Daniel Roth had waited a week before returning to the Czar Bar. He brought two workmates with him, for support, perhaps, but after they saw that they had come all that way just to sit in a squat bar with uncomfortable stools and a depressing lack of women, they left.
Boris, another Russian who lived in the same squat as Andrei and Olga, was working that night. Before long, Chris walked in, unshaven and unwashed. He walked past Daniel, not seeing him, and sat on the end seat, next to where Boris was leaning. They spoke a little, and Chris ordered a beer before seeing Daniel and ordering three vodkas.
“No, no fucking vodka ! Fucked me up, last time.”
Chris kept the smile to himself.
“Really ? How so ?”
Daniel didn’t answer, but hesitated a question of his own.
“I hope I, er didn’t do . . . anything too . . . I hope I wasn’t out of order, last week. Had a bit too much. Hadn’t eaten and it was a har . . . “
Chris waved it away and invited him over.
“All right, but no fucking vodka!”
“Enough, already, no vodka. Wimp!”
“You what ?”
“Just saying, one minute it’s all, ‘I’ll pick you up with one finger and throw you through the window’, the next it’s, ‘oh, please, no vodka’.”
Daniel looked at Chris without blinking and Chris began thinking he may have overstepped the mark.
Daniel then turned to Boris,
Predictably, these were the first of many. Chris was getting acclimatized and Boris drank without any apparent effect whatsoever.
Daniel, on his fifth vodka, kept apologising for his behaviour and Chris did nothing to allay his fears that he had behaved appallingly. Finally, more to stop Daniel repeat himself, he told him that nothing had happened. Daniel had sung, shouted, screamed, but so had everybody else.
“You’re just doing the ‘Newman Shuffle’,” he explained. “People come in here the first time, drink too much vodka and have a melt down. Then they come back, heads down, shuffle in to face the music. Bet that’s how you walked in, all hunched over.”
“But you don’t realise; this is the Czar Bar. Everyone freaks out, it’s expected, it’s almost the law. And if you really do make scandal, so what ? The next night, it’ll be somebody else, and your indiscretion will be forgotten.”
“Ah, you like big words, hey ? What are you ? Fucking student ?”
“Not any more. But I ain’t the one walking ’round with fucking Emily Zola.”
Daniel laughed and ordered more vodkas, Chris smiling at how quickly he had slipped into the pattern of Czar Bar life. Chris’ comical attempt at Cockney could not pass without comment,
“No need to start dropping your accent. This ain’t England.”
Chris, as being the senior in terms of Berlin life, expounded,
“No, this is Berlin. Just be yourself. Or be who you want to be.”
That last sentence stuck with Daniel.
Before the night descended into vodka madness, Daniel was asking about places to go. He always seemed to go to the same bars in Wedding, with his workmates, and most of these were not so far removed from the East End pubs he has left behind. Picking up on this piece of personal history,
“Ah, gangsters, rippers and wide-boys; the charming myths about the East End,” said Chris.
“The only charming myth about the East End is the myth that the East End is charming.”
Chris liked that turn of phrase and commended Daniel on it, then enquired about his academic background, as Chris still had some vague thoughts about switching from Physics to Literature.
“No, Mate, left school with a boot up the arse and fuck all else. Always read, though. Just couldn’t see why I had to listen to some deadbeat dickhead, when I could learn much more from Tolstoy or Dickens or Shakespeare. I can add and subtract and all that bollocks, but I don’t need Calculus, so fuck Maths. Geography, I know the capitals and rivers and mountains, if not, I’ll look them up, or fucking go there. Chemistry, I know good speed from shit, so that’s covered. History ? I’ll go to a museum or read a book of my own choice, not have some fucking Marxist ideology shoved down my throat. Games ? P.E. ? Fuck that, stand around with your dick frozen off so some old perv can get his jollies looking at you ? It’s the East End, we know how to fucking run. Physics ? Fuck that . . . “
Chris laughed, adding,
“Fuck Physics. Actually . . . I did.”
As for going to new places, Chris had a suggestion. Arizona Al was playing another gig in Mitte on Saturday, and both he and Richard were going, out of obligation. Daniel was invited and Chris wrote down the instructions and made a suggestion where to meet. He also wrote Richard’s phone number down.
Daniel thanked him with a vodka, and was introduced to new people as the bar filled up.
Several hours later, Daniel Roth was shaken awake at Hönow station.
Though he was pretty immune to odours, Jake sometimes found it necessary to open the door and air out the bar while they were setting up.
The day had shown the first signs of a summer that promised to be warm and loving, a reward for surviving the harsh unrelenting Berlin winter.
Jake was sweeping in the back, by the stage, and Chris was behind the bar, stacking empty beer bottles in crates and getting tonight’s beer ready, when four builders walked in, the first asking in a north-English accent,
“You open, Mate ?” then sitting down before getting an answer.
Chris looked over at Jake who nodded.
“Sure. What can I get you ?” he asked, stressing his own Midlands accent.
“Fuck me, another one,” said the second man in his thick Irish brogue.
“Lot of us about, Paddy,” answered the third man, a thin, wiry Brummie with flecks of white paint in his hair.
“What’ve ya got, Mate ?” asked the fourth man, Daniel Roth.
Chris brought up a selection of bottles; Becks, Flensburger, Veltins and the Czech Staropramen.
“Give us a Becks. What d’you fuckers want ?” asked the Northerner.
“Do you not have no Guinness ? Fuck me. Go on, then, I’ll have to have a Flensburger, won’t I,” from the Irishman. The Brummie also chose a Becks and Daniel took a Staropramen.
“Look at that poncey twat, always gotta be different,” was the Northerner’s reaction to Daniel’s order.
They joked around insulting each other for a couple of rounds, then decided to leave.
The Northerner came back from the toilet, laughing,
“You oughtter see what it’s got writ in there: ‘Where is your Vortex ?’ (1) Too fucking right. I’ve been in some shite-holes in my time but this … Ah, no offence, Mate.”
Chris waved the insult away, suddenly remembering exactly why he had left England.
After they left, Jake was about to close the door, when he stopped and picked up a book that was on the floor. He held it out to Chris,
“No, not mine. Sure as hell ain’t gonna belong to those thick-as-shit navies.”
Just then, Daniel came back in, looking for his book.
“Emile. It’s Emile, not Emily. And I wouldn’t insult builders, if I were you,” he said, looking at Chris, who was starting to lose the colour in his face, ”because those guys will pick you up with one hand and throw you against that back wall, there. Yeah, the book’s mine. We’re not all troglodytes, you know ? You can ‘ave it when I’m finished, all right ?”
“Yeah. Yeah, thanks.”
“You closing up then ?” Daniel asked.
Jake laughed, dispelling the tension and explained the opening hours. Daniel laughed.
“Well, maybe I’ll shoot by, later. Yeah, I know those guys are as thick as shit, but, they’re my mates, right ? And that ‘Vortex’ … Wyndham Lewis ?”
Chris nodded. He had written it one drunken night, inspired by a lecture from Melanie about how the cranes of the Baustelles (building sites) resembled Vorticist paintings. Jake had never noticed the graffiti.
But then Jake woke up a little,
“Hey, I wouldn’t insult builders if I were you.”
“Yeah, but the good thing is half the time they don’t even know they’re being insulted.” Daniel laughed at his own comment, realising the amount of truth in it. “Right then. See ya later.”
Later was still very early, just after ten o’clock and the bar was almost empty. Daniel sat on the first stool, by the door, and took another Czech beer. Chris looked at Jake and by mutual consent, agreed it was vodka time, though for Jake, it was always vodka time.
Chris poured one for Daniel, as a way of burying the hatchet. They talked about what they were doing in Berlin, where they came from and how much better life was here. Chris asked him where he lived,
“Wedding,” replied Daniel. This was an industrial Bezirk north of the centre, not renowned for its beauty. Not renowned for anything in fact.
“It must have been the only place in the West where people actually jumped The Wall into East Berlin,” he joked of his new neighbourhood.
Daniel was very impressed by both Chris and Jake living in squats and running the bar. But he began to be less impressed by the people that slowly started coming in, all neighbours and locals.
One such was Robert, a wild, crazy-looking German who sat next to him and proclaimed, without apparent cause or reason,
“Shit on a stick!”
The phrase was repeated endlessly throughout the night. Another large, almost obese customer nursed a solitary beer for hours and engaged in an animated conversation with himself. Squatters brought their dogs in and they snarled and barked, making their owners bark and snarl even louder than their pets in a vain attempt to make them stop. Jake barked louder than anyone, when he saw a dog about to defecate.
Then there was Peter. He was the father of the bar, a man in his mid fifties, with long yet stylish white hair and beard. He was very tall and looked as if he could have been a movie star in far distant days. He had travelled, was possibly an ex-sailor, and had been in Berlin longer than anyone could remember. He took a beer, then rested against a wall, observing proceedings. His only contribution was to raise his bottle to his lips and blow sharply, creating a shrill, resonating note, said note descending in pitch as he drank the beer.
Chris kept an eye on Daniel. He wasn’t looking quite so at home now.
Then the French arrived.
Johan had a group of friends who had either been in the army with him, or had come over to enjoy a cheaper, freer life.
They bounded in, Johan, Claude and several others, singing and shouting, Johan screaming out for vodka. Chris included Daniel in the communal drinking, despite his protests,
“I’ve got to fucking work, tomorrow. Fucking . . . OK, but last one.”
“Oh, you’ll be OK.” Chris winked at Jake.
By the time Richard arrived, desperately in need of alcohol, Daniel was swaying, smiling, singing, screaming. He was totally Czar-bared,
“Fuck you and your dry wall !”
“Eh, Jake, fucking hell, ‘ho is this man ?” asked Johan amused.
“Shit on a stick !” from Robert
“What’s wrong with continental breakfast ?” screamed out Peter, defying anyone to supply an answer.
Daniel, recalled back to life, laughed at Peter’s question and repeated it. Several times. It was at that point that Chris introduced him to Richard.
Picking up seamlessly on Chris’ lead, Richard insisted that the new friendship be cemented with a vodka. Daniel burst into song.
The whole bar, inspired by the French, took a vodka, Daniel almost drinking his shot before the communal toast and being restrained by Robert,
“Shit on your vodka!”
The madness continued. Daniel, in moments of lucidity, threatening to leave and get the last U-Bahn (long since gone) but he was now having longer periods of silence, head drooping, dropping, drooling, until he finally lay his head on the bar and slept.
Chris, who had been abstaining from the vodkas, had triumphed and he celebrated his victory by throwing crumpled cigarette boxes and old lemon peel at Daniel’s head, much to the amusement of Johan, bewilderment of Richard and apathy of everybody else.
After three-thirty, the bar began getting a little quieter, having been visited by a policemen who stood in the door and told them to keep the music down.
Another wonderful thing about Berlin. Here was a totally illegal bar in a squatted building and all the Police do is ask them to turn down the music. Having said that, a request from a German Policeman is pretty much an order, and was complied with. For a time..
Most of the French gone, the bar started to wind down. Richard was able to speak about his day, or rather his shift. He had worked with a new chef who was incredibly lazy, and some new bar staff who were incredibly boring. The novelty of being a Spüler had long worn off. But before Richard could complain further, Daniel woke up and staggered out of the door, no doubt determined to get the last U-Bahn.
Chris let out a celebratory cheer,
“Excuse me ?”
“Ah, never mind. Vodka ! Jake ? Vodka ?”
Jake stared uncomprehending. Wobbling around in the confined space behind the bar, he demanded of Chris,
“Do you have to ask ?”
The three drank and talked about the exit of Daniel.
“It’s amazing,” began Richard, “ people come in here, upright, homo erectus, sit at the bar, drink, drink again, and then, after the passage of time, they crawl out on all fours, to lie in a ball on the pavement, like single-cell pond life. It’s like watching evolution in reverse.”
His observation resulted in more vodka.
Richard left several hours later, making the mistake of going by S-Bahn. It involved a longer walk to the station, including a lengthy walk along the covered, elevated tunnel of Storkower Strasse, but was only a ten minute journey. The disadvantage was that if one slept, one was liable to find oneself in some distant suburb.
Richard woke up at Adlershof and took some time to adjust. He jumped off. Not only had he gone all the way to the northern terminus, he had come back on the same train and was now in south – east Berlin. The TV Tower, which should always be on his left, travelling home, was way off and to his right.
He knew that he didn’t have enough time to get home, get adequate sleep and return to work feeling anything close to well.
He worked yet another shift with a killer hangover.
However, it was more than Daniel Roth did. He didn’t make it into work. He had gotten on the first U-Bahn, but unfortunately the wrong one. He fell onto the train from Alexanderplatz, and was woken up by the guard at Hönow, in the east, the very distant east.
Chris, meanwhile, got his wages from Jake and merely had to fumble his way to the next door and up some stairs, where he fell into a deep and trouble free sleep.
(1) Vortex is the name of a household cleaning product in the UK
“Ironic, isn’t it ?” asked Chris. “All that time Monika asked, told, me to move, now, after I dumped her, I’m leaving this flat.”
Richard was going to question some of the points, namely about Chris dumping Monika, but let it slide. He was helping Chris pack up, and trying to contain his excitement about having his own flat.
“After all, we can’t live together forever,” said Chris.
“Like Laurel and Hardy. Besides, they’d be no room for a horse in here. Be fun trying.”
“Think of the mess. You need to think things through.”
Richard laughed. They sorted out the books, not by ownership, but by who had read what.
Richard kept ‘The Soft Machine’ by William Burroughs and Chris took the short stories by Kafka. After devouring ‘The Trial’, Richard had toured the English language bookshops and second-hand stores for more of his work. They had collected a good sample of literature from these moments of serendipity. Chris eyed the library and exclaimed,
“Fucking hell. Just look at these titles: ‘Bleak House’. ‘Dead Souls’.”
Richard continued the list
“’Heart of Darkness’,’The End Of The Affair’, ‘The Plague’.”
“’Slaughterhouse 5′, ‘Death In The afternoon’”
“’Life Is Elsewhere’, ‘Memoirs From The House Of The Dead’, ‘Critique Of Pure Reason’. Hhmmm . . . must be your one.”
“Well I don’t want it.”
“Sure ? Could get you a lot of points, walking around museums, holding it ?”
Chris thought about museums full of impressionable young female students. He grabbed the book.
They walked to the U-Bahn station, Richard to go to work, Chris to get the adjacent S-Bahn to Storkower Strasse.
Some of the Czar Bar locals had asked Chris why he hadn’t move into a squat, especially as he was now an honourary squatter by dint of working in the Czar Bar. Jake’s squat became the model for how he imagined all such flats to look, but it was Johan who gave him a different perspective, as he too was a squatter, yet always managed to appear clean and respectable. At least by comparison.
The houses either side of the Czar Bar were squatted. There was an organized community with meetings, rules and (Chris later discovered) endless plenums and interminable meetings. Rooms were allocated to newcomers only after careful consultation. Free vodkas were a persuasive argument.
One night Johan was drinking and Chris working, when some men walked in and sat with Johan. They were Josef and Klaus, two men who had been living in the squat the longest and were the men to see about moving in. Johan told them about Chris needing a place to stay, how he had to go all the way back to Prenzlauer Berg after a whole night’s work (all of four S-Bahn stops) and, assisted by the aforementioned free vodka, they agreed to hold a plenum.
This word would come to haunt Chris, as every time there was a decision to made about absolutely anything … anything … someone would raise their hand and shout ‘plenum’, and everyone would have to gather around and hear the merits of whatever piece of nonsense was being discussed. But this first time, it gave him a chance of moving in, moving on.
Johan lived in Rigaer 77, and had a room in the Hinter Hof. The 77 squat also ran a bar of its own, the Temple du Merde, but it opened just on special occasions, and as the entrance was nothing more than a thin, rusted iron door, most people were oblivious of its existence.
It was in this building, not Jake’s, to the other side, into which Chris moved. He had a small room in the left-hand side of the Hof. The ground floor had ateliers, for the artists, and there was a constant coming and going and banging and shouting and screaming and smoking and drinking and generally a whole lot of nothing being accomplished, while a whole world of plans were being made.
Chris had the use of a kitchen, and there was a toilet on the floor below, but there was no bathroom. Yes, he was back in Rigaer Str.
Richard was eager to get home, to what was now his own flat.
Chris hadn’t always managed to pay his share of the rent, but as it was so cheap, it wasn’t a problem and anyway Chris had allowed Richard many nights of drinking, either free or, at most, a nominal charge.
Now he sat, listening to music and reading. He could sleep when he wanted and not worry about waking up, or being woken up by Chris.
It was quiet. Peaceful. Somewhat boring.
He was both tired, after work, but mentally active and knew that he wouldn’t be able to sleep. Chris wasn’t working tonight, that he knew, but he would certainly be in the Czar Bar. And maybe Olga would be there.
He put his shoes and coat back on and headed to the bar.
Richard was happy to see Chris sitting at the end of the bar in Biberkopf. Happy, but not surprised. The previous Saturday, it had been Chris’ idea to go to some clubs in Mitte. The reason given was to have a break from the Czar Bar, but Richard knew that Chris was hoping to see Monika.
They had gone to several bars and clubs around Rosenthaler Platz but had just watched other people dance, rather than join in. Going out clubbing was going to be very different without the Gang.
Chris took an immediate dislike to a girl from New Zealand, whom he found loud and brash and not entirely pretty. She was dancing with a German theatre student (they surmised) who was wearing a white polo neck tucked into white jeans, held up with black braces. Chris took an instant dislike to him too.
The dreaded twosome began dancing, acting out some scenario that had her pretending to slap him, and him turning away in agony, with mechanical movements.
“Look the fuck at that. Robot dancing. Fucking hell, what is this, nineteen seventy-four ?”
“Do you think,” asked Richard, trying to salvage the evening, “that in some parallel universe, there are robots who go out, get lubricated, and start people dancing ?”
“Yes. I’m sure that’s exactly what happens.”
Richard felt his joke deserved better than that, but he knew the underlying cause. Chris was devastated over losing Monika. Considering the way the break up happened, there was little chance of a reconciliation.
Just over an hour after leaving the Mitte club, they were back in the Czar Bar, agreeing that they belonged here, with the squatters, punks, hard-core alcoholics, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, not with the would-be beautiful people and Euro Disco.
Having worked there with Jake, Chris was now well known and accepted. He knew nearly everyone by name, and gave Richard the low-down, who was worth knowing, who was best to avoid.
Tonight, it was Andrei and Olga working. Andrei resembled a Viking marauder, more than a Slav, with long blonde hair and a long blonde beard. He wasn’t especially tall, but made up for it by having an amazing girth. He was, quite simply, not a man to mess with. Occasionally some idiot with suicidal tendencies would venture his luck, but it was a short-lived enterprise. With Andrei it was one strike and you’re out. His girlfriend, Olga, was tall and slim, with blonde hair and a majestic bearing, looking like a Russian princess (Revolution notwithstanding). It was painfully easy to fall in love with her. So, of course, Richard did.
Apart from her beauty, she possessed two talents, highly prized. One was that she made the best Bloody Marys . . . ever. It was a remarkable sight to see giant, unwashed, street-fighting men sipping her concoction through a delicate straw.
The second talent was her voice. She would accompany herself on guitar, simple but effective picking, and out of her thin frame came the voice of an angel. An angel, however, with a distinct liking for tequila.
As there was barely a night without someone coming in with a guitar and playing, whether they were requested to or not, and as Olga loved the attention, so deserved, she often gave an impromptu concert .
This night, however, there was a little tension between her and her boyfriend. Richard sensed this, but Chris, drinking quickly and encouraging Richard to do same, was too busy with his own problems.
Then Jake arrived, making all attempts at conversation useless. He bombarded Chris and Richard with a detailed account of the awful food he had just eaten at a late night Imbiss. When he left to use the toilet, Chris said,
“What a fucking voice. Like a foghorn.”
“Yeah, Foghorn Leghorn.”
This unexpected, though remarkably apt comment, together with the beers and vodka, put them into a laughing fit, that continued as Jake returned. He naturally was curious as to the cause. Richard was in the mood for mischief.
“We were speaking about favourite cartoon characters. I used to love Foghorn Leghorn, but we can’t remember his catchphrase.”
Jake stepped up, puffing out his chest and strutting around,
“I say I saw a, saw a, I say, I saw a chicken”
It was too much. Richard was having difficulty breathing and Chris all but fell off his chair. Jake took this as a positive sign, and continued, with appropriate chicken and rooster movements.
Olga was looking at Richard and laughing, knowing he was the instigator.
“Hey, Olga gets it.”
“No, she’s from Moscow, she doesn’t know what the fuck a Foghorn Leghorn is,” Chris argued.
But after that, memories became hazy; there were snatches of Jake strutting around the bar, greeting bemused newcomers with the catchphrase and ordering drinks in the galline manner.
Richard woke up some time Sunday afternoon, having no idea how they had arrived home. He got into a panic and checked his possessions. Travel ticket, watch, wallet, even some money left. All was well with the world and what wasn’t could wait.
The next day Chris was at Richard’s work, joking with the bar staff. Matias was making the bar, a moustachioed bodybuilder type, who had a hands-on policy with regards to the female staff. Ully was being her pleasant self, obviously not too concerned with making large tips and a new girl, Jolande, was also working. Richard described her as that rarest of creatures, a German with a sense of humour.
Seeing that Chris was a friend of Richard’s, she made some jokes with him, and hid his beer when he went into the kitchen to say, “Hi,” to the chef.
Unfortunately, she was the world’s worst at keeping a joke, and couldn’t help bursting out laughing after only a few seconds. But she earned points for the effort.
Later, as she walked into the kitchen, Chris heard a high-pitch shriek, and saw Jolande running out, chased by Richard who, by the position of his hands, had just grabbed her sides.
“What are you doing to her ?” laughed Chris.
“Tickling her, of course,” was the reply, as natural as possible.
After Richard’s shift, they sat and drank together, Jolande joining them as she ate her meal. Chris appeared happy and relaxed, but was clearly looking more cheerful than he actually felt.
By tacit agreement, they took the night buses to the Czar Bar.
Micha and Serge had the bar, and they tended to close relatively early. They didn’t exactly draw the crowds either, playing continuous Death Metal. Though they changed the CD’s periodically, the noise remained the same.
Walking along Rigaer Str, in the early hours, the outdoor lamp of The Czar Bar was usually the only beacon, though hardly of hope, as there may well have hung a sign above the door, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter’. No one here gets out sober.
They opened the door, pushed aside the curtain and found two bar stools easily. The bar was mainly empty, the few drinkers dispersed to all corners.
After ordering two Becks and two vodkas, Chris got straight to the point.
“I have to win Monika back.”
He was expecting an evening of planning and scheming. He wasn’t prepared for Richard’s answer,
It almost knocked Chris off his stool. When he finally spoke, it was defensive,
“I thought you liked Monika ?”
“I did. Do. But you and her together . . . I don’t think so.”
“Wow. Like . . . shit ! You mean it ?”
“Oh, yeah. Lovely girl, and you’re . . . OK, I suppose, but the two of you ? How many fights did you have ? How many times did you break up and get back together ? How many times did you come to me and ask what the fuck to do ?”
“You want individual figures or a combined total ?”
“C’mon. Every time you had to pay rent, it was problems.”
Chris knew only too well, as he had to walk to the flat of Ute’s friend, thus remaining in indirect contact with his ex-girlfriend.
“I know, it was a constant pain. And the work. When I left the Noodle Nuthouse, you hugged me, she almost cut my balls off. She wanted me to stay a Spüler. And then she hated that I was only a Spüler. Frauen !”
“What we need . . . is a new drink. The shots are gonna act too quickly.”
“I don’t think these bastards carry Pimms.”
“What we need is . . . “ Richard looked at the unimpressive, shabby collection of bottles. “Tequila. Tequila ? What goes with tequila ?”
“Cactus-smelling vomit. Wouldn’t mind a Run ‘n’ Coke.”
“Can’t see rum. Or Coke.”
“We’re gonna have to stick to beer and vodka, aren’t we ?”
“Looks like it,” agreed Richard.
There was a thud on the back door, then some keys desperate to find the lock. The door opened and something could be heard dragging itself in. Micha and Serge turned to each other and exchanged curses in Russian.
After some uncomfortable sounds, resembling a man being tossed from side to side in the corridors of a ship in a heavy storm, Jake appeared, somehow remaining upright in the entrance between vestibule and bar. He saw Chris and Richard and greeted them, hugging Chris from behind, but forgetting to let go.
Serge spoke in German, Jake answered and then stopped, as if suspended. He remained like this for some minutes, as the Russians started to close the bar, packing up the crates and chasing the drinkers out.
Richard began to leave, but Chris stopped him.
More talk between The Russians and Jake, then they left, shaking their heads and muttering. Jake screamed after them, half German, half English,
“Kein angst, alles klar (don’t worry, it’s all right) I’ll lock up. Ich habe der Schlüssel (I have the key.) You go to bed.” Then he turned to his two guests,
“You two guys need a drink ? ‘Cause I might have something in back. Don’t know, have to check. Have to check.”
Yet Jake remained standing and Chris had to lead him to the store room. Once inside, he made a series of pleasantly surprised sounds and returned, armed with beer bottles and a half bottle of Stolichnaya.
The remainder of the night was spent with Chris speaking about Monika, Richard speaking about Olga and Jake just speaking.
When Richard began working that night, he still had a hangover, which gradually faded, thanks to the endless coffees he drank. By the time his shift was over, he was in the mood for a drink, and, as luck would have it, Chris was helping Jake in the Czar Bar that night.
Chris emptied his Brief Kaste, threw away the Werbung (adverts) and took the envelope upstairs. He recognized the handwriting at once, and the British stamp only confirmed that here was another letter from Melanie.
He had promised Richard that he’d go to a travel agents with him, help book his ticket to London, but had just received some bad news from the studio: there would be no more work in the new year. The studio was closing down.
It had created a surreal atmosphere. Anyone who turned up got paid, but nobody was doing any work. People just sat around, drinking coffee and smoking. The room was full of uncertainty, worrying how rents would be paid, some wondering whether they would return to Berlin after their visits home for Christmas.
Chris kept this from Richard, but asked him if he knew what the situation was at Biberkopf, as he could take over the shifts while Richard was away.
The flight was booked with Chris insisting that Richard get back in time for New Year’s Eve, ‘Sylvester’, in Germany.
“You just wouldn’t believe it, it’s like a war zone, people throwing bangers, fireworks, everyone out drinking on the streets. You’ll love it. Hey, new year, new start. It’ll be OK, you know.’
“You sure about that ?”
“Yes. I am.” An optimistic answer from Chris who would start the new year unemployed. He knew that if he told Richard, then Richard would immediately give up the Biberkopf job, insist on giving it back to Chris and would therefore have an excuse to stay in London.
On Christmas Day, Chris fixed himself a breakfast of smoked salmon, day old rolls, some tangerines, and several cups of coffee.
Monika was at her sister’s, just outside Leipzig, Gabi back in Vienna. Silke was in Bavaria, Kai incommunicado and Andreas had somehow found the money to go to Turkey. Lorelei was staying in Berlin, but Chris was sensitive enough not to mention her, or to blatantly not mention her. Tommy was visiting family in Aachen, in the west of Germany and Gert had naturally disappeared somewhere.
In the early afternoon, Chris went for a walk, enjoying the freedom of being totally alone in his city. The roads were almost empty, only an occasional car passing by and beeping hello. The shops were all shut, even the Imbisses had closed, or so it seemed. A side street off Schönhauser Allee had two fluttering flags, showing that at least one fast food joint was open. Chris made a note of it, should he require a Christmas kebab.
With no direction or purpose, Chris turned into Danziger Str and thought he’d walk to Friedrichshain. He walked along this notoriously tedious road, smoking, strolling, feeling quite happy. For the moment. The shit was going to hit the fan, so he may as well enjoy this anomaly of peace and quiet.
In four days time, both Monika and Melanie would arrive in Berlin. Melanie was arriving early evening and expected to be met at Tegal airport. Monika was driving, probably arriving late evening. The next day, the 30th, Richard arrived back, same time flight as Melanie, but he could make his own way home. Chris could stay at Monika’s, leaving Richard with Melanie. That image made him laugh out loud.
Then, how would Monika react to Melanie ? Melanie to Monika ? How would Richard be ? Chris knew he was in a lot of pain, more than he could help him with, and just hoped that his break in London would give him the distance he needed.
After half an hour, he was at Rigaer Str and thought he’d try Café Kinski. It was locked, but there were people inside, so it was probably a private party. He walked on, past more squat bars, squat houses, negotiating the piles of dog shit on the street and the distinctive odours of shit and piss and vomit and sweat and fumes and fast food. He felt at home.
After walking along the Strasse he saw a light above the door of the Czar Bar. It was open.
Coming from the left, there was a large, single pane window, with the Cyrillic ‘bap’ (bar) painted along the lower edge. The window was usually crammed with junk, but it was still possible to see inside, see who was working.
Chris peaked in and saw a figure in a fedora, twisting around, reaching for some glasses and a bottle of vodka. Tidings of comfort and joy.
The Czar bar was entered by walking up a step, into a sheltered vestibule, both sides plastered with flyers and stickers, flapping and peeling off. The door was solid, bottle green, also covered in small posters. Immediately inside was a thick black curtain, which had to be brushed aside.
The bar had changed a lot since Chris dragged an unimpressed Nuno and a repulsed Melanie here. A year ago. A lifetime ago.
There was now a more permanent looking bar, stretching from the door and curving around to the flipper (pinball) room. There were pallets below the bar, making a step up to the tall stools that were bolted down. Drunks may continue to fall, but the chairs would remain standing.
Above the bar, was a flat surface reaching to the ceiling, giving the bar the appearance of a kiosk. Behind the bar was the large dresser, now with more bottles and glasses, and a CD system, playing early Neil Young.
Around the room were placed round tables and along the walls, two old sofas. Chris looked into the far recess of the bar and saw that there was actually a stage, reached by four or five steps.
The room had also been painted; it was now a dull, deep orange, and with the main shutter down, and low wattage bulbs, it could easily have been late evening, not afternoon.
Chris took a seat at the bar, next to some Germans who looked half-way pissed already, but smiled at him warmly. He smiled back.
“Heeeeyyy, Chris, welcome back. Haven’t seen you around here for a while,” said Jake the Barman, extending a hand for a complex series of shakes.
“I was here last month.”
“You were ? Where was I ?”
Chris pointed to the end stool,
“Oh, right, I wasn’t working, I’m only out of it when I’m not working, yeah, Yuri was work .. no, let me … Micha ? Hell, I don’t know, what the fuck does it matter, hey ? Oh, Merry Christmas, can I get you a Christmas cocktail ?”
“What’s in it ?”
“Vodka and … vodka.”
“OK, I’ll have a double.”
This made Jake laugh, and they drank together, Jake introducing him to everyone who came in. By evening, Chris was very tipsy, and the bar, which was also looking tipsy, was full. Tom Waits had at some point replaced Neil Young.
A small, well built man with a dark beard and moustache came in and rested both elbows on the bar, staring intensely at Jake.
“Jake. Vodka,” he barked in German. Jake was having difficulty controlling his eyes, which were scanning the room, back and forth, and he was also trying to dance along to the music, but he managed to open a new vodka, pick up three shot glasses in one hand and pour the vodka to the very top of the glasses without spilling a drop. He spoilt this achievement by licking the drips off the bottle.
“Claude … Chris. Chris. Claude,” said Jake, making the introductions. Claude turned the intense gaze on Chris, looking him right in the eyes from across the bar. Then he raised his glass, said, ‘Santé’, and downed it in one gulp. He let out a vodka sigh, shook his head, slapped himself once or twice and clicked his fingers.
“Jake. Noch drei mehr (three more).” Jake repeated the process, Claude repeated his ritual of sighing and slapping, then slammed down some money on the counter and left.
Chris had no recollection of leaving, or getting home, or indeed, buying his Christmas Döner, but did find the tell-tale tin foil in his dustbin, along with small chunks of meat and purple cabbage that he kept discovering around his flat over the next days.
On the 28th, Monika called, saying she couldn’t wait to see him. It was then that he told her about Melanie arriving.
The line went dead.
But not for long.
There followed a lengthy conversation with accusations and insinuations, despite all of Chris’ assertions that she was, and always had been, a friend and nothing more. Why should Monika know so many men, and Chris not be allowed any female friends ? Monika easily countered that by mentioning all the ladies of The Gang. Then Chris had a moment of inspired genius,
“All right, it’s for Richard. You know he’s heartbroken.” Monika went silent. Chris pressed on, amazed by his brilliance and enjoying the previously unknown sensation of being victor in an argument’
“And why ? I’m not blaming anyone, here, but, well, all I’m gonna say is that Lorelei is your friend. That’s all. I’ll say no more. If Melanie can help him, be a friend to him, then … yeah, it’s good she’s coming.”
He realized his ending was weak, and knew not to press his point, not to allow Monika too much of a chance for a killer comeback.
It ended with Monika telling him what a great friend he was to Richard and how much she really loved him.
He didn’t tell her about losing his job and not knowing how he would pay the rent in February.
On the 30th, Richard arrived back in Berlin. He knew that it would take some time before he felt better, or normal, or whatever was the correct word for recovering from a broken heart, but he was determined to get over Lorelei.
As he passed through passport control, he was greeted by Chris, making high-pitch whistle noises, pretending he was blowing into a party streamer. Next to him was Melanie. Chris, through an exaggerated smile said,
“Look … it’s Melanie !”
“So I see.’
Chris had taken precautions, making sure he had a half bottle of vodka with him for the journey back.
At the flat, they sorted out the sleeping arrangements. Monika wouldn’t be back until late, so she would come over tomorrow and they would all go out. It was all planned.
Richard had brought back some books, an old Sunday Times, some English crumpets, Marmite, and a couple of new CDs for the CD player that Ute had left in the flat.
“Hey … look.” He held up the ‘Reality Bites’ soundtrack and ‘Monster’ by REM.
Chris whooped and grabbed the soundtrack and played it. As soon as the first song, ‘My Sharona’ came on, Melanie began complaining,
“Oh, The Knack, so brainless,” and other disparaging remarks.
There was a definite vibe in the room, and Chris thought the best way to dispel it was to go out drinking. Richard wanted to change his shoes, and put on an old pair of boots. He withdrew his foot, rapidly, as it was obstructed by something. He reached in and pulled out what he presumed was an old piece of rotten cardboard, and threw it away, without giving it a second thought, this was Berlin, after all, but Chris was amazed, not to say perturbed that kebab meat was still turning up.
The celebrations for Sylvester began early, and even from the flat in the Hinterhof, with windows closed, they could hear intermittent explosions as soon as they woke.
Chris was up first, and went out, looking to find any shops, so as to have Sekt and possibly food when Monika arrived.
Melanie and Richard sat drinking coffee together. They compared this flat with it’s gas heater in the kitchen and bathroom, to the flat in Rigaer Str. They talked about that November, motor bike crashes and walking around Berlin in the snow. Richard remembered going all the way to the museum at Karlshort, where the Germans signed the unconditional surrender in may 1945, and finding it closed, but seeing a genuine Russian soldier walking along the road, a rather small specimen, with bright red, dripping nose and hat with ear flaps. Melanie brought up the fire and worried about Chris burning his hands,
“He has the most beautiful hands of any man, ever.”
Richard was also curious how Monika and Melanie would get on.
“I’m going to like Monika, I know,” she said, “we’ll probably go off together and have a good time, a good chat, and bitch all about Chris.”
Richard wasn’t so certain.
Around eight o’clock, there was a furious thumping on the door. Chris opened it, and from the main room, Richard and Melanie could hear him greet Monika, as well as hearing other female voices. Richard recognized Lorelei and took the next seconds to compose himself.
Then Monika, Gabi and Lorelei came in, all smiles and hugs. Melanie kept back, while they all hugged and kissed, then extended a hand to the three women. Richard put on the soundtrack CD, and as the opening drums and bass pounded out, Monika began jumping around and dancing, followed first by Chris, then Richard, then Gabi, then Lorelei.
There was a babel of languages as they tried to decide what to do. Chris had bought some Sekt and insisted the only way to start an evening was with a bottle of Sekt. Richard nodded sagely at this piece of received wisdom and Gabi backed him up. There only being four glasses, the men drank out of cups.
“OK, listen, we’ll go to Arizona Al’s, first. He’s at Eberswalder Str, we can walk there. Then … where’s the first party ?”
Monika answered him,
“Friedrichshain, near Simon Dach Str. There will be … seven of us, no ? Ja, seven, so we need two taxis.”
Then Gabi coughed suggestively. Monika picked up the hint.
“Ah, point, would anyone like a little … something … nice … hahaha ?” She put the back of one finger to one nostril and sniffed through the other one.
Chris lit up,
“Yeah, let’s go!”
“OK, anybody need the toilet first ? Richard ?” asked Monika.
“Are you sure ?”
“What am I ? Six years old ?”
Monika laughed and led Chris into the bathroom. Shortly afterwards, Chris quoting another line from ‘Pulp Fiction’, screamed,
“I say, Goddamn!”
Richard was next, and took the rolled up fifty Mark note, sniffing the trail of white powder off the toilet lid. Monika came back and asked Melanie, who just shook her head.
Finally, they were good to go.
Walking down Schönhauser Allee, Melanie began to fall behind the others and Richard, not wishing to leave her out, walked along with her, listening to her observations, while wishing he were part of that chain up ahead, as they all walked with linked arms, and Lorelei, in three-quarter length coat and black boots, was looking more beautiful than ever.
“Yeah, I was in bed when The Wall came down. I’d been out the night before, didn’t get back until seven or eight, and just crashed the whole day.
“Finally got up late at night and went to make some coffee and what do you know ? Got no milk. So I’m thinking, ‘Scheisse ! Gotta go out.’ And I’m feeling like day-old shit, and I’m looking like shit and I smell like shit, but, you know, just go to the store and get some milk, no biggie.
“Now, I didn’t put the TV on, or the radio, I’m just focused on my little world which has a serious milk crises going on.
“I’m on the streets, and yeah, I hear all this noise and cars beeping and shouting, but I just think that a football team’s won, don’t really think too much about anything, but, as I get to the main road, it’s full of people, and flags and banners and these … I don’t know what, cars, there’s all these fucking Trabi’s (Trabants) and it’s true, they only came in two colours; sky blue or spermy white. Sorry, but it’s true, these fuckin’ cum-mobiles crawling along the street.
“Then I’m in the store and it’s usually pretty quiet, but tonight, it’s full, full of people picking up tins of soup, or bananas, and waving them around. But these people … it wasn’t like they were from another country, it was like they were from another planet.
“So, I get my milk, but I have to queue to pay for it, and the queue just isn’t moving, everyone’s talking and shouting, and I’m thinking what the fuck’s this ? It was more like we had been invaded by them, and now we’re going have to spend all day queueing for bread and potatoes.
“OK, I know history can’t stop, just so as I can get some milk, but come on, wait until I’m sober.
“Then at home I put on the TV for background, and it’s on every channel. I was a part of history, the streets of Berlin, November ‘89, and just wished they’d all fuck off back over The Wall. Come back tomorrow.”
Richard took over directing the car, along Karl Marx Allee, then up into the western part of Rigaer Str.
Café Kinski was full and they got the only free table. Tommy held court, shouting loudly, easily projecting over Rage Against The Machine (Philipp was working and gave Richard a cursory nod).
There was an asymmetrical dynamic to the group, two girls and three boys and Anna appeared to be pulling towards Richard. Karin and Tommy had already staked their claims on each other.
However, Richard was in love with someone else, and stepped aside for Andreas, who wasn’t sure where he was with Silke, and within an hour, the two Germans had gone back with the two Danes. Richard had more beer, then made his way home, alone.
Two weeks later, he wished he had chased Anna, as one night of pleasure may have saved him months of pain.