A Berlin story : Eva.
I first met Eva at the bottom of an escalator, late in the evening of a brutal Berlin winter. She was just standing there at the foot of the thing, trying to judge when to take that first frightening step onto it. There was nobody there but us, and I’d the feeling that a few of the late workers like myself had already squeezed around her to exit the U-Bahn, which is what they called the underground or metro in Berlin.
Decision time. I said hello, talked for a bit, tried to move her onto the thing, but she was having nothing to do with it. Too complicated. That was alright. The stairs she understood and could handle, so we had a crack at them. With a bit of help, she finally got to the top of them, so we sat down on the top step to catch our breath and to look back down at the mountain we’d both climbed.
I lit a smoke and after a few puffs and a glance from her, gave it over to her. Two or three good hard sucks on it, and she’d burnt it right down to the filter; a poor and desperate substitute for what she really needed. She made the offer and I said sure, but I needed some food first. The prospect of a meal was enough to get her up and moving and anyway, it saved me having to rustle something up when I got back to my apartment. It was late and cooking for one when you’re tired can be a pretty joyless experience.
We ate the burgers and fries, slurped the drinks and I wondered what to do with her next. At some point, she realised I wasn’t going to be a client but at the same time wasn’t some weirdo going to try to save her or something, so things relaxed a bit. We exchanged first names and some pennies of small talk. She picked up on what I thought was my clean as whistle German and asked if I was Dutch. I said no but she smiled knowingly and didn’t quite believe me for some reason. She never did either. We finished the meal and she looked in better shape with some food in her. I gave her my pack of smokes and we parted outside the slop shute to go our separate ways. I never really expected to see her again but of course I did.
It became a once in a while sort of thing. Every few weeks I’d find the waif sitting at the top of the stairs and the cheeky little cow would always greet me by shouting a raucous hello Dutchman just to embarrass me, which it unfailingly did, and we’d head off for a burger; the grey suit with a tie-dyed hippie girl half his age in tow. I never kept regular hours and often wondered how long she’d been waiting there. She always said ten minutes so I stopped asking.
Over the months, she visibly declined under the wear and tear of a life in free fall. Once, she looked like she’d been knocked around by somebody but I didn’t ask about it. Our relationship, such as it was, revolved about not asking each other too many searching questions about anything outside of our little bubble.
Sure, I was a reliable source of a square meal when she was really hungry, but I think it was more about a non-threatening time out from the daily struggle of her life, a de-militarised zone, an occasional break from a chaotic existence supported by juggling a string of part-time jobs, petty thievery and an occasional dip into prostitution when things got really desperate. It was simply a burger, fries, crapola cola and some conversation, with a small side order of normality. Hold the grab ass.
Berlin is a very arty city and consequently attracts many young people to it who have aspirations in that general direction. Eva fell into that category and once had a vague ambition to be a photographer and from the pictures she showed me, had some talent. She liked to work in grainy black and white, and shot mainly wrecked buildings at twilight and sunrise in the desolate war zones of the city like Mitte and the mean streets off Oranienburger strasse. There were never any people in her pictures.
So many of the shots were from inside dark interiors, but there was very often a chink of light shining in through a broken window or a door hanging half off its hinges. I remarked on it once and she quickly shuffled through them again to see if it was true. We kicked around what it might subconsciously mean but I think we both knew it represented that ray of hope we all need to get out of dark places.
Sometimes I’d tell her stories and pass on jokes I’d just heard. Berliners love to share a good joke and being prone to going native, I’d fallen into the habit. She still had a girlish laugh which I liked to tempt out, so I used to save up the best jokes for her, just to hear it. Over the months, she shared a few scraps about her past and the odd detail of her life now.
A girl from the north country; Kiel. Estranged from an ordinary family and a runaway from them to big bad Berlin after stealing and selling one too many of their valuables. It reached the point where she thought they’d be better off without her around, so she’d done a runner. Tired of hurting them, it was sort of an honourable thing to do, because she knew they’d never report her. She’d always peeked at me sideways when she revealed something bad like that about herself, to see how I was taking it and I’d pretend not to notice.
At times I felt like the slightly disreputable uncle that headstrong kids, who’re going through a wayward phase at home, choose to confide the stuff they can’t discuss with their family. They do it because they know you’re in no position to pull a sermon on the mount number on them and her instincts in that respect were right. Anyway, she’d had that sermon a thousand times before and knew exactly what direction her life was heading towards. Nagging them to get clean never works. That’s a realisation they’ve got to come to themselves. Keeping in contact and feeding them an occasional burger to keep them alive is about as good as it gets.
The last time I saw her, she seemed too quiet. There was something in her head, something she’d accepted into her soul and it wasn’t good. What it was, she never exactly said but I’d a good idea, having seen that sort of quietness descend on some friends I’d lost. It’s a sort of mild intuition that gradually grows into a stone cold certainty of what the future holds for them and it’s a complete copper-plated bastard which never fails to take them out. The hope of any future at all goes away.
We smoked and chatted on the top step for a time until she suddenly stood up, saying she had to go and hurried down the steps a touch too fast, an elfin child disappearing back into the essentially underground Berlin where she lived. She never looked back. I knew she’d just wanted to stop by and say goodbye. Looking back on it, I think she was making the rounds, putting her chaotic affairs into some semblance of order.
A few weeks later, an elderly man was sitting on the top step where she’d usually be. Germans of his generation don’t sit waiting on U-Bahn steps in Berlin. He was grey-haired, neat and tidy, brown shoes buffed but somehow looked like he’d been dressed by one of the better charity shops. I took the stairs rather than the escalator to give myself time to prepare for the bad news. I sat down beside him and we looked at each other. He asked if I was the Dutchman and I said yes and that was the final confirmation of why he was there. He knew he’d found who he was looking for and I knew what he was about to tell me.
He was a pastor who ran some sort of shelter and started a long sensitive preamble he’d obviously rehearsed in advance but I waved him off well before he could get into the whole story, not wanting to know the details. Some details you don’t need to have in your head, because they become the ammunition your imagination uses to torture you. I was drawing a line already. We sat together saying nothing for a while. Even when you’ve all along been expecting the inevitable to happen, you still need time to take it in when it finally arrives, because today is suddenly the day and it has arrived. There’s never any sense to such waste and words seem futile.
He eventually broke the silence by asking if I was okay. I said sure and putting my hand on his shoulder, stood up and thanked him for his kindness. He was a decent man, doing his last service for her. I left him there, still sitting on the step and headed for my place via a stop at a quiet local bar I knew.
Eva was one of those encapsulated relationships we’ve all had. It has a start, a middle, a very definite end and a hard shell all the way around it. It’s old history and has by now no relevance to anyone else but you, but within that shell, still has some sort of meaning for you. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not so good. Your thoughts go back to it on occasion and you take it out, turn it over in your hands and examine it for a while and then you put it back into that cupboard in the far hinterland of your memories. Sometimes you do that tenderly, sometimes not.
I never got off at that station again, preferring to overshoot to the next one, because I knew I’d always steal a glance at the top of the steps, just on the faint hope that somehow the kid might turn up there. It’s with the help of such little acts of cowardice we all get by.
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