I look out of the window. Above the rooftops across the way the sky is a rich deep blue, the stars are out. The sky is extraordinarily clear tonight. I draw deep on my cigarette, exhale. I roll back on the bed and look up at the stained ceiling. They have given me a small room at the back of the house. There’s a separate entrance in the courtyard into which I climbed last night, and as you go up the uneven stairs there is one small room on each landing, until at the top a corridor leads back to the main part of the house. I have surmised that these were probably the servants quarters. The room is not well lit, and furniture consists of the bed, a table and chair and a cupboard, all old and wooden, a sense of bareness. I love it.
I look at the time on my travelling alarm clock that I’ve set up on the table opposite. It’s two hours until I should meet Brian in the cafe in Tacheles. I get up and pick up my guitar, put it back in its canvas carrying case. I pull on my coat, take cigarettes and some money, go up the stairs and along the corridor, ready for the night.
In the kitchen Etta is sitting with two people, a small girl with black hair and a tall man with long blonde hair, pulled back into a pigtail. He’s wearing a leather greatcoat and the kind of trousers I’ve seen in photos of the first world war. Etta smiles up at me as I approach.
„Sadie’s gone out with Josh, she said she’ll probably see you later at Tacheles. This is Priscilla and Eric.“
They say hallo, both with American accents. I sit down for a moment. Priscilla is from LA. She has an elfish face with what people call a button nose. She has freckles and smokes enthusiastically. Eric tells me he is from Pennsylvania. He grew up on a farm. Not a Quaker, in answer to my question, but he had some as neighbours. They grew apples. Now he’s in Europe. They both write.
„D’you wanna come down to the Volksküche at Tacheles?“ Priscilla asks me.
„Oh yeah, Lorraine told me about that…sure. When do you want to go? I’m meeting someone at the open mic in the bar later.“
„Open mic in Zapata? Cool. We were thinking of heading to the Volksküche now actually…shall we?“
We go down the stairs and out onto the street. As we head down towards Tacheles we chat about this and that. I tell them about Sarcelles and about hitching here.
We get to Tacheles, walk past the big metal doors. „That’s the big cafe where everyone hangs out and they’ve got the open mic later, Zapata it’s called,“ Priscilla informs me.
Just then a voice says hi and we look around to see a girl with a round face and very big eyes, longish brown hair and a purple greatcoat wrapped around her. She’s smoking a rollie.
„Oh, Noel, this is Jo. She’s from England too.“
„Hallo,“ says Jo with a funny little smile.
„Hallo Jo,“ I say. She looks familiar and then I realise that she was the girl that I saw in the half-light among the gargoyles this morning.“Do you live across from Kule by any chance? In the roof?“
She looks at me strangely and nods.
„I saw you this morning,“ I tell her, „looking out of the window.“
She gives me an long look and then says dispassionately, „That was me then.“
We walk through a doorway and around the back of the building, following Priscilla.
„Where in England?“ I ask Jo.
„Leeds,“ she says, nodding earnestly at me.
My geography of England is crap and I don’t know the first thing about Leeds, so I don’t know what else to say to that. „Oh. Cool. Um…Been here long?“ I ask.
Jo nods, earnestly. „Nearly a year, yeah,“ she says, and gives me a quick little smile, but all the while it’s as if she’s thinking about something very different and is just answering robotically to make me shut up.
We walk up a small dark passage between two buildings, strange bits of debris littering its corners; at the end on the left is a step up and a lit window. On the step and in the small corridor behind it are ten or fifteen people all standing and talking. I hear various languages. Everyone’s noticeably dirty, clothes with holes in them, some people wear eye make-up and there’s a lot of rings on ears and fingers.
We join the queue. „Why did you leave LA?“ I ask Priscilla.
„It was mainly the car crashes that made me want to leave,“ she says to me, glancing at Jo to include her in the conversation.
She explains how she worked there as a reporter, the one on the lowest rung of the ladder, and she’d be sent speeding through LA to cover accidents and deaths, hounding people bruised on the side of the road or crying, to get some angle on the story….then on to about how dangerous everything was, how you got used to walking back to your car with the key sticking out through your knuckles so you could stab someone in case they jumped you, always looking over your shoulder, and her reporter’s job only being able to pay for the most basic lifestyle and a flat-share in a bad part of town….
„How’d you end up here?“ I ask her.
„Like a lot of people in America, it’s a thing to do….save up some money, get an Interrail pass through Europe….take six months and see some old things, you know, culture,“ she smiles at me.
„So I’ve heard,“ I agree, nodding seriously. „And from the Interrail…?“
„I landed in Berlin, took a look around, decided to stay for a week….stayed for another week….“
She looked away into the darkness. „I stayed a little longer….then the Interrail ran out, and…I’m still here.“
I nod again.It strangely echoes a conversation I’d had with myself earlier. I’d come to Berlin with no fixed plan, just an idea of what I was going to do, but I’d expected to be in Berlin for a long weekend. Now I’d been here a day and I’d already decided to stay for another week. Or so. Walking around the city earlier, I’d felt something I’d never felt before. I felt somehow an immediate affinity for the city. As if on some level I’d come home. No, not home, but somewhere where there seemed to be a hole made the right size and shape of me, the first place I’d been where I really felt like I could breathe. I wasn’t happy, but at the same time I felt what seemed like the beginnings of a weird fierce joy deep down inside myself. Another week….then we’d see.
„And you, Jo?“ I ask the English girl, who is half looking at Priscilla but seems to be equally lost in thought about something.
She turns to me as if slightly startled.“You ask a lot of questions,“ she says simply and then looks away again. I shrug. Priscilla raises her eyebrows and gives me a knowing smile. Then we’re through the corridor into the door of what turns out to be a brightly lit kitchen – a stove at the back with pots steaming and bubbling on top, a big industrial sink beside that, two scarred tables roughly pushed together on our side of the room to make a counter…There is a huge pot on the table and beside it a stack of plates, bent spoons sticking out of a tin can. I take a cracked dish and a slightly bent fork from the pile on the end of the table and am duly doled out two large spoonfuls of soup-like stuff by a widely grinning Spanish man with a shock of dyed blond hair and cadaverous cheeks. He says somethng in Spanish and I thank him in English. We both seem satisfied by the exchange. At the other end of the table is a tin can with various coins in it and I drop a Deutschmark in it which causes Priscilla to mutter,“Big spender,“ to me while dropping in a smaller coin. Priscilla, Jo and I walk over to a corner of the room and stand up against a windowsill. There are a couple of tables and some chairs of various description and condition but all are occupied. We eat slowly. It’s surprisingly good, a kind of soup with hunks of meat and some carrots floating around in it. Priscilla nods happily. „Banana’s a good cook.“
She gestures to the Spanish man that had served me. „Banana’s his name. Though probably not the name he was born with.“
„And he makes amazing jewellery,“ Jo adds.
I raise my eyebrows and nod. Just then there is a commotion at the doorway and a man in a duffel coat, wearing mirrored Lennon sunglasses and with a mess of hair pointing up from his head in all directions bursts into the room with a loud whoop and shouts in a broad Californian accent, „Man I am so starved! Give me some of that!“ Somehow the way he strides up to the serving counter and picks up a dish conveys a massive amount of happy energy. Also he has his arm tightly around a young attractive blond girl in Dylan cap and big boots and she’s grinning too. His arrival presages a bout of laughter and he says something to Banana and everyone around him laughs.
I look to Priscilla. „Indigo,“ she says to me with a wry smile and by way of explanation. „Crazy Yank from the Rainbow tribe.“
Indigo bounces up to us with his full dish slopping food and his girlfriend following behind. „Priscilla!“ he demands and pulls her into a hug with his one free hand while simultaneously grinning manically around at the group. I nod at him.
„And who do we have here?“ he demands.
I put my hand out. „Noel. Just arrived.“
„Ah!“ he laughs as if this explains everything. „Limey huh?“ and cackles uproariously.
„Friend of Sadie’s,“ Priscilla tells him.
„Oh-ho! Friend of Sadie’s huh? Interesting, interesting! Boyfriend? Ex-lover? Met Josh? Haha!“
I smile at Indigo. I immediately like him. I suddenly realise that he’s the spitting image of a young Jack Nicholson. „I met Josh, yeah. Just an old friend. Friend of a friend. We squatted together in England – „
„Uh-huh, uh-huh,“ he nods rapidly, but he has already lost interest in me and is looking around the room. He nods at Jo. „Jo baby, howyadoin’?“
Jo nods politely, still looking as if she’s thinking about something else. „Indigo,“ she states evenly and goes back to her food, which prompts Indigo to mutter as if to himself, „Crazy chick, crazy.“
„Hi,“ the girl with him announces to the group.“I’m Casey.“
She nods around at everyone in a friendly fashion. She’s very pretty. I give her a big smile. „Hi, I’m Noel.“
„Hi Noel,“ she says to me and returns my smile. „Where are you from?“
„England,“ I say. „South England. By way of South Africa.“
„Cool,“ she says and I smile at her, suddenly tongue-tied as I always am with beautiful women.
„Casey,“ announces Indigo suddenly, „is living in one of those besetzte houses in Freedhain, you know, all fuckin’ political and shit, wanna change the world. Bunch a paranoid stoners man, you ask me.“
„You seemed to like getting stoned with them though,“ Casey says indulgently to Indigo.
„Yeah OK they do have some good shit,“ Indigo grins at her. „But I could’ve done without the rant about globalisation, ya know? I’m tryin to get a good buzz goin’ an’ some guy’s leaping around shoutin’ at me about the goddamn government you know?“
Casey nods. „Jezz does get a bit, uh, excited about that stuff, yeah. But you know, that’s his thing.“
„Yeah well baby I’m about changin’ from the in-side ya know?“ He pulls her close to him and leers grinning down at her, „I’m about luurve can you dig honey?“
She laughs outright and pulls away from him. „Oh I can dig that Indigo, sure I can.“ She glances over and winks at me. „I’m all about love too you know?“
„Oh now you’re talking my language,“ Indigo purrs to her in a down-south accent and pulls her to him.
„Yeah but you’re talking about sex, Indigo – I’m talking about a purer, higher kind of love,“ she says to him mock-sternly.
Indigo slaps his forehead with his palm. „Oh shit, you mean that kind of love that doesn’t have no sex to go with it…Casey, you know how you’re hurting me.“ He turns to us. „Casey’s been telling me about transcendental meditation. And….you know, and that’s beautiful too….sure. Just…..a little bit of real love could be kind of….transcendental too, huh?“ he appeals to Casey.
She smiles and gives him a kiss on the cheek. „You’re funny, Indigo, you know that?“
Indigo shrugs his shoulders theatrically. „Looks like I’m sleeping alone tonight….unless,“ he leers at Jo suddenly,“ you’re in the mood for some all-American Rainbow love Jo….“
Jo looks at him for a moment but without really focusing. Then she turns and walks away, her expression unchanged the whole time.
Indigo shakes his head again. „Now she is waaay out there. Woh.“
„Where are you from then Casey?“ I ask her as Indigo turns away and sits down at a suddenly vacant chair, digging into his meal. The show is over. Or maybe it’s intermission.
She smiles at me. She has a lovely smile. „California. Just outside San Fransisco. Beautiful place, a lot more sunshine than here!“
„I bet. And you’re into TM? I always wanted to try that.“
She shrugs her shoulders. „Yeah, my parents are kind of old hippies, so I got into it too….they used to be into a lot of Eastern mystical stuff, you know….now they’re pretty normal I guess, but they passed the TM thing on to me. But…hey, why don’t you come over and visit me sometime and I’ll show you how to do it?“
I swallow. Beautiful girls issuing me invitations to drop by their house, especially in the first ten minutes of meeting, is something I’ve also had little experience of. Or, let’s face it, none. „I’d love to,“ I smile brightly. I’m suddenly tongue-tied again, after my little gambit with TM going so well. It’s an aspect of myself that annoys me, this shyness, this lack of ease with women. With people, whenever there’s the suggestion of intimacy. „Um, where is this hotbed of stoned political activism then?“ I say.
„Uh, you know Friedrichshain?“
I shake my head. „No, I’ve only been here a day. I only really know here….and I was in the west, by Zoologish something, the main train station…..and I walked a bit around here but I have no idea where I was.“
She laughs,“OK well if you can find Friedrichshain then go to Rigaer Strasse, there’s a whole lot of besetzte houses there, we’re number 345, just knock on the door if it’s locked and ask for me.“
I beam at her. „OK. Sounds easy….“
I turn to see Priscilla grinning at me. She gives me a surreptitious wink and I give her a wink back.
There’s a tap on my arm and I turn to find Indigo leering at me. He’s holding an almost comically big joint out to me. „Take a draw on that Noel my man, blow your mind away.“
I smile at him. „Now that’s an offer I can hardly refuse,“ I tell him and he gives me the joint and grins again and turns back to his conversation. I take a large drag and have to fight the urge to cough, it’s so heavily laden with grass. I take one more smaller drag and hand the joint on to Priscilla. Casey’s talking to someone else and I tell Priscilla I’ll meet her out the front and go back into the alleyway and out onto the street. The rain’s started again, very softly. As the grass oozes into my brain, enveloping and cradling it like an angel sent by a benevolent god, I lean up against the building and watch the street, feeling the rain on my face. There’s not a lot of traffic, and what there is is nearly all Trabants, trundling slowly past. I feel wonderfully at peace. I think about Casey and her invitation and a feeling of warmth washes slowly through me.I close my eyes and with the sound of the rain falling softly in the background music starts to swim through my head and words come and I’m enjoying it and thinking I should probably write it down when I remember that I’m mean to meet Brian in Zapata soon.
I hoist my guitar onto my back and walk around onto the street. I go in through the big metal doors. Inside is a large square space, maybe a hundred metres across, a couple of white pillars in the middle, with a makeshift bar running along one side. The place is full, a hundred people or more, and the air is heavy with cigarette smoke. There are all types here. This is not a crowd that you would find anywhere where I’ve been before. A man walks past me; he has a scar running across his face and his eyes when he looks at me are ancient, older than I will ever be. There’s a girl with good cheekbones in front of me talking to someone else with green hair, dressed in paint-covered overalls and welding goggles pushed up onto her head. Off in the corner is a man with a black hat with it must be thousands of scarves wrapped around and around it, he’s cackling and pointing at something. There is much laughter and shouted conversation; as I push through the crowd one man I pass in particular stands out, he has a riveting face – or maybe just personality – he has short cropped blond hair and bright green eyes and is very muscular. He wears a tight white teeshirt and track trousers, and he’s prancing around and laughing loudly in a high-pitched voice. He’s accompanied by another man, a little taller but equally muscular and with black hair, a chain around his neck, and he catches my eye and gives me a leer as I go past.
At the back of the bar I see Brian. I get a beer and push my way through the crowd to them. Brian looks happy to see me, introduces me to the people around him. The girl on his side has shoulder length curly brown hair, large dancing eyes and prominent and well-shaped breasts. She gives me a big smile as she shakes my hand and I feel instantly attracted to her. Brian introduces her as his girlfriend. He introduces me to other people with him but I immediately forget their names. I offer cigarettes which are accepted and we make small talk, shouted over the noise of the crowd and the piped music. Across the crowded smoke-filled room is a small stage with a basic PA. There are a couple of microphones set up. Brian says that I can mic the guitar and he will sing. He suggests we simply get up together, I can play somethng and he’ll make something up. I shrug and agree. I fall into conversation with the young man that Brian introduced me to. He’s also acting in the Joyce play upstairs. The opening night of the play will be in a week. He tells me about the rehearsals. I try to get information from him about Berlin, about the city, about the life here, I try to find out how I can live here. Ways to survive. But the background noise is so loud that it’s difficult to communicate. He talks a lot and it doesn’t seem to matter much if I can hear. His eyes are slightly unfocused and he seems a little out of it. Then Brian taps me on the shoulder and hands me a large joint. I nod my thanks and put it to my mouth and suck smoke in. The tobacco in the joint is quite rough and I have to fight not to cough. I take a couple of good hits and hand it on to the guy I’m talking with. He smiles at me and tokes. I can make out music now, it sounds like bad punk music and is coming through tinny speakers somewhere.
At length Brian taps me on the shoulder and points to the stage. I nod and we make our way through the crowd. When we’re at the stage Brian talks for a moment to a tall man with a shock of hair standing in all directions, dressed in a crumpled linen suit, who’s twiddling controls on a mixing desk that looks like it was made fifty years ago. Brian comes back to me and yells in my ear, „We’ll play second.“
Just then someone else walks onto the stage. He has tightly curled black hair and a half-torn pullover and jeans. He sits down on the chair behind the microphone and picks up the electric guitar that is leant against it. I notice that the guitar only has four strings on it. He says something into the microphone. There’s no reaction and then he shouts loudly, something in German. For a moment the crowd is quiet. He turns up the volume on the electric guitar so that it’s buzzing madly and then breaks into something; he strums angrily at the guitar, which is out of tune and too loud, and then starts shouting into the microphone. The crowd goes back to what it was doing and the noise swells up again, with the loud detuned guitar and the guy’s shouting fighting against it. It’s pretty terrible to be honest.
He plays two more songs which sound much like the first one, then stumbles from the stage.
Brian says to me, „Okay, let’s do it! Don’t worry about anything, just play something and I’ll follow you, okay?“
I nod. „Cool.“
We get up onto the stage, I move the chair so that it’s behind the mic, position it in front of the guitar, and look up expectantly. Brian has found another mic and he’s standing there. The guy behind the mixing desk gives him a nod. He turns around to me and I give him a nod too.
„Hallo Tacheles!“ he shouts into the microphone. There’s a cheer from the Brian faction and a ragged round of applause. I start up a driving rhythm based around a simple Am and G, and afer a moment Brian starts singing along, it sounds like Iggy Pop but he might be making it up, I’m not sure. It sounds good though, what he lacks in finesse he makes up for in volume and enthusiasm; he breaks off from singing for a moment and starts jumping wildly up and down, pogoing around the stage; he pauses to give me a quick grin and then he jumps to the front of the stage and starts howling into the microphone again. After what seems like a good amount of time I go to an F and C to close it off and then end with a flourish, pummeling the strings and ending on a detuning of the bottom E string before dragging my pick down it in a heavy metal parody. In the sudden comparative silence Brian whoops loudly, shouts, „Thank you Tacheles! Thank you Tacheles!“ and lauhgs manically. We jump off the stage and Brian slaps my back, we’re both laughing our heads off. „That was fun,“ I tell him.
„Yeah!“ Brian enthuses. „We’ll have to do it again! I liked the end bit especially!“
We make our way to the bar and get our free beer for playing, and return to his group of friends, who are all enthusiastic. Someone slaps me on the back and hands me a joint and I inhale and swig at the beer and the room is a mass of agreeable noise and confusion.
Back in Kule I walk in through the unlocked front door. I go upstairs and as I walk back towards the corridor I pass the door of the flute-playing woman. I hear sounds from within; music playing, the scraping of a chair. I pause. In my inebriated state I wonder what would happen if I knocked on the door, said something, went in. I stand there for a moment, swaying, then walk further, turn the corner and start down the corridor and when I’m halfway down it I think that I hear the sound of a door opening behind me, a voice. I slow, but in the end I don’t stop, and I don’t look back. Back in my room, naked under the sheets, I fall asleep with a jumble of confused thoughts in my mind.
The Berlin Diaires Vol. I, a memoir, by Noel Maurice
Read Chapter Four here next Thursday and don’t forget to sign up for the indieberlin newsletter list to make sure you don’t miss it!