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 closer to the lights.  Prague, I was told, is a home to those who unwittingly are witness to their own degeneration.

I had been in the city 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 fish, 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 disuptes.  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 our rooms.  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 ciagrette 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 meets, I walked with her to the tram stop and always I 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 cadance 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?  A father?  A mother?  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 some 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 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 that could make it work. 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 nose that didn’t sit right on her face.  Her lips were perfect 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.  I have always been a tactless sort.

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.  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.  She would spend ages looking upon them as though locked 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 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 terrified 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 they would manhandle their suspects into the black and blues, often giving them a knuckle in the ribs or a hard slap over the head, body slamming them against the bonnets just like in the movies.  I have never seen a harder looking police force.  Many of them were ex-soldiers with facial scars and with grim and hard expressions.  They didn’t ask questions first.

As I sat on my balcony with a JD on my lap and a cigarette in my mouth, I watched a steady stream of Gypsy family members coming and going under the cover of midnight with TVs and stereos beneath their arms; all sorts of fenced items they had taxed from the city.  The goods were taken to flat twenty-seven on the fourth floor in the building opposite to mine.  I never did find out who lived there.

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 to 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 the flat on the fourth floor.  After twenty minutes he would emerge from the flat and make his way back to the car.   There was a steadiness about this man, the look of someone not prone to impulsive behaviour or whimsical thought.  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.  One time I noticed a Rolex on his wrist.  There was no doubt in my mind this man was a killer.  I would watch him leave through the iron gates, the BMW crawling back into the lights, and I always wondered where he was going next.

Berlin – Part IV

After our drinks we stood and left the bar and 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 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 the industrial complex of buildings and warehouses and people queuing in the blanket of floodlights.  The sensation of an abandoned TV network still on air.

Following a theater 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 neared, and when we went though the thump turned into a beat and I was greeted by a modern nightclub with lights and strobe lights and people dancing in a huge open space.

The club had a suave and circular appearance, a harmony of industrial and contemporary stimuli.  Berlin, I had been told, was the place for clubbing in Europe and this spectacle did nothing to refute that claim.  Lasers shot over the crowds from somewhere high above, and around the dance floor metal stairs led to other levels of the building.  On every floor were booths reminscent of 50s America, and bars selling alcohol and water.  Everywhere were offshoot rooms with a variety of DJs mixing techno through huge speakers.  Emergency floor lights lined the walkways.  The floor vibrated.

We made our way to the second floor and bought drinks from the bar and commandeered a booth.  The music was incrdeibly loud.  It got into everything, brick and mortar, flesh and lungs.  I could barely hear myself think.  To hear one another we had to lean into each others ears and shout over the beat.  On our table were bottles of beer and communal cigarettes.  Liana and the gang were relaxed and enjoying themselves 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 examined the package in my palm.  The MDMA was wrapped tightly in cigarette paper.  ‘Fuck it,’ I said and popped it into my mouth.  I took a swig of beer and swallowed it down.  Instantly I felt a rush of anxiety and doubt.  It was too late now, I thought.

The nightclub lights strobed all around us.  Conversations appeared strange and disjointed.  In the back of my mind I couldn’t shake the fear that I was about to get high.

It took forty minutes for the drug to take effect.  At first I felt an absence from the club and I wondered if this was the high.  Then, as if a someone had flicked a switch, the high hit me.  My brain turned on, the anxiety left and my vision cleared.  It was as though throughout my entire life I had been viewing everything through a letterbox and now the door it belonged to had opened.  A surge of power travelled down to my toes and back up to the crown of my head.  The music changed.

‘Jesus Christ.’

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

‘Jesus Christ.’  The techno sounded like an injection.  Everything was connected to it.  ‘Holy fuck!’  I was grinning and bouncing on the seat to the music.  I was in control, bruised up with confidence.

‘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 now 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.

I was drawn from the booth and was now on the dance floor among a throng of bodies, sweat and heat and smoke pressing down upon me.  Liana, Dave, Hedy and Reena danced alongside me.  The music stopped.  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 like an machine coming to life.  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 union as myself.  My body was at one with the music, total connection, total muscle control.  The nightclub was jacked into my mind.

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 and heat on her.

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

The night slipped by in a multitude of feelings, shapes and colours.  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.’

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 inside the lasers and smoke.  I inhaled another drag of the joint but by now I had forgotten what it was and was smoking it like a cigarette, sucking on it with puff after puff.  Eventually, when it was gone, I ground it into an ashtray and then, filled with intense energy, I joined the body of dancers.

As I danced in the core the music grew with vigour, flashes and bangs, bodies sweating around me.  I had moments of connection with the music, followed by confusion.  Something wasn’t right.  I could feel myself shifting towards a plateau, poised between a state of wellbeing and a state of nerves.  I was finding it difficult to dance, made worse 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 waving their arms 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, sweat on my forehead.  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, while 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.

Berlin – Part III

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 had 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.  ‘I’m not sure about the whole “enlightened” thing.’

‘God,’ she said. ‘You’re so predictable.’

I turned the shower knob too far to the right and was blasted by hot water.  ‘It’s all meaningless though, right?’ I said.  My sleeve was soaked.

‘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 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.

‘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 good conversation.  The sound of chatter echoed around me.  We made our way along the riveredge.  It was lined with lights, beautiful relfections of them balancing on the water.  The cafes and bars glowed in neon blues.

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 bricked and adjorned with paintings and shelves rammed with books.  Delicately placed floors lamps leant over from corners.  Towards the rear was a wooden bar the colour of Elm and embedded with stones.  I followed Liana up a spiral staircase to a mezzanine with low coffee tables and teak couches.  By the corner was a man and two women, all three in their mid-twenties, sat with bottles of beer.  When they saw us approach they each stood and with a certain amount of fuss 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.  Her voice was soft and dreamy.  ‘And music decorates time.  I read that somewhere.’  Hedy was a slim, fantastic-looking woman with frizzy black hair and a nose stud.  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 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.

‘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.  ‘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?’

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.  Reena rolled another cigarette from a pack of tobacco on the table.  She was small of stature but robust, something ancient and calm in her eyes.  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 occuring.

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.  My parents are frauds,’ said Hedy.  ‘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.

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.’

 

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. 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 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. 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 beautiful complexions and washed dark 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 cardboard boxes and when Liana reached the door she said, ‘They always watch us. Poor things. They’re so sweet.’

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 glancing at the various doors.

‘There’s seven of us altogether,’ she said. ‘Danny, Andri, myself, Ada, Anne, Robin, and Dom. But not all of us are here. Ada’s away travelling. Danny and Andri are in Switzerland.’

‘And you all get along?’

Liana said, ‘Sometimes,’ and then 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.

‘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. A steel girder went across the arch of the kitchen doorway and off into the apartment, strengthening a split beam. Robin and Dom were largely ignoring me, much to my anxiety, and were more interested in smoking pot and debating 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 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,’ 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 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?’

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 autonomy.

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

A slight drop in the room. Dom shivered.

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

‘I thought we could get some MDMA.’

‘Why,’ I asked, ‘what’s wrong with Frits?’

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. Like, I don’t know, something in his head. Circuitry or something.’

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, looking for a bluff, but finding none she nodded and said, ‘What happened to him?’ I got the impression she already knew. I was out of the loop. The three of them exchanged glances, the withering of facts, and with that the conversation was over. 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.

‘So what’s with this Frits chap?’

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

I knew I wasn’t being told the truth. We carried on eating. The food was good, the vegetables charred but full of flavour.

Liana skewered a piece of onion with her fork and began waving it around at me. ‘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. ‘Wordsworth over here.’

Liana winked and fired an imaginary bullet at me.

Liana’s phone rang and she took the call, leaving me alone at the kitchen table. From her bedroom I could hear her muffled voice caught in the spasm of a relationship. 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 German-Swiss accent. I disliked him already. I felt a pang of jealousy that this man, and not me, could attract a woman like Liana. A small fierce rain started inside me. She returned ten minutes later with a dour expression.

‘What’s the matter?’

She plumped herself on the couch. ‘He’s getting drunk in a bar and wants advice on how to pull a girl there.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s kind of strange.’

‘No shit.’

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.

‘I shouldn’t worry about it,’ she continued. ‘He’s no good at pulling women.’

‘He pulled you.’

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

‘I don’t fuck anymore,’ I said and shrugged. ‘I prefer to hold them in my arms and say words.’

‘You need to give up your life as a monk,’ said Liana. ‘What words?’

‘Just words. And my life is fine, thank you very much.’

‘It’s not healthy. I think you hate yourself.’

‘Don’t we all hate ourselves?’

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

I burst into laughter. ‘Precisely!’ I said. ‘This is why I came to Berlin. Because I knew you’d understand.’

‘You’re such a piss-taker.’ She paused to consider me. ‘Mr. Motion,’ she said, dragging on the cigarette. ‘More emotion than Motion.’ She smiled. 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.’ Something in the way she was looking at me startled my nerves.

‘I’m sure you can,’ I said. I yawned. I felt all of a sudden very tired. ‘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’d rather relax.’ 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.’ She 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, eyeing me. ‘Just a little, you know.’

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

Something in the way she spoke made me feel terribly guilty. ‘What time is it?’ I asked.

‘It’s nearly nine.’

‘Wake me up in an hour,’ I said, acquiescing. ‘Let’s go out. I am in your hands, after all.’

Liana beamed. ‘You won’t regret it. Come on, I’ll show 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 about 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 – Interlude

Berlin at night is a beautiful, clunky city. I imagine from the air when dusk sets, the city lights spread open like a vine, dark buildings turning a multitude of colours. I think of Berlin as a dazzling industrial grid, a hymnbook of history, and of love and life and blood. And dotted throughout are the established citizens who know something of sadness.

Berlin – Part I

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

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

‘How was the flight?’ she asked.

‘The flight was fine.’

‘And the trains?’

‘The trains were fine, too.’

She looked at me, almost motherly; I was struck by how expressive it was.

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

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

‘It was nothing.’  I shrugged away her touch and did my best to smile.  She was referring to the accident and already I could tell she wanted me to open up about it.  ‘Really,’ I said, waving her away.  ‘It’s just one of those things.’

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

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

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

‘You look different,’ I told her.

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

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

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

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

Liana grinned.  ‘You too, dude.’

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

‘So, did you miss me?’ I asked.

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

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

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

‘Knowledge kills the soul.’

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Are you dying?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’m dying.’

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

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

‘Books make such wonderful presents,’ she said.

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

‘I’m so pleased you’re okay,’ she said.  She was pressing me again, looking for an avenue into my accident.  There was worry in her voice and she kept touching her lips with her fingers as though applying paint to them.  ‘How did it happen?’

I sighed and said, ‘I don’t know.  Something happened.’  I reached for my cigarettes.  My lighter was a Red Army Zippo which made a satisfying snap when I clicked the lid back.  I lit the cigarette and blew drifting smoke between us.

I didn’t want to return to that night, but the memory of it was located everywhere.  I had a vague memory of leaving my car with blood on my face and walking towards the wreck of the other vehicle.  The driver’s door was open and an arm hung out from inside, knuckles resting peacefully on the concrete.

‘What happened?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh yes.  So you are.’

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

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

‘Some people are very unwell,’ I said.

‘Anyway,’ she continued.  ‘Frits has some MDMA, if that’s what you want?’

I shrugged.  ‘It’s been awhile since I did anything.’

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

We gathered our things and went out into the street and into the cacophony of Kottbusser Tor.  The city was electric, all around me a chorus of what seemed like a thousand nationalities conversing as one.  I was now inside it, shoulder to shoulder, entering the fold of a living, breathing entity.  Through the bustle I heard Arabic music, a darbuka and a nay, wailing through crowds, followed by the chest-beating of a passing car.  The market buzzed with energy; voices in German, Turkish, and Arabic, calling out to the crowds like angry lovers.  Dark buildings stretched above us and the air had rain in it.

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

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

‘Look,’ she said.  ‘I’m at a disco.’

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

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

‘No,’ I said.

She was waving her arms and spinning.

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

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

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

I stopped in the street.

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

‘You did what?’

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

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