Richard had to use the bathroom, had to vomit, had to open a window, had to drink litres of designer French water, had to take several aspirins, had to have a blood transfusion, had to be joking to think that this was any sort of life.
Richard could not get out of bed, could not turn or move; who had used his head as a punch bag ? He checked his face. Teeth intact. Stubble, even the stubble stank of old cigarettes, but no discernable cuts, bruises, bleeding.
The room had an unbearage fug of everything that was unholy and unhealthy. He had to open the window but it was minus God-knows what outside. It would purify the stench … or was that sunlight ? There would be no sunlight for at least five months, meanwhile … water.
But every movement resulted in an internal knockout blow to the head. Some inner-cranial entity was hell-bent on kicking the crap out of the back of Richard’s eyes. And he had to vomit. The thought made him want to vomit. He had to use the bathroom. The thought of that made him want to vomit. The infamous, cruel and unusual, you are being held to account, porcelain punishment.
Dreading how much repulsive fluid was able to emerge, projectile or explosive, from this paragon of animals, and what a Styxian stench would engulf the flat, our pilgrim makes the journey, more or less on his knees, to the bathroom, and we shall close the door on that chapter and return when sufficient ablutions have been made.
London, the clocks one hour behind. Chris woke up in Battersea, in Melanie’s flat. She sat on his bed as he drank his tea. There was toast with jam and marmalade waiting. Later they could go into the West End, take in a museum, see a film, have a beer and talk over old times. The room had central heating, the flat had a newly-painted feel, everything seemed so clean, ordered and organised.
London, several miles north in Chalk Farm, Alan was nursing a cold in his sister Jo’s flat. How could he have been such an idiot as to go walking, in the Berlin winter, knowing he had a late flight that evening. Freezing streets, overheated U-Bahns, chilly airport lounges, a stifling cramped sweaty plane, draining immigration, bedlam at baggage and then … and then the long journey on the London Tube. After several teas, lots of sympathy noises, and a potential overdose of Lemsip, Alan screened the Super 8 film.
“She’s gorgeous, that Julie. You little tinker, you ! I told you Berlin would do you the world of good.”
Back on Berlin time, Daniel Roth was reflecting on his night out. Instead of hitting the Czar Bar, or meeting workmates in some lifeless stuffy time-frozen 70s style pub, he went solo, trying some bars around Yorckstrasse. New year, new start. He restricted himself to wine, and experimented holding his cigarette in different styles. He didn’t want to look too affected or effeminate, yet he succeeded in being both. However, he did end up chatting with two German girls and could feel them about to succumb to his charms, giving him a double Weihnachten (Christmas) gift, until they linked arms and departed. Daniel spent the rest of the evening drinking with the old Turkish barkeeper, whose face seems inscribed with wisdom, gentleness and experience. He thought back over his conversation with Jeanette, and his killer put down.
His feet were fast freezing, coins devoured by the phone box, Jeanette’s voice exuding warmth, comfort, opulence.
“We absolutely adored it, there’s no question, no question at all that it meets our criteria, only, well, how shall I put it delicately ? Daniel, it is a little near the bone for some of our board. I’m sure you know the section to which I allude.”
Daniel paused for effect.
“The magazine’s called ‘Savage Revolt’.”
A few seconds of silence.
“Do you know, you are absol…, no, quite right, we have an obligation to the artist, and … and, if certain people don’t wish to read it, they don’t have to, yes, yes. Let’s do it. I’m going to go to bat for you.”
“Unedited, you have my word. Now, my young Hemingway, what are you doing on Silvester ? I’m having a little soiree and you simply must come. There’s a lot of people that want to meet you.”
Sunday afternoon, Daniel found one of the few Lebensmittel open and bought more wine, Sekt, chocolate, tins of goulash, giant tins of soup, cigarettes, cigarette papers, factory-produced bread and cake-type items, then returned home. He was going to read some books Chris had loaned him, maybe write a follow-up story. It seemed official. He was going to be published, and people wanted to meet him. Controversial already. But, it was Berlin. Maybe it was all just so much bullshit. He opened the wine, opened Dickens, took a swig straight from the bottle and thought, “Fuck me !”
“Fucking hell, never, never, never again,” announced Richard to no one in particular, as there was no one with him, save the Tasmanian devil running amok inside his brain. He had finished the water, and was now settling down for a day of mint tea and self-recrimination.
Serves him right for expecting anything good to happen in this shit city, in this shit life. He had hoped that he would be waking up, snuggling up, to Johanna.
At least this time he couldn’t blame himself for being drunk or too forward or not forward enough. He had been at the bar early, and waited. And waited … and waited. Johanna had stood him up.
Richard hadn’t really spent much time with either of Jake’s Russian flatmates, Sergei and Micha, so wasn’t sure what to expect when Chris told him that Serge wanted a meeting with them.
When they ran the Czar Bar, their choice of unlistenable music and uncharismatic service deterred all but the hardcore. They also closed very early, and often Richard would arrive after work, only to find Jake making an ad hoc bar to cater for the drinkers who were, in many cases, only just waking up. Squatting a squat bar, as Jake put it. Ad nauseam.
Yet they were both friendly and had a reasonable command of English, certainly not learnt from their Death Metal bands. Micha was small, tiny in fact, but was quite solid, with a rather unexpected quirk of suddenly breaking into a breakdance routine. Sergei was of a more serious demeanour, being something of a musician, classically trained on the clarinet, which he refused to play in front of anybody, but whose tones could occasionally be heard in the Hof of the squat house. He would also alternate between a bushy, almost religious zealot-like beard with curly locks, and a completely shaven head. At this moment, in the Berlin winter, he opted for the later, a decision that lead Richard to consider him crazy. But, they had something in common; after being alone for a long time, they both now had girlfriends.
Johanna was known, at least by sight, by a few people, though she had yet to return to the bar. Serge’s girlfriend, however, had made a more ostentatious arrival.
It had been mid week, Andrei making the bar alone, though Boris lent a hand when needed. Andrei also had a new girlfriend, German, and there seemed to be no animosity over the Olga situation. Richard arrived some time before two. There were only about fifteen people in the bar, all men, except one small dark-haired girl who was clearly drunk, or something. She began jumping onto the tables and dancing, enticing some of the men to tell her to strip. She didn’t understand the words, being, as Richard later learned, Spanish, but understood the meaning, and began to comply. Sergie rushed up and tried to stop her, making her put her clothes back on, and pleading with her to step down. No sooner had he succeeded in this, than she began again, different table, same routine, same applause from the clientele.
Eventually, Sergei managed to get her upstairs, to his flat, which impressed Richard. He naively believed Serge only wanted to get her out of the bar for her own protection.
The show over, Richard took a beer and began speaking to Boris about music and women. Boris was happy with Olga, and could see how happy Richard was, now he had met a German girl. They took another beer together, and a vodka, and Richard asked about Chris and Jake. They were off to another squat bar, checking out some band.
Then the back door opened and the Spanish girl rushed in, naked, and began running around the bar, jumping on the chairs and tables, dancing away to the music. When she tired of that, she began walking around the room, sitting on men’s laps, kissing them. Sergei appeared, looking very distraught, totally at a loss. She moved over to Boris, kissed him, then another man and then another, before dancing again. Richard felt uncomfortable and asked Andrei if he shouldn’t do something, but Andrei just shrugged. Suddenly, the girl began crying and making loud, high-pitched screams. A couple of the drunken men began imitating her and laughing but Richard and Boris told them to shut up, and, with Andrei backing them, their commands were heeded. Sergei came over, covered her with his long coat, and, putting his arm around her, led her away again.
Some time later, Chris and Jake arrived.
“Did we miss anything ?” asked Chris.
“No, usual night in the Czar Bar,” was the reply.
The next week, at Biberkopf, Josef came in to the kitchen, and with a scowl slammed the phone down. Richard didn’t care; he had friends and a girlfriend. Chris on the line,
“Hey, you ain’t got nothing on tomorrow, right ? Daytime ?”
“What’s on yer mind ?”
“Sergie wants a meeting with us ?”
“Sergei ? What about ?”
“Well, he’s kinda got this, idea, kinda . . . thing he wants us to, you know, like . . . “
“You don’t know, do ya ?”
“Yeah, but it’s . . . you’ll see.”
“What kinda meeting ? Do we need suits ? Should we take minutes ? Where is it ?“
“Your place. Around one, one-thirty ?”
Next morning, Richard went to to the local Spar, picked up some water, tea-bags, fruit juice, then went to the baker to get some Berliners, or doughnuts. Then he waited.
Sometime after two, there was a knock.
Sergie’s idea, which he expressed in a straightforward manner, was to stage a play in one of the spaces in Rigaer Strasse. Richard nodded, looking over at Chris, wondering how it affecting them, when Sergie delivered the punchline;
“And I want you to write it,” he said, pointing between the two of them, “as it is in English.”
Chris just held a wide grin, enjoying seeing Richard trying to hold a polite smile amidst his confusion, not to say utter panic. He managed to splurt out that he, they, had never written anything, had no idea how to write or what to write about about. They had studied Physics, Science, they wrote in equations.
“Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter,” said Sergei with a dismissive wave of his hand. Chris clarified;
“He has the idea, ideas, just needs us to put it into a script.”
“Yes, exactly, exactly.”
Richard made coffee and offered the cakes, to buy time, but there was no stopping Sergei, and in between mouthfuls of pastry, washed down by large gulps of burning coffee, he did his best to explain.
Every so often, Richard would look over at Chris, but most times Chris just shrugged his shoulders, or nodded encouragingly at the Russian.
It seemed to be a cross between a Shakespearean comedy and an American Indie film. Peter, the old squatter, who did indeed look like a classical actor gone to seed, would be some kind of Greek God, looking down on proceedings. Richard mentioned that with Peter’s alleged nautical background (no one really knew anything about him, but the received wisdom was that he had been a sailor of the ‘girl in every port’ variety), he could be Poseidon, complete with trident and conch shell. Chris already had a pad and pencil ready. Sergei rocked back and forth, slapping his thigh, crying out;
“Yes, write it down, write it down.”
He repeated this order, accompanied by laughs and slaps, every time he liked a suggestion, which seemed to happen every time a suggestion was made.
It was decided that Peter would be Poseidon, with a shirtless Robert of the, “Shit on a stick,” as a kind of cup-bearer, though a vodka bottle-bearer would be more apt. The idea of getting these two together, outside of the Czar Bar, for rehearsals was so far beyond the realms of possibility that it wasn’t even funny, but Richard went along with it, as Sergei described even more elaborate scenarios, with an apparently endless cast.
Chris made various suggestions about who could play what part, all of which elicited the same response of laughing and slapping.
It seemed to Richard that the plot went something like this: Peter, or Poseidon, would make an opening speech about the nature of love and life, maybe with a song (a sea-shanty, Richard offered, which caused Sergei to clutch his sides with mirth) before being lured back to sleep by the vodka bottle. He would be on a platform above the main stage, decorated with sea motifs.
On the main stage, which would resemble an American diner, a bunch of young characters would enter. They were all in relationships with each other and would talk about love. Already Richard was concerned, but politely listened.
It soon became apparent that there was no plot, and that Sergei had merely disconnected ideas, partly developed, at best. Not only would they have to write the dialogue, they would have to come up with the story as well.
Richard felt himself losing patience. He was listening to Chris mention people as possible actors, knowing that even if they did agree, they would never actually learn their parts, rehearse or even remember agreeing to it in the first place. He also found it hard to concentrate as he was thinking about Johanna. They were going out again on the weekend, and he felt, rather he hoped, that the relationship was about to turn more intimate. So far he had to be content with hand-holding and kisses on the cheek.
Still Sergei continued, but then a twist occurred that made Richard want to stop the meeting, which he could tell was a waste of time.
The idea for the second act was that a group of totally new actors come on stage, and pretty much repeat all that had happened in the first.
“And what about the other characters ?” asked Richard, “where are they ?”
“And they come back later ?”
“No, they gone. Now, we have the new people.”
“But . . . “ Richard was at a loss, and even Chris, who had been strangely enthusiastic was quiet.
Chris was hoping that Sergei would come up with a better explanation than just simply, ‘they gone’, but was losing hope, nor could he quickly think of a feasible solution. But he really wanted this to work, and had already planned to ignore all of Sergei’s half-arsed nonsense and make his own play. With help from Richard.
The catalyst was hearing that Daniel would be having a piece published in ‘Savage Revolt’, thanks to a suggestion from Chris, credit for which he was not shy in proclaiming.
Chris had enjoyed his spell as band manager, but was resentful that it had only brought him stress, while Daniel had lived the rock star life. At least for the few weeks of the band’s existence. Daniel had become a local star, impressing the women, while Chris remained just a barman, always to be in Jake’s yawing shadow. Sergei was offering Chris his chance to move centre stage. He had even thought about taking a part, as well as directing. But he was genuinely shocked at Richard’s reaction.
“You can’t introduce characters, get the audience interested in them, then never show or mention them again.”
“Yes,” corrected Sergei, “we have new characters, now the audience interest in them.”
Chris tried to smooth things over;
“We can talk about this later.”
Richard continued arguing with Sergei, neither giving in. Then Richard asked where would all the new actors come from.
“Inez knows people. She is actress.” Sergei told them about his girlfriend’s acting experience and Richard resisted the temptation to say that he had caught one of her performances. It was obvious Sergei was only doing this as a way to provide an opportunity for her, so Richard, in love himself, understood, and kept his thoughts private.
Chris took this as a good sign and was already thinking about ways to simplify the script, believing the play was going to happen as much as Richard new it never would.
And Richard was right. Inez left Sergei before the week was out. Rumour had it that Sergei caught her in bed, or sleeping bag on the floor, with Micha, and she, like the play, was never heard of or mentioned again.
“Errr, I don’t know what that cockney shit, ‘knackered’ means,” Jake interrupted.
Chris explained, both literal and general definitions; extremely tired, often after excessive sexual activity.
“Oh, haven’t been knackered for a long time, hahaha. What the fuck is ‘septic ?’ ”
“One of your lot, American; septic tank, Yank. Anyway, she said if I could get something to her by next Friday she’d see about publishing it in the next edition.”
“Any ideas, yet ?” asked Richard.
“Not your love life, that’s for sure. Fucking blank page, mate. What about her then ? Over at that table ?”
Daniel indicated a young girl with a Louise Brooks bob dressed in black sitting at a table next to a man who just looked out of place.
“Oh, she’s been in a few times. Nice. Pretty,” said Jake.
“Yeah, different man each time,” from Chris.
“Don’t mean nothing. Hey, she’s looking over.”
Richard had noticed her since she had first come in, but seeing as she was in company, dismissed any possibility of anything happening. Ever.
Now he looked over. The girl was looking slowly around, smiling at something her friend was saying, a kind of fixed smile, polite. Then she looked at Richard, and their eyes meet. They both held the look. It was Richard who looked away first, but when he looked back, she was still looking at him. Now she smiled and looked away.
Some time later, she stood up to leave, or so it appeared. Her friend left, but the girl walked to the toilet, passing behind Daniel. As she did so, she looked at Richard and gave a little, but wonderful smile. Again, they looked into each other’s eyes. Then she was gone.
Richard didn’t hear anything Daniel said. His heart raced, his breathing was erratic.
Daniel was speaking about authors, Dickens in particular, when the girl came back and stood next to Richard, to order a new drink.
Richard almost had to get up and walk away; she smelt incredible. How was that even possible in the Czar Bar ? She got her beer then looked over,
“Dickens ? Sorry, but I heard you talk about him. He’s one of my favourite authors. Hello, I’m Johanna.”
Daniel then performed a manoeuvre that was copied for many months afterwards. He stood up from his stool and, walking backwards, invited the girl to have his seat, as he disappeared into the mass of bodies.
Richard was glad he’d had some vodka, also glad he hadn’t had so much vodka. His first instinct was to order more, but Chris refused, saying it was too early. Richard understood. He had scared away Carla with his drunkenness. Let him spend at least one evening with this new woman.
From Dickens, they spoke about Berlin, London, (which she hadn’t visited but wanted to), life as a student in Germany (she studied business) and everything else.
Richard found her easy to speak to, and she found him interesting, funny and polite.
After an hour she had to go, but gave him her phone number and an invitation to call,
“Thank you. You are so kind. It was nice to just sit and talk to someone. Please call me.”
And she gave him a kiss. On the cheek.
She couldn’t have been gone more than two seconds before Daniel, Chris and Jake descended on Richard with a barrage of questions.
Richard, now able to drink vodka freely, which he did, merely held the phone number up, before putting it safely away.
Daniel pretended to write the number down, making Chris laugh, which in turn made Jake laugh, which had a knock-on effect on Richard.
Once he reached a certain level, Richard refused any more vodka. He also left as soon as the S-Bahns were running.
By the Friday deadline, Daniel had written a short story as he had been instructed.
Jeanette, the bored, middle-aged housewife who organised the magazine, welcomed him into her west Berlin apartment, the largest by far Daniel had yet seen. He was shown through several rooms, all with high ceilings and elaborate furnishings.
He waited in what appeared to have been a once elegant reception room while she prepared tea. One whole wall was a bookcase. He got up and looked at all the titles.
Jeanette carried the silver tea service and asked, ‘Lemon or cream ?’ Daniel resisted all temptation to be sarcastic or obnoxious. He liked his surroundings. Anyone that lived like this could do him a lot of good. He was charming and polite, the whole visit.
He left with a handshake and a promise that his work would be evaluated carefully, and a decision made by the time Daniel was invited to place a telephone call.
He thought back to a time in London. His east London office had a job in Hammersmith, west London. As he was driven from Stepney, through the City and towards the west, past Westminster and into Fulham, Daniel looked out of the window and couldn’t believe it was the same city. It was a class apart. It was a world apart.
He felt the same now, walking to the nearest U-Bahn station, looking around at the houses, going past the bistros and cocktail bars, watching the luxury cars gliding up and down the street.
He didn’t want to leave. He went into a café, with aproned waiters, and ordered a coffee. He couldn’t afford much more, so he made it last, and looked out onto the plush, swanky street.