Behind the bar was my favourite, winter fox barmaid, who still had a warm hat on. I munched on little salty snack, in loads, shovelling them into my mouth, turning pages as the head of my beer sunk lower in the glass, the cigarette burnt down, and wondered where the hell I would live when my German friend returned. I read the narrator’s description of the eponymous hero’s room, in Hermann Hesse’s novel, Steppenwolf.
‘A few volumes of Dostoyevsky bristled with pencilled slips. On the big table among the books and papers there was often a vase of flowers. There, too, a paint box, generally full of dust, reposed among flakes of cigar ash and (to leave nothing out) sundry bottles of wine. There was a straw-covered bottle, usually containing Italian red wine, which he procured from a little shop in the neighbourhood; often, too, a bottle of burgundy as well as Malaga; and a squat bottle of Cherry brandy was, as I saw, nearly emptied in a very brief space – after which it disappeared in a corner of the room, there to collect dust without further diminution of its contents … all these signs of a life full of intellectual curiosity, but thoroughly slovenly and disorderly all the same, inspired me at first with aversion and mistrust.’
I imagine a life in that book, with my bottle of Burgundy as well as Malaga and scattered about my beautiful sun-drenched flat there would be signs of a life full of intellectual curiosity. A few evenings before I had gone to visit the flat in Marzahn, and found none of this there. On my way over I had thought about what I might find there. ‘This is flat is too big for me’, she had said in her advert. How big was it? And how long had she been rattling around inside it alone? Had there been other people living there with her before? And if so, were they now? I imagined her to be a mature student working hard in Berlin, indifferent to life inside The Ring. She would study something like science or maths, or if a humanity, she would do so as if it were science or maths. Comer by comer, neat steps of her argument ping-ponging their way down the page. She would never take a sip of Guinness with Joyce, and would think that Shakespeare on stage was a distraction from what was on page. She dreamed of being a lexicographeror or a teacher in a quiet school. She wouldn’t care about where she lived so long as it was affordable and functional. The neighbours wouldn’t bother her because she was quiet, and she wouldn’t think on them at all. It was a riddle she rarely dwelt upon, as why it happened to be that they were there, and she was there too, so close. But a riddle nonetheless, and when she occasionally did dwell upon it, she found it a preposterousness that they shared the same view, the same bricks, perhaps even some of the same thoughts. She was confounded, and thanked God for walls.
When I found the building a man came out of with a small terrier. He looked at me blankly and walked on a few steps then stopping and rummaging through his pockets turned to me and asked, ‘hast du Feur?’ I didn’t understand him but the unlit cigarette hanging from his course lips were enough of a clue. He lit his cigarette, returned the lighter and thanked me. I thanked him and feeling cheered rang the buzzer.
‘Hi, come up!’ she sounded shrill and excitable. I clambered to the fifth floor and still hadn’t reached her but looking up I saw a face and shoulders bending over the banister above. She was younger than I had expected, probably about my age, bespectacled with crimson hair. When I reached her she smiled a little awkwardly and ushered me through the door. As I clambered past what I imagined were bin bags, heaps of clothes and tilting pieces of furniture, she called from behind me, ‘I am sorry there is smoke but my Canadian friend is here.’ I tumbled over something in the darkness and hit my knee on the floor. She cried out and putting a tentative hand on my back, apologised as I got up and guided me through a door into a light and smoky sitting room. To my right was an open arched doorway and to my left an L-shaped leather sofa with a blonde boy cross-legged upon it who smiled up at me with the same uncertainty that she had. There was stuff everywhere.
The boy shook my hand and introduced himself. I wasn’t quite sure, what he had said, where he was from, and if this was the Canadian who I was to blame for all the smoke. As I sat down on the sofa he got up and left through the door we had just entered from and the girl took his place, and curling her legs under herself dragged a laptop onto her lap.
‘We are looking at the election results,’ she told me. ‘All the Nazis are in this area here. Fucking fascists. Oh! You want a beer?’
She got up to grab me one from the small kitchen which the arched doorway lead to. I took off my glasses and looked around the sitting room. Through the smoke, the place smelt of some kind of animal. There were bottles and papers, and piles of clothes on the floor, on every surface, and dripping from two large bookshelves. The boy came back into the sitting room, and the girl returned with my beer and they joined me on the sofa, leaning together over the laptop, their foreheads almost touching. They spoke in German again in front of the screen, and then she turned to me again:
‘Do you smoke?’ she asked. I assented and they gave a little cheer and a gleeful glance at each other, and she took out a cigarette. And I took out my tobacco. The girl now began speaking very fast, both in German to him and in English to me, but I couldn’t make out much of what she was saying in either language.
‘I am sorry my English is very bad now. It has been so long. Not since Henri has been speaking German …’ And as if to prove the point he began sparking away in German to her and they occasionally broke into peals of laughter.
She fell sober looking at the screen again. ‘Yeah this is a very Nazi area …’
‘O we must have a tour!’
I stood up with her and turning around I saw a cage and in it a big white rabbit.
‘You have a rabbit!’
‘Three actually!’ and she took me to the balcony and showed me a large cage. ‘Inside is Mila,’ she said, introducing me to the white one. ‘And the junges are Calimero and their son Bumblebee. We keep them separate because she always attacks Bumblebee.’ From the depths of the great hutch two rabbits hopped forward, one jet black with pointed ears who looked wild and impressive next to the chubbier brown one, that lolloped towards us, his ears drooping. I bent down to Mila and poked my finger through the cage. The girl smiled at my excitement, and said. ‘That is so cool! You are the first person who has come here and liked that there are rabbits!’
The tour continued to the two bedrooms that were off the corridor and I had entered in on, a bathroom next to them and then a spare room situated in the opposite corner of the living room to the kitchen. Each room was as cluttered as the living room, especially the spare room which looked like a dumping ground for all laundry and rabbit paraphernalia. I couldn’t initially make out the toilet and sink in the bathroom, for books and towels and boxes of toilet roll tubes.
The girl had kept up a heavy flow of chatter as she took me around the flat and didn’t stop as we joined Henri on the sofa. In a momentary pause he asked me if I wanted another beer, and jumped up to get me one. They offered me a wrinkled clementine from a bowl on the coffee table in front of them. As I ate the sour fruit, the peel sticky from spilt alcohol, she said she wanted to show me the television shows from which the cartoons Mila and Calimero were named after. Bumblebee was from Transformers. The Canadian looked at her with an amused expression, and occasionally at me, cautiously. Not once did either of them ask me any questions.
When I had left she said to me again at the door, ‘I am sorry I speak so much I get so nervous when people come here and we have had some really weird people coming here. And most people don’t turn up at all so I am really glad that you came. No one like Mila and so it is so great that you love rabbits so much. Henri didn’t like them at first either but now he is always liking them and feeding them peanuts and even Calimero comes up and sits with him on the sofa.’ And then she had said, ’I think it would be nice if you lived here. I think it would be cool if you moved in.’
That night I dreamed off living with her in Marzahn. The white rabbit in the corner sprung, and we drank and kept drinking, and the ash flew about us, and Mila, and Calimero, and Bumblebee came about us, and not just them, but their namesakes as well; the little Anime volleyball player with big, astonished, mindless eyes. She screeched in her squeaky continuous English, and he now screeched with her, as we danced with stuff everywhere, about us. I took off my shirt, and my glasses were stepped upon . None of it mattered as with this rent I could buy new ones, and the rabbits leapt, and we kept drinking, and the Nazis outside waved their flags, and the old man next door with his terrier, began playing the piano as his dog barked along in tune.
The next day I was to meet Ollie, the French teacher who had also got back to me about the room in his flat. On my way to meet him I suddenly realised that I couldn’t remember if Ollie actually was his name, or whether the one I was meeting was Pete. Was it perhaps the same person? Or were there two, both language teachers? Hovering about the statue he had designated we meet at I felt a presence behind me and turning saw a pale looking man, young with limp blond hair, and glasses. He had a scarf wrapped tightly round his neck, and looked harassed, and a little miserable.
‘Bertie? Shall we?’
‘Yes!’ I said, and headed towards the stairs which lead down to a smart looking café.
‘No, actually, I don’t have much time. I thought we could speak here.’ And he indicated towards two hard chairs that sat in the corner of the lobby.
‘Of course,’ I said, and he sat opposite me, letting out a sigh. He had weary, faint, blue eyes that were slightly opaque like thin clouds, and a pimpled damp forehead. This furrowed an unfurrowed, into and out of a resigned, pitiful frown. He was French, but spoke English perfectly, and lacked any of the excitement or colourings one would presume of a typical Frenchman. He questioned me on my history and on my motives to moving to Berlin, which I don’t think I told very well. He was unable to understand the concept of the Pub Crawl. I tried to explain it to him clearly, returning to the beginning without stopping when his expression refused to clear, using different words, and coming at it from different angles. After my third attempt he said, looking pain-stricken, ‘Excuse me, one more time please …’
He told me about the various stipulations that he was compelled to put upon any new tenant, and a little about the house. He told me of the horror he had had to go through with his last flatmate – ‘An Australian’ – and mentioned Pablo his current flatmate, saying his name flat like it was just a sound, a label of something that he had no inclination to speak more of. He didn’t smile but once I managed to coax out of him a dry chuckle and a resurgent sparkle fired up through the fog in his eyes. I didn’t think he was convinced with me, but at the end of our meeting invited me to come see the house the next day.
It was a wet walk to his house from my friends. It was in Neukölln, though not nearly as far out as Marzahn. It was a depressing, empty area. As I walked further towards the teacher’s house and I realised that I hadn’t expected it to be any different. ‘No cafes or bars nearby, I’m afraid,’ he had said to me the day before. ‘But there is a Lidl.’ It was residential and reminded me of Neighbours but here no-one was good friends. No-one even new each other. As the ugly street stretched out ahead of me I envisaged the damp, depressing life I might lead here.
I would leave the house each morning with an umbrella. Ollie would be awake when I woke, and so would Pete, and both would be in the kitchen and would greet me with a ‘good morning’ and return to their own little occupations: Ollie to the most boring pages of the Berlin newspapers, Pete to wiping the counter, collecting the moist crumbs in to his palm. They were silent and gave each other no more attention than they granted me. But they were united in their silence. Their silence against me and the world that they, ploughed through and resented. I asked if I could have the half grapefruit that was in the fridge. They nodded, after a pause, and watched me as I put it on a plate and began to eat it, the surface crusty, and flesh dry.
And where was Pablo? Where was the third flatmate? Pete raised his eyes, and Ollie did the same on the table. And they asked me to sit down and they told that Pablo was out late again last night and had come crashing home in the early hours of the morning. Something has to be done, they said. It was decided.
But could they put themselves through the stress of finding another flatmate?
Each shuddered with the idea of it. Pete said something to Ollie in another language and his hairy eyebrows hopped in accent. They looked at me as if I were one of their students who bored them by incorporating the unwavering proof that there really wasn’t anything in the world getting excited about. At least the world of grammar and sums could provide a little meaning, provide them with a little satisfaction, and give the days at least the semblance of meaning …
My feet were wet when I arrived at the house. He looked even more exhausted when he greeted me at the door, and even older. Through our second interview, at a clear kitchen table he kept sighing even more, rubbing his forehead and looking hopelessly at me. ‘I am sorry, I have been interviewing people all morning. Remind me again, what is it you do in Berlin?’
‘Well you see Ollie- shit, Pete? sorry, it’s the emails they’ve got me …’
He waved his hand as if he had expected nothing else. ‘It’s Bertie isn’t it? I am saying it right? It is a strange name. Not common in England?’
‘More common in Germany,’ I said. ‘Or at least it used to be. ‘
‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘Bertie Bertie Bertie Bertie.’
And that was it. I thought, I would never know Pete from Ollie. And he would accept it in a resigned, unsurprised sigh. And he would rub his brow again, and despair stoically, still.
And that afternoon I went to the third flat in Wedding, to meet two sociology students from Bayern. Wedding reminded me of Shepherd’s Bush. I saw few bars and cafés here, but there was undoubtedly life going on which hadn’t been the case at the last two places. Reaching the right building I walked through an arched doorway into a quant Hinterhoff and up pretty stairs into a white and floral flat. The two girls looked at me slightly warily as they stood in the door frame, as if they were children, home alone and opening the door to their new babysitter. They welcome me to a table where flowers stood, as well as biscuits a pot of tea, a jug of cool water and a pot of coffee. They showed me to what would be my room, which was a beautiful white box, with flowers on the walls, clean as a pin, empty, and tidy. They looked at it proudly, and at me, expectantly. It was fresh, and unspoilt, and I imagined my dad’s army bag sullying it, slouched in the corner with its contents hanging out.
Back at the table they offered me some homemade lemonade which was sickeningly sweet. The bespectacled one who seemed to speak for both of them drank a clear tea, and a lot of it, while the other one, her figure short and thick like her hair, sat in the corner, cracking nuts in her hands. We spoke for a bit about vegan markets, and reading, and relaxed Sundays. They told me all the financial details and about the kitty for vegan daily food and toilet rolls. And that was it. There was nothing. Nothing at all. It was as bare, and as pretty, as frozen as the empty room.
I wasn’t to receive any more offers.
Bertie Digby Alexander