An hour later and we were in south Berlin traversing the stairs of a building in Neukölln. Liana’s flat was on the fifth and top floor. As we ascended I caught the dull scent of copper pipes and 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 dark complexions and washed black hair. They were stumbling over each other to get a look at us. Their giggling followed us to the top of 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.’
When we entered the apartment Liana announced, ‘Home sweet home.’
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 of it. 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 one glance I sensed a man in total control and suddenly I was fearful. He made no acknowledgement of my arrival and turned his attention back to his friend.
‘That’s Robin and Dom,’ said Liana.
Liana took me into the kitchen and introduced us. We shook hands.
‘I’m really no good at socialising,’ I wanted them to understand.
With introductions over I sat dumbfounded on a dentist’s chair. The kitchen had dentist paraphernalia that included two chairs and a large neon tooth on top of the cupboards. The kitchen table wasn’t centred, and at one side was a red couch up against bare brick. Above us were wooden rafters and skylights. Robin and Dom were largely ignoring me, much to my anxiety, and were more interested in smoking pot and talking to each other 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 sound of their German was ostracising and dreamlike. 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.’ Something about her manner made me want to dissociate myself from my home 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?’
Robin sparked up a joint and 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.
The food tasted good, the vegetables slightly charred and full of flavour, the onions especially juicy.
‘If vegetables were intelligent,’ said Liana, ‘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. ‘Fucking wordsmith over here.’
Liana’s phone rang and she took the call, leaving me alone at the dining table. 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 Swiss accent. I disliked him already. A small fierce rain had started inside me. She returned ten minutes later with a dour expression.
‘What’s the matter?’
She plumped herself on the couch. ‘He’s drunk and asking me for advice on how to pull a girl at the bar.’ She shrugged. ‘It is kind of weird.’
Liana stretched herself 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. ‘Well perhaps he does.’
‘I shouldn’t worry anyway,’ she said. ‘He won’t pull her. He’s no good at it.’
‘He pulled you.’
She made a face, and then slid to her side, bringing her legs up into a foetal position. ‘So why go east?’ she said.
‘I’m searching for something. Meaning perhaps.’
Liana reached for my pack of cigarettes on the table and lit one. ’To go screaming into the night.’
‘Precisely. This is why I came to Berlin. Because I knew you’d understand.’
‘Mr. Motion,’ she said. ‘More emotion than Motion.’ She smiled. In the kitchen light, with her large black eyes, she looked somewhat extraterrestrial.
I guffawed. ‘I think I might get an early night,’ I said. The rain inside me was becoming a downpour.
‘You don’t want to go out?’ she said astonished.
‘I’d rather relax.’ I was already in sensory overload, and could hear Berlin through the window like a city locked in battle.
‘We can go out later,’ she suggested. ‘Berlin doesn’t start until one a.m..’
I did my best to laugh convincingly. ‘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 an awkward guest. I was forced to admit, I probably would be.
‘Oh well, ho-hum,’ she said. ‘I have to be up for work tomorrow anyway. There’s plenty of time. I’ll show you to your room.’
The room was beautiful. Double-aspect, laminate flooring, netting over the bed. There were old black and white photographs framed on the walls. I dumped my bag by a large chest of drawers and examined a picture 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 was now a thunderstorm. I didn’t hear Liana leave.