I never realised how hard-faced people could be until I was forty-one-years-old. I had flown back from Paris to see my mother one miserable Saturday in November 2011. We joined the rest of the clan at a local working mens’ club that evening. Maybe it was my birthday. I choose not to remember, but no matter. The devil was about to ride out once more in the detail and finish the job for me. Saturday was, and still is, the big night out for “The Gang”. They perform this ritual weekend in, weekend out. I have no idea what really happened. I have no clue, not an inkling how the occasion arose. We were leaving. Milling around outside saying our last goodbyes. For a few lost souls, that parting, “See ya, mate!” truly was the last thing they heard. People come, people go and then they die. Again, no matter.
It’s curious, at the very least, to think that I see in pictures. I did explain this to a diplomat in Brussels not so long ago and he was totally accepting of my version of events. The only recollection I have of events that cold Saturday night is that I watched one of my five uncles grab a young lad by the collar, twist the material tight at the throat and hoist him onto his tiptoes. I think at one point his feet weren’t even touching the ground. I have no idea what the argument was about. What I do know, is that everyone was drunk. Except for me, that is. I was standing sideways on, observing the scene unfold. I can still see the fear on the nineteen-year-old’s face as he stared, cold and motionless, at this middle-aged man threatening to fucking kill him. I can see the asphalt glisten on the road with the kind of damp only an English winter seems to embrace. The memory of the street lamps seem blurred in my head, but I am sure they were extremely bright at the time. Maybe it is to do with the hue that such lights shed against a blue-black sky. In my head, the memory of their glare is almost smudged in contrast with the sharp backdrop of that freezing November night.
My uncle held the unknown teenager in an iron-tight grip and looked deep into his eyes. Seconds later, he let go and the youth dropped to the floor. Maybe he had tried to slip something into my aunty’s glass. Perhaps he had said something out of turn. The likelihood is he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t the first time I had seen such a display of aggression when alcohol is involved. What initially gives us pleasure inevitably brings us pain.
I view the German capital, Berlin, in much the same way. I wanted to change my life. Little did I know that the change I envisaged in my head would be the polar opposite in reality. Being an anarchic artist, I thought this melancholy place would bring me a certain peace. I would wander the streets and soak up its horrible history, stand still and crane my neck, look above and beyond the filthy apartment blocks and meditate deep inside the grey clouds that roll across this city for months on end. It would be my inspiration. I like to think that my creativity is borne out of a certain sadness, grim acceptance and then hope. Now I know, it’s all in the mind.
I haven’t realised one, single cent of my inner vision. All I know is sadness. Real sadness. I see so much struggle on the streets, it’s all I can do to lift my gaze from the pavement as I pace the Wedding district. And then the noise. It is phenomenal. Shouting, screaming, dogs barking, babies crying, the roar of pollution, and the eternal question: Can I speak to you about something for five minutes? Total strangers constantly invade my head space. The shadow people often beckon and ask me to join them, but I am determined to give Berlin one last shot.
It was just another Saturday evening. I sat and stared out of my kitchen window, thinking about how high the windows are. Looking down, I thought about how fast the drop would be, but decided against it once more. The voice in my head said, “It’s okay. Everything will be fine. I promise.” Too tired to argue with my keyboard once more, I decided to take myself out with a pen and paper for company. A few glasses, lay down the next scenes for my latest book and then back to my silent apartment. Perfect. My thoughts suddenly began to drift towards my grandfather and my partner. Both dead, that part of my life is most definitely over. When I look back at my days, I wish that I had had a better grip of time. It just slipped me by. I never doubted that everything would change in one fell swoop. I waited for said change, promoted it even, but not in the way that it all finally played out. Now, I realise that time is a luxury and also a commodity never to be wasted. It’s almost as if someone or something slapped me hard in the face and walked away without a care in the world. What useless, loveless lives we eventually lead.
I turned the key in the heavy, twisting lock on my solid oak, front door. I then heard something crack, splinter and fall to the floor behind me. Once upon a time, this would have thrown me into a hysterical episode. I would have shot out onto the communal landing, leaving the door wide open only to stare back at the unfolding scene. This time, I knew no one else was in the apartment. A light bulb had split in two in its fitting. I observed a perfect, glass globe resting on the red pine floorboards. There were a few shards of glass, but for the most part, the bulb had stayed intact as it shot to the ground. The element was still singing in the socket, high above my head. I then heard the low, cushioned whirr of the fan oven. I opened the kitchen door to find it was switched on to full capacity. Confused, but not scared, I switched it off. It was red hot. My gaze wandered over to the kitchen worktop. A lottery ticket was sitting next to the hob. I had cleared out my grandfather’s house alone the day after he died. That was twenty-two-years ago. I had found the lottery ticket in his age-old, battered brown leather wallet when I was sorting through his meagre belongings. I kept it in my purse for years until a while back. I managed to finally let go, keeping it safe in its final resting place in a music box he had given to me when I was child. The little ballerina can still do a rusty twirl when I have courage to lift the lid.
This terrifying troika of swift occurrences should have forced me out of yet another Berlin apartment for good, but this time, panic refused to enter into the equation. Instead, I just took this familiar sequence of events in my stride and shut the door behind me. Arriving at my local bar, I sat at my Stammtisch and started to write. Same place, same people, but a different time was sitting inside my head. I started to write. Pondering how a person can truly portray an idea, a feeling and a thought on something as humble as lined paper, the German owner delivered a glass of Cremant to my table. I smiled. He asked me if I was okay. I told him everything was fine. Just like the voice in my head.
I suddenly became aware of another stranger across the room. Under neon lights and techno music, he smiled. I half-waved back and smiled into the table top. I speak German worse than an orphan. His English was much the same, but we managed. He was a bus driver, born and bred in Wedding. The West Berliner engaged me in conversation into the early hours. He was older, wiser, and accepting. We laughed about tourists dragging their exhausted backpacks onto public transport and asking in English, often broken, “Do you go to Tegel?”. The bus driver told me that he doesn’t bother to reply anymore. A shake of the head will do these days.
Ever since this encounter, on just another Saturday night in Berlin, I have questioned as to whether the bus driver was actually alive. At times, we assume far too much, but in one way or another, we are never truly alone. Even if we convince ourselves otherwise.