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.

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.