A Berlin story : Elfi’s birthday.
More than most, I’ve worked far away in different countries from my family. I could do it well but I never found it easy. It was always hard. Foreign lands, foreign people I suppose, ultimately foreign words in foreign languages and all that it comes down to is you, a stranger lost in a strange land, to echo A.E. Housman.
They converse with you, you talk back, and after a while because you know how to fit in and have a facility with words, you start to dream in their language and that’s sort of okay. It’s just dreamtime, only a temporary thing and you’re just surfing in a wobbly way.
Your first impulses, never mind your gestures, gradually become culturally perfect and you begin to suspect you might never quite make it back home. The cuckoo in the nest starts digging in good and proper, deeper in than any Alabama tick as they say. You’ve gone native. Coming home starts becoming a little bit more than walking down the steps of an aircraft after a few hours of flight. You’re afeared they won’t know the stranger you’ve become walking through the door of your own home and more scarily, you might not be easy with them foreigners either. You’re all buggered over, messed up, your head is gone.
You’re doing something you think of as being important, if only bringing home a bit of bacon when economic times are hard but that rationale starts to wear pretty thin after a few hops. It’s needed but it starts to kill your heart in the end. You’re doing it for them but you’re never there for them anyway, so what’s the point. When did the little fellow start to walk? You were away then she tells you quietly, so as not to hurt you. Okay. End of conversation, because she knows you’re finding the going on the latest job a bit tough. She knows you from the attic clean down to the very basement of you, right down to your bloody toenails.
It’s like a firewall under a steady and unrelenting attack. The urge to just go home to them burns like a slow thermic lance through the tough guy wall you’ve constructed around what needs to be done, but you try your best to soldier on for a long as possible because you have to. It’s just a matter of time, you know you’ll run out of everything you’ve got in the end and just go home, whatever the cost. That day is coming. There’s only so much duty you can give and then there’s an end of it.
Workdays are easy, you just throw yourself into it, get immersed, work all the bloody unpaid hours God sent practising your profession and at the end of evening, go for a shovel in through your face meal in a Turkish restaurant somewhere in Roter Wedding and a little bit too much drink with your colleagues, who’re all heading for their third divorce. No way is that going to be me, you decide. No way. They go looking for a bit of cash down, fire and forget loving and sometimes after hearing how that poor professional judgement plays equally badly in their personal lives, you can’t blame anyone. You leave them to it.
It’s not that you’re somehow a better man than them, it’s just that you’re chronic, she’s the one and the only one and what you need is a lot more than a quick shag from a complete stranger – and it’s not even about a fuck. Lordy, if only. It aches, it burns and is killing you. Just to wake up of a morning and have her there beside you to roll into and cuddle up into her warmth would be enough. To have her in your arms, to put your hands on her, to touch her, nothing more. To be there. Accept no substitute, as they used to say in all the best adverts.
Being the complete disaster only a complete fuckwit can make blundering through life, I’ve suffered every crash and burn, every ache of the heart any mortal man could suffer and still survive but I’ll tell you the worst one is knowing you’re but a taxi ride away from the airport, a slapped down credit card on a booking counter and then a flight home out of the wilderness and back to everything you’ve ever loved. Her and our kids. Just drop everything, abandon it all, fuckit, seize the moment, carpe bloody diem, just get in that cab and go home, leave it all behind, but you hang on in there because it’s the needed thing to be done and you have to be strong for them. You just have to dig in.
Weekends, you really do have to populate with things to do or you’ll end up chewing the carpet in your apartment. A jug of wine without thou and a decent book of poetry if you’ve got one, a movie, arid exhibitions, out and about, exploring the obscure crevices of the city. There’s only so much art you can take and so much of it is desperately substituting shock value for even a minimal nod at some talent. You gravitate up into the seamier side of a vibrant city that’s still undergoing a tectonic change in the aftermath of the wall coming down. It’s only the desperate people who open conversations with each other, and you need real contact.
I’m heading for the Pergamon museum but to get to it you have to walk half the length of a road which runs along beside the Spree and becomes a flea market every weekend. March through it and take the right over the bridge to the island it stands on and see all those BC bigjobs from Egypt and Abyssinia, but you know the thing about any museum, and especially one for ancient antiquities, is that once you’ve done a walk around it, you’ve pretty much done it. It’s not as if it’s going to change from week to week because some ancient Abyssinian somewhere is still chiselling out fresh slabs of masonry.
At the entrance to the market is the eternal three card con trick, complete with a shill in the crowd who doubles as a lookout just in case the Polizei finally get off their butt and get interested in busting them. The grifter has fast wonderful hands and it’s a delight to watch someone that gifted working so hard to look amateurish with the cards. He’s earning steadily and you can’t fault that. He catches you watching him and wonders if you’re the heat, but you smile and shake your head just enough and he knows, and gets back to making a living.
Once you’ve refused to the right and won’t go over the bridge and into the museum, you’re into the marginal milieu which is life for people trying to make a living in a market setting. You stumble across them – the odd couple sitting on cheap folding camp stools playing great classical music.
He’s violin and she’s cello.
He’s huge, Russian huge and looks like he could walk through a breeze-block wall and wonder why everyone is looking at him. He’s managed to squeeze himself into one of those top hat and claw-hammer tails outfits but without the capitalist top hat. If he ever sneezes in the thing, he’ll blow every seam in it, shred it like Bruce Banner transforming into the incredible hulk. You just know he has a massive natural strength and yet without an aggressive bone in his body. He’s a huge lump of a man who needs protecting.
She’s a classic white Russian. As white as a sheet and you can nearly see through her fingers as she saws away at the cello. Blue spangly evening dress, not a pick on her and totally massively elegant. It’s somehow an ugly instrument for any woman to play gripped between their knees but she owns it. The bluest eyes set in the whitest face you’ll ever see in your life. You’d get in the way of a bullet for her.
You see it in them. They are the eternal young couple of the ages, totally welded to each other, your basic man woman thing set against the circumstances of a world which at the moment isn’t being too kindly to them, but they know their love will eventually get them through.
She’s playing a movement from the Bach cello concerto and people just passing by get their feet nail-gunned to the spot. She’s that good – total emotional payload with every performance.
They stop playing and wait for the money to flow into the bucket, which it doesn’t. I do a big showy clap like I think it was a genius performance which it actually was, but to guilt trip some money out of the crescent crowd before they mooch along to look at the next turn.
These two innocents have absolutely no idea of how to work a crowd.
I get to know them over the weeks and get that message across. He’s Yuri and she’s Alexandra. You gotta wiggle your elbow a bit more flashily on the Paganini pieces I tell him and showing a bit more leg might not be a bad idea Alexandra. Lose the sensible shoes and invest in some slut heels. They don’t like taking the advice but their earnings tick up in the light of my sordid counsel. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, you still have to work the marks.
We become weekend market friends. Sometimes, they talk together in a language they don’t think I understand, but I can pick out the elements of meaning and notice he always calls her Elfi not Alexandra in it, but I don’t comment. Little mysteries.
They are both exquisitely accomplished musicians, products of a state-funded conservatoire that has now disappeared because there’s simply no money left. If the nuclear subs are rotting and sinking at their moorings at Murmansk, what the hell chance did such delicate flowers as them stand in Novy Mir?
He’s playing the Beethoven romance, and the tips of those big dinner sausage fingers of his dance over the strings with such nimbleness, it’s truly wonderful. He’s totally off somewhere in his own space and we’re lucky enough to be travelling along on his coat tails. At some point she just stops playing the supporting embellishments and puts her bow down to watch him and enjoy the performance.
There isn’t a man in the crowd who’d spotted that look and who isn’t thinking – once, just once in my life, I want a woman to look at me like that. He’s deep into the piece and doesn’t even notice. Some men are that lucky.
They’re on their break and the three of us are chatting over styrene cups of hot Glühwein I brought along for them, because Berlin is already in the chilly foothills of winter. It’s her birthday and they’re having a small party tonight with some friends. Would I like to come around? I do the customary no, no, no but they insist and he finally puts both of his hands on my shoulders and asks me will I be there? They know if they can get me to say yes, I’ll be there. He leans down a little bit harder and I know he’ll not let me go. There is no escape.
I eventually say yes.
I head off to do the rest of my Saturday but pick up some French sticks, a good slab of real butter and some Normandie pate as well as a bottle of Stolichnaya. If they’re anything to go by, their friends are probably starving as well. As it turns out, their friends arrive with nothing but great basic food, lots of booze and the party kicks off. Early on in the evening, before the whole thing goes off the Richter scale, they corner me.
Out of the blue, they address me for the first time using the honorific Herr Doktor, though I’m not anything like that. They want to talk to me about something. They’re both illegal but want to make a child. If it’s born in Germany, will it have the right to grow up there, even if they’ve been carted away back to an imploding USSR. What do I think? So that’s why I’m there.
It? When it is born, a few microseconds later it’ll stop being an it – but that’s the big whammy, triple whopper, doodly doo, rock your socks off world event they’ll discover all for themselves.
I say it’s never wrong to express your love for each other by making a baby, bringing a new life into the world. A silly thing to say but it’s just the truth and the frozen Stolichaya vodka coursing through my veins and my unguarded heart at work. And yes, the baby will be a German with full citizenship rights.
They’re so young and beautiful, so brave and totally clueless, and in that moment I love them hopelessly and helplessly like they were my own children, so there you go Mr. Smartie Arsie Pointy who knows every slick move in the book and just realises if it isn’t about people like these two, then what the hell is it all about.
I also tell them if you do end up being sent home, don’t you dare leave your baby behind.
I have fierce literary arguments with their émigré friends, because for some reason the devil in me comes out to play. Turgenev was good, Bulgakov was simplistic, Leo was a dishonest wanker on an ego trip, Solzhenitsyn was just the pale Russian version of Raymond Chandler. Once the Yankees rescued him, he never wrote a decent damn thing afterwards. There are howls of outrage at my blasphemy as quiet flows the Don into an alcohol-fuelled oblivion. Russians are massively over rated writers, shite I insist, and all of that hurled at them using nothing more than my forty-seven and one half words of Russian.
People have to be restrained from killing me, but we’re all having a whale of a time. Only Russians are that passionate about their writers, you do have to love them. In response, F. Scott Fitzgerald takes a bloody good but deserved shellacking, Joseph the Polack and his dark heart we all love, so that’s sacred ground. Somerset Maugham dies by popular acclaim, Thomas Mann gets burnt down to the very stubble but we all agree Ernest was out there somewhere in the ocean on his very own. The chilled vodka aus dem kuhlscrank flows. We’re all having a great old time. I relent a bit on the Solzhenitsyn front. Oh, those Russians. What to do with them.
I wake up the next morning on their couch in the embrace of an unconscious Cossack and amidst the wreckage of a lot of people passed out on the floor and oblivious to an ordentlich German Sunday. I carefully pick my way through the bodies to get to the kitchen. I find where everything is and get some coffee on the go and light the first smoke of the day while I wait for my body to reboot. Elfi appears, so I put an extra cup out for her.
She tells me I was very bad to cause all the wars last night but she can’t help herself smiling as she tries to tell me off with a bit of schoolmarm finger wagging, which I think is so cute coming from a little slip of a girl like her. I’m doing a really bad job of the noddies, and trying to look suitably grown up, responsible and penitent and even listening. I’m flying on disastro hung-over autopilot, fuelled by nothing more than the residual fumes of aviation-grade vodka.
She tells me to pay attention, she’s being really serious here, but starts to giggle when I automatically sit up straight like a naughty school child who’s getting a very stern telling off by teacher, so that was the end of that conversational topic. I think yet again that Yuri is a very lucky bunny.
I ask her why he calls her Elfi, but she smiles, ducks her head and won’t say anything. That’s their little secret. I push a bit but she won’t tell.
The survivors of last night’s asteroid strike against planet Berlin start to come around. I crack eggs into a big black skillet and break the yokes to mix them up in it as Elfi slices yesterday’s boiled potatoes and flings the discs in while I churn it all around. Grate some cheese and have you got any English mustard? She makes with the feet, diving into various cupboards. The industrial memory of cooking fast for a bunch of people never dies. Just you whack the grub out boyo.
We feed them a very late but relaxed breakfast. After downing three leisurely coffees you could stand a spoon up in, I do some farewell hugs and determine to head northwards towards Rheinickendorf and my apartment back in the outer wastes of Germania. All the whispered love is momentarily in your ear as you pull their head down and say goodbye.
Yuri, you be good to her you whisper or I’ll hunt you down like a bloody dawg, and he clasps me, hugs me off the floor and sorta crushes me. Bloody Russians. He’s killing me but as my ribs start to crack, I know we’re both smitten men.
She really couldn’t ask for a finer brute of a man.
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