At ten-thirty Liana shook me awake and dragged me from bed. A dream that I couldn’t remember was already fading away. I had slept hard, the kind of hard that takes awhile to soften, and I had slept in my clothes and sweated so much that my clothes stuck to me. Liana showed me how to work the shower – don’t turn the knob too far to the right otherwise you’ll get scolded and not too far to the left as you’ll freeze. As I played tentatively with the tap, trying to find a moderate temperature, Liana unbuttoned her jeans and then sat on the toilet and peed. I pretended not to notice and spent an unrealistic amount of time with the shower controls.
‘Tonight will enlighten you,’ said Liana. ‘It’s going to be fun. I have some friends who you really must meet.’
I could hear her peeing in the toilet. ‘Sounds great,’ I replied. ‘But I’m not sure about the whole “enlightened” thing.’
‘God, you’re so predictable.’
‘It’s all meaningless.’
‘Rubbish,’ she said, grabbing wads of loo roll. ‘You better not sprout that shit to my friends,’ she warned. She stood and pulled up her jeans. ‘I mean it. We’re supposed to be having fun, remember?’
‘Oh yes. I’m having fun.’
‘Take a shower. Be ready in ten minutes.’
Twenty minutes later and we were on our way out the door. Her friends were expecting us half an hour ago. Through the landing windows all I could see was the black of the night city and the occasional orange light. At night cities reclaim their virginity; virgin lungs and brain, virgin heart reborn and ready for conquering. I glanced over the banisters. Far below, the lobby floor pulsed and vibrated.
There was techno music on the stairs as we descended. A young man with dark skin and dreads and wearing thick-rimmed glasses was dancing on the third floor landing. The music was coming from small speakers hanging from his belt. Despite being late Liana stopped to dance with him for a couple of beats before continuing on our way. The music faded above us. Liana jumped the last two steps into the lobby and threw herself at the large double doors and smashed her way into the street.
We caught a tram packed with people revelling in the evening. The tram stopped to let passengers on and off and three rogue-like men stepped on and set up hand drums at the rear and started playing. The music filled the carriage and people danced and drank. Someone sparked up a joint. The beat of the drums hammered into my chest.
When we reached ***** Liana and I jumped off and watched the dance-tram turn the corner. We went along the river towards a cobbled street lined with bars and cafes. Groups of people relaxed and drank in the evening air. The sound of chatter bubbled around us. The river was lined with lights, beautiful reflections in the water, cafes and bars glowing in neon blues. My peripheral vision flickered in colours. Liana was one step ahead of me, leading me through the evening revellers. Again she ducked and dived, agile like an animal, and again I struggled to keep up. Eventually we arrived at a bar called ****** and I followed her in and into a bright space of contemporary furniture and soft couches.
There were brick walls with paintings and artwork, and delicately placed floor lamps leaning over from corners. Towards the rear was a wooden bar the colour of Elm and embedded with lights. Music played in the background. I followed Liana up a spiral staircase to a mezzanine with low coffee tables and teak couches. There were shelves rammed with books. In the corner was a man and two women, all three in their mid-twenties, sat with bottles of beer. When they saw us approach a fuss was made and they stood and in turn hugged and kissed Liana. I shook hands with all three. The man, Dave, was English, and the two women, Reena and Hedy, were German. The five of us sat.
Dave pushed his glasses up his nose. His glasses were large, thick-rimmed, and tinted blue. ‘This place is like home,’ he said to me, smiling. He had a great smile. ‘It’s like a diving board into Berlin.’
‘I like the artwork here,’ I said, looking around.
‘Art decorates walls,’ said Hedy, jabbing at the air with a finger. ‘Music decorates time. I read that somewhere.’ Hedy was a slim frantic-looking woman with frizzy black hair and a nose stud. Her skin was dark and she had red lipstick on. She wore a faux leather jacket the colour of cognac, with zips that she couldn’t stop playing with.
Reena took a swig of beer. ‘The world is too complex for art now. It no longer creates the “new”.’ She grabbed a pack of rolling tobacco from the table and started to roll. Reena was small of stature but robust, something ancient and calm in her eyes. She had dark hair, brown thick eyebrows. She was unconventionally pretty. As she rolled a cigarette her fingers I noticed were coppery with dirt and I wondered if she had been tending to soil. All three of Liana’s friends, I would discover, were students of ecology and environmental health. Reena was undertaking a PhD and was due to leave for Scotland in a few weeks where her latest field work was occurring.
Licking the cigarette she looked at me with a groovy kind of curiosity. ‘What is that?’
‘What is what?’
‘On your nose? Is that a tattoo?’
I laughed. ‘It’s not a tattoo. I was in an accident. It’s a scar.’
‘It looks like a moth?’ said Hedy.
Liana obviously felt compelled to change the subject. ‘Does anyone want another drink?’
Dave held up his beer and shook it to show it was almost done. ‘Yes. Definitely.’
The girls agreed. I opted for a coke.
Dave said, ‘Go order at the bar, they’ll bring it up.’
Liana glanced at me. ‘Are you coming?’
‘Do you need me to?’
‘He’s alright here with us,’ said Dave, leaning back. He smoothed out his shirt with his palms. ‘We’ll take care of him.’
I chuckled. ‘You see. Your patronising friends are going to take care of me.’
Liana shot me a worried glance and then disappeared down the stairwell to the bar below. I watched her through the railings ordering drinks.
‘It’s beautiful,’ said Reena.
‘The moth. It’s beautiful.’
‘It kind of suits him, don’t you think?’ said Dave, peering over his glasses.
Hedy put a finger to her lips and frowned like someone at an art gallery. ‘It’s like someone painted art on you.’
‘I love your face,’ said Reena. ‘I love your scar. It looks like a moth. Why is it blue?’
Dave said, ‘I think we’re freaking him out now. Are we freaking you out?’
‘It turned blue within a matter of days. I don’t know why.’
‘It looks like a tattoo.’
‘How did you get it?’ Dave asked.
‘Car accident.’ I shuffled uncomfortably on my seat and cleared my throat. There was a pause.
‘Far out,’ said Hedy.
‘To be honest, I don’t like to think about it,’ I told them. ‘If you think about something for too long you start to become it.’
Dave shrugged. ‘What’s wrong with that?’
Reena smiled at me. ‘There’s nothing wrong with becoming a moth. Think of how far you could fly? And always towards the light.’
‘Mate, fucking go with it,’ said Dave. He swirled the beer in his bottle and then tipped his head back. I watched his adams apple gulp as the beer drained from the bottle.
Liana came back to the table. ‘What did I miss?’
Dave smiled. ‘Everything.’
We settled into the couches and drank and talked. I found Liana’s friends interesting. They seemed to be a mash of opinions and ideals that at times felt contradictory and destabilising. Perhaps they knew this. Perhaps not.
Liana turned to Hedy. ‘So Heds, are you working on anything at the moment?’
Hedy put her feet up on the edge of the coffee table. ‘I have a couple of new projects on the go,’ she said. She shrugged and started working her teeth on a finger nail.
‘What is it that you do?’ I asked.
‘Hedy is a sculptor,’ said Liana. ‘She works with metals.’
‘Glass too,’ said Hedy. ‘But mostly I forage for metal at the city dump or at the reclaimers. Anything I feel I can remould into something new.’
‘You should work with wood,’ said Dave. He reached for the pack of cigarettes on the table and absently worked a cigarette from the packet. ‘I know everything there is to know about wood,’ he said. ‘Lacewood Pine, Pearwood, Maple, Cherry, Cedar, Ash, Birch. Afromosia, Bubinga, Sapele, Teak. There’s hundreds. We should work on something together. That would be awesome.’ He squeezed an eye shut and lit the cigarette. ‘Definitely we should work together.’
‘My latest project is with glass,’ said Hedy. ‘Very different, very finite. Really interesting material but hard to work with.’
‘What is it?’ asked Reena.
‘It’s a bust of my mother. It’s hollow inside.’
‘You need to fill it with things,’ said Dave. ‘Otherwise it’s just hollow.’
‘That’s the point,’ said Hedy. ‘My parents are frauds. They’re conservatives disguised as liberals.’
‘You don’t like your parents?’ I asked.
‘It’s not that I don’t like them. I just don’t agree with them. The reality of the world is whatever they choose it to be. They ignore everything else.’
Liana said, ‘I can’t live in the confines of other people’s expectations.’
‘Fucking aye,’ said Dave, raising his beer.
Hedy came forward with the air of someone personally affronted. ‘Have you ever believed the future is now? That perhaps, through all our woes and disagreements, we never noticed that we’ve already arrived, living in a technological dystopian world?’
I was beginning to form a picture of Liana’s friends. They had no qualms about transcending reality as long as they brought back with them the spiritual tools needed to improve themselves and the world around them. To this aim Liana had surrounded herself with an array of friends and acquaintances who all knew something about, and had varying levels of education within, ecology and the environment, social sciences and economic development. They were the internet generation, connected, self-aware, hedonistic. Metropolitan hipster. They were surviving through a mix of capitalist individualism and socialist ideals. As a collective they understood the need for modernity and change. They wanted change. They craved balance and power over ones endeavours and over the institutions that governed them. They were sexually liberated and fearless in the face of criticism.
Liana waved a finger across the table. ‘The only power we have,’ she said, ‘is the ability to write our own stories and hope they inspire others into action. I like this life. Modern life suits me. I don’t want it to end.’
The conversation shifted to their jobs and their studies. It was interesting to hear them talk about their lives, which seemed so different to who they were in this bar. It was as if tonight they had been taken off the leash. A waitress came up with our drinks. My coke had come in a glass bottle. I held it to the light. ‘I like coke in a glass bottle,’ I said. ‘It tastes better.’
‘It does?’ Liana asked.
‘Coke in a can is good too, but coke in a plastic bottle is vile. Don’t ask me to explain why, it’s just a fact.’
‘Maybe it’s chemistry,’ said Dave. ‘On a molecular level?’
‘Like your shirt,’ said Hedy.
His white short-sleeve shirt had thousands of tiny pink triangles on it. ‘Fuck off,’ he said.
‘Love you, Dave,’ said Hedy.
Dave threw a kiss her way. ‘We’d make a good couple,’ he said. ‘My decisiveness and your ambiguity would be a good match.’
Hedy returned the kiss. ‘Fuck off, Dave.’
‘We hated each other in another life,’ Dave said.