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 – Part III

It was the sound of two people having sex that woke me up. The bedside clock said three a.m. I threw off the covers and wearing only boxer shorts crept from the room and into the corridor. The floors creaked under my soles. Secret currents and heat filled the air. Down the corridor towards Liana’s room my heart was pounding in my chest. As I neared her bedroom, the sounds grew louder, a woman moaning, incoherent cries of glory and pleasure. Lightening cracked at my ribs. Putting my ear to Liana’s door, I slowly pushed it open. In the moonlight I saw Liana’s sleeping form in bed. She was alone. Both envious and aroused, I turned back to the source of the moaning. At the end of the corridor, beside the kitchen, a door was ajar. I crept over and peered inside.

Under lamp light on a mattress on the floor, a man was giving himself, his life, his soul, his mind, into the figure of a woman beneath him. I couldn’t make out her face for her features were covered in shadow, but her legs were in the air either side of his body, golden and brown, bare little toes, ten of them, wiggling like leaves. I was transfixed, something dark being surrendered.

I didn’t know who either were, but I guessed the man was Danny, the other Swiss of the house Liana had mentioned but whom I was yet to meet.

Their moaning and panting continued. I noticed the skin of Danny’s back shone wet and red in the light, his body tensing, untensing, something demonic about it.  I imagined myself as him, bold and unforgiving, horned, and dirt-filled, and taking from her subservience – meanness and pleasure reflections of each other. I was now wholly excited and touching myself. Whipped up like this I hadn’t noticed that she, the woman beneath Danny, was looking right at me, her head having now moved into a position of light. My body went numb, like a shock of power switching me off. For the briefest of moments she seemed caught between being two different women, the siren and the little girl. Her eyes bored into mine like cats eyes in headlights. We stared at one another as he fucked her, and then she smiled, so natural, and closed her eyes, her face disappearing into the nook of his neck. Panicked and unable to breathe, I swung from the door and dashed up the corridor to my room.

Awake and paranoid, I quickly dressed, putting on my shoes with trembling hands, and went out, leaving the door on the latch so I could get back in. I needed air. I needed movement. Questions bombarded me. What would they do in the morning? Who was she? Would she tell Danny? Liana? I was embarrassed. A pervert. A voyeur. I took a deep breath of the cool night air and began to walk. Prior to arriving in Berlin I had romanticised about being a flâneur, wandering the veins of the city like an artist.

I started on the corner of Karl-Marx-Straße beneath the arched windows of Liana’s apartment building, and made my way deeper into Neukölln. The bars were still open and people slipped in and out of focus against neon lights. Off the bars came the hint of alcohol, a light breeze of it summoning my nostrils. The people in the bars were already in its grip. They drank and laughed and I kept going until the noise faded behind me and Karl-Marx-Straße turned empty. I was glad for that emptiness.

Ahead I came to a church, radiant in floodlight, and I sat on a curb and stared in awe, looking for a significant meaning I could take away with me. The church stood on an island and divided the road in two like a fork. It had sun stained bricks and spires touching the night sky. I am not religious, but grudgingly appreciate the complexity of Christian architecture.

I rolled a cigarette, American Spirit, and sat smoking.

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 too much tea and coffee in an atmosphere that made me depressed. Most of those I worked with were also depressed. They were schizophrenic, borderline personalities, bipolar, and when all together in one room it was like suffocating in other people’s thoughts. The feeling was one of unnerving silence, as though a horrible secret had exploded 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 agonising, 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 evolves 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.

Let me tell you about my father. For his part he was beaten by my grandfather, who, as a young man, had arrived at Dover from Europe in 1936 with a suitcase of clothes and barely a penny in his pocket. My grandfather was not Jewish, nor was he on any kill list, but he fled anyway, sensing, he said later, the fate of Europe around the corner. He married my grandmother, an English nurse, whom he met at the Octovarian Church, and who was dead at forty-six, ten years before my grandfather fell to his death from the dover cliffs, probably trying to fly back home.
My father was twelve years old when he was taken into care, which is probably why I’m so neurotic. Three generations of neurotic men have been in my family. I read somewhere that each generation of the family belongs to a different period of history. I’m not sure if that’s true anymore.

My mother divorced my father when I was six and ran off with another man but I don’t know much more than that. I have the vaguest memory of the woman. She smelled of ivory soap.

Sitting on the curb, deep in thought I hadn’t noticed the man approach me from the right. He was homeless and his body was stretched too thinly for his coat. He wore a sketchy beard and his skin was the colour of stone. He plonked himself beside me and motioned with a wave of his hand for a cigarette. I rolled him one and he grinned at me. We sat on the curb like old chums, looking up at the church.

We were silent for a time, but then something extraordinary happened. This man, whose gaze had lingered on the church, suddenly looked at me with eyes no longer his, 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. His words were slow and carefully chosen. ‘This person, they used this power against me. I could be a dog,’ he said, ‘because that’s how everyone treats me.’

Ash from his cigarette fell into his beard but he made no attempt to brush it away. His eyes had something trapped inside them. I could not avoid the intensity of that gaze. He took another drag and with the cigarette clutched between his teeth and with one of his eyes now closed, he said, ‘Let me tell you, friend. Let me tell you because I think you need to hear this. People know things. They know facts, they know appearances – all the things that make us who we are. But we are all empty bodies.’

He put his hands on his knees and made to rise. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said. ‘They say all things in life should have value.’ He chuckled, a wry and unfriendly sound, and then shook his head. ‘But only the end contains any value.’

The bum stood and then glanced around as if discovering where he was for the first time. A slight shift in his manner, a tick in the eye, told me he was back to his usual drunken self, a wanderer of Berlin. He decided on a direction and started off, but as he entered the light of a streetlamp he turned, tapped a finger against his temple and said, ‘There are no old songs in here.’

After he was gone I stood and made my way back to Liana’s. The man’s words troubled me.

Later 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.

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.