Berlin – Prologue

I enjoyed riding the U-Bahn as it chained its way across the city. I liked it when the trains ran parallel with the traffic on the road and you felt, momentarily, at one with the driver behind the wheel – if felt like equality – and then when everything dropped away, thwump, into darkness as you entered a tunnel, and then again when you emerged looking for the sky. I liked this. The feeling of movement, of going somewhere.

I was in my early thirties and should have been in my prime. Instead I was unhealthy. I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and drank copious amounts of coffee. My lungs burned when I exerted myself, and my brain boiled with ideas. I sensed that something was coming for me and could smell its approach in the air, so potent that when I walked my nose seemed to pull the rest of me behind it. For months I hadn’t eaten properly and the weight had dropped from me until what was left was a gaunt, bone of a man.

The train clattered into a tunnel and suddenly I was faced with my reflection in the dark glass, the blue scar across the bridge of my nose now the highlight of my features. My mind went back to the accident, a constant reliving of events. I remembered a Welsh fog and a country road lit up in my headlights – that road coming on and on towards me, flanked by rows of winter trees, on and on, and then being broadsided by another vehicle and the road tumbling from sight. The driver of the other vehicle did not make it. In that orange ambience, with paramedics walking in the fog, I was told by a doctor with tiny spectacles how lucky I was to be alive. The word “alive” plagued me for weeks.

My palms were sweaty as the U12 sauntered from the tunnel and on towards the Zoo station. Buildings appeared against a blue sky. I caught sight of graffiti on walls, mongrel and violent. Below me Berliners walked the streets in a soup of fashion and attitude, some of them ungainly, others at peace. Cars turned at corners, cantered off at speed. Everything glowed in the spring sun, light glancing from windows. The architecture was magnificent.

I had been in Berlin for three days and was crashing at my friend Liana’s place in Neukölln, two minutes walk from both the S and U-Bahn. Liana lived with six others in a flat like a commune I once saw in New Zealand, where the residents shared everything from sex to drugs. The rooms were large and bright, quite wonderful, and the corridor that linked them seemed to bend like a two-headed snake. The doorbell didn’t have a button. It was two open wires you had to put together to make a sound. A plastic leg with stockings and a high heel protruded from a wall. As to be expected the apartment was not entirely clean, but it was organised, which reflected Liana’s presence. I felt, somehow, this flat was the hub for all the creative spinning of Berlin.

But I would discover more than this.

Many years ago I was heading out of Las Vegas in a white camper van. The fluorescent lights of Vegas were fading behind me and the beat of that sinful town was making way for calm desert and cacti. By the road, covered in dust, was a tramp with a dirty beard and a satchel slung over his shoulder. He had his thumb stuck out into the road. I remember thinking this man had probably arrived a millionaire. Cities can do that to a person.

From my three days here I had already surmised that Berlin was the kind of city I wanted to lose myself in, perhaps even die in. Berlin is a regular city; it has its casinos, bars, nightclubs, strip-joints, whorehouses, but it’s also pregnant with the unknown, something that impels a person to search for adventure. Every possible thing opens into everything else. There are no boundaries. You can do what you like. A foreigner living in Berlin needs something of a safety word to keep themselves grounded. It’s dangerous otherwise. You can lose yourself. Get arrested. Catch an STD. Overdose.

We all have our safety words, I expect, and I don’t mean an actual word. It could be a thing, a teddy bear, a coin, a book, even a friend – although friends are not always reliable structures. We’re fallible. That’s why neediness is such a red blooded killer.

Berlin – Interlude

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 Holocaust Memorial, with its stone blocks arranged methodically into grids. The Holocaust 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.

Berlin – Part II

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.’

‘No shit.’

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.

Berlin – Interlude

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.

Berlin – Part I

The windows were open at the Kotti Café. I lit a cigarette and aimed the smoke towards the city. Above me lights were strung up along the coving and outside there were lights across the shop fronts and market stalls, blanketing everything in red glow. The market heaved and bulged with the unpitying clamour of western commerce, whilst traffic thundered under the rail bridge. It was a strange sound to hear from the safety of the Kotti Cafe, the roar of vehicles like an improvised jazz set, a suggestion that Berlin was being fed by a musical-loving god. All this while I sat and waited and smoked and observed, wondering whether my body was really my body, or whether I could cool my brain down with a gunshot to the head.

It had been a year since Liana and I last met and both of us, I imagined, were excited to see one another. We had never been very good at meeting on time and today was no exception. She was always late, I was always late; it was a wonder we ever met at all. When she arrived I was sat by the open window drinking Turkish coffee, with a rucksack at my feet, and as she came in, with the summer evening behind her, I stood and we embraced.

‘How was the flight?’ she asked.

‘The flight was fine,’ I said.

‘And the trains?’

‘The trains were fine, too.’

She looked at me, almost motherly; I was struck by how expressive it was.
Then, as if she couldn’t ignore it any longer, she reached out with her hand and touched my cheek. Her palm was soft and hot, like the heat of an oven, and I felt energy pass through her and into me.

‘I heard what happened,’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘It was nothing.’ I shrugged away her touch and did my best to smile. ‘Really. It’s just one of those things.’

‘Oh, poor you,’ she said and continued to stroke my cheek. ‘My poor, poor Mr Motion.’

‘Stop it,’ I laughed. She’d taken to calling me Mr. Motion some years ago and the reason for it was now lost on both of us. I stepped back and gestured to the couch. ‘Let’s sit, shall we?’

Liana took the seat opposite me. She still had five fingers on each hand, and I assumed five toes on each foot. Counting digits had become an annoying habit of mine. Despite having all fingers and toes accounted for, Liana had changed considerably.

‘You look different,’ I told her.

She tilted her head. ‘Oh yes, my hair,’ she said, and then proceeded to rough it with her fingers. The long waist-length hair she once had was now cut almost to the scalp. ‘It was even shorter when I had it done.’

‘It’s more than your hair,’ I told her. It seemed to me that in the eight months of living here Liana had slipped into the Berlin skin with ease. ‘What are you now?’ I asked, looking at her clothes. She had a throwaway appearance; a ragged jumper, black boots, striped leggings – she was attacking form like a person shunned by it. ‘Are you an urban hippy now?’

She threw out her tongue. ‘I’ll take that as a compliment.’

‘It’s good to see you again, Liana. Really. It’s been too long.’

Liana grinned. ‘You too, dude.’

The word “dude” was something new to her repertoire. It sounded odd. She was too middle-class, too articulated that when she said it it came off as slightly forced.

‘So, did you miss me?’ I asked.

‘What can I say,’ she shrugged. ‘It’s beyond me.’

We were sitting on soft, broken couches, tattered and worn from a thousand arses. I didn’t have much on me, preferring to travel light; a few coins in my pocket, a bag with pens and paper inside. Clothes in a rucksack. I was wearing a black turtleneck jumper, blue jeans and a pair of filthy white trainers.

‘You look like a professor,’ Liana told me, and then added, ‘But man, you’ve lost weight.’

‘Knowledge kills the soul.’

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Are you dying?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’m dying.’

From my bag I pulled free a copy of Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing, and passed it over. I had two other books in my bag to give her but I was saving those for later. Right now, Kharms seemed appropriate.

Liana examined the book and I took it from her hand and read aloud the first short piece in there – about a paragraph long. We both laughed and I was pleased.

‘Books make such wonderful presents,’ she said.

We settled. The café buzzed. Outside Arabic vendors called out to the crowds, their voices shrill and loud as if channeling the ghosts of their dead. Liana shifted, and was all of a sudden bitten by discomfort.

‘I’m so pleased you’re okay,’ she said. There was real worry in her voice. She was touching her lips with her fingers. She always did that when she was concerned. ‘How did it happen?’

I sighed and said, ‘I don’t know. Something happened.’

‘What happened?’

‘I’m not sure.’ I paused to collect my thoughts. ‘I’m still processing it.’ I cantered into silence. Sometimes when I speak I become acutely aware of my voice and how disembodied it is, and if I don’t slap myself hard on the back of the neck I’ll end up hypnotised by it. ‘But really,’ I said, trying to sound convincing, ‘everything is fine.’

Liana was suspicious. ‘Well, if you’d like to talk about it, then… you know. Or not, whatever.’

I shrugged and threw her a wink. ‘It’s all good. But thanks.’

She raised an eyebrow but said nothing more on the subject. We ordered more coffee.

‘So how long are you staying for?’ she asked, placing Kharms on the table. She took hold of the sugar jar and made two small piles of sugar, and then started cutting them into lines with the café menu.

‘I’m not sure,’ I said, watching her. I took a drag of my cigarette and then killed it in the ashtray. ‘I’ll be here until my birthday. Perhaps longer.’

‘God, you look ugly when you smoke,’ she said. ‘Your face contorts. When’s your birthday?’

‘Two weeks from now. I’m going grey, look.’

‘Oh yes. So you are.’

Laughing, I got up to use the toilet. As I washed my hands I examined my grey hairs in the bathroom mirror, and then noticed on one of the cubicle doors behind me someone had written in English, you don’t know, you ain’t got a clue.

When I returned Liana said, ‘I know this bloke. Fritz. He has all these fish in a tank that eat one another.’

‘Some people are very unwell,’ I said.

‘Anyway,’ she continued. ‘Fritz has some MDMA, if that’s what you want?’
I shrugged. ‘It’s been awhile since I did anything.’

‘Well, if you want, we can.’ She grabbed my cigarettes from the table and lit one. She never used to smoke. ‘You’re in Berlin now,’ she added, as if that underlined it. She peered at me from over the tip of the cigarette. ‘It’s going to be a trip with you here.’

We gathered our things and went out into the street and into the cacophony of Kottbusser Tor. From where I had viewed the activity only moments before from the cafe window, now I was traversing it, attaching myself to this strange amoeba that lived and breathed. The city was electric, all around me a chorus of what seemed like a thousand nationalities conversing as one. Through the bustle I heard Arabic music, a darbuka and a nay, wailing through crowds, followed by the chest-beating of a passing car. The market buzzed with energy; voices in German, Turkish, and Arabic, calling out to the crowds like angry lovers. Dark buildings stretched above us and the air had rain in it.

Liana navigated her way through the city, sidestepping posts and jumping curbs, ducking through people who barely knew she was there. I struggled to keep up and several times lost her in the crowd. This city, I realised, with all its vitality had placed her on the line towards something like freedom. The effect was nothing short of miraculous. The city had injected her with life. She belonged here.

I caught up with her staring into a crystal shop. The light inside was blinding, like diamonds being incinerated. A laser from inside was throwing patterns onto the pavement and over Liana’s face.

‘Look,’ she said. ‘I’m at a disco.’

She stepped away and I followed her up the street, through the crowds and past the buskers and drunks and the homeless gathered in small clusters like birds, and I wondered suddenly why I wasn’t living their life; why am I me and not them?

As though synced with me, Liana said, ‘Could you imagine being homeless?’

‘No,’ I said.

She was waving her arms and spinning.

‘Berlin is built on magic!’ she cried. ‘It’s a trip! It’s staggering! Wasted! Enigmatic!’ She had a thing for words. If she were a word – if I could give her one word – it would be “fearless”.

There was a time when I was infatuated with her. We had slept together one night at her parents’ house. At the time I called it “making love”. She called it “fucking”. As I walked a few paces behind, musing on what I would do with her given half the chance, I wondered if those past emotions might flower again. Not the lustful ones I was having now, but deep, painful and pitiful feelings I have always associated with weakness. Unfortunately my base desires have always been more dominant than my intellectual pursuits.

Liana glanced back and caught me looking at her with what I could only imagine was a dopey, saccharine expression. She frowned, as though trying to understand me, but said nothing. Instead, as we passed a motel with drunks leaning in the doorway, Liana pointed and said, ‘I went in there once and had sex for money.’

I stopped in the street.

She turned, ridiculous and carefree. ‘It was nothing,’ she shrugged. ‘He was a friend of a friend, that’s all. An Argentinean. He was passing through Berlin. I took him there. He was really nice. Really sweet, actually.’

‘You did what?’

‘What?’ she said, throwing back my shock. She was agitated. ‘It’s not a big deal.’ Hiding her annoyance she said, ‘Come on.’

We walked a little further and Liana took me into narrow Berlin streets until we came to a clearing with rows of trees. It was the first greenery I’d seen in the city, and the stars were in the leaves and the sky looked like a black ocean with millions of fish.