Thursday, 8 August 2019
Beer-lin? No, Bear-lin
In celebration of a couple of things, including No Good Deed reaching its funding target, my wife and I made another trip to Berlin, where we met and subsequently married 35 years ago.
So much has changed, yet so much is the same. Most of the Kneipen and Stuben (pubs and bars) we used to frequent are gone, in much the same way as the traditional boozers have disappeared from your town. We still found one or two, in Schoeneberg, for example, the gay heart of Berlin since the days of Isherwood. "Berlin ist cool" about such things. Less strident than the Village in Manchester, it's a good place for a quiet drink, whatever floats your boat.
We met some old friends over Steglitz way and talked about old times in the way people do. We had 10 great years in Berlin from 1982 to 1992 and we go back every couple of years or so, it will always have a place in our hearts.
Anyway, as you might have guessed, I used to write about 80's Berlin when I made my first efforts at writing at all. Write what you know they say, don't they? The following is the first thing I wrote. It's fiction, it's not polished, and it's probably too long, but I'm still fond of it.
I looked Madame Stradivarius in the eye and grinned. A slight lift at the corner of her mouth and then the naked violinist carried on with her act.
-‘Beers?’ Dave enquired, already seated, eyes glued to the curtain-covered door to the left of the stage.
-‘What else?’ said Jock, as I gave a nod and sat down. Opposite Dave, my back to the action.
The waitress turned up with the beers before we ordered though; the short hair and British accents making her mind up: saving time. Her time was still money, though she was past working as a hostess here in Mon Cheri’s. A Kabarett – Cabaret in English, if you like: but you’d be hard pushed to picture Liza with a Zee here. It was dark except for the Klieg Lights lighting the tiny stage. Four people might fit on it, if they were very close together – which they sometimes were.
Mon Cheri was the name of a hideous brand of liqueur chocolate that the Germans were crazy about. One of the girls did a show every night that gave the club its name: Madame Stradivarius wasn’t the only novelty act in here. We called it Mons: linguists like word play.
I took a sip of the beer. The grimace on Dave and Jock’s faces had told me it was Charlottenburger Pils… the only beer available in these places seemingly. At 10 Deutschmarks a throw it cost roughly 20 times a NAAFI beer.
As Jock liked to say, you expect to pay something for the ambulance.
The Paganini tape over the PA was approaching the end. Birgitte would soon be off stage. Dave craned his neck for a better view of the curtain. Jock scanned the room, checking out the clientele.
-‘ Two “Gee I’s” at 2 o’clock’ he said.
-‘ A schnapps says they leave with assistance.’ I laughed
- ‘I’ll no take that bet, thanks.’ I hadn’t expected him to. Dave was still mooning at that curtain.
We didn’t call them ‘Gee I’s’ because they were military – although they probably were. Birgitte was taking her bow on-stage, and her bow off it.
Right on cue a very loud voice rang out:
-‘Gee I never seen that in Kansas!’
Only the state varied, but they all said it - all of them. The trick was having a suitable comment on the state. Some nights that was easier than others:
-‘Too right, Toto’ we chorussed, even Dave.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, the smell of ‘Poison’: a football stadium perfume: overpowering in Mons and unmistakable.
-‘Ah, Schmetterling. Is tonight the night?’
It was a joke. She always called me Butterfly: I wasn’t sure why.
-‘Not tonight ‘Gitte, I’ve got the clap.’
-‘Schmetti, you can’t cut your finger if you don’t use the knife! Come on, tonight, with me. A special price.’
I expect I was neither first nor last to hear this on that particular night. In any case she was still joking. I never touched the women in any of the clubs, as Birgitte well knew.
‘Ach, Schmetti, I’ll see you in five minutes… you can buy me champagne!’
‘Two things ‘Gitte: it’s not champagne and the other business would be cheaper!’ I smiled at that.
-‘Exactly, Schmetterling, exactly’.
Her returning smile seemed genuine, and she and the fiddle headed off through Dave’s curtain.
The champagne was a bigger scam than the beer. The bottle would arrive already opened in a bucket of ice, 15 minutes after ordering. It takes time to pour in the Babycham and water it down. The price - of course - was more ridiculous than the taste. The way to play the game was to agree to buy a piccolo; a pencil thin glass of the same concoction at 15 marks a go. This guaranteed customers thirty minutes of the ladies’ time, if you were well behaved.
I lifted my pilsner.
-‘ Here’s to the running dogs of capitalism!’
-‘ Saving the world for democracy!’ Jock returned.
‘ CND forever!’ said Dave, a crooked smile on his face.
The beers clinked above the bottle-scarred table:
‘Fuck ‘em!’ we saved sincerity ‘til last, as usual.
Dave turned towards Jock: taking the curtain –and the stage out of his eye-line. Ute must have gone on stage. Sure enough; ‘Lola’ started on the PA. There was nothing special about Ute’s act, until the end that is. She did a mostly straightforward strip act. Dave started:
-‘I’ve got my interview next week, you know…’
-‘So? The usual lies is it?’ Jock snorted at my question.
-‘I’m no’ your referee, am I?’
-‘No, he is, as usual… just-‘ Dave replied.
-‘What? You want me to tell the truth this time?’ I broke in.
It was gratifying to watch the beer jet out of Jock’s nostrils.
-‘Actually, you’d better. I’m going to, you see.’
-‘Dinna be daft!’ Jock was shocked, not laughing now.
-‘You know what that means, don’t you?’ He knew and I knew, everyone did.
-‘A one-way ticket out. Out of Berlin, out of the RAF. I don’t care.’
Jock and I looked at each other, hoping the drink was talking, thinking for the first time about returning to base, even at this early hour. Dave got up, went to the toilet. Always did, during Ute’s act.
-‘Got it bad.’ Jock pronounced.
-‘As could be’ I allowed. I raised my eyebrows at Jock. He shrugged.
-‘No’ our business, really!’
I sighed. That wasn’t good enough.
Dave was Ute’s Mr Goodbar. She didn’t have to go looking for him. On days off Dave would be in his seat, waiting for the club to close. He’d look away when she was on-stage; when shadowy figures followed her through the curtain. Later Ute and Dave would go off into the dawn. He’d arrive back at base two days later, to get changed for work.
We never thought it would get serious. Ute’s act proved that they couldn’t get married, not even in Berlin. I had assumed the novelty would wear off. Things looked bad for Jock and me: if Dave confessed all, we couldn’t admit we knew - and if we couldn’t prove we didn’t - the end would be the same. We’d be out the door too, seconds behind Dave.
The piccolo and Birgitte arrived at the same time. She made no acknowledgement of the aging waitress. Maybe she saw her own future in the poster paint make up and the lined, defeated face.
-‘So, Schmetti, where is Philip?’ Never Phil.
-‘The laser beam smile snagged a Dutch air hostess in the Harp…
Hours ago, you know Phil’. I wondered if she’d get any of that.
-‘ The tart’s off wi’ another wan, he means’ said Jock helpfully.
-‘Ach, Philip, he is bad for business… or those girls are.’ She said bitterly.
-‘Gitte…’ I began. ‘About Ute and Dave…’ She looked at me hard.
-‘Ja, Schmetti, you are right. It is time. For a while now. It is just… She was so happy, Schmetti. …’ She had a distant look.
Birgitte was beautiful in either profile. But the God of Symmetry had played a cruel joke: Birgitte in full face would never make it in the Dream Factory. Not even Beate Uhse could use her was her bitter joke for the Brits; connoisseurs of the porno video one and all. Not ugly, of course: just … well… startlingly asymmetrical.
-‘So, ‘Gitte… what...?’ My question petered out.
-‘Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. It isn’t the first time, you know?’
She gave a twisted smile, tossed off her fake drink and went over to the Kansas farmboys: time is money.
Ute gave up her secret during Ray Davies’ fade out: a predictable Midwestern twang rang out. Maybe there weren’t many pre-op transsexual strippers in Topeka. Ute was running for the curtained door when Birgitte shouted:
-‘Ute, here! These boys need company, come on! We’re short tonight’
Ute looked round. Looking for Dave, who was still in the bog. She wrapped a diaphanous skirt round herself and reluctantly sat down.
Dave’s girl didn’t do much of the hostess bit. The customers who followed her through the curtain were a niche market. They had come to Mons in search of Ute. They had no need to be persuaded over drinks, fake or not.
Ute sat next to the ‘Gee I’ with the bone haircut. A marine from the US Embassy guard force probably. Six feet three of meathead.
-‘ Telt ye it wasna worth a bet!’ said the laconic Jock.
Dave came out. Looked at the empty stage. Clocked Ute with the Marine: she shook her head. Dave came and sat down.
-‘What’s that about?’ Almost petulant.
-‘ ‘Gitte says they’re short tonight.’ I said. ‘Flu. All the girls in town are getting it.’ ‘
-‘ Elephant Bar’s closed: first time since the wall went up.’ Jock added helpfully.
The haggard waitress wheeled a bucket up to the Yanks’ table. Open bottle poking out of a mountain of ice. There was a sort of smile on her face: one that would scare children. I hadn’t seen the Americans order the drink. Birgitte poured everyone some of the fake fizz. Looking cheerfully manic she raised her glass. Ute brought hers up slower, looking over at Dave…
Who was taking it badly.
-‘Look I know, right. It’s business. And the men that come, you know, looking for her. Well it’s different, that’s all - sitting with customers. Talking to them.’
I shot Jock a look. Hoped he would say nothing. Poor Dave. Trying so hard not to be jealous.
I signalled to the bar. Three more beers. They came:
-‘And schnapps, Persico, dreimal’, holding up three redundant fingers to the waitress.
-‘Dave, it’s the job. Alright?’
-‘ Yeah, well…’ And he took a long slug of beer.
Three Persico arrived. The schnapps was banned in West Germany; reputedly it had aphrodisiac qualities. It was powerful. It was sweet. And it was effective at removing inhibitions. Dave downed his almost before the glasses touched the table top. I pushed mine toward him.
-‘ Have it, I don’t feel like it… tonight.’
It went the same way. Jock kicked me under the table. I gave him a long stare.
‘Ha’e mines too, Dave.’
Jurgen, the boss, came out from behind the curtain. Short -stocky to his face, fat behind his back – he didn’t look scary. We knew better. 2 of 3 Para’s finest had been hospitalised a few weeks ago: fair enough, you don’t damage the girls. A look flashed between him and Birgitte. I thought I could see him raise his eyebrows: he’d noticed Ute. Meathead was animated now: pointing at the champagne, shaking his head. Shouting. Jurgen bowled over.
-‘A problem, gentlemen?’- Nothing on stage, no music: an expectant hush.
-‘Damn’ right sir! Ain’t payin’ for it. Didn’t ask for it!’
-‘But did you drink it, sir?’ His politeness would have scared me.
-‘Hell, yeah! But… you know, we thought it was free!’
-‘And these ladies are in love with you, of course.’ Meathead’s face fell at Jurgen’s words. He’d been a fool. We all knew it, even he did now.
So it kicked off. Meathead and his sidekick lunged over the table at Jurgen. Naturally, he was too quick for a couple of drunks. They sprawled on the floor. Jurgen was first in with the boots, before the reinforcements materialised. Two of the customers weren’t. Sometimes the heavies sat at the tables. Pour encourager les autres, you might say. It wasn’t an epic battle. The victors dragged the defeated outside, while Jurgen ‘phoned his contact in the Military Police over at Templehof.
Ute had looked terrified throughout. Not used to the rough and tumble of the tables. Dave tried to stop her as she made for the curtain and safety out the back. No luck. He sat down miserably. Birgitte winked at me.
-‘Drinks for my friends! Here, this table.’ The waitress didn’t merit even a name. Birgitte sat next to Dave. Hand on his thigh.
-‘ Don’t worry, Dave. She will be OK, 100%. Just leave her, hey?’
He was cut short as Birgitte rammed a Persico to his lips and poured it down him.
-‘ You’ll feel better in a minute, Dave. Sure will.’
She jerked her head at me, waved with the spare hand at the empty table to the left. I finally returned Jock’s kick under the table. Jabbed a thumb to show him the way. We took our beers. Left the schnapps.
It was horrible. Watching a professional at work. On one of us. Our first night in here, months ago, had drawn the battle lines. We weren’t ordinary mugs. Our eyes were open and we were in here on our terms. A bucket arrived. And more schnapps. Ute came out after an hour or so. Sat at the bar. Trying not to watch. I saw a tear as Birgitte led Dave behind the curtain.
Jock and I went up to the bar. Piled everything from our wallets on the varnished wood.
-‘ For Dave’s bill’ I said.
Jurgen appeared behind us, a hand on my shoulder, a hand on Jock’s.
-‘No charge’ he said. ‘What are friends for?’
-‘We’ll pay, thanks.’ And we did.
But we knew we owed him anyway.
Told you it was long.
If you want to read more download In The Mouth of the Bear here