Being there and not being there.
It’s Christmas day and I’m in fat city, living high off the hog. There’s a warm orange glow about it all. I’m home and we’ll sit around the table and I’ll join in and wear the silly paper hat, after dutifully reading the pithy joke from the cracker. I’m going to be enjoying the day. The kids are all back and as usual, are eating us out of house and home and we wouldn’t have it any other way. It’ll just be me and my wife and our children and their partners.
How they and their partners will turn out, nobody can say for sure but they’re all happy young people and it’s looking good and they’ve reached that age where it’ll be their problem not your’s if they don’t last, but you still of course care. Parenthood is an incurable condition. Their taste in people looks pretty decent to me and I wish all of them the best and hope none of their hearts will be hurt. I’m nearly all growed up now and so I’ve learnt that’s the sort of stuff that’s totally beyond my control.
The christmas crackers will remind me of a friend, who used to come around on this day and always brought the crackers. That was his job. We all have our little traditional jobs around this time of year. He went away this year and I found him rather than the ones who loved him, and that’s okay. Some sights people can be spared because tough memories are hard to forget; last memories should at least be decent ones. We saw some hard days together but some fine ones too. He was a difficult man but a good one and I’ve tucked him away in a little corner of my heart and will think of him.
I’ll look at my family around the table and think about them and love them. I’ll remember them when they were young children. Then, it’s all about looking after and protecting them; giving them love because that’s all they’re plainly asking of you and it’s just unconditional and I’m at heart a softie. You do your best and sometimes that does involve time away from home doing things but you do it because you know it’s important. As they grow, you see bits of your Dad or Mom in them but occasionally and frighteningly, elements of yourself too.
They’re all out in the world now and doing their own thing. I like them, they each have their own texture and I admire that in them. None of them came off a production line. They’re all a touch eccentric but none of them are small people. I sometimes look at them and their energy, enthusiasm and their sheer zest for life and remember what it was like to be their age. They argue about music, sports, books and movies and they’re not just being polite either; it’s all that really matters to them. For their own curious reasons, they all studied the sciences in college but that was always just the day job; it’s those other things that really mean something to them. I know I’m a fortunate man to have such interesting children and I enjoy them.
I think of the times I couldn’t be there around the table. Off somewhere in a foreign city learning how to use their transit system while nodding convincingly to some turnip in an official uniform, who was lecturing me very seriously in a language I barely understood. Being away on the big days like anniversaries, birthdays or Christmas is hard. You have to develop some coping mechanisms, as they say. Weekends in general are bad but Sundays were always the worst. You’ve been out to do your phone call and now you’re back in that room but you can still hear their voices in your ear saying goodbye. The whole damn burg is shut down but in the end, you’ve just got to get out of that room or go crazy.
You head for Alex, the centre of town, where you know you can buy a newspaper in a language you can feel at home in. Folded newspaper safely secured under arm, you set course for that one place in town where they serve food that approximates to what you’re used to. The barkeep remembers you because you’re one of the few people who actually asks how’re you doing before saying gimme. He pushes the menu across the bar at you as he automatically sets up your usual, because he’s a good barman who remembers what you drink and you’re not in company. You never are. You open the menu up and flick through but he’s already telling you what’s good today so you go with that because he’s a pal and you sorta trust him on the food front.
You eat your meal while reading the newspaper. It’s late afternoon and the place is starting to fill up. Berlin was always a very cosmopolitan city, with a large element of semi-permanent foreigners working there. More than most, this bar reflects that demographic. All the usual nationalities are present but there’s a slavic flavour to the latest batch of arrivals in town, mostly skilled engineers from the crumbling remains of the USSR and its client states. They really need the work and most of the money they make is sent home. The only second language most of them share is Russian, which makes things difficult for them here. There’s also that strange lot that the Berliners have nicknamed Ossies or Easterners; Germans from the old DDR. Nobody’s quite sure about them yet but first impressions aren’t good.
The night wears on and somehow you eventually find yourself around a table in the company of a Geordie long haul trucker on an extended stopover, a slightly pale and haunted Norwegian woman, who does something contract graphic designish for a living, a soulful Italian from Milan, who sells real leather shoes and a classic mad Irish bastard, who blows things up as a job, rather than for the cause and you’re enjoying yourself.
It’s Berlin at its convivial best and we’re somewhere well off Oranienburger Strasse, not long after the Wall came down and everybody’s still in a good mood over that. We’re in the Mitte district, which looks a lot like the war zone backdrop that the post-apocalyptic movie Mad Max was trying for. At the time, Mitte was a sort of fire-free zone in the middle of the city that the Polizei stayed well out of when the sun went down and you went in there at your own risk. It was where all the serious action was. Max would have felt right at home there.
The bar is heaving. We’re all telling jokes and stories loudly over the din in some pigeon middle language we all share but eventually we all drop the bullshit. All by itself, a little moment of silence descends between us. The Germans have a phrase for that; an angel walked past. We’ve all finally worked out each of us is far from home and lonely on this day and we exchange mutual sheepish grins and that’s okay. We all really relax then.
We talk about our other halves and our kids and how strange the locals are. The Norwegian woman has a kind heart and mothers us a bit and we all like her for doing that because we’re in need but we can see she’s missing her loved ones too, so we all behave ourselves. We swap decent restaurants and directions on how to find them. We’re all drinking a bit more slowly now but the Italian man still gets drunk fairly quickly, because he’s seriously missing everyone he loves on this day of days and we all exchange tough guy grins over that but we all like him for that and wish we could be that vulnerable. We tacitly agree to steer the conversation off wives and bambini.
Some people should never stray far from home because their roots in it are just too strong. It’s the soil they grow in and need. Away from it, they wither and die. He’s one and you just know he’ll never ever again do another hop like Berlin because it’s simply too hard on him. I catch the barman’s attention doing the waggling thumb over ear and pinky over mouth sign with one hand, and pointing with the other at Italy, who’s still just about with us. I mouth the word taxi over the noise of the bar. The barman nods and makes the call. Pretty soon, a swarthy man appears in the bar and he looks okay, so Italy becomes his take away for that night.
Geordie is a big Roger Waters fan so we kick around the Floyd and come to a loose consensus that Obscured by Clouds was a much underrated album. Irish tells us the most dangerous part of his job is all those unexploded bombs from the war that they keep finding. Blowing up a building that’s already got one of those bastards embedded somewhere in its foundations can give you a nasty fecking surprise, as he puts it with feeling and a slow shake of the head, obviously remembering that particular experience.
We all laugh because he tells a story well but we all nod too. There’s so much rebuilding work going on in the city that finding those bombs is becoming a tiresomely regular occurrence, with the resulting roadblocks gridlocking the whole city. Norway asks me if I’ve read any Heinrich Böll and we end up agreeing that Pale Anna might just be the perfect short story. We talk and laugh and take pleasure in being in good company and sip our drinks as the time floats by. All too soon, the evening winds down and we’re starting to think about getting back to our apartments for some sleep before Monday. We leave the place and walk around in the cold for some fresh air, while we hunt down unlicensed taxis for ourselves.
The Geordie guy looks completely wasted by this stage but the Irish guy has ferociously adopted him and takes care of him. Nine stone of cursing Tipperary contrariness keeps fifteen stone of walking Newcastle oblivion upright and moving in a reasonable fashion. They’re bosom buddies by now. I hail down a cab but we need an address from Geordie. This involves me slapping him around the face until he’s conscious enough to give me a credible address for where he’s staying. It turns out he and Irish are located near each other.
Geordie has woken up now and is on his second wind, ready for round two. I negotiate a decent price for the two of them with the cabbie, as always a non-German speaking Turk who always understands numbers, and Geordie boy and the blower up of things get in and disappear. There’s a minibar somewhere in a Berlin hotel that’s about to take a hell of a hammering.
Norway and I walk through the night streets, side stepping the drunks and chatting easily about nothing much and I steer us out of Mitte and back towards the relative civilisation of Alexander Platz, where I know there’ll be licensed cabs, which we both know will be a lot safer for her. We get there and I walk the Norwegian lady to a parked cab and after looking the driver over carefully, relay her address to him. We say goodbye and before getting in, she turns and unexpectedly rubs her hand quickly against my cold cheek and kisses me lightly on the other.
Her hand is soft and warm and the kiss is fleeting. That’s okay. I know she’s thinking of someone else and missing them badly and I understand that and that’s okay by me too. I’m doing the same. We both take that little extra moment to smile with our eyes at each other as friends do, and we say goodbye again. We both know we’ve got through another one of those bad days but we also know we’ll both be going home in a few months, and that’s all that really matters. The cab drives off and I go looking for one of the bandito variety for myself.
I never met any of them again.
I’ll be at home on Christmas day and I’ve learnt to value being home on days like that. I’ll think of that melancholy Italian, the big Geordie, the kind Norwegian woman and that cursing little Irishman and I’ll smile. I hope they’ll be around a Christmas table somewhere with their loved ones and perhaps thinking of me in return. We all helped each other get through not being there.
It’s Christmas. Let’s be good and a little kinder to each other. In the end, each other is all we’ll ever have. Nothing else matters much.
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