Forcing the Strings

Louise and her date were waiting for a taxi one night when he turned suddenly and tried to kiss her.  When Louise said she wasn’t interested, the date said, ‘You’ve been playing me all night!’  She didn’t see him again but his remark troubled her.

Soon afterwards she met a man called Karl at a concert she was performing at in St Andrews Hall.  Karl was tall and with cropped hair.  He moved like a retired athlete still keeping in shape but not competing.  Perhaps he lived in an expensive apartment and was separated and with a daughter somewhere?  When he asked her out for dinner he played with his left ear as though jangled by nerves and Louise caught sight of a gold watch on his wrist.

Louise had always fantasied about a strong and confident man that wanted her but couldn’t have her.  She would lie awake at night, dreaming.  He would chase her, be on the verge of winning her, but in the same fantasy she would come to realise he was not good enough for her.

On the Saturday morning a few hours before their date Louise went shopping in charity shops for clothes.  She tried on skirts and blouses, new shoes and leggings, trying to find a combination she was comfortable in and also something that Karl might find attractive on her.  Eventually she went with her usual attire, a dress over a pair of jeans that made her look slimmer than she actually was.  She had always been conscious of her weight, of her wide hips and thighs.  

When she got home she put the dress on in front of a mirror and stood smoothing the creases with her palms and posing in various positions.  There wasn’t much light coming into the room and one of her pictures on the wall – the one of Coltrane – was not straight and hadn’t been straight for some weeks.

She was nervous about her date with Karl.  It made her want to pee or go for a run.  On the floor around her were scattered sheets of notation and above the lounge door hung a framed certificate from the Royal Academy of Music, graduate of 2007.  Louise found it difficult to imagine anyone else living here.  Still wearing the dress she went to her violin case in the corner of the room and took out her violin, then pushing her glasses up her nose she placed the rest under her chin, drew the bow across, retuned a string, and then played Lizst’s Allegro moderato.  

Each day after rehearsals Louise would come home and lose herself on the violin, lost in the notations of Bach and Beethoven; the cool wood under her chin, the feel of the bow as it brought to life the nuances of great compositions; it was the only intimacy she had ever really known.  Sometimes the music was more real to her than the people she encountered and she took from this both liberation and sadness.

Putting away her violin Louise unzipped the dress and then hooked it on a curtain rail – she was worried about moths, there was a nest of them somewhere in the building and they were coming up through the floorboards – but when she lifted the dress she caught the hem on a nail and the dress tore.  Swearing, she took the dress to the other side of the room, holding it at arms length as though it was contagious.  What now, she thought?  It struck her suddenly, she was in luck!  Her neighbour Alva, who lived across the hall, was a seamstress.

Alva was a short vibrant old lady who had probably survived a dozen near deaths.  She opened the door and peered at Louise over thick rimmed glasses.  She frowned as though suspicious of the intrusion and then her gaze landed on the dress and the flap of torn material and with a yank of her head she motioned for Louise to follow her inside.

‘Put it on the table,’ she said, without turning.  Alva picked up a bag and a case, presumably with the tools needed to mend the wound, and when she turned she saw that Louise had come to a halt just past the threshold.  Louise had never been in Alva’s apartment before, it was like something out of a fairytale.  The flat smelled of copper and dust and was lit by lamps with tasseled shades.  There were two old cats asleep on the windowsill.  Baskets full of linen and cloth sat on shelves.  In the corner was a dressmakers mannequin with the beginnings of a blue garment in the making.  The flat was more a workshop than a home.

‘I said put it on the table,’ said Alva, irritated for having to repeat herself.

Louise shook herself free of inertia and draped the dress carefully over the table.  

Alva dropped the case and bag beside the dress, popped them open and began to bring out various threads and cloth, carefully examining them against the dress.  

Louise sat on a couch and watched as Alva began her work mending the tear, her leathery hands working the material, piercing it with needles and slowly but surely threading it back together.  The dedication and passion was impressive.

‘You should be more careful next time,’ chastised Alva.

‘I will be,’ said Louise. 

Alva evidently lived alone, there was no sign of a partner, no pictures of loved ones.  Sketch books littered the shelves and tables, some of which were open, their pages revealing pencilled drawings of dresses with measurements.  Through the dedication of a craft Alva had forged a life on her own.  But did she get lonely, wondered Louise?

On occasion and usually after a glass of wine, Louise listened to saccharine love songs that made her cry.  Afterwards, embarrassed by herself, she would listen to something settled; an avant-garde piano piece, something early twentieth-century – Webern perhaps – or a violinist like Paganini who played the instrument like a vessel to some other place, grinding the strings, forcing them to pluck and resonate like the violin itself was alive, the wood alive, the sound alive.  This was why she played.

When Alva had finished mending the dress Louise offered her some money in way of thanks but Alva waved the gesture away.  Money was not enough, she said, to wear it would be its own reward. 

The evening started slow and tentative.  She met Karl at a Bar & Kitchen on York Road and when he arrived he looked rushed and pale.  He was dressed in a smart but casual shirt and was wearing dark jeans.  His shoes were dirty.

‘I’m very tired,’ he told her, as he drew up.  She had trouble hiding her annoyance.  They stood in the lobby exchanging an awkward hug.   ‘I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be this tired,’ he said.  ‘It’s terribly rude of me.  It’s been a long day.  And if I’m honest…’ he said.  ‘I’m quite nervous.’

His admission of nerves did nothing to ease her own.  A waitress led them across the restaurant towards a table.  Louise followed closely behind Karl; a slight swagger to his walk, she thought.  The walk across the restaurant seemed to take forever and Louise was pleased she’d decided against wearing an outfit with high heels.  The restaurant was a large open area with a mahogany bar and beside the bar saloon doors leading to a kitchen.  The familiar noise of heat and pans vented from behind it.

When they were seated Karl ordered wine and after the waitress had gone they were mostly silent.  The sound of diners eating and talking on the tables around them only made their silence more intense.  Karl kept glancing over at the bar.  He checked his watch twice.  Louise stirred back her annoyance and was relieved when the wine arrived.  Louise ordered venison pie and Karl went with steak, medium to rare.

Karl took a good glug of wine and then leant forward over the table as though trying to capture her in his gaze.

‘So,’ he said, at last.  ‘Tell me about yourself.’

And so the evening began, with Karl doing much of the talking.  He wanted to know things about her, how she had come to live in the city.  Louise did not tell him much, opting for caution than honesty.

Before she came to the capital, wonderful dreams had come to her of a life that should have been hers, a life of vision and sensibility.  It was in the city that a person could make something of themselves.  As a teenager she had seen in magazines metropolitan women and had been so enamoured that she too wanted to dress like this, to be that person.  

She did not tell Karl any of this.  Nor did she tell him what she loved about the city.

There was much about the city she loved; how it changed with the seasons.  She loved the autumnal showers with people as pale as ghosts.  She loved the pang of joy she felt when she pumped an umbrella dry before walking into a gallery, or caught the smell of fresh coffee from a nearby cafe.  It was these moments that she associated with her favourite literature, of confident heroines in the rain. 

Sometimes when the rain was coming down the windowpane at home she would find herself crying, and when she cried the rain became tears and her tears became the rain.

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A Strange and Beautiful Beast

For a time I felt as if nothing had come before me, that I had simply risen from the Vltava river, drenched in water, and had crossed the muddy banks to be close to the city.  

I had been in Prague for two months and was renting a room in a shared building that was once a post office.  The toilets, labelled by gender, still had hand-dryers on the walls, and the kitchen, which was burnt and filthy and smelled of oil, was in the strip of corridor that linked our rooms.  There was six of us in total, a Brazilian, two Turks, an Irishman, a Macedonian, and myself.  We lived harmoniously with few disputes.  We gambled over cards until the early hours of the morning.  We listened to techno and had film nights.  We bought a pet snake and let it loose from its tank so it could explore the building and eat the mice.  Sometimes it would sit on the table amongst the playing cards and glasses of gin.

At night I haunted strip joints and brothels.  I drank beer and vodka and watched as the world around me vanished.  Mostly I kept to myself, strolling the baroque streets with a cigarette hanging from my mouth.

I met Bethany at a bar on a street I no longer remember the name of.  It was somewhere in the old town.  Bethany was a podgy American who had the look of a chique-geek at a time when the style was in.  She was attractive and wore thick rimmed glasses and had short dyed hair.  We met once a week for coffee and she taught me how to knit.  Sometimes she would let the strap of her dress slip down her arm to reveal the skin of her shoulder.  Every time she did this she would meet my gaze but I always feigned ignorance.  Whenever we finished our little get-togethers I walked with her to the tram stop and I always sensed she was waiting for me to go home with her.  As a red blooded male I wanted to almost as much as I didn’t.  The spark was not there and the cadence of her voice had begun to irritate me.  This was confounded by the ridiculous things she often said.

‘I would make such a terrible mother,’ she told me.

‘Why would you think that?’

‘Because!  It’s true!’  Everything was such a drama.  ‘Haven’t you ever imagined yourself several steps ahead?  Like in two or three years?  Being a father?  It’s like some kind of – oh my god.’  We were in a cafe that was situated at the back of a bookshop.  A waitress came past with a tray of crockery.  Bethany leant across and said, ‘She is such a porn star.  Have you eaten?  I haven’t really eaten.’

I declined the offer of food.  The thought of eating made me feel sick.  Bethany had no such problem.  ‘Do you think I should have cake?’  She was looking for approval but she didn’t need it.  She was a woman who had taken her baby fat with her into adult life.

I wanted to like Bethany but her clumsy facade made it near impossible.  Occasionally I would find nuggets of thought and opinions that corresponded with my own worldview, but it was never enough to turn the tide.  After awhile I did the unthinkable and began to phase her out, taking too long to return her calls or respond to a text.  Eventually I ignored her.

The guilt was short-lived because by then I was sleeping with my Macedonian flatmate.  Mateja was a wholesome girl from a rural village in east Macedonia.  She was naive and inexperienced, much like myself.  Recently she had had a bad experience with a man who had turned out to be married.  Mateja worked in a call-centre.  She had a talent for talking to strangers and she saw herself one day running the German wing of the department.  She spoke German and English to a high level and she was evidently intelligent. 

But as with Bethany there lacked the attraction.  Despite this getting into bed together had been so easy that neither of us were able to stop it from happening.  Mateja had cute breasts, large thighs, and a smile that didn’t sit right on her face.  Her lips were thin and she had beautiful eyes and beautiful hands.  The first time we fooled around I went down on her but she pushed me away at the point of climax.  It was a sin in her family, she told me.  The next time we got together she awkwardly returned the favour until I came.  Embarrassed and uncertain she said, ‘You tasted nice.’  I was disgusted with myself.  I knew she was putting me somewhere in her heart but already I had an eye on leaving the country.  

Mateja insisted on spending whole days with me walking along the river and across the many bridges and into the old town of Prague with its romance and style, a connotation of which Mateja affixed to us.  My days of brooding silently in bars were over.  It seemed she was only happy when we held hands.  Our walks were long and unforgiving.  She was especially content when observing the architecture of the countless churches and monasteries and she would spend ages looking upon them as though in silent commune.  

One afternoon as we made our way back to the courtyard we stopped at a pedestrian crossing and as we stood waiting for the lights to change a man behind us pinched her arse.  It upset her greatly.  The man was somewhere north of his fifties with a frayed and wild grin.  Without thinking I punched him in the face.  At the time I barely weighed nine stone due to the copius amounts of amphetamine I was taking but my punch landed well.  He tried to right himself but his body told him otherwise, a flickering between states, and down he went.  Nearby two tough-looking men drinking beer outside a bar laughed and pointed.

‘You scared me,’ said Mateja later.

‘I didn’t mean to.  I’m sorry.’

‘It’s okay.’  She had mixed feelings.  ‘You didn’t need to do that.’

I took my gaze to the window.  ‘Yes,’ I said.  ‘I did.’

The altercation had happened only a few meters from where I was staying and I was half-expecting the police to turn up and arrest me.  I was scared of the Czech police.  

That night a growing anxiety led me to a bottle of Jack Daniels.  Sometimes the police would turn up in our courtyard to arrest one of the Romany Gypsies.  The apartment buildings that overlooked the courtyard were housed by several generations of Gypsy families.  At night they drank wine and played loud music from their cars but they always turned the music off at ten o’clock on the dot.  Whenever the police came the Gypsies would be manhandled into cars, often getting a knuckle in the ribs or a hard slap over the head, slammed against cars.  I had never seen a tougher-looking police force than the Czech police.  Many of them were ex-military with facial scars and with grim expressions.  They didn’t ask questions.

The thought of the police turning up to arrest me turned my piss yellow.  As I sat on the balcony with a JD on my lap and a cigarette in my mouth, I watched the gate, terrified that it might swing open to flashing blue lights.  Instead all night a steady stream of Gypsy family members came and went under the cover of midnight with TVs and stereos under their arms; items they had taxed from the city.  The goods they brought in were taken to flat twenty-seven on the fourth floor in the building directly opposite to mine.  

I did not know who lived in that flat but once a week the iron gates creaked open and a black BMW would crawl in, slow and purposeful, its tyres cracking on the cobbles.  The car would come a stop and a beast of a man who was both beautiful and frightening would step out, observe his surroundings, and then make his way to flat twenty-seven.  A half hour later he we would emerge from the flat and make his way back down to the car.  

There was a steadiness about this man, the look of someone not prone to neurotic behaviour.  He dressed like a person in finance.  His head was shaven to the quick and he wore polished shoes that caught the light and a double-breasted suit that hugged his huge figure.  One time I noticed a Rolex on his wrist.  There was no doubt in my mind this man was a killer.  I watched him leave through the iron gates, the BMW crawling back into the city, back towards the Vltava river.   

I lit another cigarette and came to the conclusion that the police would not be coming for me.  In the morning I would end my relationship with Mateja.  As long as I lived in this city I would not be able to make commitments to anyone. 

Prague is home to those who unwittingly are witness to their own degeneration.  

Automotions

We caught the U-Bahn.  I didn’t know which part of Berlin we were heading to, only that I was being taken to a nightclub called Zenzoride. Liana and her friends talked excitedly.  The carriage lights flickered.  At the station platforms trains hummed and whirled like metal beasts.  We made our way up concrete steps and onto a barren street with dilapidated buildings and warehouses and other industrial strongholds.  Ahead were floodlights where people congregated and queued outside a huge gothic building cordoned off with high wire fencing.  Things began to heat up.

At a kiosk we parted with cash to gain entry.  I slid fifteen euros across the counter and received a stamp of a scorpion on my hand.  We walked through a wire meshed tunnel towards a security area where we lined up to be checked for drugs and weapons.  The security consisted mainly of large German men with black attire and hard grimaces.  I was patted down and searched and then waved on.  There was a buzz in the air.   I glanced up, above us were metal girders and attached to these were massive power cords encased in rubber tubing.  Ahead of us was a concrete archway with large metal doors.  Before stepping through I glanced back and saw an industrial complex of buildings and warehouses and people queuing in a blanket of floodlight.  The sensation of an abandoned TV network still on air.

Following a group of people we made our way down a corridor towards a door at the far end.  I could hear a thump from beyond that grew louder as I got closer.  My heart began to race.  When I stepped through the door the thump turned into a beat and I was greeted by a nightclub pumping out techno.

It took me a moment to adjust.  Berlin, I had been told, was the place for clubbing in Europe and this spectacle did nothing to refute that claim.  In the middle of the floor was a crowd of people dancing in the smoke and lights.  Lasers scanned the crowd and around the dance floor people moved on balconies, arms and bodies flowing in the air.  

Dave threw me a wink.  ‘Come on, man.’

Metal stairs led to other levels of the building and on every floor there were booths for seating.  Everywhere were offshoot rooms with a variety of DJs mixing techno through huge speakers.  Emergency lights lined the walkways.  The floor vibrated.  The club had a raw and circular appearance, a harmony of industrial and contemporary stimuli. 

On the second level we bought drinks from a bar and commandeered a booth.  The music was so loud it got into everything, brick, flesh, lungs.  To hear one another we had to lean into each other and shout over the beat.  Within half an hour we  amassed a collection of beer and cigarettes.  Liana and the gang were in their element, laughing and talking excitedly, but I was unable to settle.

Dave reached across the table and took both of my hands with his.  ‘Are you serious?’ he said.

‘What?’

‘Are you serious or do you want to have some fun?’  He brought my hands together and I felt him slip something into my palm before he slinked back across the table with a grin.

‘What is it?’

Liana leaned into me.  ‘MDMA.’

‘I don’t know,’ I said.  ‘It’s been a long time.’

‘You don’t have to,’ Liana said.

I watched as in turn my companions popped something into their mouths before washing it down with beer.  I examined the package in my palm.  It was a cigarette paper tightly wrapped and concealing what I imagined was the white powder of MDMA.  Glancing around I saw everyone in the club happy and in love with life.   It struck me that I had not felt like that since before the accident.  In a moment of hardpan emotion I said, ‘Fuck it,’ and put the package onto my tongue.  I took a swig of beer and swallowed.  Almost instantly I felt a rush of anxiety and doubt.  It was too late now, I thought.

The club lights strobed around us, our conversations strange and disjointed.  In the back of my mind I couldn’t shake the fear that I was about to get high and it frightened me to the point that my hands were shaking.

It took forty minutes for the drug to take effect.  At first I felt an absence from the club, a discordant view of everything around me.  Suddenly I wanted to shit.  And then with the flick of a switch the high hit me and my brain switched on.  It was as though throughout my entire life I had been viewing everything through a letterbox and now the door to that letterbox had opened.  The anxiety I previously had vanished in the click of a finger and a surge of euphoria travelled down to my toes and then back up to the crown of my head like an electrical current.  The music changed.

‘Jesus Christ.’

Dave laughed.  His teeth were fluorescent in the light.  Demonic.  He shouted over the music, ‘It’s good, yeah? Good shit, right mate?’

‘Jesus Christ.’   The club had entered my brain and central to it all was the music, so tribal, so fierce.  ‘Holy shit!’  I was grinning like a freak.

‘Drink some water,’ said Liana.

I glanced at her.  Her eyes were black, her face slender and beautiful.  ‘Water,’ she said again and pointed to the glass on the table.  I reached for it, but in the light my hand flickered in and out of existence, and then the glass it held disappeared and reappeared.  I drank the water, the most beautiful thing I had ever tasted.  ‘I fucking love water,’ I said.

Dave was laughing.  ‘I love this guy.  Where did you find him?’

Liana shrugged.  Hedy and Reena were holding each other like lovers in the corner, watching my high unfold.  ‘We’re so glad you came to Berlin,’ said Hedy. ‘It’s a real trip.’

The beat of the techno cut out and a subwoofer rattled the room.  The table and the glasses on top of it vibrated.  The beat kicked back in sending everything into overdrive.

Following Liana’s lead I was drawn from the booth and onto the dance floor where I began to dance among a throng of bodies, sweat and heat and smoke pressing down upon me.  Liana, Dave, Hedy and Reena danced alongside me.  We were lovers now, comrades of the exceptional.  The music stopped and we cried and whooped.  I glanced up and saw the DJ, a figure bathed in smoke and light and with his arms in the air like a preacher.  He brought his arms down and we were met with a subwoofer that cut the room into layers.  Slowly a beat built up around it, smooth synthetic pads cushioning the kick drum and hat.  As the beat become solid and the tune began to take shape, I found I was surrounded by people who were experiencing the same measureless harmony as myself.  My body was at one with the music, total connection, total muscle control.  I felt a love for my friends that was pure and undiluted.  

I checked to see if Liana was okay.  She was hugging herself and running her hands over her body as though being fucked by the music.  It was devouring us.  Liana moved into me and we embraced.  I could smell the sweat on her.

‘I love being your friend,’ she shouted over the beat.  ‘I’ve never felt judged by you.’

The night stretched on endlessly and beautiful.  At some point in the evening I met another of Liana’s friends, Raphael.  He was a tall and quiet man whose presence seemed to put everyone at ease.

‘Are you having a good time?’ he asked me.

‘Yes.  Most definitely.’  Beads of sweat dropped from my brow.

He offered me a joint.  ‘Here, take this.’

Raphael smoked a lot of weed and when he passed a joint it was a slow and purposeful movement.  He seemed to observe everything from far away as though the world was slowing down for him.  I took the joint he was offering and Liana and I went to another room where more techno poured onto a dance floor.  I stood by the side and watched the dancers.  I inhaled another drag of the joint but by now I had forgotten what I was smoking, drawing it into my lungs like a cigarette.  Eventually, when it was gone, I ground it into an ashtray and then filled with intense energy I again joined the fray.

As I danced inside the core the music grew with vigour, flashes and bangs, bodies sweating around me.  I had moments of connection followed by confusion.  Something wasn’t right.  I could feel myself shifting.  I was finding it difficult to dance, made harder when all of a sudden the bass and the beat dropped out and a range of high-pitched 101s assaulted us, cutting through everything.  The floor seemed to rise and fall.  People were getting crazy.  The 101s were building up into a crescendo and we all knew something was coming.  I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, when is this going to stop?’  But it kept going, the crescendo rising and rising.  The club was spinning past in a blur of lasers and smoke, bodies suspended all around me, arms up like worshippers waiting for a payload.  It was an ungainly feeling and I struggled to sync myself.  The club was heading towards something I had no power to overturn.  The atmosphere rose up and up until finally the bass and the beat kicked back in and the club went nuts.  I heard my voice say ‘Fucking hell’.  And with that, my brain folded like a pancake.

For the briefest of moments I had no idea where I was.  Glancing around I no longer saw bodies of people but machines dancing in the strobe light; mechanical and spindly, organic and retro things washing over the floor like a tide of water, dancing as one great component, one network rotating around me, as though I were the bionic eye of the storm.  Flashes and bangs of music compounded me, threw me out of sync with the swarm; but the swarm was at one with it, following it, worshipping the great sound.  This is it, I thought.  Humanity is heading to this.

Another flash and the machines were replaced with people once again.  I had stopped dancing and was stood in the middle of the floor like a moron, heart pounding, clothes drenched in sweat.  Somehow in the chaos I located Liana.  She was still dancing, oblivious to my headfuck.

‘I have to go home!’ I shouted.  ‘I have to get out of here!’

‘What? What is it?’

‘I have to get out of here!’

She took my hand and led me from the dance floor and towards the exit, keeping an arm around me to keep me steady.  I felt like a psychiatric patient.  When we reached a quiet area in an adjoining room, she hugged me and spoke into my ear.

‘It’s okay,’ she was saying.  ‘You’re fine.  It’s okay.’  Her voice was coming to me from inside a cave.

With trembling hands I sat and chain-smoked while Liana talked me back to reality.  I clung to her words.

As I calmed I took in my surroundings.  We sat on a red couch.  Across from us was a vending machine.  Our senses had taken leave and we were convinced it was selling silver spoons of different shapes and sizes.  It wasn’t until closer inspection that we discovered they were cigarette packets.

When the world at last took shape, we decided to leave, two wired individuals navigating their way across Berlin on the U-Bahn. At the station platforms trains juddered and roared in the early morning glare.  They sounded like intros to songs.  Every now and then I felt the presence of machines, and searching for them was unable to locate them.  Everything ticked.  Nearby commuters hid behind mobile phones and tablets.  Time moved impossibly slow.  And everything ticked.  We are close to bionic ejaculation.  We are close to spawning our future.

At Liana’s we took a couple of sleeping pills and I went into Danny’s room to sleep.  He was away in Switzerland.  I stretched out on the mattress on the floor, my body still twitching, and Liana took the bed.  When I started to drift the MDMA would ripple me awake again.  It was an unpleasant and dirty feeling.  At some point I made it back to my room and slept all day and woke at sunset.  I was tired.  Confused.  The world was beating some distant song.  Then I smoked a cigarette.

Modern Life Suits

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 my skin.  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 predictable.’

‘Life is meaningless,’ I said with a smile.

‘Rubbish,’ she said, grabbing wads of loo roll.   ‘You better not say 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 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.  Below us the lobby floor pulsed and vibrated.  

As we descended the stairs we heard techno coming up towards us.  A young man with dark skin and dreads and wearing thick-rimmed glasses was dancing on the third floor landing.  The music came from small speakers hung 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.

‘Come on!’

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.  

The river ran parallel to a cobbled street lined with bars and cafes where groups of people enjoyed beer and conversation.  The sound of chatter echoed around us.  We made our way along the river edge.  It was lined with lights, beautiful reflections balancing on the water.  The cafes and bars glowed in neon.

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.  The walls were bare brick with artwork and murals.  Delicately placed floor lamps leant over from corners.  Towards the rear was a wooden bar embedded with fairy 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, sitting with bottles of beer.  When they saw us approach a huge fuss was made as 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 my diving board into Berlin.’  

‘Cool artwork,’ I said, looking around.  

‘It’s very cool,’ said Hedy.  Hedy was a slim frantic-looking woman with frizzy black hair and a nose stud.  Her skin was dark and she had red lipstick.  She wore a faux leather jacket the colour of cognac, with zips that she couldn’t stop playing with.  

Rolling a cigarette Reena said to me, ‘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 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.’  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 friends are going to take care of me.’   

Liana shot me a worried glance and then disappeared down the stairwell to the bar below.  

‘It’s beautiful,’ said Reena.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘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 in a museum.  ‘It’s like someone painted 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?’

‘There’s nothing wrong with becoming a moth,’ said Reena.  ‘You’ll always fly 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 the beer drain 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.  Liana’s friends were a mash of opinions and ideals that at times felt contradictory and destabilising.  Perhaps they knew this.  Perhaps not.  

Reena rolled another cigarette from a pack of tobacco on the table.  She was a small and robust young lady.  As she rolled the 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.  

Liana turned to Hedy.  ‘So Heds, are you working on anything lately?’

Hedy put her feet up on the edge of the coffee table.  She had leather boots.  ‘I have a couple of 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 an amazing sculptor,’ said Liana.  ‘She works with metals.’

‘Glass too,’ said Hedy.  ‘Mostly I forage for metal at the city dump or at the reclaimers.  I take things and remould them 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.  Interesting material but hard to work with.’

‘What are you making?’ asked Reena.

‘A bust of my mother.  It’s hollow.’

‘You need to fill it with things,’ said Reena.  ‘Otherwise it’s just hollow.’

‘That’s the point,’ said Hedy.   

‘Don’t you like your mother?’ I asked.

‘Of course I do,’ said Hedy.  ‘But the reality of the world is whatever she chooses it to be.  The number one problem with getting older is that you drag the world away from new perspectives.’

Liana said, ‘I can’t live in the confines of other people’s expectations.’

‘Fucking aye,’ said Dave, raising his beer.  

These people 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.  

As we stood to leave Liana pointed a finger aggressively 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.’

When you stroll through Berlin …

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.

Woozy woozy things

An hour later and we were in south Berlin traversing the stairs of a building in Neukölln.  The buildings here, old and large, speak of opulent worlds now turned to urban ghettos; banisters with wood knots and nail heads, faintly wallpapered walls, black dust cradled on windowpanes.  The building made me think of jazz music and the war.  

Liana’s flat was at the very top on the fifth.  As we ascended I caught the scent of copper pipes and stale water, mixed with hashish and cooked onions.  The doleful, tiny eyes of children peered out at us through open doors, and from behind them I heard fiery Turkish voices and television sets blaring.  The children had beautiful complexions and washed black hair.  As we made our way up they stumbled over each other to get a look at us, their giggling following us up the stairs.  On the landing I stepped over a pile of cardboard boxes stacked haphazardly against the bannisters.  Liana glanced over her shoulder down the stairs.  ‘Poor things.  They’re so sweet.’

When we were 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.  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 glance I sensed a man in total control, almost robotic, and suddenly I was fearful of him.  He made no acknowledgement of my arrival and turned his attention back to his friend.

‘That’s Robin and Dom,’ said Liana.

‘How many people live here?’ I asked.

‘Altogether, seven,’ she said and proceeded to list each person on her fingers.  ‘Let’s see, Danny, Andri, myself, Ada, Anne, Robin, Dom.  Ada’s travelling.  Danny and Andri are in Switzerland.’

‘And you all get along?’

‘Of course not.’  She opened a door to reveal a large room with a mattress on the floor and a hammock.  ‘This is mine and Andri’s room.  You’ll be staying in Ada’s.  Come on.’

Liana took me into the kitchen and introduced me to Robin and Dom.  We shook hands and I was painfully aware of how damp my palm was.  ‘I’m really no good at socialising,’ I wanted them to understand. 

With introductions over I sat on a dentist’s chair.  The kitchen had dentist paraphernalia that included two chairs and a large neon tooth that sat on top of the cupboards.  The kitchen table wasn’t centred, and at one side of the room was a red couch up against bare brick.  Above us were wooden rafters and skylights.   The kitchen cupboards had writing on them in black felt: Herbs & Spices, Drinks & Cereal, Woozy Woozy Things.

Robin and Dom were largely ignoring me, much to my anxiety, and were more interested in smoking pot and conversing in German.  Whatever they were talking about was obviously not meant for my ears.  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, jaw grinding like a machine.  He had the look of a man with conflicting highs.  I guessed he was about nineteen.  His nose ran with snot and he kept wiping it with the back of his hand. 

At some point I drifted off and began to picture myself from afar sitting in the kitchen; 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.

‘Pardon me?’ 

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.  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 blonde with a slim figure and with attractive eyes that expanded and contracted as her mind raced to keep up with her conversations.  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,’ I added.  Something about her manner made me want to dissociate myself from my country.

‘I like England,’ Anne said.  ‘I like your crisps.’

Her phone rang again, and with that 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 space 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. A. 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?’

I sensed that Dom never considered the legality of his art.  For a moment I watched his pale face, eyes sweet and high, and found I envied his freedom.  

Between mouthfuls Liana said, ‘Have you seen Frits lately?’ 

The room tensed up.  Dom shivered. 

‘Why do you want to see Frits?’ asked Robin. 

‘I thought we could get some MDMA.’

‘What’s wrong with Frits?’ I asked.

Dom looked at me and shook his head.  ‘Frits is…’’

‘You should stay away from Frits,’ Robin said.  His voice was grave and all business.  ‘He’s gone wrong somehow.  Something in his head, like bad circuitry.’  

Liana laughed.  ‘That’s nothing unusual.’

‘It would be best for you both to stay away from him.’

There was something in Robin’s tone that lit a flame in the air.  I watched Liana study Robin’s expression.  ‘What’s happened to him?’ she asked but I got the impression she already knew.  I was out of the loop.  The three of them exchanged glances and with that the conversation was over.  For a moment, except for the scrape of cutlery, the room was quiet.  Robin reached for a joint on the table and sparked it but 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.

After a moment I asked, ‘So what’s with this Frits chap?’ 

‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ said Liana.  ‘They’re overreacting.’

I wasn’t being told the truth.  Perhaps I would try again later.  I scooped up the last of my dinner and put it in my mouth.  The food was good, the vegetables charred and full of flavour.  

Liana skewered a piece of onion with a fork and began waving it around.  ‘If vegetables were intelligent,’ she was saying, ‘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.  

Liana winked and fired an imaginary bullet at me.

The table began to vibrate as Liana’s phone lit-up.  She left the kitchen with the phone to her ear yelling ‘hello?’  I could hear her voice through the kitchen door and from its cadence it was obvious she was caught in the spasm of an argument.  Andri was away in Switzerland working as a snowboarding instructor.  I imagined a blonde Aryan, confident and swathe and talking in a silky German-Swiss accent.  All of a sudden I felt a pang of jealousy towards him, a ridiculous notion considering I had never met the man.  A small fierce rain started inside me.  Liana returned ten minutes later with a dour expression.

‘What’s the matter?’

She plumped herself on the couch.  ‘He’s in a bar getting drunk with some girl.  He wanted advice on how to get her into bed.’  She shrugged.  ‘It’s kind of strange.’

‘That is strange,’ I said. 

Liana stretched 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.  

Liana continued.  ‘I really shouldn’t worry though,’ she said.  ‘He’s not very good at pulling women.’

‘He pulled you,’ I said.

She made a face and then slid to her side, bringing her legs up into a foetal position.  ‘So when was the last time you got laid?’ she asked with an air of triumphalism.

‘I don’t fuck anymore,’ I told her. 

‘God, you live like a monk.  It’s not healthy.  I think you hate yourself.’

‘Don’t we all hate ourselves?’

‘Why did you come to Berlin?’ she asked, getting to the point.

‘Let’s call it an impulse.’

‘Is that why you’re heading east…?’  She reached for my cigarettes on the table and lit one with a match and then smirked.  ‘…to go screaming into the night?’ 

I burst into laughter.  ‘Exactly that!  I knew you’d understand.’

‘Mr. Motion,’ she said, dragging on the cigarette.  ‘More emotion than Motion.’  In the kitchen light, with her large black eyes, she looked somewhat extraterrestrial.  ‘You don’t need to go east to find meaning,’ she said with a wry smile.  ‘I can show you meaning here in Berlin.’  There was something in the way she was looking at me that was frightening.  

‘I’m sure you can,’ I said.  I felt all of a sudden very uncomfortable and overcome with exhaustion.  ‘I think I might get an early night.’

‘You don’t want to go out?’ she said, astonished.  ‘Berlin is a trip at night.’

‘I’m wrecked,’ I said.  I could hear Berlin through the window like a city locked in battle.  The rain inside me was becoming a downpour.

‘We can go out later,’ she suggested.  ‘Nothing kicks off until one a.m.’

I did my best to laugh.  ‘I would, but…’ I shrugged. ‘…the flight, the journey, you know?’

‘That’s cool.’  Liana was hiding her disappointment and must have been wondering whether I was going to be a tedious guest.  I was forced to admit I probably would be.  For a moment she was lost in thought.  Then she uncrimped herself from the couch and stubbed out the cigarette.  ‘You know, sometimes you creep me out,’ she said, irritated.  ‘Just a little though, you know.’

I didn’t know what to say.  When I didn’t say anything Liana forced a smile.  An awkwardness had come between us.  She struggled to meet my gaze.  ‘Oh well, ho-hum,’ she said, her voice even.  ‘I have to be up for work tomorrow anyway.’

I went to stand but paused.  A great burden was upon me.  ‘What time is it?’ I asked.

‘It’s nearly nine.’

‘Wake me up in an hour,’ I told her.  ‘Fuck it, let’s go out.  After all I’m in your hands.’

Liana beamed.  ‘Oh, you won’t regret it!  I get to show you my Berlin.  Come on, I’ll take you to your room.’

The room was beautiful.  Double-aspect, laminate flooring, netting over the bed.  There were black and white photographs of exotic people and places framed on the walls.  I dumped my bag by a large oak chest and examined a photo 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 a month.’

I swung my legs up onto the bed and lay back.  The rain inside me was now a thunderstorm.  My eyelids were heavy.  As Liana left I heard her voice drift over. ‘There are worlds you haven’t seen yet.’

Berlin at Night …

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.