Berlin – Prologue

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, a storm on the horizon so potent that when I walked my nose seemed to drag the rest of me behind it.  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, carriage lights buzzing like flies.  Across from me an old man with a face like a withered onion and with cadaverous hands rocked in the train’s movement.  By his side was a plastic bag with glossy magazines inside.  The tunnel bathed us both in a red light and in the sudden change the old man regarded his reflection as though it were something wholly unfamiliar.  Since childhood I have been fascinated by the power of tunnels.

My palms were hot as the S5 sauntered back into daylight 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 soup 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.  The driver of the other vehicle did not make it. In that 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.

Each time I glance into a mirror or catch my reflection in a shop window I see the scar I have endured since that night.  Across the bridge of my nose is a blue mark in the shape of a small insect, often mistaken as a butterfly having landed on my face, and in certain light it gleams like wet ink, like a wing vibrating and dying.

By now I had been in Berlin for sixteen days and was crashing at my friend Liana’s place in Neukölln, which was 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 seemed to bend 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 beside a large ornate framed mirror, a plastic leg with stockings and a high heel protruded from the brickwork.  As to be expected the apartment was not entirely clean and yet 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.  By the road, 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 living is such a red blooded killer.

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Smoking in Prague

I found myself one afternoon high on meth-amphetamine and talking to a very serious, slightly tearful, but suicidal meth addict at his spacious apartment in the centre of Prague.  His name was Bohuslav, named, he told me, after a famous Czech composer.  Bohuslav had a straight posture and a frightening gaze.  He was very handsome and with a tall and sinewy frame.  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, too.’  He went forward over 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, Bohuslav became silent and brooding.  ‘Do you know the translation of Prague?’ he asked.

We came to a stop so the terrier 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, Bohuslav had found in me a man who would listen.  I had bought him a whiskey at a strip joint near Wenceslas Square because, as I had told him at the time, there was “something interesting” about his face.  This one moment of engagement had in some way registered him to a world outside his own.  I was now something for him to blindly grab onto.

When we finished walking the dog we made our way back to the apartment to snort more meth.  Yellow lines on the table.  Bohuslav 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 them from the box.  He described each scene with a morose 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 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 a copy of Baudrillard’s The Perfect Crime.  ‘Take this,’ I said.

Bohuslav held it, bemused.  Neither of us knew why I’d given 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 would never see him again.

I walked out into the evening, relieved to be free.  I was so high 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, daylight threatening to end it at any moment.  My eyes were sore.  My jaw ached.  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 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 stoping 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 Bohuslav is today, or if he’s even alive.  But since then I’ve bought another copy of The Perfect Crime.