A Black Ocean with Millions of Fish

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 in a melancholic mood waiting for Liana to arrive.  I passed the time smoking and observing and wondering whether it was possible to calm down my brain.

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’m so sorry,’ she said, referring to the car accident.

‘It was nothing.’   I shrugged away her touch and did my best to smile.  ‘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 about the accident.  ‘How did it happen?’

I sighed.  ‘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 in my mouth and walking towards the wreck of the other vehicle.

‘What happened?’

‘I’m not sure.’ I paused, drew deeply on the cigarette.  ‘I’m still processing it.’

This was true.  After the accident I had drifted aimlessly, unable to find satisfaction in things, unable to communicate with others.  My life cantered into silence.  I became acutely aware of my voice and how disembodied it was and during conversation if I didn’t slap myself hard on the back of the neck I’d end up hypnotised by it.  I had, I realised after many months of anguish, gone mad.

Liana was watching me smoke.  I drew myself to attention.  ‘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 was 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 glass 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 human foliage, 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 in the street.  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 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 I wondered if those past emotions might flower again.

Liana glanced back and caught me looking at her with what I could only imagine was a dopey, saccharine expression.  She frowned 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.


A Red Blooded Killer

I enjoyed riding the S-Bahn as it chained its way across the city.  I liked it when the trains ran parallel with the traffic on the road and you felt, momentarily, at one with the driver behind the wheel – it felt like equality – and then when everything dropped away, thwump, into darkness as you entered a tunnel, and then again when you emerged looking for the sky.  I liked this.  The feeling of movement, of going somewhere.

I was in my early thirties and should have been in my prime.  Instead I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and drank copious amounts of coffee.  I sensed that something was coming for me and could smell its approach in the air.  For months I hadn’t eaten properly and the weight had dropped from me until what was left was a gaunt, bone of a man.

The train clattered into a tunnel.  Across from me an old man with a face like a withered onion and with cadaverous hands rocked in the movement of the train.  By his side was a plastic bag with tatty magazines inside.  As we entered the tunnel a twin of him appeared in the dark glass and bathed in the red of the tunnel the old man regarded his reflection like it was something wholly unfamiliar to him.  I have always been fascinated by the power of tunnels.  The old man seemed to be smirking.

My palms were hot as the S5 sauntered back into daylight and across a bridge and on towards the Zoo station.  Buildings appeared against a blue sky.  I caught sight of mongrel graffiti on walls.  Below me Berliners walked the streets in a cocktail of fashion and attitude, some ungainly, others at peace.  Cars turned at corners, cantered off at speed.  The architecture was magnificent.  Everything glowed in the sun, rays glancing from windows.  The sun was hot on my skin and when I closed my eyes the light flickered on my eyelids.

My mind went back to the night of the accident: a Welsh fog and a country road lit up by headlights – that road coming on and on towards me, flanked by rows of winter trees, on and on, and then being broadsided by another vehicle and the road tumbling from sight.  I broke my nose against the steering wheel and fractured my right wrist but the driver of the other vehicle was killed on impact.  In the orange ambience, with paramedics walking in the fog, I was told by a doctor with tiny spectacles how lucky I was to be alive.  The word “alive” has plagued me ever since and every time I glance into a mirror or catch my reflection in a shop window I see the scar on my face.  It sits blue across the bridge of my nose like a small insect, often mistaken as butterfly having landed on my face, and in certain light it gleams like wet ink, like a wing vibrating and dying.

I had been in Berlin for sixteen days and was crashing at my friend Liana’s place in Neukölln, two minutes walk from both the S and U-Bahn.  Liana lived with six others in a flat like a commune I once saw in New Zealand where the residents shared everything from sex to drugs.  The rooms were large and bright, quite wonderful, and the corridor that linked them split like a two-headed snake.  The doorbell didn’t have a button, it was two open wires you had to put together to make a sound.  In the corridor a plastic leg with a stocking and a high heel jutted out from the brickwork.  As to be expected the apartment was not entirely clean but it was organised, the latter a reflection of Liana’s presence.  I felt, somehow, this flat was the hub for all the creative spinning of Berlin.

But I would discover more than this.

Many years ago I was heading out of Las Vegas in a white camper van.  The fluorescent lights of Vegas were fading behind me and the beat of that sinful town was making way for calm desert and cacti.  At the roadside, covered in dust, was a tramp with a dirty beard and a satchel slung over his shoulder.  He had his thumb stuck out into the road.  I remember thinking this man had probably arrived a millionaire.  Cities can do that to a person.

From my short time here I had already surmised that Berlin was the kind of city I wanted to lose myself in, perhaps die in.  Berlin is a regular city; it has its casinos, bars, nightclubs, strip-joints, brothels, but it’s also pregnant with the unknown, something that impels a person to search for adventure.  Every possible thing opens into everything else.  There are no boundaries, you can do what you like.  A foreigner living in Berlin needs something of a safety word to keep themselves grounded.  It’s dangerous otherwise.  You can lose yourself.  Get arrested.  Catch an STD.  Overdose.

We all have our safety words, I expect, and I don’t mean an actual word.  It could be a thing, a teddy bear, a coin, a book, even a friend – although friends are not always reliable structures.  We’re fallible.  That’s why life is such a red blooded killer.

Smoking in Prague

I found myself one afternoon high on methamphetamine and talking to a very serious, slightly tearful, but suicidal meth addict at his spacious apartment in the centre of Prague.

Peter had a straight posture and straight gaze.  He was very handsome, tall, and friendly.  His face was golden and suffering.

‘My cock doesn’t shrink,’ he told me.  His English was perfect with only a hint of a Czech accent.  ‘This shit doesn’t affect me anymore.  I can sleep to.’  He went forward over the the table to snort another line and as he did he said, ‘Do you know, not long ago in Prague we used to work for bread.’

We took his terrier for a walk around the streets.  He loved that dog, it was his only friend.  We drifted through crowds of tourists in a surreal cotton-wrapped world.  It struck me how odd it was in this beautiful and historic city that two worlds could collide and never know it.  Prague is known as the Golden City of Spires.  It’s a fusion of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, of Renaissance and Baroque.  The buildings and streets are simply beautiful.  A fairytale.

As we walked along a cobbled road, narrowed by imposing architecture, Peter became silent and brooding.  ‘Do you know the translation of Prague?’ he asked.

We came to a stop so the terror could cock his leg in the corner.  I leant against a wall and lit a cigarette.  ‘I don’t believe I do.’

‘It means the “gateway between Heaven and Hell.”’.

Despite having met me for the first time only hours before, Peter had found in me a man who would listen.  He had bought me a whiskey at a strip joint near Wenceslas Square because, as he said at the time, there was “something profound” about my face.

When we finished walking the dog we made our way back to the apartment to snort more meth.  Yellow lines on the table.  Peter launched into a tired and sad monologue about his ex-girlfriend, his family, his life.  The magic faded.

‘My family are doctors,’ he went on.  ‘They want me to be a doctor.  My ex-girlfriend, I loved her but she wouldn’t take responsibility for things, she wouldn’t clean or cook.’  As he talked I felt a great burden weigh down upon me.  I began to resent him.  ‘I live here but I cannot afford the rent and will be out on the street.  I can’t work.  And you know what?  I don’t care.  I don’t care anymore.’

He began to leaf through photographs he kept in a shoe box.  There were hundreds of them, photos of his friends and family, his ex-girlfriend.  It was another life.  His eyes were distant as he retrieved each one from the box.  He described each scene with detachment, spittle forming at the corners of his mouth.  The situation was beginning to unnerve me.

As he spoke it seemed his brain was no longer connected to the things he was saying.  ‘You know there are a little devils on the ground that lead to my house,’ he said.

After some time I anxiously made my excuses.  At the door I stopped, reached into my bag and pulled free Baudrillard’s The Perfect Crime.  ‘Take this,’ I said.

Peter held it, bemused.  Neither of us knew why I’d griven it to him.  With hindsight I guess I felt the need to impart something before leaving – a gift, a word, an idea.  I knew I’d never see him again.

I walked out into the evening relieved to be free.  I was so high that that the red and orange lights of the city were hurting my eyes.  The world was a strange rock.  My head felt like a stadium, my brain floodlit.  I passed a nun in a grey habit and with a cross clutched to her chest in both hands.  There are countless convents in Prague.  I don’t know why but as we passed each other I tried to meet her gaze but she looked through me like I didn’t exist.

On a corner near Wenceslas Square a Czech man accosted me.  ‘I take you to titty bar!  Nice bar.  Good bar.  Nice pussy.’  He slapped the back of his hand into the open palm of the other.  ‘You bang, bang yes?’

‘I ain’t a tourist, mate.’ I said trying to walk him off.

‘What, you don’t like pussy?’

‘I like pussy,’ I said.  ‘I just ain’t a tourist.’

It was nine-thirty in the evening and I’d been awake all weekend, high for thirty-six hours straight, no sleep, just wired.  My eyes were sore, my jaw ached, and my teeth buzzed.  I felt dirty and dark inside . I slipped through the Metro like a ghost and arrived ten minutes later at Anděl Station.  Luckily the place I was renting was only a minute away from the exit.  As I came up from the underground and made my way towards Radlická street I noticed on the pavement a print of a devil holding a fork.  On the ground a few feet ahead was another identical devil.  Then another.  And another, all of them heading towards the courtyard of my house and stopping just short of the iron gate.  Little devils on the ground.

I got into bed and slept a broken, difficult sleep with my teeth grinding like ice in a glass.  When at last I emerged from slumber a day or two later I flushed the last of my meth and coke down the toilet.

I don’t know where Peter is today, or if he’s even alive.  But since then I’ve bought another copy of the The Perfect Crime.