For the last week it’s been quiet in this side wing of what used to be a fashionable Jewish apartment block in Lehniner Strasse. We’re the last two inhabitants, she and I. A wing full of gloomy Berlin rooms, shaped like squares with one corner chopped off, rooms with three outside walls, practically impossible to heat and the toilet’s on the half-landing . . . It is highly improbable that this rundown building would simply be forgotten while all the others are gradually being renovated. It was to be expected that I wouldn’t be able to hide away forever, without a lease, unregistered, completely unknown to the authorities. But why should that coincide with the disappearance of the last official inhabitant, the woman called Dunkel, my opposite number and co-user of the landing toilet? This is the moment she chooses to leave me in the lurch, when she’s never been away at all during the last few years, not even for a day or two . . .
In Mirca’s café I manage to calm down over peppermint tea and potato soup. The owner, a pale Romanian with black hair, grins at me and pushes an ashtray across the table. I fill my pipe and lean back in the chair in my favorite corner, from which I can see the entire joint and a damp gray section of Weinbergstrasse.
Out in the street, three disheveled Roma children are shoving each other in a quarrel over a yellow plastic watch they fished out of a vending machine, a one-armed bandit for little children. They put in a two-mark coin and the metal grabber with little scoops on the end of its tentacles swings round but usually only brings up a colored sugar ball. A boy of about eight comes up from behind and grabs the prize. As the girls jerk away, joints stiff with cold under thin skirts, he stuffs his booty down the side of his rubber boot. His scarred lips open in a grin, revealing gold teeth. What the civil war has left of his nose twitches as the lad disappears from my field of vision, with a skip and a hop.
At this time of the day there’s not much happening in the café. The only other guest there apart from me is a woman, a bohemian in orange leather trousers and an apple-green knitted top sipping honey milk. My friend Mirka brings me a café au lait. With shaky hands and awkward movements he balances the steaming cup right up to the table’s edge.
You can’t expect elegant service from a penniless painter who has to run a café to provide for his family. Steps beside the counter lead down to the renovated cellar, to Mirca’s gallery, where his outsize nightmarish paintings of Ceausescu’s regime are on display. People on cold, grandiose boulevards, bullnecked and pasty-faced, as if terror were a hormone that distorts growth, children’s heads behind the rusty bars of an institution window, without necks, without bodies, piled up on top of each other like cabbages. When they come back up the steps everyone is pale, their complexion resembling Mirca’s for a while. No one has ever bought a picture, nor do I know of anyone going down for a second time.
My attempts to recall information about Dunkel fails miserably, I’ve never shown enough interest in her. Perhaps the reason is that there are masses of women like her and me in this city.
Once, the spring before last, I stood outside her door. I was looking for the handle on the wrong side and felt as if I were performing some familiar operation the wrong way round. As if I suddenly had to write left-handed. I was holding some letters addressed to her, which the postman, perhaps confused by our names, had mistakenly delivered to me. When she appeared in the doorway and looked at me we both stared. We had been living across the landing from each other for years and this was the closest we had ever been. I had the feeling I was looking in a mirror I couldn’t adjust and simply thrust the envelopes into her hand and dashed back into my apartment as fast as I could.
When I get back to our wing I’m going to break into Dunkel’s apartment. After years of training with Wang, the kung fu master who lives a few streets away, bursting the lock should be no problem. Calling the police is not an option; after all, I’m not a legal tenant. And you never know, they might bring dogs. Wang not only teaches his pupils how to use their hands and feet, but also the thirty-six survival strategies of the Chinese. Wang has taught me how to wait; he calls it having the feeling for the right moment. So now I’m waiting. The smoke curling up from my pipe is my tranquilizer and my timekeeper for Strategy No. 4: meet your exhausted enemy well rested.
For the second time in the last few days I’ve accidentally taken the wrong pouch and ended up inhaling pungent French tobacco instead of vanilla-flavored Latakia. I throw the pipe down on the table in disgust and glower at it as if it were a goblin about to pounce. And it does. An ugly face I hoped I’d be able to forget forms in the blue smoke, creeps like a bottle-imp out of the fumes and looks at me.
I’m walking down the streets again, on a spring day in 1989. I’m back in my old life, now totally unreal, on the western axis of the city. The time before I knew anything else. The time before the feeling that this life was an illusion, risky and careless, lived out at the expense of my present life, which on some days is almost beyond my strength.
It is hot, too hot for spring. The streets of Kreuzberg round Görlitz Station are shimmering with heat and sand. The sand is being blown over from what is left of the station, a derelict open space intersected with rails. Cut off by the Wall, the line lost its raison d’être decades ago and is reverting to scrub and desert.
It is late afternoon. The quarter is beginning to fill up. Turkish families in family cars crammed to the roof-rack are searching for parking spaces. They get out and slam the doors, carrying tired children and the remains of their barbecues into houses that are still winter-cool. A little girl with her front teeth blacked out is looking down from almost all the façades, the picture frayed at the edges, wavy from the glue used to put up the poster. Shouldering a stick like a rifle, a speech balloon presents her message to passersby: Come and join the demonstration on the First of May.
Small groups that have already split off from the end of the rally come from Lausitzer Platz. They are walking toward me, seemingly without haste, outwardly calm. Only the way they keep heading unwaveringly in the same direction reveals their tension. The drivers of the green-and-white police vans with barred windows come cruising round the corner, looking bored. Occasionally they stop, chat, roll up the sleeves of their ochre police shirts, listen to snippets of radio messages. On the opposite side of the road two sixteen-year-olds have wrapped their red Arab scarves over their noses and mouths and are starting to pry up cobblestones from around a patch of grass.
There are various ways of approaching what looks likely to be the rally’s hub. Coming from the southeast, from Sonnenallee, you can turn into Wiener Strasse and then slowly make your way from the strip of green at the bottom along the dusty cobbled section, lined with launderettes, amusement arcades and cellar-dark bars of Berlin’s subculture, that ends at the iron supports of the high-level railway. This is the strategic center both sides want to capture. Or you can start in Oranienstrasse and approach the high-level railway from the northwest by crossing Adalbertstrasse and Mariannenstrasse. Whichever route I take, it always ends at the Turkish snack bar next to the building-site crater, where the supermarket was burnt down two years ago.
This year I have decided on the southeast approach. As I stroll as slowly as possible over the large flagstones, I always count off the five side streets into which I can turn and, if things get too dangerous, make a swift getaway: Glogauer, Liegnitzer, Forster, Ohlauer, Lausitzer Strasse. Side streets lead to quiet areas. From there you can get to a bus stop. At regular intervals the yellow double-decker bus that goes down Kottbusser Damm comes rumbling and rattling along to take you away from the danger zone.
A fat man in a loud shirt is nailing up sheets of chipboard to protect the barred windows of the Turkish Bank. Plainclothes policemen in jeans and sports jackets part the greasy plastic strips as they come out of the pizzeria. Distant Caribbean drumming echoes down the canyon-like streets. I push my way through the crowd, advancing block by block. The pavements are crammed full of dreadlocks, badly fitting suits, black headscarves, the synthetic material shimmering in the heat, the rough hands of street fighters, festering nose rings and white, naked calves above heavy boots. I’m almost there. Only Lausitzer Strasse separates me from the Ankara Grill, where by midday they already have as many plastic chairs out as they can fit between the door and the cycle path to serve kebabs and warm bottled beer to the people milling around.
I’m about to cross the street behind two characters with woolen hats over their faces and petrol cans. A squeal of brakes and a line of vehicles turns into the street. The door opens even before they’ve stopped. Green figures in riot gear jump down into the street and form a line in front of me, a row of plastic heads, chest-protectors, and raised shields. All around, panic sets in and people start running in the opposite direction, carrying me along with them.
If only I’d stayed where I was.
My one sentence, muttered over and over again in the weeks that followed. Alone, with dry, tearless eyes wide open with shock, the bitter taste of cold pipes in my mouth. But I don’t stay where I am. I let myself be herded across the street with the others, stumble through bushes and scramble up the slope on all fours, into the site of the old station.
At the top I turn round. The two ends of the green chain are coming together, opening the way to the side streets again. Down below, part of the furious mob has turned round and is starting to throw stones to clear the way to the street. If only I’d been like the local inhabitants, looking unmoved, and sat down on a doorstep, the curb, or a stool I’d brought with me.
It’s getting dark. I trip over clumps of grass I can’t see. There are no street lamps in this area. I decide to go down into the sand pit where groups of people are sitting by the light of distant fires, surrounded by bongo drums and empty bottles. A low voice swearing. Close by, a cigarette lighter flares up and I hear a woman.
“I once spent the whole night sitting like this. Nothing to drink, nothing to eat, the bushes to crap in. But the fuzz. They bring their own loos.”
Excitedly husky contribution from a bass: “Yeah, chemical toilets!”
Then the woman again.
“It’s true! And the provisions! They’ve got everything. Bandages–just for the fuzz of course–and grub. You should see the grub! Real dinners an’ all.”
“Yeah. With ham and sausages.”
“And chocolate! And biscuits!”
A backside and feet clad in stout leather brace themselves against the slope. People laugh, drop to the ground, and roll down, while I hurry on along to a less steep part, get cold, finally sit down on a little pile of sand and pull my thin skirt over my knees, making it tear. Only now do I see the sense behind the protective leather I saw people sweating in during the heat of the day.
And then this dog appears.
It is dark brown and huge. It has no lead, only a crumpled piece of cloth tied around its neck. It emerged from a tangled pack of snarling fur and now it’s running toward me. Its flanks seem ponderous, almost leisurely as it bounds along, but it is very fast.
I look around for help. There are clusters of people some distance away, giggling hoarsely, standing with their backs to me. I jump up and start to run, away from the fires, toward a ruined railway building. The dog has realized I’m trying to escape. A shudder goes through its body and it increases its pace. I reach the red-brick shed, run in and try to close the half-open, rusted door, but in vain. I’m surrounded by puddles, used needles, the stench of urine. My hiding place is a trap.
Now, mercifully, memory cuts out for a few seconds-the dog’s leap, snapping at my shoulder, my cry as I fall, the growling above me, the smell of its chops, its fangs-until a shadow appears by the door and a command, hissed in a foreign language, removes the damp paws from my chest. I sit up and crawl toward the door. A heavy boot kicks it shut.
More information on Inka Parei’s Shadowboxer can be found at www.schoeffling.de.