An hour later and we were in south Berlin traversing the stairs of a building in Neukölln. The buildings here, old and large, speak of opulent worlds now turned to urban ghettos; banisters with wood knots and nail heads, faintly wallpapered walls, black dust cradled on windowpanes. The building made me think of jazz music and war.
Liana’s flat was at the very top on the fifth. As we ascended I caught the scent of copper pipes and stale water, mixed with hashish and cooked onions. Doleful, tiny eyes peered out at us through open doors, and from behind them I heard fiery Turkish voices and television sets blaring. The children in the doorways had beautiful complexions and washed dark hair. As we made our way up they stumbled over each other to get a look at us, their giggling following us up the stairs. On the landing I stepped over cardboard boxes and when Liana reached the door she said, ‘They always watch us. Poor things. They’re so sweet.’
In the hallway I took off my jacket and observed my surroundings. The smell of marijuana assaulted us and I looked around to find the source. Two men were sitting in the kitchen chatting over a joint, one of whom, a man with dark eyes and dark beard, glanced up and noticed me. From that glance I sensed a man in total control, almost robotic, and suddenly I was fearful of him. He made no acknowledgement of my arrival and turned his attention back to his friend.
‘That’s Robin and Dom,’ said Liana.
‘How many people live here?’ I asked glancing at the various doors.
‘There’s seven of us altogether,’ she said. ‘Danny, Andri, myself, Ada, Anne, Robin, and Dom. But not all of us are here. Ada’s away travelling. Danny and Andri are in Switzerland.’
‘And you all get along?’
Liana said, ‘Sometimes,’ and then opened a door to reveal a large room with a mattress on the floor and a hammock. ‘This is mine and Andri’s room. You’ll be staying in Ada’s. Come on.’
Liana took me into the kitchen and introduced me to Robin and Dom. We shook hands.
‘I’m really no good at socialising,’ I wanted them to understand.
With introductions over I sat on a dentist’s chair. The kitchen had dentist paraphernalia that included two chairs and a large neon tooth that sat on top of the cupboards. The kitchen table wasn’t centred, and at one side of the room was a red couch up against bare brick. Above us were wooden rafters and skylights. A steel girder went across the arch of the kitchen doorway and off into the apartment, strengthening a split beam. Robin and Dom were largely ignoring me, much to my anxiety, and were more interested in smoking pot and debating in German. Liana started cooking dinner on the stove. Something with vegetables and rice. No meat.
Again I sensed something powerful in Robin, a man who lived for contest. He held himself with the easy carriage of a hipster or a prize fighter after victory, and was leaning back on the couch with his arm resting along the couch top and his right foot resting on his left knee. He wore a red chequered shirt, sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms, dark denims with the cuffs up, and a pair of blue canvas shoes. He was trying hard to look effortless. Along with his beard he had earrings like stars, and a tattoo of a symbol that I couldn’t make out on his right hand. Every now and then he cooly leant forward and tapped away a plug of ash into a tray on the table.
Dom on the other hand was pink and short and with wet silvery eyes, and where Robin was lithe and sinewy, Dom was soft and gloopy. He sat upright at the kitchen table rolling a joint, his legs twitching, his jaw grinding like a machine. He looked high. He had the look of a man who had conflicting highs and didn’t know which high to let in. I guessed he was about nineteen. His nose ran with snot and he kept wiping it with the back of his hand.
The kitchen cupboards had writing on them in black felt: Herbs & Spices, Drinks & Cereal, Woozy Woozy Things… I was picturing myself in this kitchen from afar, a cheap transcendent perspective, a scene from a film and waiting for the next cut, when all of a sudden I realised Robin was speaking to me.
‘Sorry?’ I asked.
His dark beard was perfectly groomed. ‘How long are you staying?’ He spoke with a thick accent, the phonetics of his voice calculated. His eyes quivered.
‘Oh, a week, maybe two.’ I smiled to let him know I was a good man, a smart man, a considerate man.
Robin nodded once, his face unreadable.
Awkward, I cleared my throat. ‘I don’t plan on staying long,’ I added. ‘I might go east soon. Explore the Slavic countries.’
‘Don’t get lost,’ said Dom, his legs still on vibrate. ‘The further east you go the easier it is to disappear. Vast countries, man. No one would ever find you. I’ve heard bad, bad stories, man.’
‘Thanks. I’ll remember that.’
‘You should go to Prague,’ said Liana, turning from the pot. ‘I’ve always wanted a friend in Prague. It would give me an excuse to visit.’
‘I’ll bear that in mind.’
At some point Robin’s girlfriend, Anne, arrived, talking on the phone to countless people and getting called by countless people. She was pretty, a slim blonde with immense eyes and plenty of story to her. She took no notice of me, only walked to Robin, phone to her ear, and in an act of coexistence lovingly pushed back Robin’s fringe.
‘You’re from England?’ she said to me when she hung up the phone.
‘I am indeed,’ I said and laughed. ‘I’m not a fan of England,’ I added. Something about her manner made me want to dissociate myself from my country.
‘I like England,’ Anne said. ‘I like your crisps.’
Her phone rang again, and with the she was gone, back to Robin’s room to get ready for some event that night.
Liana dished the food onto two plates, and Robin and Dom made room at the table so we could sit and eat. Dom took out his phone and started showing me photos of his “piecing”. He zipped through the photos – trains, walls, monuments… it was outlandish graffiti.
‘I love it,’ he said. ‘This one, this one is my favourite.’
The photo was of a subway train with one of its carriages reborn in an intricate pattern of reds and blues, oranges and yellows, and with indecipherable letters sprayed in black.
‘What is that?’ I asked.
‘T. O. R,’ he said. ‘It’s my graffiti name.’
‘That’s cool,’ I said, mildly impressed. ‘You do this every night?’
‘Not every night. It costs money, you know – the cans, the paint – you know?’
I sensed that Dom never considered the legality of his art. For a moment I watched his pale face, eyes sweet and high, and found I envied his autonomy.
Between mouthfuls Liana said, ‘Have you seen Frits lately?’
A slight drop in the room. Dom shivered.
‘Why do you want to see Frits?’ asked Robin.
‘I thought we could get some MDMA.’
‘Why,’ I asked, ‘what’s wrong with Frits?’
Dom looked at me and shook his head. ‘Frits is…’
‘You should stay away from Frits,’ Robin said. His voice was grave and all business. ‘He’s gone wrong somehow. Like, I don’t know, something in his head. Circuitry or something.’
Liana laughed. ‘That’s nothing unusual.’
‘It would be best for you both to stay away from him.’
There was something in Robin’s tone that lit a flame in the air. I watched Liana study Robin’s expression, looking for a bluff, but finding none she nodded and said, ‘What happened to him?’ I got the impression she already knew. I was out of the loop. The three of them exchanged glances, the withering of facts, and with that the conversation was over. Robin reached for a joint on the table and sparked it but Liana asked him to put it out.
‘Not while we eat, please.’ Middle-class manners betraying the urban hipster in her. The British invading the continent.
If Robin was irritated by this request he didn’t show it. Instead he nodded at Dom and the two of them stood and left the kitchen. A little while later they went out.
‘So what’s with this Frits chap?’
‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ said Liana. She shrugged. ‘They’re just overreacting.’
I knew I wasn’t being told the truth. We carried on eating. The food was good, the vegetables charred but full of flavour.
Liana skewered a piece of onion with her fork and began waving it around at me. ‘If vegetables were intelligent,’ she was saying, ‘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 I noticed she would answer her own questions in a funny little voice, or squint her pearl black eyes as though being struck by a thought.
‘That’s beautiful,’ I said. ‘Wordsworth over here.’
Liana winked and fired an imaginary bullet at me.
Liana’s phone rang and she took the call, leaving me alone at the kitchen table. From her bedroom I could hear her muffled voice caught in the spasm of a relationship. I guessed it was her boyfriend, Andri. He was away in Switzerland working as a snowboarding instructor. I imagined a blonde Aryan, confident and swathe and talking in a silky German-Swiss accent. I disliked him already. I felt a pang of jealousy that this man, and not me, could attract a woman like Liana. A small fierce rain started inside me. She returned ten minutes later with a dour expression.
‘What’s the matter?’
She plumped herself on the couch. ‘He’s getting drunk in a bar and wants advice on how to pull a girl there.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s kind of strange.’
Liana stretched out on the couch and yawned. ‘An open relationship isn’t about falling for other people,’ she said. ‘It’s just fucking. I’m not sure he gets that.’
I was trying not to be cynical.
‘I shouldn’t worry about it,’ she continued. ‘He’s no good at pulling women.’
‘He pulled you.’
She made a face and then slid to her side, bringing her legs up into a foetal position. ‘When was the last time you got laid?’ she asked with an air of triumphalism.
‘I don’t fuck anymore,’ I said and shrugged. ‘I prefer to hold them in my arms and say words.’
‘You need to give up your life as a monk,’ said Liana. ‘What words?’
‘Just words. And my life is fine, thank you very much.’
‘It’s not healthy. I think you hate yourself.’
‘Don’t we all hate ourselves?’
‘Is that why you’re heading east?’ she asked. She reached for my cigarettes on the table and lit one with a match. ‘To go screaming into the night?’
I burst into laughter. ‘Precisely!’ I said. ‘This is why I came to Berlin. Because I knew you’d understand.’
‘You’re such a piss-taker.’ She paused to consider me. ‘Mr. Motion,’ she said, dragging on the cigarette. ‘More emotion than Motion.’ She smiled. In the kitchen light, with her large black eyes, she looked somewhat extraterrestrial. ‘You don’t need to go east to find meaning,’ she said with a wry smile. ‘I can show you meaning here in Berlin.’ Something in the way she was looking at me startled my nerves.
‘I’m sure you can,’ I said. I yawned. I felt all of a sudden very tired. ‘I think I might get an early night.’
‘You don’t want to go out?’ she said, astonished. ‘Berlin is a trip at night.’
‘I’d rather relax.’ I could hear Berlin through the window like a city locked in battle. The rain inside me was becoming a downpour.
‘We can go out later,’ she suggested. ‘Nothing kicks off until one a.m.’
I did my best to laugh. ‘I would, but…’ I shrugged. ‘…the flight, the journey, you know?’
‘That’s cool.’ She was hiding her disappointment, and must have been wondering whether I was going to be a tedious guest. I was forced to admit, I probably would be. For a moment she was lost in thought. Then she uncrimped herself from the couch and stubbed out the cigarette. ‘You know, sometimes you creep me out,’ she said, eyeing me. ‘Just a little, you know.’
I didn’t know what to say. When I didn’t say anything Liana smiled. An awkwardness had come between us. She struggled to meet my gaze. ‘Oh well,’ she said. ‘Ho-hum. I have to be up for work tomorrow anyway.’
Something in the way she spoke made me feel terribly guilty. ‘What time is it?’ I asked.
‘It’s nearly nine.’
‘Wake me up in an hour,’ I said, acquiescing. ‘Let’s go out. I am in your hands, after all.’
Liana beamed. ‘You won’t regret it. Come on, I’ll show you to your room.’
The room was beautiful. Double-aspect, laminate flooring, netting over the bed. There were black and white photographs of exotic people and places framed on the walls. I dumped my bag by a large oak chest and examined a photo of a pretty girl with curly hair.
‘She’s in Beirut,’ said Liana. ‘She won’t mind.’
‘What’s her name?’
‘Ada. She’s been away for about a month.’
I swung my legs up onto the bed and lay back. The rain inside me was now a thunderstorm. My eyelids were heavy. As Liana left I heard her voice drift over. ‘There are worlds you haven’t seen yet.’