having a hard time maintaining the good humour. Richard noticed this, after Chris had gotten up to use the toilet and the way was blocked by a young lady who was kneeling on the floor, showing a crowded table some photos.
“It’s OK, darling, just climb over my legs.” she instructed, and he did so without comment. Not even a subtle wink. Richard thought of a possibility and when Chris returned, he borrowed some change to make a call. He returned, smiling.
“Right, it’s not much, but it’s something.”
“What ?” asked Chris, without enthusiasm.
“Better than nothing. A place to start, Pay the rent, anyway.”
“What are you talking about ?”
“I’ve got you an interview tomorrow at Howard’s. I used to work there, before Fordham’s, so I called the manager and he’ll see you, two-thirty tomorrow. Ask for Mr …”
“Sealey. You’ll like him, he’s a character. Bit of a sergeant-major type and sometimes, to be honest, a bit whiffy. But he owns four stores, so good for him.”
Richard went on to tell about the job, how it would be quite hard, never a chance to sit down and about the type of produce and client.
“You’ll be dealing with Earls and Barons and minor members of the Royal Family.”
“Oh, yeah. Awfully nice, actually. Charming, be that as it may, most people are quite polite but you will get those who’ll treat you like shit. You’ll learn humility.”
“And the money ?”
“Yeah, it’s not great, but you get lunch and leftovers. Two-thirty tomorrow. Don’t wear the fez.”
“Thanks. Good advice. Now, I appear to have a fistful of dollars. What shall we drink ?”
Here’s another request blog; a friend, Pete (who has featured in some of my lessons) is planning a party this Friday. His daughter, who is turning 18, has requested some Vietnamese food.
However, Pete lives in the UK, which is still under lockdown (quarantine), so many restaurants are closed. Furthermore, he lives in the middle of the country, so had no access to really fresh sea food (the Vietnamese only say sea food is fresh IF it was swimming in the sea just ten minutes before).
Additionally, Pete won’t be able to get his hands on some vegetables or ingredients so we’ll have to take that into account. Having said that, here are some tips for making Vietnamese food in a western kitchen.
Banh xeo is like a pancake filled with beansprouts, shrimps, salad, grilled meat …
Grilled pork is ubiquitous – a street food stable served with rice and pickled vegetables.
Fried spring or summer rolls – can be a bit fiddly (difficult) to make, and require special material. Probably available in Asian supermarkets, but hard to get in small towns (or just order online like everyone else in 2020). Contains salad leaves and shrimp and vegetables).
Pho (pronounced ‘far’) is THE traditional food of Vietnam, and is normally eaten for breakfast. It’s basically noodle soup with meat of your choice. Shrimps (prawns) or just vegetables could be substituted. Another ubiquitous dish.
And now, without further ado … how to cook Vietnamese:
First, one of the UK’s most loved, and sadly missed chefs, Keith Floyd. Keith came to Vietnam as part of an east Asian cooking show. In Sai Gon, he made this dish, beef cooked in sweet and spicy stock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fO6cSQ8Vly8
The scene starts at 06.39
But, I hear you protest, how can a westerner make authentic Vietnamese food ?
For fans of the fowl, connoisseurs of the chicken, I haven’t forgotten you. Here’s an interesting recipe, lemongrass chicken (lemongrass, which is ten-a-penny in Vietnam, that is, very cheap, can be so expensive in the UK. I once saw 5 lemongrass on sale for £1, that’s over 30 000 VND): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJtMlTnqyw0