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.
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.’