Automotions

We 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 were 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 an industrial complex of buildings and warehouses and people queuing in a blanket of floodlight.  The sensation of an abandoned TV network still on air.

Following a group 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 got closer.  My heart began to race.  When I stepped through the door the thump turned into a beat and I was greeted by a nightclub pumping out techno.

It took me a moment to adjust.  Berlin, I had been told, was the place for clubbing in Europe and this spectacle did nothing to refute that claim.  In the middle of the floor was a crowd of people dancing in the smoke and lights.  Lasers scanned the crowd and around the dance floor people moved on balconies, arms and bodies flowing in the air.  

Dave threw me a wink.  ‘Come on, man.’

Metal stairs led to other levels of the building and on every floor there were booths for seating.  Everywhere were offshoot rooms with a variety of DJs mixing techno through huge speakers.  Emergency lights lined the walkways.  The floor vibrated.  The club had a raw and circular appearance, a harmony of industrial and contemporary stimuli. 

On the second level we bought drinks from a bar and commandeered a booth.  The music was so loud it got into everything, brick, flesh, lungs.  To hear one another we had to lean into each other and shout over the beat.  Within half an hour we  amassed a collection of beer and cigarettes.  Liana and the gang were in their element, laughing and talking excitedly, 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 watched as in turn my companions popped something into their mouths before washing it down with beer.  I examined the package in my palm.  It was a cigarette paper tightly wrapped and concealing what I imagined was the white powder of MDMA.  Glancing around I saw everyone in the club happy and in love with life.   It struck me that I had not felt like that since before the accident.  In a moment of hardpan emotion I said, ‘Fuck it,’ and put the package onto my tongue.  I took a swig of beer and swallowed.  Almost instantly I felt a rush of anxiety and doubt.  It was too late now, I thought.

The club lights strobed around us, our conversations strange and disjointed.  In the back of my mind I couldn’t shake the fear that I was about to get high and it frightened me to the point that my hands were shaking.

It took forty minutes for the drug to take effect.  At first I felt an absence from the club, a discordant view of everything around me.  Suddenly I wanted to shit.  And then with the flick of a switch the high hit me and my brain switched on.  It was as though throughout my entire life I had been viewing everything through a letterbox and now the door to that letterbox had opened.  The anxiety I previously had vanished in the click of a finger and a surge of euphoria travelled down to my toes and then back up to the crown of my head like an electrical current.  The music changed.

‘Jesus Christ.’

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

‘Jesus Christ.’   The club had entered my brain and central to it all was the music, so tribal, so fierce.  ‘Holy shit!’  I was grinning like a freak.

‘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 then 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.

Following Liana’s lead I was drawn from the booth and onto the dance floor where I began to dance among a throng of bodies, sweat and heat and smoke pressing down upon me.  Liana, Dave, Hedy and Reena danced alongside me.  We were lovers now, comrades of the exceptional.  The music stopped and 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.  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 harmony as myself.  My body was at one with the music, total connection, total muscle control.  I felt a love for my friends that was pure and undiluted.  

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 on her.

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

The night stretched on endlessly and beautiful.  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.’  Beads of sweat dropped from my brow.

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.  I inhaled another drag of the joint but by now I had forgotten what I was smoking, drawing it into my lungs like a cigarette.  Eventually, when it was gone, I ground it into an ashtray and then filled with intense energy I again joined the fray.

As I danced inside the core the music grew with vigour, flashes and bangs, bodies sweating around me.  I had moments of connection followed by confusion.  Something wasn’t right.  I could feel myself shifting.  I was finding it difficult to dance, made harder 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, arms up 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, clothes drenched in sweat.  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, and 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.

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Modern Life Suits

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 stuck to my skin.  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.  ‘But I’m not sure about the whole “enlightened” thing.’

‘God, you’re predictable.’

‘Life is meaningless,’ I said with a smile.

‘Rubbish,’ she said, grabbing wads of loo roll.   ‘You better not say 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 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.  Below us the lobby floor pulsed and vibrated.  

As we descended the stairs we heard techno coming up towards us.  A young man with dark skin and dreads and wearing thick-rimmed glasses was dancing on the third floor landing.  The music came from small speakers hung 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 conversation.  The sound of chatter echoed around us.  We made our way along the river edge.  It was lined with lights, beautiful reflections balancing on the water.  The cafes and bars glowed in neon.

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 brick with artwork and murals.  Delicately placed floor lamps leant over from corners.  Towards the rear was a wooden bar embedded with fairy lights.  Music played in the background.  I followed Liana up a spiral staircase to a mezzanine with low coffee tables and teak couches.  There were shelves rammed with books.  In the corner was a man and two women, all three in their mid-twenties, sitting with bottles of beer.  When they saw us approach a huge fuss was made as they stood and 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 my diving board into Berlin.’  

‘Cool artwork,’ I said, looking around.  

‘It’s very cool,’ said Hedy.  Hedy was a slim frantic-looking woman with frizzy black hair and a nose stud.  Her skin was dark and she had red lipstick.  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 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.’  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 friends are going to take care of me.’   

Liana shot me a worried glance and then disappeared down the stairwell to the bar below.  

‘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 and frowned like someone in a museum.  ‘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?’

‘There’s nothing wrong with becoming a moth,’ said Reena.  ‘You’ll always fly 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 the beer drain 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.  Liana’s friends were 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 a small and robust young lady.  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 occurring.  

Liana turned to Hedy.  ‘So Heds, are you working on anything lately?’

Hedy put her feet up on the edge of the coffee table.  She had leather boots.  ‘I have a couple of 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 an amazing sculptor,’ said Liana.  ‘She works with metals.’

‘Glass too,’ said Hedy.  ‘Mostly I forage for metal at the city dump or at the reclaimers.  I take things and remould them 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.  Interesting material but hard to work with.’

‘What are you making?’ asked Reena.

‘A bust of my mother.  It’s hollow.’

‘You need to fill it with things,’ said Reena.  ‘Otherwise it’s just hollow.’

‘That’s the point,’ said Hedy.   

‘Don’t you like your mother?’ I asked.

‘Of course I do,’ said Hedy.  ‘But the reality of the world is whatever she chooses it to be.  The number one problem with getting older is that you drag the world away from new perspectives.’

Liana said, ‘I can’t live in the confines of other people’s expectations.’

‘Fucking aye,’ said Dave, raising his beer.  

These people 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.  

As we stood to leave Liana pointed a finger aggressively 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.’

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.

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.