When Thatcher destroyed the working class institutions I was only a child, but I paid for it through my parents and I’m still paying. I can remember at night my mother and father arguing, vehemently, over money. We were pretty poor, and only my father’s ties with the local church had kept him in part time work. My father drank a bottle of whiskey most nights and I wondered if he was hurt because sometimes I would hear him sobbing. The sound of my father crying tied me deeply to life. I wanted to ignore it, to sleep, so I wrapped up in my sheets and pretended I was dead. I had this huge imagination. My bed would become a tree, or a ship in the ocean, or a bubble floating in space. Sometimes I would pretend I was dying in that bubble, dying in the vast black void. It was like I would float forever.
With my mind racing back to those early years, I found myself hanging from a window, smoking a Lucky down to the butt and listening to the traffic on the road. I’d been in Berlin 14 days in the company of Liana, probably the most beautiful woman I’d ever known. Behind me on the laptop, Górecki’s Symphony No.3 was playing. Earlier that evening Liana and I had been to the ballet, which had been performed, rather badly, to this very music. I’d sat in the audience, trying to keep still beside a giggling Liana, my stomach in knots and panic in my lungs.
It was my 31st birthday.
On our way back from the ballet, feeling released from an awful pressure, we took a diversion to Raphael’s and bought some weed. We turned up in our evening dress, like two professionals on our way to a fundraiser. Raphael’s apartment was simple, minimalist, slightly grubby. On the side he had a tank of exotic fish, and on the walls pictures of jellyfish.
‘I love jellyfish,’ he told us. He was leaning over his coffee table and building a joint. ‘It’s the alien of the sea. The stalked-jellyfish is my favourite. It moves with grace.’
‘It’s beautiful,’ said Liana.
Nothing moves with grace, I thought as we walked home. Recently I’d been reading up on cybernetics and had come to the conclusion that life might be a series of movements preordained by some spectacular system.
I’d always been assaulted by the big question of existence; and it had become such an obsession that I thought I hadn’t been born for any other reason than to find the answer. It was a pattern of irony I couldn’t escape and it caused me great distress. For as long as I could remember I’d suffered from drops in mood, followed by extreme highs, sometimes feeling elated and depressed at the same time.
With Górecki playing behind me I began to feel more inclined to accept the state of things. I finished my smoke and flicked it away out the window. With her back against the wall, Liana sat in bed under the covers, her face boyish and beautiful in the light.
As she smoked a J, she launched into a rant about her current boyfriend, waving the joint about like a pointer. ‘We’re in an open relationship,’ she was saying. ‘We see each other, but we fuck other people. Sometimes I worry that he hasn’t understood that an open relationship isn’t about falling for other people. It’s just fucking. I’m not sure he gets that.’
There was something spectacular, even exciting, about her honesty. She attacked form like a person shunned by it.
‘What side of the dial are you on?’ I asked her.
‘The right side,’ she said. ’And do you think we can change the music? It’s depressing me.’
I scrolled through iTunes, found Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and hit play. A beautiful choir filled the room. Liana groaned and buried her head beneath a pillow. ’Are you kidding?’
I figured it was time to say goodnight, so I switched off the music and went for a walk. It was past midnight and I’d been 31 years old for precisely 24 hours. With the moon scythed in half above me, I walked the roads of Neukölln, making my way slowly up Karl Marx Street.
Berlin, at night, is a beautiful, clunky city. I imagine from the air when dusk sets, the city lights spread open like a vine, dark buildings turning a multitude of colours. I think of Berlin as a dazzling industrial grid, a hymnbook of history, and of love and life and blood. And dotted throughout are the established citizens who know something of sadness.
When you stroll through Berlin, occasionally by a building entrance, you’ll come across small bronze plaques in the pavement. On them read the names of those who were taken from that building, the year in which they were taken, the concentration camp they were sent to, and the year in which they died. These are not imposing memorials, and being underfoot they are easily missed. The idea is to stumble upon them. They bring you into sharp focus and take you from the trivial daydream and into the reality of past horrors. Sometimes, when finding one at my feet, it felt as though at that exact moment, there was nowhere else I was meant to be but gazing at those names etched in bronze.
I found this experience unlike the Jewish Memorial, with its stone blocks arranged methodically into grids. The Jewish Memorial is all around you. And the deeper you go into it, the further from society you are. Stone surrounds you and the city quietens to a hum, to a silence. The ambience here is constructed. Your world is constructed. It is peaceful as it is painful.
I floated far up Karl Marx Street until I came to a beautiful church, radiant in floodlight. I sat on the curb and stared up at it in awe. It stood on an island amongst the traffic with its sun-stained bricks and its spires touching the stars. I am not a religious man, but I do appreciate the beauty of Christian architecture. It was one of the few things my father had taught me to admire.
As I sat pondering, a homeless man asked me for a cigarette. I was smoking American Spirit, and I rolled him one and together we sat and smoked like old chums.
‘Are you British?’ he asked, in his tough German accent.
The answer seemed to satisfy him, and we were quiet for a time. The man beside me was filthy. He had a sketchy brown beard and longing eyes, and what looked like shoe polish in his hair. I could smell the booze coming from his clothes and his lungs. There was a whole world on his face, a world far from mine. And yet there was something familiar about him, and when at last he spoke, it was as though he knew something so empowering that for the briefest of moments I found I envied him.
‘I met someone who had power over my life,’ he said, looking up at the church. ‘This person, they used this power against me. I could be a dog,’ he said, ‘because that’s how everyone treats me.’ He scratched his nose with a filthy nail and squinted his eyes shut. Ash from his cigarette fell into his beard but he made no attempt to remove it. He wobbled slightly, and then pulled himself upright.
With the cigarette clutched between his teeth, he said, ‘Let me tell you, friend. Let me tell you because I think you should know this; knowing and understanding are two different things. People can know things about you, but that doesn’t mean they understand those things. You are who you are. If they don’t accept that, then they’re not worth anything in this life. And believe me…’ he closed one eye and said, ‘all things in life should have value.’
This man, whose breath smelled of weeks-old whiskey, left me speechless. He groaned as he stood, and once up, he glanced about as if he were discovering for the first time where he was.
He decided on a route, but as he entered the light of a streetlamp, he began to laugh like a man possessed. He turned, tapped a finger against the side of his head, and shouted, ‘There are no old songs in here. In here, it tells you everything is and should be reborn. Through the sadness, it says, there is always hope.’
With that, he was gone, and I made my way back to Liana’s, feeling numb and stupid.
That night I dreamt of a fire and a machine that ate people, and my father and Liana were both there, and Berlin was made of glass, and the whole world was wrong somehow. Then came a blinding light and suddenly I was on a beach and the world was suddenly put to rights. When I woke up, for a brief moment in that early morning glare, I thought I saw my father standing in the doorway.