Thursday, 12 September 2019
The Time It Takes...
I've been looking through the updates on Gibbous House's project page. It took so long from the campaign's beginning, in July 2014, to actual publication in January 2017, that I made quite a few updates. Most of them were little bits of fiction, to keep people entertained and their mind off just how long it was taking. We may save around 6 months this time round if an editor doesn't leave with a book gone to press that wasn't suitable. Anyway, this is a particular favourite, so, on the assumption that many of you have never read it, here is:
A Street Called Hoffnung
It was, and is, a dead end street. Nowadays, the empty factory's gable-end is a canvas for every tagger practising for the moving targets of the S and U-bahn trains cross-hatching the city. Time was, there was no grafitti at all. The rag-tag bohemians of the city used to save their creativity for the western side of the wall which divided it. A colourful shout into the abyss, while they waited for the wind of change to be more than a Euro-ballad. Once this street was a destination. It was on the wrong side of the death-strip. Hoffnungstraße, named after someone or no-one at all; everyone knew it as Hoffnung, although the street-sign read 'Hoffnungstraße', in the gothic script common to East and West.
The bar is long closed. An old fashioned Stube, it looked out from the corner of Hoffnung and Schicksal. The faded writing on the window still reads 'Der Hauptmann Von Köpenick'. How it has faded so badly in only thirty years is hard to imagine, given that the sun rarely shines on it. Only last week I pushed the door open and looked into the darkness and dust - and remembered we used to call it Die Höhle...
In our country, it was 1965 too. Even so, we could read the sneers of the Western tourists who visited, looking down their noses from the moment they stepped off the Interflug Antonovs and Tupolevs at Schoenefeld. I was preparing to fail the Reifeprüfung and would not be going to University. Cigarettes still felt odd on my lips and I would make faces after the first sip of a beer. Habits I would need to lose when the Army came calling. Katya and I had bunked off from the Oberschule in Kietzer Vorstadt, in Köpenick. We'd decided to head for the Altstadt to find a bar. She wanted to go somewhere quiet, where we could read to each other from the books her cousin over the wall smuggled in twice a year. The Vopos never searched her latest baby's perambulator, not once. I wanted to go somewhere quiet to put my hand up Katya's rather daring skirt. She had given me something called 'The Catcher in the Rye.' It sounded much like one of our own 'Boy Meets Tractor' novels. She hadn't told me what book she had brought, and, frankly, I didn't care.
The two-stroke stink of the Trabants made smoky bars preferable to the open air, so I was glad when Katya pointed over at the little dive on the corner.
'Let's go there,' she said.
She pointed up at the street-sign,
'Schicksalstraße, it's Destiny, Kurt.'
And I supposed it was.
There was nothing particularly distinctive about 'Der Hauptmann.' The dark stained wood and narrow alcoves were exactly what one would have expected. However, it was entirely deserted. There was no-one in the bar, save the proprietor. He was a sallow-faced man, old - or what we considered old, then. The luxurious growth of his moustaches was the only sign of vigour about him. We sat at a glass-ringed table of wood as dark as a coal-miner's eylids. The landlord finished polishing a wine-glass with a grubby cloth and shouted over,
'Was zum trinken?'
I looked at Katya and shouted
'2 Bier, bitte!'
The beers came and we paid on the nail. I didn't expect to spend much time in such a hole-in-the-wall place. My paperback weighed heavy in my pocket, I hoped she wouldn't ask me to drag it out. I'd only taken English for the Reifeprüfung because all the girls did. Katya wore enough eye-liner to embarrass one of the whores rumoured to work outside the Kaiser Friedrich Railway Station on the other side of the wall. I thought she made it herself. Her lipstick was always some outlandish colour I had never seen on any of the other girls. A burnt orange, or a pink so pale as to look white. I had no clue where these cosmetics came from either. But they were different and they drove me, and not a few other 18 year olds, crazy.
She pursed her lips and blew me a kiss.
'So, can you guess?'
Many conversations began like this. I had no idea what she was talking about.
'What my book is, silly!'
It could have been anything. And furthermore, I had no idea about any of the books her cousin brought from the other side. I spoke English like a native: a native of Buxtehude.
'Is it Dickens?'
The sip of beer she had taken jetted out of one nostril.
'Blöd' ! Why would they ban that?'
I had no idea who this was, but I had heard the brain-boxes in the English class whisper his name in the darker corners of the Oberschule. Luckily, Katya had not taken another sip. I didn't think this was what my Uncle Fritz had meant when he'd told me to get a girl laughing.
'No, Kürtchen, not even close!'
She was drawing a book out of her coat pocket. The coat really was something she had created herself. It looked like a trench-coat - except it stopped at just the point where her hips started to strain the lines of her skirt of inappropriate length. And it was fire-extinguisher red. So I didn't take much notice of the author's name on the book as she waved it in my face. I noticed the title. It didn't seem to make much sense:
'A Spaniard in the Works'.
Maybe it wasn't nonsensical, perhaps my English was too poor to figure it out.
'Good, is it?'
She had cocked her head on one side. Like a dog listening for something a human would never hear.
'What? What is it?' I couldn't hear anything, at first.
'It's music,' she said. 'It really is.'
Perhaps it was, I could hear only muffled sounds which sounded like inexpertly played amplified instruments. I would have given anything for her to have put the book on the table, open at any page, so that I could have sat beside her, with my hand on her thigh. The man behind the bar looked over at us, his eyes darting between ourselves and the door. We were the only customers in the bar, but it was scarcely past 10 o'clock according to the Vostok clock above the bar. So it must have been between 9 and 11. I made a grab for Katya's hand but she slapped it away with the Spaniard. She must have seen the look on my face,
'Liebchen, I'm thinking.'
She thought far too much in my opinion, but I said,
Katya laughed and I caught sight of the over-long incisor on the left side of her smile. My heart broke a little, but not enough to fight an 18-year-old's hormones. She had her back to the wall on the other side of the dark wood table. The seating on the her side was like a church pew, I sat on a heavy wooden chair, which matched some of the others in the bar.
'About the things we can't hear or see.'
'Why think about something you can't experience?' I stifled a yawn.
'We could, if they'd let us.'
'You need to take life more seriously, Kurt.'
She listened to the muffled beats again.
'I wonder where it's coming from?'
The publican dropped the glass he had been rubbing since we came in. Katya smiled at him and he smiled back.
'Read to me,' she said.
I opened my book at page one and stumbled over the unfamiliar words.
'If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you will probably want to know is where I was born...'
Dropping the book on the table was perhaps not a good idea. Katya slapped my face. She hadn't done that when I felt her breast on the bus back from Alexanderplatz the week before.
'Show some respect, Kurt.'
A voice came from behind the bar,
And then I noticed that one of the long room's walls stood behind a tall set of bookshelves. Some sat on the shelves upright and military. Others listed to the side as if the years exposed to the alcohol fumes had had some effect.
'Do you know this place, Katya?'
'Ach, what is destiny but free-will's excuses? Come, let's look at the books.'
'Take care, these books are precious,' the man's voice was as reedy as a junk-shop clarinet.
'We love books, Herr Koschmider.'
I raised an eyebrow at Katya, but she poked her tongue out at me and ran a finger along the spines of the books at her eye-level. She gave a commentary on what she saw.
'Der Hauptmann, of course. The Inspector General. Hahaha, Bulgakov – in Russian, naturally!'
Like a fool, I said, 'So what?'
The tip of Katya's nose turned quite white, and I knew I had really made her angry. She shook her head and muttered 'so what?' under her breath.Then she continued with her litany as she looked at the contents of the library.
'Thomas Mann, tame enough. Kafka? Oh, dear me, Onkel Josef wouldn't have liked that at all.'
She handed a slim volume over her shoulder to me,
'Perhaps this would be better for you than 'The Catcher'...
I took the book from her and noticed the title was a year that seemed as remote as the moon, 1984.
She continued naming authors and works that in later life I would realise had been kept from the good citizens of the Democratic Republic of Germany by the guardians of their spirits, the engineers of their souls. To our left, Herr Koschmider was shuffling from foot to foot like someone having his identity papers examined. Katya gave a little squeal of delight.
'O look, Kurt, they have “A Spaniard...” too!'
I had been on the point of saying I thought the muffled sounds had got louder when they stopped. A loud banging sound was coming from beneath our feet. Katya placed the slim volume back on the shelf and we stepped carefully backward, away from the bookcase. Koschmider, meanwhile, ran - sprightly for an ancient of forty or so - to pull down the blind on the door and secure it with a metal bar across it. Katya ran her tongue around her lips and stroked the tip over the out-sized canine. I tried to get some saliva into my mouth, but I just started coughing. The trap-door had not been visible in the gloom. A skinny fellow, not much older than Katya and I, looked up at us. His hair was dark, with a thick fringe flopping over his forehead. He came out into the bar,
'Everything OK, Koschi?' I could hear laughter in the voice.
'You're just supposed to stop playing and wait!' Koschmider's voice was an old woman scolding a child.
'Kvatsch! Koschi, the knock comes in the middle of the night, not the middle of the day.'
He was wearing a suit; three button jacket, no vents, tight,tight trousers and a white,white shirt with a button down collar and a skinny tie. But he hadn't bought these clothes like that, I could see someone had taken scissors and ill-matched thread to them, until they looked like... well, not like the suits my father wore. He looked down into the dark hole.
'Come on, let's knock off and have a drink!'
Three boys of about the same age trooped up a staircase into the bar. Koschmider put 4 glasses of gold-coloured, white-collared beer on the bar.
'On the house,' he said. 'Just this one.'
The leader of the group stuck out a hand towards me, but he never took his eyes off Katya.
'Bruno. Bruno Liebhaft. I'm the leader of the group.'
I shook his hand and thought 'not another anarchist!'. He must have seen something for he made a strumming motion over an imaginary guitar. He turned his body towards Katya,
'And who's this?' But he wasn't talking to me, so Katya told him herself.
I forget the others' names, but they played lead guitar, bass and drums, Bruno said. He made it sound more important than their names, and maybe it was.
The four of them finished their beers. 'We'll go back down, Koschi.' The man behind the bar nodded, once. Bruno turned to us, well, Katya,
'You'll come? Next Saturday, we'll be ready... down there? In Der Hohle?'
He pointed down the hole in the floor.
Katya looked at me, 'You'll come with me?' I nodded, and the four of them descended into the cavern. Bruno winked as he pulled down the trap door and shortly afterwards the muffled noise began again. I heard nothing I recognised, Katya tapped her foot absently.
'You'll have another drink,' Koschmider said.
'You're not worried?' I asked him.
'Ach, I should have stayed with my cousin. Hamburg was not so bad.'
'But... if someone informs?'
'It is only music, Junge.'
I thought about that as I finished my beer.
We went to see them play the following Saturday and every other weekend after that, until the last show of all. Katya stood right at the foot of the tiny stage and watched Bruno's every move.
When I went back, last week, for the first time in 30 years, I opened that trap door. I didn't go down. I couldn't. But I thought I heard the song they'd been playing as I'd sneaked out to phone the number in Berlin-Lichtenberg, all those years ago.
'She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!'