I enjoyed riding the S-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 – it 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 smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and drank copious amounts of coffee. I sensed that something was coming for me and could smell its approach in the air, a storm on the horizon so potent that when I walked my nose seemed to drag 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, carriage lights buzzing like flies. Across from me an old man with a face like a withered onion and with cadaverous hands rocked in the train’s movement. By his side was a plastic bag with glossy magazines inside. The tunnel bathed us both in a red light and in the sudden change the old man regarded his reflection as though it were something wholly unfamiliar. Since childhood I have been fascinated by the power of tunnels.
My palms were hot as the S5 sauntered back into daylight and on towards the Zoo station. Buildings appeared against a blue sky. I caught sight of mongrel graffiti on walls. Below me Berliners walked the streets in a soup of fashion and attitude, some ungainly, others at peace. Cars turned at corners, cantered off at speed. The architecture was magnificent. Everything glowed in the sun, rays glancing from windows. The sun was hot on my skin, and when I closed my eyes the light flickered on my eyelids.
My mind went back to the night of the accident: a Welsh fog and a country road lit up by 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” has plagued me ever since.
Each time I glance into a mirror or catch my reflection in a shop window I see the scar I have endured since that night. Across the bridge of my nose is a blue mark in the shape of a small insect, often mistaken as a butterfly having landed on my face, and in certain light it gleams like wet ink, like a wing vibrating and dying.
By now I had been in Berlin for sixteen days and was crashing at my friend Liana’s place in Neukölln, which was 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. In the corridor beside a large ornate framed mirror, a plastic leg with stockings and a high heel protruded from the brickwork. As to be expected the apartment was not entirely clean and yet it was organised, the latter a reflection of 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 short time here I had already surmised that Berlin was the kind of city I wanted to lose myself in, perhaps die in. Berlin is a regular city; it has its casinos, bars, nightclubs, strip-joints, brothels, 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 living is such a red blooded killer.