A Berlin story : Beate.
I’ve never had what’s called a local; I’m too antsy to spend most evenings in a bar. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sniffy about that pleasant bracket of society and I’m partial to a drink and a laugh in company, but only once in a while. Every night would be too much for me. Turning up at our local village pub two nights in succession would be remarked on, not that I’d care to be frank.
However, when I’ve been obliged to work away from home, I’d usually sort out a decent place I could drop into when I felt like a drink and some company. When you’ve done enough sitting alone in apartments and missing that comfortable background noise of your woman nagging away at your ass and the kids practising their Visigoth skills on the fabric of the house, you tend to run out of diversions.
You haven’t got your vinyl with you, there’s nothing but mindless yackety yack on the local TV in the local lingo, and you’ve become terminally bored reading a critically acclaimed biography of that noted veterinarian Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush.
Selecting the right dive is of course critical, but your choice and method of selection is so often informed by the experiences of a dissolute youth. Good old-fashioned boots on the ground reconnaissance is vital.
If it’s dirty and unkempt on the outside, guess what, the odds are it’ll be dirty and unkempt on the inside. If you’ve never seen a light on inside it well past closing time, there’s probably not much action in the joint. If the music blasting out of it knocks you sideways as you pass by, you better be a lip reader if you’re looking for the occasional conversation of an evening.
If you’ve noticed the cops visiting the place on a regular basis complete with the whole revolving red/blue lights thing and an attendant ambulance whose bored crew are really looking forward to transporting their latest blood on shirt fighting drunk once the cops have calmed him down, then unless you’re into a bit of combat drinking with aggressive bums who’ve not been barred by the proprietor, it’s best to avoid.
Quiet neighbourhood pubs off the main drag are always the most promising. There’s no passing rough trade, all the denizens are locals and the governor knows it’s a repeat business game and runs it accordingly. Get a bad reputation in the neighbourhood and your business is kaput. It’ll be sensibly managed, full of regulars with the scumbags shown the door before they can get anywhere near upsetting the steady trade.
Having done the external non-invasive reconnaissance and picked out a likely drinking hole, the next task is to make the initial breach by actually going in to it. Entrances, like all beginnings, are such delicate things. A bit like walking through the saloon doors in a western movie.
A stranger walking into a local bar will always get looked at but you’ll know in five seconds or so through the door whether you want to be a regular. The silence curtain dropping around you and staying down is your signal to drink up and feck off. A polite we’ve clocked you pause and getting back to whatever conversation they were having is a classy sign.
You belly up to the bar but it’s best to avoid the curved ends of it; they’re invariably staked out by locals who like to stay out of the firing line while sitting in the cat bird seat watching all the action.
You order slightly the wrong drink while chatting to the barkeep in a not too brilliant attempt at their language. You’re being slightly devious to pique their interest and find a niche in the bar life it constitutes. You’re this foreigner, slightly exotic, hasn’t the first idea about the form and people who’ve been looking at each other for years, determine to show you how it’s done in their country.
You stay patient, polite, respectful, slightly oafish and answer all their cultural questions. It’s the fling yourself onto their complete mercy ploy. They decide to adopt the innocent abroad, if only for his own protection and start wising you up on how to survive on their turf. You know you’ve made it over the line when you start teaching each other the best swearwords. It’s a bit of harmless good-natured fun for all concerned. Every bar like that has a leadership, and eventually an emissary will be sent. It’s a covert invitation to the top table and you’d be a fool to spurn it.
The big bull or the deadly goose wants to look you over for themselves, and if you pass muster, you can pull up a chair at their table from then on.
Beate, pronounced bee-ah-teh, was the leadership of the pub’s clientele. I’ve always thought it’s a delightful name. It wasn’t just that she was one of the oldest regulars, but that she had a certain gravitas and a sort of hard momminess all the rest of them had leaned into and took refuge in at some point or another when they’d been going through a difficult patch.
Once in a while, you’d see something like that going on, a conference or a confessional – take your pick – see the intimate leaned in head touching head body language, so you’d carefully stay away from the Stammtisch and hang around at the bar for a while chatting with Otto after he’d served up your usual drink, leaving a decent interval before things got back to normal and you took your usual places. Nobody ever had the chops to ask her about what we were all raging curious about. She was the boss after all.
She was the wise old woman of the tribe, but one who’d never chased that particular standing. It was something she’d been awarded by popular acclaim and there was no way of dodging out of it. She picked away at me to get all my details and I told her the absolute bland truth, and she never believed a damn word of it.
What pissed her off was knowing the regulars were telling me all about her and she couldn’t tyre lever anything out of me. What pissed me off was I knew they were only repeating whatever story she’d chosen to tell them and she wasn’t giving away a damn thing either. We were both playing the same zero information game, but just from opposite ends of the table, like two knife fighters very carefully circling around each other looking for that one vital opening.
It was just a game we played. In our own wily way and despite our age difference, we’d liked the cut of each others jib from the word go.
She was extremely well read, and on the occasions there were only the two of us present around the table because everyone else was clustered around the TV watching Herta beating the hell out of Kaiser Franz’s Bayern Munich, we’d discuss writers and books. Finding a new author was one of her pleasures, and me being a foreigner who also liked books constituted a rich and undiscovered hunting ground.
I was talking in slightly pigeon German about Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks when she reached across the table and gave me a right good clip across the ear. “Speak proper German” was the Kaiserin’s command. I was a fully growed up man, and the last person who did anything like that to me was my mother, and that was more than a few decades ago. From then on, I spoke proper high German in her presence. No fooling that woman.
Her children, who were all grown up and long out of the nest, all lived locally and would pop in to see her just to be sure she was okay. Her eldest was called Heiko, which is one of those curious German names that looks more oriental than Teutonic, but is actually very traditional.
He definitely looked a lot more Slovak than German to my eye. I remarked on that obliquely one time and she read what I was thinking and gave me that unblinking appraising look. “You’re right, he’s not mine.” Like a lot of German women, she’d had some terrible experiences in the aftermath of the Battle of Berlin. It meant she couldn’t have children while a lot of German women, because of wholesale rape, had unwanted ones.
Being mostly Catholic, they tended to have the child but abandoned them to orphanages. Some were just left on street corners carefully wrapped up in baby blankets. Even then, with the exceptionally brutal two winters that followed immediately after the war, most of the babies perished.
Those were terrible years for Berliner women.
The story went that Heiko had been found and picked up by her, to be adopted as her own flesh and blood, and he’d a few siblings she’d also taken under her wing. They were all really fine people and a credit to her and her late husband.
He was one of those big-hearted bouncy bastards who was all fully loved up. In his forties heading for fifty. A self-employed builder who’s always kept things afloat for himself and his crew of many years. The wife gave him hell for being such a mercurial bugger but wouldn’t hear a bad word said about him, the grown up kids you could plainly see still adored him madly, and he was one of those go out of his way to help types that everyone just simply liked.
Easy going, solid as a bloody rock and very definitely one of the good guys. He’d long ago had a side-line activity nobody talked about of getting people over the wall, and he didn’t charge for it either.
One evening I breezed in and every one of the regulars were steadfastly bellied up to the bar with their back to her and she was sitting alone and big time radiating some sort of bad smouldering karma. They were very scared. You don’t have to be an Einstein to know when things aren’t good, but I played the ignorant foreigner card and took my usual seat opposite her. Not a word out of her for a whole sixty seconds.
I crossed around to her side of the table and sat beside her. Underneath it and safely out of sight of the regulars, her hand reached out to hold mine and I was glad to be there for her whatever the problem was.
It can’t be that bad.
After a while, she started talking in a low monotone, because she knew I was an information black hole; stuff went in but nothing ever got out. Heiko was her child, conceived by some animals of a Russian platoon who’d raped her mother and her when she was a twelve-year-old. It was one of those form a train things, as they call a gang rape nowadays.
I got all the details and as a friend listened, stayed quiet and let her unspool the dark malignant memories to a coward who just wanted to run away but was too scaredy cat to abandon a friend. People can tell you terrible things and always, always, all the detail that has haunted them down the years makes it like it just happened to them yesterday. It’s there. Her mother’s eyes looking at her for some sort of forgiveness for seeing the terrible things no child should ever see, as they raped her bent over the smashed cruet on the kitchen table. It was all still there in her head, now running afresh in lurid technicolour.
They got around to Beate after putting a bullet through the back of her mother’s head and blowing the front of her face all over the table, and that’s what constituted the deflowering of her maidenhood. They didn’t kill her. Perhaps a whim, perhaps she already looked dead to them. Who knows. They left her alive anyway, bleeding on the kitchen floor.
It’s always the women who clean up, she said. She wrapped her mother’s body in their best linen bedsheet and a neighbourhood woman helped her carry it away. She cleared up the mess on the table and mopped the floor. It wasn’t going to be her only brush with rape.
It’s the monologue she’s been holding inside for so long, because she somehow knows tomorrow is going to be a bad day and it sears into you, burns into your very heart. You can feel it coming at you too.
Heiko is missing on the wrong side of the wall, and the signs aren’t good.
She’s squeezing so hard, she’s breaking your hand. For once, she’s the one leaning into someone else and you hope you can take it for her. You listen to the grind, the detail and just want to crumple but she won’t crumple, so you do your best tough guy thing to help her out, and after enough words and when all the words have run down and been exhausted and there are simply no more fucking words left in the world, you just sit quietly together holding hands, hoping against all hope for just some sliver of good news.
People stay well away because they know it’s just plain bad, biblical bad. She has always been their unyielding rock, a constant in their lives for so many years, but if she can be smashed down, none of them are safe. Fear is running high among them, and we both know it, but she’s in no mood to do the village warrior thing for them. There’s a sort of elemental dread within us, and we somehow know with a God awful bloody certainty that tomorrow is going to be a hard day.
She tells me she regretted not ever telling him he was her natural son.
Heiko never made it home. We didn’t even get his body back from those Grepo bastards, and that’s what broke Beate’s heart in the end. She never really got over Heiko.
And that was that.
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