The Berlin Diaries (Part III)
It was sunset when Liana and I made our way to the roof to look out over Berlin. To get there we had to walk onto the balcony and climb a ladder, which Liana and her friends had attached to the wall with cords. It wasn’t very steady, and when I pulled myself up, the first thing I saw was Robin, Liana’s German flatmate, standing with his back to me and with his legs apart. He was bare-chested and holding a rifle in one arm, the stock resting in the crook of his elbow and the muzzle pointing at the sky. He was gazing into the distance, with the city all around him, like he was somehow the heart of the city, bleeding and soulful.
‘Don’t mind him,’ said Liana. ‘He always does that.’
I glanced nervously at Robin, before sitting with Liana on the moss-covered roof. We watched in wonder as the sun hit the earth, spreading yellows and reds through the town, colours boiling in the sky. We shared a joint and, lying back, I read aloud some Daniil Kharms, which made us laugh and coo with excitement. I wasn’t used to getting stoned, and reading like this was a fascinating experience. I could see, for the first time, how carefully constructed the sentences were, how they leapt from the page and into my head and swallowed me up.
Liana told me she enjoyed breaking into abandoned buildings and exploring them, and suggested we do that now. I declined, too paranoid and edgy. Robin hadn’t moved. But occasionally he’d lower the rifle and peer down the barrel at something, before hoisting it back up again.
With the dying light against her, Liana jumped up like a child at a fairground and started walking the metal girder that ran along the edge of the roof.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I said, getting up.
With her arms out for balance, and her voice taking on authority, she said, ‘If vegetables were intelligent, the onion would be the most intelligent because it knows how to make someone cry.’
Recently, too much acid had jangled her mind; turned her into a soldier of light. Sometimes, she would answer her own questions in a funny little voice, or squint her pearl black eyes as though being struck by a thought. Right now, she’d crossed to some other place, a world only she could navigate.
‘That’s beautiful,’ I said, hoping to pacify her. ‘Really. But can you come down, please?’
‘God!’ she said. ‘I’m not going to fall. There’s a roof down there.’
The roof she referred to was the slant that led to a freefall. We were six floors up. One slip and she’d tumble down, slates in tow.
Behind me, Robin let out an agonised howl.
When we got back inside, much to my relief, we cooked a meal of rice and vegetables. As Liana prepared dinner, I leant out the window and smoked a cigarette. Across the street, weird things were happening. Lights flickered in someone’s apartment. I stared at it.
‘I’m thinking of going to Prague,’ I said.
Liana turned from the pot of vegetables she was stirring. ‘I’ve always wanted a friend in Prague. It’ll give me a reason to visit.’
‘Well,’ I said, uncertain. ‘I don’t know.’ I took a drag of my cigarette and my voice dropped an octave. ‘Maybe Prague. Or somewhere. I’m not sure. I’m not going home just yet.’
‘Me neither,’ Liana said. There were other worlds in her eyes, secrets she could unlock at any given moment. ‘I’m not going back to England,’ she said. ’This is me now. This is my life.’
Outside, sirens wailed in the night, like a city locked in battle.
I looked at Liana and realised just how much we’d changed; from when we’d first met each other years before at Arts College, and how the two of us had been the other’s competition, each striving for the creative tools to be the best. Both of us throwing pain and joy and love into our work. My paintings had always been dark, foreboding commentaries on society. Such naivety.
Years ago, when I was volunteering for a mental health charity in my hometown, I would sit with the service users every Friday afternoon, playing dominoes, cards, board games. We drank tea and coffee in an atmosphere that got me depressed. Most of those I worked with were also depressed; they were schizophrenic, borderline personalities, bi-polar, and somehow when all together in one room, they were too much for me. The feeling was one of unnerving silence, as though a horrible secret had been dropped into the room and no one was allowed to speak about it.
On one occasion, I never discovered why, one of the service users took a knife from the kitchen and slashed his arms, and the service was suspended for the day as myself and two members of staff tried to calm him down. After the ambulance took him away, I was left with the sense that something real had happened, something agonizing, something that mattered in a world that didn’t. The man’s pain had frightened me.
I realised then, that pain is not a singular occurrence. It changes from moment to moment and sooner or later it buries you. When I was a boy, I had a nervous twitch in my neck. My father, a man of deep religious faith, filled a bucket full of ice and ducked my head into it until I learned not to be nervous anymore.
Nobody knew about that. Nobody but Liana.
Suddenly I felt very sad and in no mood to engage with anything. I fired my cigarette from the window and it spiralled off into the dark like a firefly. I glanced up at the night sky where, amongst millions of stars, the blink of an airplane made its way over the city. I gazed at it, longingly, as though looking for instruction.
Liana put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Come on,’ she said, leading me from the window. ‘It’s time for dinner.’