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Sehnsucht

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When I first moved to West Berlin, that dirty little bar at the bad end of Yorckstrasse had scared me a little bit. On my way to work, I would pass it in the early hours of the morning, while taking the shortcut from my Great-Aunt’s house, through the cemetery with its old, bomb-damaged tombs, and up a bit of a spooky alley that cut under the railway arches to the main road. So, emerging from the gloom, blinking as the sun came up, to find revellers rolling out onto the pavement in their black clothes and their odd haircuts, well, they looked just like a flock of bats returning to their roost.

But as the weeks passed, and I grew more familiar with the decidedly funky character of Schöneberg, fear turned to curiosity. I started to slow down as I walked past, trying to figure out what was so inviting that kids would crowd into it, spilling out onto the street if they couldn’t get in, at hours of the morning that sensible people like me were getting up to go to work. It was an ordinary store-front bar, though with a bit of a forbidding iron grate over the front window, so you couldn’t see in. Over this grate, the word >>Risk<< had been stencilled in the angular sort of typeface that had looked futuristic only a few years previously. It looked filthy, to be honest, the floor thick with cigarette butts and stale beer, but in 1981, not much of West Berlin was particularly clean.

In the end – or the beginning, depending on how you look at it – I only went in by accident. I had just been trying to get past, to scurry home as quickly as possible before I got completely soaked. It had started raining as I got on the S-Bahn, and the drops got heavier and heavier as the journey progressed, until it became that torrential late-summer downpour that obliterated everything in its path. Thinking that the downpour couldn’t last too long at that intensity, I hung back under the railway arches, waiting for the storm to clear.

I had got too used to the fine German summer, and my English habit of always carrying an umbrella with me at all times had fallen by the wayside. I wasn’t even wearing a coat, let alone a hood, so I stood in the shelter of the railway with the collar of my work overalls up, and watched great sheets of dirty grey rain fall across the avenue. When, at last, I thought it might be starting to lighten, I ventured out. Foolish me. I was not even 20 paces from the shelter of the bridge when a great stroke of lightning rent the heavens, and the rain let loose even more fiercely, as an electrical storm started to rage above, the raindrops pelting down so hard they almost felt like hail. I should have turned and run back to the bridge, but I stubbornly put my head down and pushed on, breaking into a trot, eyes glued to the pavement as a wall of water sloughed onto me from a passing car.

“Damn and blast!” I shouted uselessly in English at the retreating taillights, and resolved to get to shelter. Slipping and sliding on the pavement, greasy from a humid summer, as I tried to get away from the road and its traffic, I abruptly collided with another body in my heedless rush towards the nearest building. Luckily, to prevent us both falling into a puddle, the quick-witted stranger seized me around the waist, and pulled both of us into the shelter of a door.

>>Diabolical weather<< shrieked a banshee voice over the roar of the storm as this newly-emerged creature somehow produced a set of keys. There was a short wrestling match with the heavy, metal door. My companion was very thin, almost frail, and seemed to be having trouble moving it, so I put my shoulder to the frame and forced it open. The door shuddered ajar and we both fell through out of the rain, almost on top of one another. Scrabbling in the dark, my rescuer tripped a lightswitch that bathed the place in a sickly yellow light, then turned to look at me, and burst out laughing. >>You look like a drowned rat<< announced a deep, rich, rolling voice, as its owner dug behind a bar and produced a stack of dishtowels.

>>You don’t look much better<< I retorted, trying to work out if my companion was a man or a woman. All I could see of them was a mass of hair, dark with rain, plastered to a pair of high cheekbones that were already streaked with running mascara, above an expanse of sopping wet black leather. The mascara was what made me think woman, as did the frailness, and the high, hollow cheekbones with an almost V-shaped cavity below. They found a small electric fan, set it out on the bar and turned it on, blowing dryer air in our direction to try to lift some of the dankness of the heavy afternoon. The stranger was very tall, taller than I was, which was a rarity in a woman. But they had such long, slender graceful limbs, and the way they moved was decidedly feminine.

I should have stopped gawking and shown more gratitude, but I was getting a bit chilled, and my thick canvas work overalls were soaked. They tossed over a towel, with which I did my best to dry my hair – it wasn’t hard, as it still had only grown back in tufts from being shaved at the start of the summer – then tried to figure out what to do about the jumpsuit, which was hopelessly sodden.

My rescuer pulled off their jacket, which turned out to be not leather at all, but the kind of heavy vinyl used on car seats. Underneath, their T-shirt was wet right through in a yoke all around the exposed neck, so the androgynous figure pulled that straight off, revealing a narrow, flat physique, his ribs showing through his pale skin. It was a young man.

I caught only glimpses of him as we towelled our faces dry. He moved with a strange insect grace, like the room was too small for his long limbs, imbuing even the gesture of bending over to run a towel down his trouser legs with the weird elegance of a praying mantis. There was something queer, and slightly disorienting about him, how he had a young man’s lithe body, but a feminine fluidity to his movements. But as he straightened up, looking me in the eye, and I pushed back the sopping towel from my hair, we locked eyes, as he seemed to take in my face for the first time. For a split second, I felt an electric shock as if of recognition, but no, he was a stranger.

>>Oh<< he said, slightly surprised, as if echoing my thoughts. >>I thought you were someone else. Out in the rain... well, sorry, I thought I knew you.<<

I said nothing; I just stared in response, because he was beautiful. I don’t mean handsome; his face was far too feminine for that, so feminine that I would have taken him for a woman had I not seen his skinny boy’s chest. And it wasn’t even the sort of prettiness that young men sometimes have before they are fully grown. He was beautiful, like a painting of a medieval saint, even as he smiled crookedly and ran his fingers under his eyes to fix his smeared mascara. His hands, with their long, pale, narrow fingers, seemed never to rest, wandering about with a highly expressive agitation.

When I did not speak, he went to the door and peered out. >>This rain is not letting up. Are you in a hurry? We don’t open for another half hour, but you’re welcome to stay here for a bit, dry off...<< He ran the towel up and down his legs again. From the shine, I thought they were still sopping wet, but I realised as he mopped beaded rainwater off them, that they, too, were some kind of rubberised material that looked not entirely unlike leather. But he, unlike me, was at least wearing some kind of rubber wellington boots >>Do you want a drink?<<

I couldn’t just stare at him all night; I knew I had to find my tongue. >>Thank you. I’d like a coffee, please.<<

>>A coffee?<< he turned to me with a slightly quizzical expression, gesturing back towards the bottles of liquor, as if to imply, you know, ‘my friend, this is a bar’. I simply nodded. >>Are you English?<< he finally enquired, upon getting no other response. “Ikke can schpick a leedle Englisch,” he tried, in an almost impenetrable accent, pointing at his chest.

I nodded again. >>There’s no need. I can understand German.<<

He started to speak very slowly, and very clearly, choosing simple words and enunciating everything carefully, as if speaking to a child. >>OK, I understand. Your German is not so good. We have a machine... somewhere. I shall make a coffee, for us both yes? Perhaps it warms us after that cold shower. Take off the clothes and put them before the fan. They dry quicker there, yes.<< He gestured extravagantly towards the fan as he headed for the back room, his endlessly twitching hands far more eloquent than his short, easy, tourist-friendly words.

I ventured a slightly terrified smile as I declined the invitation to disrobe with a shake of my head. My German was just fine. I was simply struck dumb by the presence of this beautiful boy with the face of an angel, and a body like an Old Master might have painted a dying Christ. I wasn’t even into boys. Not like that, you know. I just looked at him, and wanted to paint him, could already see a hundred versions of his face, his body, all angular like one of Egon Schiele’s Vienna Secession era sketches, or maybe tall and haunted and gothic, like an El Greco. He had eyes a bit like an El Greco, but startlingly blue. But then he nodded purposefully, and vanished.

As he went into the back room, I looked around me, taking in the bar and its strange, deliberately tatty décor. Graffiti covered every available surface. Though the main window had a large metal grill over the front of it, it only half obscured the view, so that it was possibly to vaguely see out, though impossible to see in. And even during the daytime, without the crowds of bat-like waifs, the floor was still sticky with the ghostly aftermath of stale beer and the walls stained by cigarette smoke. The humidity made the sense of dirtiness worse, and my damp clothes weighed on my heavily, so I unbuttoned, feeling a little self-conscious about the baggy uniform overalls, and tried to air them in front of the tiny fan, then applied the damp towel to my hair and shoulders again.

My bag, at least, was waterproof, so I dried off the outside with some serviettes before checking that the inside had indeed remained safe. A paperback of German history to read on the S-Bahn to and from work. A pocket camera, always loaded with black and white film. A bulging vinyl zip-bag stuffed with pencils and pens. An A5 sized sketchbook. I wondered for a moment, if I dared take it out and do a quick surreptitious sketch of this Schöneberg angel. I could hear him sort of singing to himself in the back room, and he had a beautiful voice, deep, with a slight edge to it. The fan was doing nothing for the jumpsuit, so I moved over towards a table in the corner, from which I had a good view of the bar. There was no chair, so I had to haul a barstool over, and soon settled down, pulling out my paperback as some kind of cover, if he asked what I was doing.

It was some time before he returned, bearing two cups of steaming coffee, a cigarette clenched between his teeth. In the meantime, he seemed to have done something to his hair, which now, instead of being plastered to his head with rain, was sticking up all about his head in a pale brown halo, though it looked like chunks had been hacked out of it with a razor. >>Milk and sugar?<< he offered as he placed the cup before me.

>>No thank you.<<

>>Good, because I don’t think we have any.<< A short sarcastic laugh and an extravagant eyeroll. >>There’s some Baileys, though, I think... That might be nice...<<

>>Thank you, I don’t drink.<<

At this, he turned around, surprised, and looked me up and down, as if trying to make sense of this inconceivable position. I was almost tempted to try to offer some explanation, when the door banged, and a third person blew into the room on a giant gust of wind, struggling with an enormous black brolly. This new arrival was small and dark-haired, with the very androgynous clothing so typical of Berlin that it seemed difficult to determine her gender either, until she spoke.

>>Where the devil have you been?<< the angel demanded of the newcomer. >>I had to open up by myself.<<

>>Can’t you see it’s raining puppies from buckets out there?<< said the girl. She was decidedly handsome, with a large, greased-up quiff that seemed miraculously to have survived the rainstorm, but she had a decided accent to her German that I couldn’t quite place, but recognised as very different from Blixa’s plain High-German, or even the distinctive Berlinerisch twang. >>Oh, you haven’t even started to set up. Nice. You spend a week in a recording studio, and you’re too much of a rock star to fill the ice bins. Couldn’t you at least have loaded in the tins of beer?<<

The angel shrugged and scratched at the back of his head, pulling his hair into little wisps that stood out perpendicular from his scalp. >>Sorry, I’ll go and get them now.<<

>>And for god’s sake, put on some clothes, man. Do you think I want to see all that hanging out?<< she said in a voice that indicated even to me that she was teasing him.

He shrugged, an elegant expressive gesture with his slight shoulders, touched his shirt to find it still damp, then reached for his vinyl jacket, throwing me a slightly conspiratorial grin. I grinned back, pleased to be included in his intrigue. But as he draped the jacket around his bare shoulders, the girl followed his glance.

>>Oh. Hi.<< She barely acknowledged my presence with a nod, which made me feel slightly relieved before going behind the bar and starting to set up, uncorking various bottles and exchanging their tops for pouring snouts.. >>God, the pilot fish are getting here earlier and earlier, to seems.<<

>>Nah<< said Blixa. >>I don’t think he’s a pilot fish. English. Barely a word of German. Not a tourist, though. I think he might be a student?<< On his way out, he picked up his cup of coffee and swallowed the last of it. I sipped at mine, considering enlightening them, then decided not to. To be a student in Berlin was to be almost invisible. It was convenient, when sketching, to be invisible. But he smiled at me as he passed. >>More coffee?<<

>>Yes please<< I said, and reached for my wallet, but he brushed away my attempts at payment, and refilled the mug, before returning with a crate of beer on each shoulder. Although he was slight, he was stronger than he looked.

As the two of them set up the bar, insulting one another with a playfulness that indicated friendship rather than rivalry, I clandestinely took out my sketchbook and started to work. I began with a few gestural drawings: the way he stood, his shoulders at an angle as if apologising for his height; the pointed thrust of his nose; those thin hips and long legs, clad in that strange shiny black rubbery fabric that seemed to invite the touch, or at least invite the attempts of my ink to trace its contours and reflective surfaces.

The door banged again. Two young men, one short and blond, the other tall and Asian, both dressed in the kind of outlandishly customised army surplus clothes that marked them as squatters, came loudly in, demanding beer and filling the small room with their noisy chatter. The angelic bartender brightened at their appearance, and greeted them both warmly, exclaiming over them with hugs and those European double-kisses, nattering back at them excitedly with a manic energy that seemed to fill the room.

I withdrew further into my corner and did my best to disappear into the graffitied walls as the room quickly filled up. I drew the early evening drinkers, hurriedly sucking down the first few drinks until the shakes disappeared. Then I drew the girls that appeared a little later, catching my attention with their bright eyes, androgynous clothes and bold make-up, breasts and combat boots bristling. I had been in Berlin for three months, and this was my first night in a bar, checking out actual young, available Berlin girls. My heart was still too bruised from the girlfriend I had lost in London to do anything more than look, but the evening was an education in itself. Their mating dances were all so forward to my repressed English eyes, and yet oddly refreshing. I set myself little wagers on who was paring off with whom, and as I caught little snippets of their conversation, I wove those snatches through the drawings.

And I drew the beautiful bartender taking a break, smoking a cigarette and sipping a glass of water, sitting up on the back shelf of the bar, his feet casually resting on the sink, knees splayed, elbows akimbo, his angelic face very intent and serious. I didn’t just sketch in vague details for his face; I made a dedicated study. His full, slightly pursed lips, those prominent, cheekbones, his large, slightly protruding eyes with the dark quizzical commas of his eyebrows above. He caught me watching him, and stared back, curious, so I buried my gaze in my sketchbook, pretending I hadn’t been staring. But when I turned my gaze back, he was still looking at me, not angry, not an aggressive stare, just curious. As he seemed to work out what I was doing, a smile spread slowly across his lips. He smirked, but did not break the pose until I was finished, and sat back, to take in the finished work. I fixed a line here, erased a mistake there, until I was fairly satisfied with it. But when I turned back to the bar, he was gone.

Oh well. I flipped the page over and glanced at my watch. It was well past the time when I should have been home. I had missed dinner entirely, missed my great-aunt’s nightly audience with the ancient television, and lord knows what punishment would await me upon my eventual return. But the place intrigued me. The dirty, urgent, beautiful people who inhabited it intrigued me. I started another surreptitious sketch, this one of a group of men who had attracted my attention, holding court at the front of the room.

One of them was very swishy, almost effeminate, with a shaved head, but wearing so much make-up I wondered if he was an off-duty drag queen. Two of the others, passing an old-fashioned super-8 camera back and forth between the pair of them as if it were a sacrament, were dressed in that ever so slightly exaggeratedly masculine way that I had come to associate with gay men on Old Compton Street. The fourth man was ambiguous, unreadable, wearing deliberately understated and almost anonymous clothes that, perversely, made him stand out even more in the midst of all the leather and ragged denim of a punk club. But it wasn’t until one of the two butch guys put his hand gently on the hip of the other, and leaned in for a completely un-platonic kiss, that I knew for certain. The frisson of recognition electrified me. Openly gay men, in an ordinary bar? I had never felt quite so far away from London.

Obsessed with their fearlessness, I did my best to capture them on paper. They were beautiful, and ridiculous, and somehow aware of their own ridiculousness, which made them both more beautiful and more absurd. Their fearlessness seemed deliberate, and self-conscious, and yet so much more fierce for that awareness. Not to mention, their extravagant gestures and exaggerated, theatrical facial expressions were too much fun to draw. As I drew one of them, the so-normal-he-looked-slightly-weird one, his slightly swishy eyebrows raised so high as to leave his face and give whiplash to half the room, I heard a low cackle beside me.

>>That’s brilliant. You’ve really caught Wolfgang there. His eyebrows, in particular. That definitely looks completely like him.<<

I jumped slightly, realising I was not alone, and removed my pen from the paper so as not to leave a mark, quickly hiding the drawing with the sheet of blotting paper I used to avoid smearing the fresh ink with my own hand. By my elbow stood the beautiful bartender.

>>May I see?<< he asked, and though I tried to close the book, I was not quick enough to prevent him from picking it up. My face flushed, and I lowered my face to hide my shame, as he paged through the drawings, his cigarette dangling from his lip, alternately smiling and chuckling and turning the book to the side to read the words where they wrapped around and through the images. >>These are not bad at all<< he finally said to me, though he still did not hand the book back.

>>Thank you<< I replied carefully, feeling more exposed than if I had been lying naked in front of him. >>Can I have my book back, please. I must go soon.<<

>>Hmmm<< he said, but still did not return my possession, flicking through it until he had reached almost the beginning. I had bought it when I arrived in Berlin, and the earliest pages were filled with sketches of tumbledown buildings and rubble. But he stopped when he reached a page where I had scribbled out the Wheel for Ohm’s Law, his fingers tracing the symbols of the equations. >>Is this Alchemy?<<

>>No<< I laughed nervously. >>It’s to calculate Resistance from Voltage and Current.<<

>>Interesting<< he mused, then started to flip back and forth through the pages as if looking for something. >>But I thought you were drawing me, earlier.<<

>>I was.<< As he paused at another page where I’d scrawled measurements and equations for my job, in amongst more technical drawings of Berlin architectural styles, I seized my chance and tried to take my book back, almost by force, tugging it from his hands, though he seemed reluctant to let it go. I made a gesture as if I might show him, and he released it. But instead I started to tuck it into my bag.

>>Can’t I see it? Your drawing of me?<<

I let out a deep sigh.

>>No need to be shy. I know I’m hardly a movie star.<< His full lips turned up in an aloof, half mocking smile.

Reluctantly, I pulled the sketchbook back out, and showed him the page. The way I had drawn him, he did look like a movie star, his wide-splayed legs, the smoke from his cigarette caressing his medieval martyr face, somewhere between James Dean and a Botticelli angel. He stared at the drawing, his lips slowly curling up into a full smile. I couldn’t tell if he was embarrassed or charmed, so I closed the book and folded it away into the depths of my bag. >>OK, I really need to go now.<<

As I removed my bag from the table, he seemed to wake from some reverie. >>I do some art, too, you know. Well, I do all the posters and album art for my band<< he admitted, half bashful, half boastful. Young men always wanted you to know that they were in a band, like this information was supposed to impress you, when half of London had ‘been in a band’.

>>You’re a musician<< I said dryly, knowing my sarcasm wouldn’t translate.

>>Well<< he said, blinking, his eyes a little wider open than seemed possible. >>I am an anti-musician.<<

I laughed. From anyone else, it would have sounded so pretentious, but from this beautiful creature, it just seemed a statement of fact. >>Well, I am an anti-artist<< I retorted as I climbed down from my chair.

He grinned at that. >>Next time, I’d like to show you some of my anti-art. I’ll bring it with me. I’d like you to see it. But only if you like...<< And then he turned and half-shrugged as if to indicate he didn’t give a rat’s arse if I looked at his art or not. He was such a strange mixture of cocky and aloof that I didn’t entirely know how to respond.

>>OK<< I said, and nodded sharply. I had to have a little fight with myself to get myself to walk out of the bar, as there was a big part of myself that simply wanted to stay in that dirty, damp bar and stare at the beautiful angel boy all night, but I had to beat it into submission and frog-march it out the door. At the door, it made me pause and look back. He was still watching me, a cigarette held to his lips, clasped between two bony fingers. I stared back, just trying to impress his face into my memory, drinking him in, blinking as if I could capture him like a camera’s image in the wink of an eye.

Outside the rain had let up, and it was turning into a beautiful, clear but windy night, the last rays of the late summer sun still turning the western edge of the sky a kind of burnished pinky-mauve. It was the kind of endless half-dark summer night when West Berlin’s creatures worked up a terrible thirst, and there were more people, urgently trying to work their way in through the door I was half-blocking. I took one last look, then pushed out into the dusk, hurrying along my shortcut through the cemetery almost holding my breath, because if there was one thing I was more afraid of than ghosts or ghouls or grazing alcoholics, it was my family’s wrath, and I was now very, very late.

Chapter Text

I crept to the house silently, and managed to make my way into the central courtyard and climbed the back stairs in the dark, slipping into my great-aunt’s apartment and up to bed without rousing anyone. And in the morning, where I expected fearsome rows and threats of disinheritance or homelessness or worse, there was only icy silence.

Icy silence, and a complete lack of the nice, big breakfast I had come to expect on Sunday mornings. My Great-Aunt sat at the dinner table, reading the newspapers over a lavish meal of cheese and fruit and cold meat she cut the fatty bits off and fed to her lapdog, but my place was bare. When I coughed politely and enquired as to whether I might have a boiled egg, she stopped reading and looked at me over the top of her reading glasses for some time.

>>Now I understand, that young people may wish to go out, of an evening, or even all night, to dinner, or a show, or dancing, or whatever delights metropolitan Berlin may offer you. But...<< Icicles danced in the air between us. >>You will be so kind as to inform Grete or myself if you do not expect to attend dinner. For food is dear, and must not go to waste. If we do not hear from you, we will assume you are out, until further notice.<<

So chastened, I apologised profusely, and sloped off to the kitchen to find my own breakfast. It still surprised me, those things my German relation found completely blasé, and those she found completely inexcusable; and how often they seemed totally reversed from the trifling peccadillos and mortal sins that my upbringing by the English half of my family had inculcated in me.

I made a mug of tea – almost the last of the English tea that I had brought over with me – and retreated to my bedroom. Dark rings were showing under my eyes, but not, contrary to my Great-Aunt’s expectations, due to my activities in Berlin’s nightlife. I’d dodged out so early that I’d been safe back in my own bed before midnight. And yet, I had barely slept.

All night long, I had tossed and turned, replaying each scant exchange of conversation over and over, trying to recall the exact intonation and expression with which he had said what. But the words were unimportant. It was the intensity of his eyes, and the way that the dark commas of his eyebrows seemed to underline or undermine whatever he was saying. Settling down at my desk, I pulled out another, larger sketchbook, and started to try to draw him from memory, those high cheekbones, ever so slightly cavernous, the blunt tip of his chin... no, his lips were different. Fuller, more pouting. I erased the mouth and started again. The bottom protruded slightly below the top, giving the impression that he was always slightly annoyed about something. And his eyes, there was something about his eyelids, or the dark circles under them, that made them seem unnaturally huge. Why could I not remember him better? I needed a photo... well, I needed him.

No, I thought to myself. It is someone else that I need. Flipping back through the pages, I found the earlier sketches I had done in London, of my former girlfriend lying crumpled sleepily in our bed. She, too, had had the eyes of an El Greco, though hers were dark where his were bright blue. And she, too, had had those high, slightly gaunt Greta Garbo cheekbones that seemed to go on for miles. It would be absurd to suggest that they looked alike, English girl and German boy. And yet they both had something distinctive of each other. It took me a moment to work out what it was. Both of them just somehow looked, like my drawings.

But it was pointless moping over old drawings of Maud. Maud was gone. Her parents had disapproved of me, and snatched her away from our shared bedsit, sending her off to Canada to work as an au pair. And my family had banished me to Berlin, and my dusty Great-Aunt, as punishment for absconding from the university course I had been failing, with this totally unsuitable girl. And here I was in Berlin, no girlfriend, no money, and no prospects except my shitty, badly paid apprenticeship. Of course I needed to escape into the fantasy world of my drawings.

I turned back to the previous last page, tried another drawing of him in the margin of the first, and though I seemed to get his hair right this time, the sketch still failed to capture that wide-eyed, staring rebelliousness that he wore about him like a cloak. Despite the fact that he had, actually, been perfectly polite, even friendly over the sketchbook, there was a distance to him. A distance that he wore in those deep-set, knowing eyes, an old man’s eyes in a young man’s face. Something about those eyes seemed to hold you at a distance, eyeing the world as if from behind the heavy steel gate of that dirty bar where he worked.

I closed my eyes and memories came flooding back, from the night before. The deep, rich tone of his voice, the way he held his cigarette, the unruly birdsnest of his hair, the traces of moles across his bare shoulders after he removed his wet shirt. It was too much, I felt tied in knots and turned inside-out.

Pushing the large sketchbook away, I dug the smaller portable one from my bag, and flipped through the images I’d drawn the previous night. The drawing I’d shown him, oh god, that just embarrassed me now. I hadn’t caught him, not at all. It was an odd mish-mash of clichés, wide cowboy legs, an unknown saint’s long, solemn face and an unruly mass of ridiculous hair. No wonder he had laughed. (He had laughed, hadn’t he? I was left with the distinct impression that he had been laughing at me the entire evening.) I felt so ashamed I never wanted to see him again, and yet I knew I would be back. He had invited me, after all, hadn’t he? It would be rude not to.

The bar was closed on Monday and Tuesday, or I’d have been there immediately after work, face pressed against the rattling metal grid they had in place of a window. By Wednesday, my fear and my curiosity were wrestling with one another. Half of me was convinced I had dreamed the whole encounter, or foolishly exaggerated the beauty of the boy. With the sober light of day, he would be revealed to be just another street punk, as boring and shallow as men usually revealed themselves to be, upon closer examination. Berlin was full of pretty, androgynous people who seemed fashionable and frivolous, without any real depth. How could he possibly be any different? The other half of me was giddy with anticipation and almost sick with nerves as I slouched my way under the railway bridge and approached the bar, praying that I had judged the time right, to arrive after it had opened, but before it grew busy.

There was no handle on the heavy metal door, as I remembered from our wrestling match, but I could see that there were people inside through a long narrow slot like a peephole. So I knocked on the metal. When I saw eyes appear at the slot, squint, then nod and grant me admittance, my heart was beating in my throat. The girl with the rockabilly quiff was there at the bar, but... no, wait, there behind her, slouched a tall, slim man in a leather jacket, his face turned away as he served another customer. He was not quite as elegant as I remembered, his gestures less graceful, but I was determined to stay and speak to him. The tables were both occupied, and I was about to settle in the recessed corner where the window should be, when the tall man in the leather jacket turned around.

It was not an angel. It was just an ordinary, tall, good-looking, square-faced Prussian with a spikey mane of tousled brown hair. For a moment, I felt relief – well, that’s it. Alarm over. He is not what you thought he was at all. But as he smiled expectantly towards me, wondering if I was the next customer, I saw that it was the wrong man entirely. Panicked, I looked between the man and the girl, before deciding the girl was safer.

>>Excuse me. Your colleague, that was here the other night. I need to speak with him.<<

She looked at me blankly. >>The other night? I’m sorry. I don’t remember you.<<

>>The night of the rainstorm<< I blurted out. >>Your colleague allowed me to shelter. You were late, and so he opened up.<<

She frowned as if concentrating, then shook her head. >>The nights here all kinda blur into one after a while.<<

>>Very tall, very thin... moves like a ballet dancer, unusual eyes.<< I described, gesturing wildly.

Her male colleague overheard, and looked at me. >>Tall skinny guy with big, popping eyes? That’s got to be Blixa. Everyone’s always looking for Blixa. No wonder he thinks he’s such a rock star...<< He rolled his eyes as I dug in my bag, and produced my sketchbook. At this point, it fell automatically open to the drawing I had done. I showed it to the girl, and she smiled, then nodded, her eyes softening as they moved from the paper back up to my face.

>>Yeah, that’s Blixa alright. He seen this? You should show it to him, he’d get a kick out of it.<< I nodded very slowly, turning over this new knowledge of his name in my mind. Blixa. I wondered if it was Latin, as it was like no German name I’d yet heard. It was a feminine name, to suit such a feminine man. The root – Blick – it meant look or view, in German, as if acknowledging the striking quality of his appearance, and how it demanded attention. >>He only works on Saturdays, love. Come back Saturday, maybe eight or nine o’clock? Then you might catch him.<<

As the other man peered over, trying to get a glance at my sketchbook, I slammed it shut. >>Thank you for your time<< I said, solemnly, and stashed it away, wondering how I was going to waste my time until Saturday rolled round again.

And so I became a regular at the Risk bar.

On Saturday evening, I went home straight from work and changed from my grotty overalls into the uniform of narrow black jeans and a dark button-down shirt loose enough to hide under. At least this time I remembered to dig out my shapeless, knee-length raincoat, but at least it was black, and so, would have to pass muster.

I informed my great-aunt that I would not be at home for dinner, and arrived, at 8pm on the dot, to find the place almost empty. Berliners never ventured out until well past midnight. But as soon as I walked in the door, my head turned towards the angel behind the bar, as if drawn by a magnet. How could I ever have mistaken any boring, solid-jawed Prussian for this unearthly creature? Perched at a corner of the bar, he stood like a silent film star portraying a bartender, his slender shoulders slouched at an insouciant angle as he sipped water from a large glass. I almost rushed to approach him, but then saw he was busy with a customer, so I hung back shyly, and cast about for a place to settle to watch him. The tables were all occupied, so I dragged a barstool over towards the shelf by the grid-iron-window. I slung my rain coat over the stool, and put my bag on the windowsill as if daring anyone to take my spot, then got into place for the bar.

The girl turned to serve me. She looked at me blankly, as if she still didn’t remember who I was. >>Please may I have a coffee?<< I asked politely.

She looked at me as if I were an absolute time-waster. >>We don’t serve coffee.<<

>>I had a coffee the last time I came. Blixa made it for me.<< It was the first time I’d said his name aloud, and it sounded like a benediction – a benediction or a curse.

For a moment, she just stared at me, defiantly, then rolled her eyes, turning to her colleague. >>Blixa, don’t do special orders for your groupies. Then they come here, wanting fancy coffee and shit.<<

Blixa, who had previously been flirting his way through his customer’s conversation with an expression of vaguely aloof coquettishness, turned, a cigarette still caught between his teeth, and as he caught sight of me, his lips peeled back in a grin, sending the cigarette drooping at an alarming angle. >>English!<< he said, his eyes brightening, picking up his glass of water and toasting me with it. His mascara, unrained-upon tonight, was perfect, and one of his eyes was ringed all round with a thick layer of black eyeliner. >>I brought some of my stuff tonight. I’ll get it when I’m on a break, and show it to you, if you like.<<

I stared back at him, willing my face to smile as brightly as he was, but finding myself unable to, all of my muscles frozen with fear and adoration, the way angels are supposed to freeze when they see the face of God. >>While I am waiting, do you think I might have a coffee?<<

>>We don’t serve coffee<< the girl with the quiff reminded him.

>>If he wants a coffee, make him a coffee, Maria<< Blixa retorted, twirling one finger in the air as he swallowed at least half of his glass of water in one gulp.

Maria rolled her eyes at him. >>I don’t have time to make her, or anyone else a coffee.<<

The pronoun was a tiny change of grammar, but a deliberate challenge, though whether to Blixa or myself, I couldn’t tell. It was a query I faced often enough, though not usually as subtly as from this pair. Both of them turned to look at me, as if expecting me to settle the argument for them, but I refused to confirm which of them was correct. I simply stared back blankly, as if I didn’t even comprehend that this was a question, challenging them to either ask outright, or leave the subject alone.

>>He wants a coffee, he can have a coffee<< Blixa asserted. >>In fact, I’ll take a break now, to make it.<<

But as he moved out from behind the bar, the girl moved to the cash register and rang up the order. >>That’ll be 5 DM<< she told me, an extortionate amount for a coffee, but, to be fair, the first two, I had had for free, so I paid grudgingly and returned to my seat by the window.

He emerged a short time later, carrying a large mug of coffee and a battered box. I knew it took only five minutes to make the coffee, but it took him another ten minutes to cross the bar. Every step he took, someone accosted him, said hello, slapped him on the back, greeted him as an old friend. It was strange, because in appearance, he seemed so forbidding, those penetrating eyes that seemed to always know something that you didn’t know. And yet, as he moved through these people, presumably his friends, his goofy smile came easily, dancing around lightly on his feet as he greeted people with an absurdly good-natured grace. My angel, it seemed, was a social butterfly, gifted with some natural charisma, though my coffee was no longer steaming as he placed it on the shelf beside me. The battered box, though, he placed carefully into my hands.

>>Careful<< he intoned solemnly, reaching up and scratching the back of his neck with the hand that wasn’t somehow still holding a cigarette. >>That’s some of the art for my band. Posters, flyers, cassette covers, that sort of thing. I’ve even been working on an album cover, as our first album will be coming out soon.<< He smiled proudly at this, before adding, modestly. >>Well, there might be some song lyrics and sort of word art and poems and such.<< I had never heard anyone pronounce the word poems with such disdain. >>But I imagine, as an anti-artist, you’re most interested in the sketches.<< And he smiled, to show that he didn’t just remember me, he remembered the whole conversation.

The other bartender called his name, as a crowd was starting to form around the bar, and he scurried off, leaving me holding this box, battered and held together with rubber bands, in my hands, wondering if I should open it or not. Did I really want to break the spell of this beautiful creature, by finding out he had banal thoughts or childish poems, and instead of discovering some ethereal angel from beyond, he was revealed to be only some boring, plodding musician?

I stared at the cover of the box for a long minute, my eyes tracing the spidery handwriting that proclaimed its contents and the year. The handwriting was as distinctive as the boy, as spikey as a thorn bush, somewhere between a mental patient’s scrawl and heavy German black letter type. Deciding that, on the whole, I liked the handwriting if nothing else, I opened the box. It was as he said, flyers in the typical punk style that had already passed out of popularity in London. “Manic Depression!” said one, showing a housewife clutching a carving knife. “Collapsing New Buildings” declared another covered in dinosaurs. “The Deadly Doris” proclaimed another, made from photos of transvestites cut from some vintage magazine. I smiled, as though the flyers were clearly intended to offend or shock with their crude type and their provocative images, these gestures reminded me so intimately of London, the squatters, and their supposedly anarchic and nihilistic, yet oddly idealistic and naive political screeds, that I felt a warmth of familiarity. These Berlin punks with their Prussian cheekbones were perhaps more physically beautiful than their London counterparts, and their clothes were somehow more original, less colourful but more elegant, but as I flipped through those flyers and those posters, they stopped seeming so foreign. The London squatters had accepted Maud and me in a way that my parents and teachers never had; perhaps I would be alright here.

And then I picked up a smaller, lined sheet of notebook paper, drizzled all over with that spidery handwriting. For a moment, I paused, wondering if I really wanted to know what was inside this pixie-boy’s head. But maybe it would be good to nip this obsession in the bud, lance it like a blister through discovering that he was completely ordinary. I started to translate, and my breath caught, almost immediately in the back of my throat.

The words danced on the page. That is the only way I can describe it. I had never known that German could do that! German was, to me, the language of the nursery, the tongue of my mother or grandmother snapping at me what I was or was not allowed to do. The few times I had picked up their books, since my grandmother insisted I should keep the language up, it had seemed almost impossibly ponderous and heavy, these massive cavalcades of words and letters in their slow and stately procession across endless pages. Blixa’s poetry –  though poetry was not even the word, for it seemed both to be not quite poetry, as it followed none of the rules or conventions of poetry, and yet something astonishingly more than poetry – danced upon the page with a lightness and playfulness that seemed to perform acrobatics, both with the meanings of words, and their sounds. The English word “pun” didn’t even do justice to what Blixa did with the German language. He rammed words together and pulled them apart and tossed them up in the air with a casualness and yet a strength that resembled seafoam dancing upon ocean waves.

I dug swiftly through the files, looking for another, to see if this was just a fluke, some accidental aberration, until I found another sheet of that blue-lined notebook paper. The second was as good as the first, maybe even better. I could see the scratching of the pen, how hard he pressed down upon the paper, a misspelling scratched out, a correction which revealed he had been naturally writing on the spot, rather than transcribing or copying. Digging further into the box, I found cut and pasted cassette covers, images cut from magazines combined with names – of songs, presumably – a couple of which shared titles with the poems. These were song lyrics? I could not even imagine what music would go with these storms of sound and meaning.

Raising my head, I looked across the bar, to where the poet-bartender stood dishing out cans of beer, laughing and joking with another handsome Berlin boy, that same swishy man who had been holding court on my first night. Blixa’s gestures were feminine, but they were not swishy in quite the same way. He simply seemed to be genderless, while at the same time, his beauty, and those skin-tight rubberised trousers seemed to heighten the sexuality of his body. Everything about him seemed charged, somehow. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to throw the box back at him, and run, run far away from this city, and my great-aunt, run all the way back to London if I could. And at the same time, I wanted to pin him down, confront him with this poetry, demand ‘what is this, how can you even do this, what is the magic trick, how does it work?’ Images danced in my head already, to accompany these strange texts, his writhing body clad only in his words so that the words seemed to be eating him.

And then the door banged and the room was suddenly overwhelmingly full of very attractive young women, all talking and laughing and singing and shouting at the top of their lungs. I withdrew further into my corner, as the group bunched up by the bar, then spread out, all the while talking at speed. The girl at the front, a short but very pretty young woman with a large round face and huge, sparkling eyes, her pouted lips painted the colour of a nectarine, the leader presumably, marched straight up to Blixa and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him on both cheeks in the typical Berliner greeting, insisting the whole time >>Blixa, darling! How marvellous you’re back. How was Hamburg. Isn’t this good. We can’t stay, darling, we’re off to the SO36. I’m surprised you’re not there already Wolfgang. Look, darling, we’ve locked up the Iron-Grey but Bettina has the keys if you need to crash for the night, oh god, yes, Beate, calm down, we’ll go in a minute, you won’t die if you miss 30 seconds of him, I’m just saying hello to Blixa, yes, we might come back here later after the show, we might go on to the Jungle, how is everything, is everything good here?<< like I did not know a human being could talk that fast, and she had a slight roundedness to her consonants, a Western lilt that was distinct from the sharp Berlin accent, that made it sometimes hard to decipher what she was saying.

Blixa smiled affectionately and kissed her back, as I felt my heart sinking in my chest, shifting his weight from foot to foot and catching her by the wrist and holding her so she couldn’t run away. >>No, stay for one drink, I insist, keep me company<< he was saying, not quite as fast as her, but with his other hand, he was digging under the counter and producing a bottle of wine which he was surreptitiously handing to the impatient young woman next to her.

The very pretty woman looked around, shrugging off her coat to reveal an eye-catching outfit, but encountered the same problem that I had. All of the tables remained taken, as the bar was filling up. As I wrestled with my disappointment – how foolish I had been to presume anything about the pixie-boy – and stuffed it back down inside me, I cleared my throat, and put the lid back on the box I had been holding.

>>You’re welcome to leave your coat on the little shelf here. I will keep an eye on it, for you<< I offered, pitching my voice very low, and using the formal Sie, though Blixa seemed to address everyone and anyone as the informal du, as a matter of course.

She turned and looked at me, and honestly, her smile was like having a laser beam focused upon me. All the hairs went up on the back of my neck, as I became suddenly very aware of her beauty and its effects on me. >>Good! That is very kind of you<< she said with a short, satisfied little nod, switching immediately to the informal, as the rest of her merry band of beautiful women started to shed their coats and pile them next to me. One of her friends had got a bottle of wine open and was pouring drinks, so she turned to me. >>Glass of wine?<<

>>No thanks, I don’t drink<< I started to say, but she looked as shocked as if I had announced I ate babies.

>>Nonsense!<< she declared, seized the bottle, and filled my empty coffee cup. >>What on earth are you doing here, if not to take advantage of the free drinks. No one comes here for the ambience, because there isn’t any! And they hardly come here for the service...<<

Blixa laughed, leaning his elbows on the edge of the bar nearest us and resting his pointed chin on his hands as he watched us. Surrounded by these swishy men and beautiful women in their exotic plumage, I felt as drab as a starling. Everyone laughed as they proposed a cheer with their wineglasses, which Blixa joined in with his water glass, though I sat the toast out. >>English<< he announced by way of explanation, as if this explained everything odd or awkward about me. >>He is an anti-artist.<<

>>Good!<< pronounced the pirate ringleader, darkening her lips with the cheap red wine. >>I’m Gudrun. I run an anti-fashion shop.<<

>>I’m not really an artist<< I mumbled apologetically, handing the box back to Blixa. I simply hadn’t known what to say, how to respond, whether to comment on his extraordinary poetry or not, so in a way, the appearance of this sudden crowd was a slight relief. We exchanged smiles, and from the expression on my face, I got the impression that he understood that I had liked what I had seen. I tried to shape my mouth, to produce some acknowledgement, blurting out some >>your poems are really rather good<< but Gudrun cut me off.

>>No one is really anything in Berlin. That’s the appeal. You can play at being absolutely anyone here.<< Her smile warmed me, allowed me a little hope, so that I risked a flirtation.

>>Well, to be quite honest, I’m playing at being an apprentice electrician at the moment.<<

Conversation ground to a halt, as Gudrun stared at me, her eyes huge and round, and I wondered if I had made another gaffe on the scale of confessing to the fact that I did not drink. The way Blixa spoke, I presumed all these girls were art students, his obvious insistence that anyone not behind a bar must be a student. It was the other girl, the impatient girl with bleached blonde hair, and a long narrow face with beautifully arched eyebrows, who finally spoke up.

>>Did you say an electrician?<<

I swallowed nervously, wondering exactly how badly I had blown it, by revealing my trade. >>Well, a trainee. An intern, to be correct.<< The precise grade was Praktikant, the lowest form of apprenticeship, but this detail didn’t seem to bother them in their eagerness.

A third woman poked at Gudrun, barely daring to address me herself. >>An electrician? They are like gold dust in this city. You must get him to come round, Gudrun. Immediately!<<

>>Well<< I said a little apologetically, feeling I had overstepped a little. >>I’m not qualified at all yet. Well, I had some training in England, but it doesn’t count for German certification. My Great-Aunt has an electrician she says is a great rarity, in that he will come on call. He was so desperate for help that he was willing to take on even me as an intern.<<

>>Can you fix a blown fusebox?<< demanded Gudrun.

>>Of course I can<< I shrugged.

>>Could you come round the shop?<< asked Beate, the impatient blonde one, cocking her head to one side like she was casually inviting me round for tea, not asking for the world’s trickiest favour – an out of hours house call.

>>Oh god, we have been without electricity in the back room now for a week! Months! An age!<< Gudrun took off again in her rapid-fire voice. >>That wretched teenager of yours<< She gestured towards Blixa with her slightly elfin chin. >>Alexander von Steelworks, or whatever you’re calling him this week. He tried to install a new games machine, and did something to the fusebox and now nothing works, either in the back room, or down in the whole cellar. He said he’d fix it but he just made it worse. Now even the kettle doesn’t work. Do you know what it’s like to live without a kettle? You can’t even properly do the dishes... not that you’d know anything about doing the dishes, Blixa...<<

>>I have to haul gallon drums of water up to the roof, to heat up in the sunlight just to take a bath<< Blixa drawled in a casual feat of one-upmanship, picking up his glass of water and sinking the last gulp, then shivering slightly. >>A water heater sounds quite bourgeois and decadent to me.<<

>>Well, Blixa, you’re always saying you like the Decadence. When can you come round, baby electrician?<< Gudrun turned her eyes back on me and I felt like caught like an insect in the sun’s glare.

I stopped and chewed my lip, trying to think through this one. My employer had a strict client list he allowed to bother us with emergencies, and I knew he was backed up for months with routine work. Although I was a lot more knowledgeable and experienced than my low grade implied, I was not certified in any way, and so it was technically illegal for me to even attend a job on my own... But. Gudrun, with her round face, her arched eyebrows, and her long, slightly pointed nose, was seriously beautiful, and the way that she was looking at me, a mixture of girlish hope and slightly predatory intent in her eyes, it was making my heart beat a little faster in ways that overruled my brain. My heart? Who am I kidding. It was my genitals that made the decision. Gudrun, with her half-shaved head, and long dark tendrils of hair dripping into intense, heavily mascaraed eyes, she made my body tingle all over.

>>So<< I ventured. >>I would have to see if I can borrow the van after work, as I need my tools, but... perhaps... I might be able to swing by about 5?<<

>>Good! Then it is decided!<< Gudrun insisted with her customary nod. I didn’t stand a chance against her. She found a slip of paper, borrowed my pen, and wrote down her name, her phone number and a street address nearby. >>Blixa, I’m still at class at 5 on Monday. Can you be at the shop to let her in?<<

>>No<< barked Blixa in deep, authoritative voice, shaking his head to flick his hair out of his one eyeliner-smeared eye. As he spoke, he reached down for his large glass of what I had taken for water, realised it was empty, then turned to refill it to the brim, not from the tap, but from a bottle of straight Russian vodka. >>You’ll have to let him in yourself. I’m meeting with the new bassist from Hamburg tomorrow, and I will be rehearsing with him at that timepoint. We have a gig in only a few weeks – and so do you, if you are not too busy going to all the clubs to remember your musical engagements!<<

I looked down at the piece of paper I was still clutching, astonished that after living the life of a monk for the past three months, it had taken me only one evening to obtain the phone number of the most beautiful girl in Berlin. So she was in a band, too? Now that was interesting. Boys in bands were dull as toast. Girls with bands, on the other hand, that sounded like it could bring excitement into one’s life. >>I can come by at 7. It is no problem.<<

Chapter Text

Iron-Grey was the name of the shop. I parked the van outside by the curb on Goltzstrasse and peered in, wondering if I was too early, as it had taken me far less time than I had expected to drive over from the yard in Tempelhof.

On Monday morning, when I had asked my employer to borrow the van, he had looked at me appraisingly for a very long time, before giving me a short lecture about how I was not insured when I was off the clock, and how he did not want to be the one to break it to my esteemed Great-Aunt if I blew myself into bits, so I had damned well better be careful. I hemmed and hawed a bit and said that the pretty girl who owned the shop would be very disappointed, as she had been trying for weeks to get her fusebox fixed, and old Schumacher laughed and twiddled the ends of his moustache, saying >>Oh there’s a girl involved. I was young, too, once. I would tell you to take care, but you won’t be getting anyone pregnant, will you, my young buck. Off you go, but make sure the van is back in the yard by 8am tomorrow morning<< and to my astonishment, he tossed me the keys, and made a gesture like he was turning a blind eye to my nocturnal activities. I felt my face burn with shame as I walked to collect the van, wondering what my Great-Aunt had told him, but I was just keen to be off before he could change his mind.

The shop was dark and deserted, so I retreated to a nearby coffeeshop with a large front window, from which I could watch the street, and my van, as the neighbourhood was not too great. There I sat, drinking coffee and eating plumcake and trying to draw the assembled company of young women I’d met at the Risk, as if they were a ship full of pirates.

A tap on the window startled me. >>Oh there you are. I was so afraid I’d missed you.<< Gudrun blew into the shop like a ship on fire, though her speech was not quite as fast as it had been on Saturday night.

I stood up to greet her, a kiss on each cheek that felt like tiny beestings of excitement, before she drew back and looked me up and down, taking in the drab, battleship grey overalls I had to wear to work. I had been about to apologise for my work clothes, when she reached out to touch my rolled-up sleeves.

>>This is so hot. Really fabulous. Is it the real thing? How old is this? The cut looks like it is from the late 40s or early 50s, you can tell by the shoulders. Oh, is that logo for real? Schumacher Electrics – Light and Power? Completely hot. Wait till Bettina sees this, she loves the styles of that era.<<

I blinked in amazement as she made me turn round to show her the back. >>It’s just the logo of the company I work for, the electric light and its concentric rays. It’s the same one they’ve had since the 20s. I believe old Schumacher wants to modernise it, but the firm that designed them was bombed in the war, and he hasn’t a clue how to commission a designer.<<

Gudrun laughed, and her laugh was like a little stream of cold water running down my back, setting all of my hairs on end again. >>Come to the Hochschule für Kunst, we have graphic designers coming out of our arses. But why would you want to update this? It’s beautiful. Do you mind if I take a photo?<<

>>Not at all.<< She took a small art student type camera out of her bag and fiddled with the settings. Although I desperately wanted to ask if I could take a photo of her, I didn’t dare, as I was afraid it would be obvious to anyone that my photo would be for less noble uses than clothing design.

I posed for her picture, then quickly finished my coffee, and the pair of us walked down the street, with her chatting gaily and me desperately trying not to be struck dumb. Her energy excited me, as did her easy confidence, like, here was a woman so sure of herself that she seemed almost brazen to my repressed English sensibilities, but her very boldness completely charmed me and knocked me out. I had always been attracted to particularly outspoken, forward young women, as their competence seemed to ignite my own. When we reached my van, I busied myself pulling out my toolbox and various implements I hoped made me look like a real electrician. If only I had half her self-assurance, I could do a far better job of it.

Gudrun opened up the shop, and offered me a drink she would not bear to hear of being refused, though I found it comical how she would fill a cup with wine for me, only to have me leave it untouched at my elbow. As she ventured through into the back room, and dug through the accumulated mess for a torch, I cast my eyes about the place. Everything was grey, which I found quite amusing, as Gudrun herself was such colourful character, slouching about in a green knitted dress that showed off her figure marvellously. The walls were grey, the shelves were grey, the clothes were grey, even the jewellery was grey. And there was a cabinet containing boxes and boxes of cassette tapes, and a few Xeroxed magazines, and all of those were grey, too. It looked like my impression of Berlin, when I’d first arrived on the train: a completely grey city, with even greyer skies than the city I’d just left.

>>My god, sorry this is such a mess<< said Gudrun, kicking at a pile of books and magazines and empty cereal boxes as I made my through to the back room. >>Ugh, the smell... let me open the window in the back and air it out.<<

The dim back room, lit only by a window onto a dark central courtyard, was also painted grey, but this grey had been decorated in various spray-painted slogans, in white, black and red. Emma Goldman made me laugh, in that context: it’s not a revolution if I can’t dance! Against one wall was erected a sort of a loft bed on a platform, and over the bed was painted a quote I didn’t recognise the author of: he who sleeps misses out!

>>I do apologise, let me just get rid of this...<< Picking up a mug full of some unidentified liquid, she carried it through into a small kitchenette and dumped it out. >>I think it’s rotting ricemilk. How foul!<<

>>I can’t actually smell a thing<< I confessed. >>I... don’t have much of a sense of smell.<<

>>In this case, you are lucky. It’s Blixa, not us, who leaves the place in such a state. Bettina told him he could crash here when he needed to, but you know what Blixa is like, he simply destroys things without even meaning to, like he just can’t help it.<<

I did not know what Blixa was like, but I still felt the urge to defend him, as I picked up some of the books and piled them on another set of grey shelves. >>He doesn’t strike me as particularly destructive, more just incredibly enthusiastic, like an oversized puppy who does not realise his strength.<<

Gudrun laughed aloud, a laugh I did not yet understand the irony of. >>Oh yes, he is the most enthusiastic person I have ever met. His energy could light the city. Enthusiastic for destroying things. And you can destroy with love as easily as you can destroy with hate. Oh, there’s our torch. He’s been reading in bed again, I knew it.<< She climbed up the ladder and dug in the blankets to produce a battery operated flashlight.

I looked at the books in my hands – Antonin Artaud. Walter Benjamin. Emma Goldman, with the quotes on the wall underlined multiple times, the pages so dog-eared that they fell open to the exact place – wondering what she meant. But she had already pulled up a trapdoor in the corner of the floor, and was leading me down steep steps into a rough unfinished cellar of the sort that Berlin shops all seemed to store their goods. I picked up my toolbox and followed.

She flashed the torch onto the smoke-stained fusebox, and it became immediately apparent what the problem was. >>This I can fix, but I need to know what caused it, or it might just happen again.<<

>>Oh, that’s easy<< she snorted, leading me back up the stairs. >>It was Blixa’s wretched teenager, who was in such a rush to get this going...<< She gestured towards a pinball machine I hadn’t noticed in the corner of the darkened room. >>He’s too wild, that one, and instead of taking him in hand, Blixa encourages him because he thinks it’s funny that such a young kid is already such a punk.<<

Poking at the back of the pinball machine, I discovered that someone had simply chopped off an English style plug, as if with a pair of scissors, from the discarded parts lying nearby, and tried to wire it directly into the mains. Even I, on my first day as an apprentice, would not have been foolish enough to attempt to do something as dangerously stupid as that. No wonder the circuit had blown. I took out a pair of heavy insulated gloves from my pockets, and pulled the wire out of the wall. Thankfully it wasn’t soldered in, it was just rammed in and stuck with a bit of electrical tape – whoever had done this hack job was lucky he hadn’t been killed! – and it came away without a fuss. The mains didn’t look like they’d been damaged, but there was a small smoke burn on the wall.

>>Well<< I said, scratching behind my ears with a pencil, and trying very hard to sound like Schumacher reassuring a customer. >>It doesn’t look too bad. But I’ll have to get some supplies from the van.<<

>>Oh, what a relief<< said Gudrun. >>I mean, I’m pretty handy with tools. I can change a fuse alright, and wire up a stereo. But I know better than to mess with the mains – which is why I didn’t try to install the pinball machine in the first place. But I figure, Baby Electrician, you’ve got to know what you’re doing.<< As we climbed the stairs again, and I exited the door, someone else – I vaguely recognised her as one of the pirate lasses from Saturday night – was coming in. >>Sorry, we’re not really open right now...<< Gudrun started to say, but the visitor cut her off.

>>Have you seen Beate anywhere?<< the newcomer demanded. >>No one’s seen her since Saturday night, after the Friendship show. She’s not been to class, she’s not in the flat... has she turned up at the shop since then?<<

Gudrun started to laugh, getting out the abandoned bottle of wine and pouring an extra glass. >>Good for her! You saw how Chrislo and her were eyeing each other. I think it might do her some good, make her a little less uptight if she got a really good seeing to and some action up the...<< The friend glanced at me, and coughed politely, and Gudrun laughed. >>And the best thing about affairs with boys in touring bands is... he will fuck off back to Düsseldorf, and she won’t have to deal with seeing him around town! Ha!<<

I pushed past them to the van, and unlocked it, before extracting the right supplies. I had been worried that they might have some really complicated problem I could do nothing about, but the bungling teenager had fucked up so badly, he had managed only to short out one loop before the whole system had tripped and cut out. I would fix the fuse, and then reinstall the pinball machine properly, rewiring it with the correct plug to prevent more damage.

As I returned to the shop, I found that Gudrun’s audience had increased from 1 to 3, as another pair of women had turned up, pretending to browse and trying on things from the racks, but really they were also engaged in discussing this curious disappearance of Beate. I asked for someone to hold the torch for me as I worked, and Gudrun adjourned to the back room, though she perched at the top of the stairs, continuing her chats with her mates. I worked as slowly as I could, just enjoying the sensation of being bathed in her light, quite literally in this case. To my annoyance, but also my hope, she kept shining the light on me, rather than on my work, and I would have to remind her to focus the beam on the fusebox. >>Just admiring your jumpsuit<< she would call back, moving the torch. >>Are you ready for a top-up of wine?<<

The cracked cup of wine remained untouched in the corner, but I called back >>I could do with a coffee.<<

>>For goodness sake, could someone please run down the street and fetch our workwoman a cup of coffee to go? Manon, can you go?<< called out Gudrun. Someone corrected Arbeiterin to Arbeiter with a giggle. I smirked to myself, as I flicked the replacement fuse, and the cavernous cellar was flooded with light. >>Good!<< called back Gudrun. >>Sweet blessed relief! Bettina, run in the kitchenette and check if the kettle will heat up again?<<

I could hear someone overhead walk back across the floor, then there was a yelp of joy. >>Yes! The electric light has come back on... oh thank goddess!<<  I smiled, as this Bettina had changed the word in the common phrase, from Gott to Göttin, as if these women deliberately changed everything from masculine to feminine, by principle. >>Yes, Gudrun. we have boiling water again.<< I recognised the voice; so Bettina was the name of the taller, distinctive looking woman with the long square face, and the deep, throaty, appealing voice.

When I returned upstairs, I found the shop full of intense, chattering, arty young women. And yes, there was a cup of coffee waiting for me on the counter, though Gudrun now seemed reluctant to let me leave, pointing out various handyman jobs she suggested I do. None of them were difficult, or even taxing, and I did wonder if they were just making excuses to keep me around. But then I realised, as Gudrun stood on her tip-toes to point out a spotlight she wanted moved, that it was my height. I stood 5’10” in my socks, even taller in workboots, which was usually a problem in other situations, but somehow worked to my advantage as a tradesman.

I did a few more jobs of things that the small German girls couldn’t reach, then Gudrun made another attempt at flirting with me, and suggested in a low, pleasing tone, that they were ever so grateful for my help. But Bettina stepped in and told her to stop batting her eyelashes, as I was due a payment. She disappeared into the storeroom and came back with a large plastic bag, and handed it to me.

>>We can’t pay you in cash, because it’s not exactly a profitable operation here. But we hope this will be sufficient to repay your effort.<<

It wasn’t heavy, but it felt substantial, though I didn’t look in it until I was loading up the van. Inside, were stacked a few cartons of a very expensive American brand of cigarettes. I had been about to protest that I didn’t smoke, and could not eat cigarettes, but remembered a discussion, months ago, between my Great Aunt and Old Schumacher, when he had first taken me on, about how cigarettes, during the dark days after the war, had served as some kind of black market currency when the city was first occupied by rival armies of different nationalities. Clearly, old traditions in Berlin died hard.

I hung about on the pavement, wondering how to say goodbye, as it seemed from their discussions that most of the young women planned to go on to a club or a bar. But Gudrun came to the door, blowing her smoke out into the street as she sucked at her cigarette. >>We’re going clubbing. If you like, you could come with us.<<

Laughing, I gestured down to my work clothes. >>In this? I wouldn’t get in the door.<<

Bettina joined her at the door, and looked me up and down. >>Are you kidding? That is the most chic outfit the Jungle will have seen in years. In fact... can we borrow it some time to make a pattern from?<<

I eyed Gudrun carefully, trying to measure her reaction to this idea. >>Well, you’ll have to wait until I’m not wearing it.<<

Gudrun laughed and flicked her hair out of her eyes, smiling as if she was well aware of the effect she had on me. >>What kind of girls do you think we are, that we would strip you off on the first date. You will have to come back later in the week.<<

Chloe joined them at the door. She had done her hair and make-up, and looked absolutely amazing. She gestured towards the van. >>Can you give us a ride at least as far as Nürnbergerstrasse?<< she asked hopefully. >>We’ll do something with your hair, make sure you get in.<<

I rolled my eyes as I realised it was not me they wanted, but my transport. >>The van has to be back at the yard in Tempelhof by 8am<< I insisted, even as I knew that I was being tugged into this world in Gudrun’s slipstream.

 

----------

 

I ended up sleeping in the van, catching only a few precious hours before I would have to get up and go out with Schumacher again. I had left the girls, buoyed up on excitement and other, more mysterious chemical enhancements, at the corner of Yorckstrasse, skipping their way towards the Risk bar at 5am.

But it was worth the missing sleep, for Gudrun and her girl-gang gave me an entrance to a world I had never even dreamed of, lurking just below the surface of dusty, grey, bomb-damaged West Berlin. That first night, it’s true, was magical, because it was all so new. How a dirty, smoke-blackened exterior, lit only by shuddering, blinking neon, would suddenly open up, and we would move down some dark passage, to emerge into some dazzling underworld, shining spotlights and outlandish clothes and floor-pounding music, whirling with raucous, dancing young people.

David Bowie’s Fashion came on, and Chloe shrieked. >>It’s my theme song! Everyone come on the floor and dance.<<

>>I... I don’t dance<< I tried to stutter, even as the rush of beautiful women seemed to sweep me towards the floor.

>>Nonsense!<< cried Gudrun, seizing me by the wrist and physically pulling me into the pullulating crowd of dancing bodes. >>Everybody dances in West Berlin! Even uptight baby electricians.<<

>>I’m not so uptight as all that, am I?<< I muttered, feeling a little like I had been challenged. Gudrun’s body, whirling so close to me in the midst of the crush, seemed to spur me on to try to make some showing of myself, awkwardly shuffling and slipping my feet back and forth, though my hips didn’t want to make any sudden moves.

Bowie gave way to a throbbing electronic drumbeat, my confidence growing as I recognised the distinctive double heart-beat synth stabs of a popular tune that seemed to have been following me around West Berlin for the past few weeks. “Sometimes I feel I’ve got to... run away...” echoed the lyrics, in English, around the glossy dark of the club. The urgency of the beat moved me, as I pressed closer to Gudrun, bending down to whisper in her ear.

>>Do you know who this is?<<

Gudrun laughed, standing on her tip-toes to reply. >>Of course. This is the biggest song in England at the moment. Your compatriots. It’s called Tainted Love and it’s by a new group called Soft Cell.<<

>>You seem to know a lot about music<< I murmured, feeling very smitten, enjoying the closeness of our conversation on the crowded dance floor.

She smiled at the compliment; it was the right thing to have said. >>I sometimes help out at a record shop. It’s my job to know a lot about music.<<

We danced together for a bit, my pulse speeding to match the pulse of the music, feeling almost intoxicated. But just as I tried to pull together the confidence to make some kind of move, the heartbeat pulse of Tainted Love gave way to the unmistakable bassline of Chic.

>>I love this song!<< Bettina appeared abruptly out of nowhere, dancing back towards us. Gudrun pulled away from me, our intimate little dance broken up as Bettina threw her arms around her friends’ shoulders. >>Do you think we can get Beate to play bass like this?<<

>>Well, it’s better than bloody Joy Division basslines, isn’t it<< laughed Gudrun sarcastically.

>>Do you think you can manage the drumbeat?<<

>>Hang on, let me see if I can work it out<< As we danced, Gudrun concentrated, moving her arms as if she were playing air drums along with the beat. So she was not just any musician, but a drummer? That was even more impressive.

Trying to hear what she was hearing, I closed my eyes and let the rhythm take me. Relaxing my body, I allowed my hips to start to swing, swivelling them back and forth with the insistent beat of Le Freak. It was the steady bounce of the handclaps that drove the song along, as the jazzy rhythm seemed to circle around them, and I found myself unable to stop myself from moving to the bobbing bassline.

Very close beside me, Gudrun started to giggle, then Bettina let out a rich, throaty roar of amusement. >>We have got to get some of this going, if it makes even uptight Englishers dance like that.<<

I opened my eyes to see both of them grinning at me as I shimmied away, surprising them with a couple of more fancy moves, a spin and then a little soft-shoe. >>See? I knew you could dance<< shouted Gudrun in my ear.

>>I could learn to like this...<< I admitted, as we were swept up in the crowd. The lights flashed, the music changed again, to something darker and more urgent, and I felt the world start to spin.

We didn’t stay in any one place for long. Driven by the shifting music, we rushed headlong from one room to another, one bar to another, dropping off some girls, but picking others up as I drove them about in the van, everyone’s face shining, our veins pumping with the beat of the overloud music, everyone beautiful, everyone dangerous and shiny and hot, a word I was learning had nothing to do with the weather. The city at night was a different world, how those filthy, poor, grey streets would transform into another West Berlin, as if we’d slipped through a portal into some other dimension where everyone was gorgeous and wild and the air seemed charged with sex and liquor and an acrid chemical tang I had not yet learned to recognise as cocaine.

As I watched Gudrun, Manon and the stragglers rush off towards the Risk, I silently begged whatever god or goddess watched over the night, for one of them to make some sign. And, as if giving my wish a divine blessing, it was Gudrun that turned around. >>Hey, Baby Electrician!<< she called back over the roar of my van’s engine. >>I don’t even know. What’s your name?<<

I smiled, and told her, with what I hoped was a mysterious smile >>Carter.<< At a miserable boarding school where Surrey natives could not wrap their posh mouths around the clutch of consonants my German mother had seen fit to gift me with, I had become simply synonymous with my father’s surname, to the point where even my Great-Aunt called me Carter.

Manon turned around, frowned, then laughed aloud. >>How can you be called Kah-turr when you don’t even drink.<<

>>What?<< I asked, puzzled, but Gudrun shrugged her elfin shoulders beneath her light summer coat.

>>No, that’s Kater, Berlin slang for the headache you get after a heavy night’s drinking. How do you say in English? This is Carter. Like the American president, yes?<<

>>The American president is not Kater<< insisted Manon stubbornly. >>He is Ray-gun, like shoot you dead, bang bang, because he wants to blow up the world with a nuclear bomb.<<

I left them discussing it on the pavement, as I drove away, racing the clock to get the van back to the yard.

 

I rode the high for days, though I slept the next evening, exhausted by a long day on the job, and flummoxed by Schumacher’s almost grandfatherly teasing about my hot date. He had noticed the haircut, where Chloe had taken a razor to the back of my head, and shaped the three-months’ worth of chicken-fluff into a stylish fade, and made some jokes about my sharp new look. Honestly, I think sometimes Schumacher forgot who I was sometimes, as he called me by the names of long-dead apprentices, but what he didn’t know about electrical wiring couldn’t be worth knowing, and he was a very good teacher, patient and encouraging, though I seemed to suck up his knowledge without even trying.

At lunchtime, I finally worked up the nerve to ask about the cigarettes. I told him I had received an odd payment for my off-the-clock work, and wondered what to do about it. He took one look at the cigarettes, and started to cackle. >>These are the real thing, not that counterfeit Soviet muck<< he whistled appreciatively, leading me through to a small, locked closet behind the storeroom where we kept our supplies. And back there, were shelves and shelves of Things That Shouldn’t Be There. Boxes of American Army material that looked like they had fell off the back of a truck. Weird East German products with mysterious instructions stamped in Russian letters. And stacks of various brands of cigarettes from around the world, lined up like gold bricks. >>You don’t want to get mixed up with that black market stuff, especially if your girl has another lover on an army base. Just bring it to me, and I’ll sort you out.<< He went to a safe, extracted a cashbox, in which I saw all kinds of currency – both sorts of German, American, even French – and peeled off a small wad of Deutsch Marks for me.

I stared at the money, glanced at the cigarettes, then tried to look back at Schumacher, but he was already at the door gesturing for me to get out so he could lock up. I had only been in West Berlin less than 6 months, but I was already learning that there were certain things one should just accept, and not ask too many questions about.

Chapter Text

Only a few days later, I was back at Iron-Grey, as if drawn by a magnet. It was the oddest shop, as often when I drove past during the daytime, normal opening hours for a clothing shop, it was closed and shut up dead. It seemed to open up about 5 or 6 in the evening, as all the other shops were closing down, and stay open until everyone had dispersed to bars around midnight. Though the lights were on, the door was locked, so I peered through, saw there were people moving around inside, and tapped on the window. But to my surprise, this time, it was not Gudrun that opened up the door, but Blixa.

>>English!<< he said, sounding quite delighted to see me.

>>She has a name; she is called Carter<< corrected Gudrun, from behind the counter, sounding ever so slightly irritated.

It took me some time to work out the source of her irritation, but it seemed that Blixa was not alone. He was accompanied by a short, rather elfin-looking round-faced young man with a shock of thinning hair emanating from his head at odd angles. And this young man was playing with the shop’s tape recorder, causing distorted music to speed up and slow down, trying even to make it play backwards, Patti Smith’s boy looking away from Johnny, then suddenly backing up and walking away in ponderous slow-motion. I recognised the song, even in its mangled form; it had been one of Maud’s favourites.

But abruptly the tape snapped, and the music stopped, everything disappearing in a squall of noise as the tape recorder spewed out tape. >>Andrew!<< snapped Gudrun. >>That’s not even my tape!<<

>Sorry<< said the short man innocently, as he unplugged the tape player and held it upside down to try to pry the broken tape out of it. >>Don’t worry, I can fix it. Tape splicing is a hobby of mine. Have you got a pencil and some sticky tape?<<

I dug in my bag, and produced a hexagonal drawing pencil of the exact right size for rewinding cassette tapes, while Gudrun found him some tape. There seemed to be some tension in the room, though I could not be sure of the source, but the small man was true to his word, and was quickly repairing the broken tape. Blixa was hanging about by the cabinet, rearranging the tapes on the inside, noting enthusiastically which ones had sold, and replacing them from a sort of leather briefcase at his feet. Gudrun seemed impatient with him, replying only monosyllabically as he raved about names I was slowly learning to attach to local West Berlin bands.

I pretended to look at earrings on a display, though my ears were not even pierced. Although I had come with the idea of flirting with Gudrun, offering to take off the work overalls I had carefully cleaned and pressed in anticipation of being removed, Blixa’s presence, as much as I had looked forward to seeing him again, rather threw a spanner in my carefully prepared works. The idea of undressing in front of Gudrun, as much as it terrified me, also excited me more than I liked to admit. (Perhaps my heart was finally unbreaking!) But Blixa just confused me. I knew with certainty, that I was simply not into boys. I had experimented, once or twice as a teenager, as everyone did, and found the results extremely not to my taste. And yet Blixa, in the same way that his texts were somehow both less than, and more than mere poetry, was somehow not quite, and yet more than, a man.

I observed him carefully, out of the corner of my eye, taking care not to be seen staring, but I simply couldn’t stop my eye from tracing the outlines of his face like a pencil-tip flicking across really good quality drawing paper. His face invited drawing, that was the only way I could think to express the odd desires his presence aroused in me. I wanted to hold a piece of gauze over his features and trace every line, capturing those delicate features, in pen, or better yet in some kind of feathery charcoal.

>>Come on, Blixa, you know the meeting starts at 8<< muttered Gudrun, though I had to admit, when she was peeved, with her exquisite eyebrows angled sharply down, her face took on a fierce beauty that would leave me tempted to provoke her.

>>It’s only 7<< said Blixa cheerfully, plumping up his little pile of fanzines in the display cabinet.

>>We need time to set up, pour drinks and the like.<<

>>I am a professional bartender! I can help you serve the drinks<< Blixa shot back with such playfulness that it was obvious even to me he was goading her.

>>It is a band meeting, you are not in the band.<< insisted Gudrun, refusing to be drawn.

>>I’m in a band. And anyway. Chloe and Claudia are not in your band, and I know for a fact, because Jana told me, that they are coming<< flipped back Blixa, calmly and very reasonably in that deep voice of his.

>>The meeting is not for men<< Gudrun finally, grudgingly had to admit. >>We need our space to be free of masculine energy, so we can all speak freely.<<

Blixa turned and deliberately caught my eye, and I felt exposed, caught out, for at that moment, I had taken my sketchbook out and was doing a quick study of his sharply pointed nose, trying my best to work out if it had been broken, since there was a definite crook at the top of the bridge. >>Well<< he said, with a conspiratorial air. >>In that case, Unruh and I will have to go, and we’ll have to take Carter with us.<<

>>Don’t be absurd. Whatever Carter is, it is not a man<< said Gudrun with a plain-speaking tone, and I felt my breath catch in my throat. But as I paused, my pen frozen in mid-air, waiting for Gudrun to reveal what she thought I was, Blixa moved, as quick as a snake’s strike, and snatched my sketchbook from me. I cringed, but when he saw what I had been drawing, he smiled widely, moving over to Gudrun, and putting the sketchbook down in front of her.

>>They’re really good, don’t you think?<< he asked, and unless I was mistaken, the tone of his voice has changed from playful to genuinely impressed. Moving around behind her, he put his hand on her shoulder as he peered down at the drawings, but Gudrun didn’t even flinch, let alone flick it away, as if there were some long familiarity between the pair of them. For a moment, I wasn’t sure which of them I was more jealous of, until what Blixa said next caught me by surprise. >>Maybe we should have Carter do some drawings and sell them here. I think it would do really well; feed your ill replenished coffers.<<

Gudrun looked at the drawings, and even she smiled. >>The only thing these drawings feed is your ego, Blixa. Now get out.<<

Blixa sighed, theatrically donning a leather cap of the sort that chauffeurs and motorcyclists wore, and wrapping his voluminous black vinyl coat around his slender frame, then he called to his friend. >>Come, Unruh. Let us take our masculine energy elsewhere. We know when we are not wanted.<<

>>Masculine energy<< hooted Andrew as he climbed off the bench where he had been dismantling the tape recorder. >>Blixa couldn’t generate masculine energy with a dynamo made of testicles.<<

>>Out!<< roared Gudrun, and the boys ran off. Picking up my sketchbook, she carried it over to the bench where Andrew had been sitting, and fussed with the cassette deck to play some music, only to realise that the tape was gone. Andrew must have palmed it. She rushed to the door, and howled >>Andrew! Come back you little thief...<< but they were gone. I took the chance to retrieve my sketchbook.

>>You don’t have to squirrel that away<< she said, in a much more friendly tone, as she settled back on the bench. >>Your drawings are as good as anything I see at art school.<< She extracted a cigarette and lit it. >>I can see why Blixa would make an intriguing subject, but...<< Her voice trailed off into cigarette smoke as she exhaled.

I stared at her, wondering what warning tone lurked behind that ‘but’. Finally, I decided to just come out with it. >>Are you and he... are you... erm... are you a couple?<<

>>With Blixa? Fuck no!<< she almost exploded, though the hoot was of laughter, not of anger. >>Oh my god, that Dussel...<< I didn’t know what the exact meaning of word she used, but I got the impression of derision well enough from her expression.

>>I’m sorry. I did not mean to offend. You are very... familiar. That is all<< I stuttered, trying quickly to recover.

She waved my apology away. >>We know each other very well. We’ve been in bands together on and off since we were teenagers. I suppose in many ways, being in a band is a bit like being in a marriage. It creates a definite intimacy, that can be closer than sex. But that experience what convinced me that we... Blixa and I... we had no business being in a band together at all. Let alone a relationship! He would drive me crazy. But we are the best of friends. I love him to bits! But to preserve that friendship, we have to... well. Avoid working together.<<

>>They are too alike<< said a voice behind me, and I jumped, realising that we were no longer alone. Gudrun gasped, and I turned to see Beate standing in the door, looking bright-eyed with the sort of dreamy expression of someone who has just woken up from a deep, refreshing sleep, though she seemed somehow a little the worse for wear. I could not help but notice the bruises on her arms, and the virulent lovebite blazing on her neck. >>She and Blixa? They are both too single-minded, too determined, too intent on getting their own way. Being in a band with those two was like a permanent shouting match. I swear, they would come to blows, and although the crowd found it amusing to watch her giving him hell onstage, it was no fun to be around. It is much better they have their own projects now. Much more peaceful.<<

>>I am nothing like him. You, too, have tasted the lash of his tongue, you know what he’s like. He is an ideologue, you know. Everything has to be done Blixa’s way, or no way at all. It’s impossible! And he always wants the impossible!<< protested Gudrun. >>A true ideologue!<<

>>And you are...?<< teased Beate.

>>An idealist.<< insisted Gudrun. >>But let us not get into this, what about you, where on earth have you been? We were on the verge of sending out search parties.<<

>>Where do you think I’ve been?<< her friend replied dreamily, flopping down on a little loveseat in the corner.

>>With Chrislo. You know his band have been looking for him. Wolfgang took Gabi out to the edges of town, to try to look for you two.<<

Beate let out a little laugh. >>Yes, I’m sure that’s what Wolfgang took Gabi out looking for – for me, and not those dodgy gay sex clubs, oh ho ho.<<

>>This is not a laughing matter! Where have you been?<<

>>In a little studio somewhere up in the British Sector... friends of Chrislo let us borrow it. And it was just... it was just heaven. Three whole days of just making love and making music, bodies and minds just completely attuned, like two instruments in perfect harmony... It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.<<

>>Making music? With Chrislo?<< retorted Gudrun, who seemed to have changed her tune now that the subject of music-making had come up. >>But you already have a band. Our band.<<

>>You don’t even understand. It’s so completely different to make music with a lover, rather than with friends. It’s like you make music, not just with your thoughts and your mind, but with your whole body. Your music is so cerebral, Gudrun. Which is good! For you. But with Chrislo, it is total body music we make. Electronic body music.<<

Gudrun appeared shocked, even alarmed, at this new development. Beate getting a good shag off Chrislo, that she had been in favour of. But for the pair of them to start a band together, that was a step too far. >>Are you sure about this, Beate? You know, I’ve been talking to Gabi and Robert. They say that though he’s a good musician, he is completely insane. Even Wolfgang is nervous of him. And Wolfgang is a good judge of character. If he says someone is bad news, then he is definitely bad news.<<

>>Wolfgang is just jealous Chrislo doesn’t swing his way. I think he’s very good news. For me, at least.<< Beate lay back, leaning her head against the wall as she splayed across the loveseat. And the more outraged and worried Gudrun seemed to become, the more dreamy and relaxed Beate sank into the fantasies of lovemaking that showed so clearly all over her face. >>He wants me to go to Düsseldorf with him. He knows a producer there – someone who can get us in the studio. He has connections, Gudrun. He knows Conny Plank – you know, the great Conny Plank who discovered Kraftwerk and NEU! – even you’ve got to admit you’re impressed by that, Gudrun, Miss Too Cool For Düsseldorf.<<

>>The Great Conny Plank – listen to yourself, Beate! What about our band? What about female solidarity, and girls gotta stick together? You get with this great Chrislo fucking Haas from the great German-American Friendship, and all of your ideals just go out the window because you got some good bit of dick?<<

>>An amazing bit of dick<< corrected Beate, taking out a pocket comb and starting to sort out her hair. >>And you would know what an amazing bit of dick could do, if all your boyfriends weren’t gay.<<

>>Only half-gay<< retorted Gudrun, with a little laugh. >>After all, there was me.<< They were both smiling now, as if over some private joke, so I could not work out if they were fighting in earnest, or if this was some teasing friendship they had developed through their band. After all, she had been much rougher with Blixa than she was with Beate, and it was obvious that she and Blixa still adored each other.

>>All the boys in West Berlin are half gay<< sighed Beate. >>Chrislo is not half anything. He is one hundred percent... total...<< her voice trailed off as we could hear another group of guests entering from the street.

>>A dynamo made of testicles<< I said, almost under my breath.

>>Exactly<< said Beate, even as Gudrun started to laugh, with her hand over her mouth, just as we heard chattering voices from outside.

>>So Wolfgang, and Gabi, and these two rent boys they have picked up by the American barracks, they say they are going off to a show...<<

>>But it wasn’t a show of the kind Gabi was expecting, on no, Claudia, you should have seen the flyer, it was a... well, let’s just say if Wolfgang was expecting to shock the stuck-up Düsseldorfers with a bit of Berlin nightlife, well, it was Wolfgang who got a little more than he bargained for as Gabi was well into... oh my god Beate! Where have you been?<<

And there was another round of greetings and hugs and those Berlin double-kisses as Gudrun and Beate moved up and made room on their seats for the newcomers to sit and have a glass of wine. I was introduced to Claudia, though Chloe and Bettina I already knew, and everyone just accepted me as Carter, because obviously it was Beate who was the focus of all the curiosity and gossip, after her adventures with the keyboard player of this hot new Düsseldorf band. Two more girls arrived, Manon, who was in the band, and Susanne, who wasn’t, at least not yet, but seemed to be quite intrigued with the idea of an all-girl group.

And although Gudrun had described it to Blixa as a meeting, it was like no meeting I had ever attended, even as the space filled up with more women. Drinks flowed freely. Gudrun put on a tape, the Slits album, which I knew and loved, again from Maud’s record collection, and people started to wiggle in their seats. Women sat and talked in little groups, sometimes gossiping about their lives and loves, but mostly about their bands, and their art projects, and the films they were shooting, and the clothing they were working on designing. I don’t know if it was because the scene was so small, or on account of some hearty German cordiality, but everyone seemed keen to get involved with everyone else’s projects. Designers offered to let the musicians to wear their clothes onstage. The musicians were keen to provide soundtracks for the filmmakers’ videos. Artists talked about doing group shows together, and bands talked about jamming together and who could do what guest spots at each other’s performances.

Gudrun especially, I noticed, was a truly congenial host. She was particularly good at getting people to talk, letting her friends know if they shared the same discipline, because Chloe is a designer, but did she know that Bettina has a proper industrial knitting machine, yes, maybe they could bring it into the shop and set it up so they could all learn. And Maria plays the piano, but she also DJs, and she wants to start a band, hey, did you know that Christine can play drums, and of course Beate is the best bassist in West Berlin, but no, Beate wants to go to Düsseldorf and work with this hot shot record producer, but everyone who wasn’t Gudrun was really happy for her, and excited at her prospects, and the change of working with this world-famous producer, Conny Plank, and really supportive of her developing her career in this way, and with all of this wave of excitement and support, even Gudrun calmed down and conceded, hey, just remember all your friends back at Risk when you are a big star on the television...

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing there, but I started to really enjoy myself, even just sitting, listening to the energy flowing through the room. Gudrun had been right. Without the boys to dominate the atmosphere, the women set about knitting themselves into a tight, supportive community. It was the kind of thing that Maud’s feminist friends used to pay lip service to – female solidarity – but in action, this gang of tough West Berlin girls in their dark lipstick and their big boots, they seemed like they could move mountains.

>>So you are the famous electrician<< Claudia was saying to me as I held a glass of wine I was only pretending to drink. >>Do you think you could have a go at my loft? I want to put in dramatic spot-lighting, oh, and one of those Hollywood makeup mirrors with the dimmer-switch so that you can emulate the effects of sunset, or office lighting, or mid-day high noon...<<

>>Carter is also an artist, you know. An illustrator<< Gudrun always used the feminine versions of words with me – Kunstlerin – but for some reason, from her, it didn’t bother me. >>A very good eye for portraiture, you know.<<

>>Portraiture?<< exclaimed Claudia. >>Who have you done?<<

Gudrun raised one of her exquisite eyebrows at me, as if she were challenging or teasing, I could never quite be sure. >>Well, she’s mostly been drawing pictures of Blixa Bargeld, of all people. She makes him look positively angelic. You wouldn’t believe our Blixa could look that good and pure and innocent.<<

>>Blixa? Our Blixa?<< hooted Bettina from across the room. >>Oh my god, we have got to find you another model before you ruin your eyesight on that goblin.<<

>>You should draw Gudrun<< Claudia suggested, smiling at her attractive friend.

>>Oh my god, yes. Draw Gudrun<< insisted Beate, sitting up and joining the conversation. >>I will buy it, if it’s a good portrait. I’d like a picture of my dear friend Gudrun, to remind me of her when I go to Düsseldorf.<<

Gudrun stood up, and adjusted the lights, lit some more candles and poured out another bottle of wine, distributing it among the guests. >>Why would she want to draw ugly old me<< she said, with what sounded like very false modesty indeed, though if there was something beneath that, I couldn’t tell. With the room so full of people, and so many candles burning, it was starting to get rather warm, and I tugged at the collar of the work jumpsuit I had forgotten I was wearing.

>>What you should do, though<< interrupted Bettina >>Is take off that jumpsuit and let me measure it. I want to sell a line of overalls in the shop, and that one has such a nice cut.<<

>>Bettina!<< laughed Manon. >>So direct and forward, and to the point.<<

>>What?<< shrugged Bettina, then started to laugh. >>If Carter is shy, there’s a dressing gown in the back room.<<

I looked around for Gudrun, but she had retreated to the back of the shop; I could only see her eyes glittering in the light of her cigarette’s tip as she drew on it. >>I suppose I could let you borrow it for a few hours. But I need it for work tomorrow.<< Standing up, I climbed unsteadily to my feet, as my hands went to the top button and started to unfasten it.

>>So this is the entertainment for the evening? A stripping electrician? Hurrah! This is much better than rehearsals with The Skin<< giggled Susanne.

The girls, who had been drinking for a few hours now, were starting to grow a little rowdy. Someone whooped, as someone else started to clap, slowly, rhythmically to the drumbeat of The Slits’ Liebe und Romanze. The atmosphere intoxicated me, the way that sometimes, when I was around people who were very drunk, I almost started to feel my own head spin. >>Come on, give us a show, Carter. Take it off, take it off<< chanted a voice I was sure I recognised but bashfully ignored.

I closed my eyes, feeling very self-conscious, but to my surprise, as the chant took hold, I felt myself bourn up on a wave of camaraderie and acceptance. I started to unbutton further, trying not to focus on those glittering eyes in the back of the shop, just letting my hips swing back and forth to the low, familiar music that was playing in the background. The fabric of the jumpsuit was old, as it had been hanging around the back of Schumacher’s shop for at least 20 years, and stiff with age, but still, I teased with it, pulling it coyly down in back like a striptease act, before revealing that I was actually wearing a vest and long johns beneath. As the girlish whooping intensified to a crescendo, I felt myself blushing, yet pleased, oddly encouraged by the unfamiliar attention, as I peeled off the rest of the suit, and stepped out of it, handing it to Bettina before curtsying to the assembled girls, acknowledging that yes, despite my height and my broad shoulders and the short tufts of my previously shaven head, yes, it was apparent from my tightly-bound but budding chest, and the smooth lines of my groin, that my body was like theirs.

Then I sat quickly down, quite embarrassed by the spectacle I had just made of myself. >>So you see<< I sputtered, trying to cover my blush. >>I’m not what you think. I mean, you’re not wrong, but... you’re not right, either. I don’t know what I am.<<

But Bettina looked back at me evenly, her long square face smiling with encouragement as she handed me the dressing gown. >>It doesn’t matter, here, what you are.<< That German expression – es ist egal, literally it is equal – had never sounded so sweet. >>You are always welcome with us.<<

There were friendly pats on the back, a few quick hugs, but to my eternal gratitude, no one even made a big deal of it. The pirate gang opened their hearts, and I felt like I became one of them, that night.

As I put on the spare dressing gown, Bettina quickly picked up the sloughed-off uniform and started to dig into its seams with the practiced hands of a designer, investigating its dimensions with a measuring tape as the rest of the room fell back into their easy chatter. >>It is as I thought. The material is very old, but it’s good quality stuff.<< she pronounced, turning it inside out, and showing me how it was made.

>>It’s older than I am.. It’s been hanging around the back of the workshop for 20 years maybe.<<

>>It’s probably older than you think. You know, in the 40s, when all the men were at the Fronts, fighting the Americans on one side, and the Russians on the other, it was the women who kept the city going. There were female electricians, female builders, female plumbers, even female firefighters<< she explained.

I shuddered. >>So I’ve been wearing some... Nazi’s cast off uniform?<<

She shook her head. >>It’s not that simple in war. It was the same in England, you know. The same in occupied France and the Netherlands. All these jobs that us women took over, just because we had to. We weren’t fighting, we were just trying to keep everyone alive. Then the men came back from the front and they tried to chuck us out and take our jobs back. But they can’t erase what we have done, what we have contributed.<< She smiled as she looked up at me. >>You always look like you are so alone, Carter, you always carry yourself with a sadness, like you are the only one of your kind who has ever been. You aren’t alone, Carter, they just wrote the women like us out of the histories.<<

I felt tears forming in my eyes as I looked down at her. I wanted to protest, wanted to tell her ‘if only you knew; I have completely failed at being a woman, in every way’, but I stopped myself, and just smiled as I looked around at the faces of these incredible young women, all bursting with energy and plans and enthusiasm for one another, all around me.

Chapter Text

Most of Iron-Grey’s girl gang went out drinking afterwards, or on to clubs, but I went home to sleep, as I had work in the morning. On our rounds through Tempelhof, I asked Schumacher, who was old enough to remember The War, if what Bettina had said was true. Had there been female electricians and plumbers and firefighters, in the last days of the dying Reich? Oh yes, Schumacher had assured me. Fearsome women, you didn’t want to get mixed up with them. There wouldn’t be a Berlin left standing for anyone to occupy if it hadn’t been for the women, they were the ones who had put out the fires and saved the city. They had cleared the rubble away afterwards, as well, brick by brick, sometimes with their bare hands. I should ask my Great-Aunt, or better yet, my Great-Aunt’s personal assistant, Grete, if I wanted to know about that. Grete, I gathered, from Schumacher’s respectful tone, had been a formidable force in her youth, though now I knew her only as a formidable force around the breakfast table if I forgot to tell my Great-Aunt that I was dining out.

I stayed in the next few nights, locking myself in my room after dinner, and setting down to draw. Taking out the large block of drawing paper, I  looked at the drawings of Blixa I had attempted only a few weeks ago (though it felt like months, since that first night at the Risk bar) and almost laughed at how ridiculous they seemed to me now. For a moment, I was tempted to rip the page from the sketchbook and crumple it into the nearest bin, but instead I turned the page and started again. This time, I was going to draw Gudrun.

Gudrun, with her distinctive asymmetrical hair, and her slash of dark lipstick, was much easier to draw. Those high rounded cheekbones, and that elfin chin, they flowed from my pencils. Her eyes, with the catlike uptick of thick black eyeliner, they were almost too fun to shape with my pencil. I inked her in, wove a banner declaring ‘female solidarity’ in three different languages – English, German and Russian – around her head, and found I was very pleased with the result.

I took it to Iron-Grey the next evening, intending to ask her to pass it on to Beate, who had commissioned the thing, though really with the ulterior motive of showing it to her myself. As I walked up, I could see a small crowd of children gathered round the front window. As I got closer, I saw that some of them were dancing, stomping about joyously, while the older ones were pointing and laughing at someone inside. As I pushed open the front door, I was greeted by a strange caterwauling sound. It took me a few minutes to work out what was going on, but it appeared to be Blixa.

He had removed all of the displays from the front window, and instead was standing there, bashing tunelessly with the side of his fist at a guitar that had been plugged into a cheap radio, with a jaunty, slightly martial rhythm. This atonal beat served mostly to accompany himself as he made the most bizarre sounds with his mouth; half animal yowl, half hiss, more like the sounds of nature, of tectonic plates scraping against one another, an inhuman, iceberg sort of sound, rather than anything that sounded like it came from a human being. As I watched, intrigued, he had clearly polarised the small crowd that had gathered outside to watch and listen. The younger, less inhibited kids were responding with sheer animal joy, throwing themselves about with anarchic glee at this banging song of primal id. But the older kids, ones who had started to pick up a sense of what was acceptable or not, and what was cool or not, they seemed embarrassed, startled, even outraged by Blixa’s unfettered performance.

Myself, I couldn’t decide how I felt about it, and though I found myself strongly moved by it, I couldn’t tell if the emotion was delight or disgust. It was like no music I had ever heard before, even from the tuneless squat-punk bands I’d heard in London. It was, as he had proclaimed, anti-music. There was no tune; there were barely any words, apart from his bizarre dancing word-salad poetry. But there were torrents of emotion seeming to extrude from every pore of his body, as if he were secreting the sound like sweat, as much as making it with his mouth.

But as I walked through into the shop, I caught sight of Bettina and Gudrun, working, undeterred by the noise, at a large sewing machine that had been set up in the middle of the floor. Bettina had, true to her word, obtained some battleship grey canvas, and the pair of them were cutting out patterns to make iron-grey jumpsuits, not for female electricians, but for female warriors.

>>This is... different<< I observed, gesturing with my head towards the performance in the front window.

>>Oh yes. He’s very much improved<< said Bettina, making me wonder what Blixa’s singing had been like before.

>>You can tell he’s really been working at it<< agreed Gudrun. >>He’s really coming together now.<< So it wasn’t just me. The odd yowling noise, it wasn’t torturous or unbearable, it was actually strangely expressive, and in its own way, beautiful, in the way that remote, treeless mountains, or sheets of glacial ice were actually very beautiful.

>>I, too, have been working<< I said, by way of introduction. >>I wanted to give this to Beate before she left, since she was the one who suggested it.<< And then I produced, from inside a cardboard folder where I had preserved it, the drawing of Gudrun.

For a few moments, there was silence, as my pride in my work slowly gave way to a growing embarrassed fear that I had done something wrong.

But finally, it was Bettina that spoke.. >>That’s really quite good. You have absolutely caught her, that is her smile, one hundred percent. Anyone who knows her, would know: that is Gudrun.<<

But Gudrun was looking at the drawing slightly suspiciously, though I could not understand the reason for her mistrust. >>Oh god, does my nose really look as formidable as that<< she finally said, though I could sense that again, this modesty was false. It was not self-consciousness that fed her negative reaction to the drawing.

>>Well<< I said sheepishly. >>I can fix the nose, if you like.<<

>>No, don’t change a thing<< insisted Bettina. >>We’ll have to post it to Beate.<< Holding it up, she called out >>Look, Blixa, Carter has drawn Gudrun. Isn’t it good?<<

>>Where’s Beate?<< I asked, and Gudrun started to respond that she had just packed up and gone, without so much as a goodbye, to Düsseldorf and Chrislo, of course...

...but like a shot, Blixa had discarded his guitar, and leapt over the sofa in one bound, and was loping purposely towards the sewing table, grinning like a maniac. He took the drawing, and stared at it, tracing the Russian letters, saying aloud, ‘Zhenska Solidarnist’ just to prove that he could read Russian. >>It looks just like you, Gud.<< A split second pause. >>Well, a good-looking, sexier version of you, at least.<<

For a moment, Gudrun’s eyes flashed with outrage, then sharpened to something like sibling rivalry, her voice taking on a snide, sing-song tone. >>Oh, you’ve just got your nose out of joint that an artist would rather draw me, than draw you!<<

But his smile widened as he turned back to me, and I could see that he had had a haircut, or at least, someone had been hacking at his head, probably with an electric razor, for there were great chunks missing from the front and sides in oddly rectangular patterns, though it still hung down in clumps over the back of his head, above a crudely shaved bit. But even with this strange mutilated haircut, his face still somehow had a nobility and intelligence that made me feel all churned up inside. >>Well, when are you going to draw me, Carter?<< he asked, like it was a challenge as much as an invitation.

Gudrun’s face changed in an instant, as her smile turned wicked. >>Oh yes, Blixa, you should totally pose for Carter. Like you posed up at the Hochschule, and like you posed for Wolfgang...<<

But Blixa’s grin expanded, as if he didn’t see the darkness behind Gudrun’s goading. >>Oh, ja! I can disrobe if you like. No problem. Wolfgang said I had a very intriguing physique. Have you seen the photos he made of me? They’re very good, very artistic. Even anti-artistic, if you like. You’ll never get Gudrun to pose for art-photos like that, oh no.<<

I couldn’t help myself, I felt my face flushing from my forehead down to my chest. But Gudrun, and I don’t know what devil had got into her, seemed to sense my discomfort and only tried to make it worse. >>Have you seen those photos, Carter? Blixa has a very high opinion of them, he tells everyone about them. Maybe he can demonstrate for you... go in the back room, nobody wants to see your pimply buttocks again, least of all those little kids in the street, eh?<< she teased, her eyes flashing.

But Blixa missed the subtext completely. >>Those kids in the street know more than you think. Little kids always make the best audience for rehearsing new concepts, because they absolutely will not lie to you. They haven’t been infected by the Culture-germ yet. They haven’t been infected by ‘Cool’.<< He said the word in English, but with a real Prussian disdain. >>If they like something, they love it with their whole hearts, and they let you know. And if they hate you, they will not hesitate to tell you that, either. There is no pretence with children. All musicians should be forced to rehearse in front of children. They would learn a lot.<<

As he spoke, Blixa moved towards the back room, unbuttoning his trousers, and showed every intention of actually doing it, taking his clothes off and posing for me, when Bettina, bless her heart, finally seemed to notice the abject panic on my face, and stepped in. >>No, don’t go back there, Blix, my patterns are all over the floor. Keep your clothes on and sit down, Carter can draw you on the sofa. Or better yet, as you’re performing. Isn’t that the most Blixa-ish Blixa?<<

>>This is true<< Blixa enunciated with his finger, then rushed back to his impromptu stage like an oversized puppy, his long, skinny legs easily clearing the sofa, as he leapt over it to retake the space in the window. >>With the guitar, or without? What do you think?<<

As I turned horrorstruck, to see Gudrun silently laughing at me, I narrowed my eyes at her. >>This is hardly Solidarity<< I managed to spit. Her face fell as if she’d been stung.

>>Oh come on<< she said, defensively, as if she realised she was acting shabbily towards me. >>Everyone can see you like him. All those drawings? I’m just helping things along.<<

I just stared at her, unsure of how to reply. Did people think that I... well, that I was attracted to Blixa? As if anyone could think that I could like a... a male? But then I stopped myself. No one knew me here. No one knew that about me. No one knew anything about me. I wondered if that lovely warm acceptance I had felt the other night would extend to this. For a long second, I dared to dream that it might.

It might have come to a head, there and then, I might have broken down and confessed, might have told Gudrun how I felt about her. But the door banged, and there was a customer. At least, I thought it was a customer. Gudrun looked over and rolled her eyes, while Bettina took on a slightly panicked expression and moved towards the cash register. I turned around and saw a little girl, standing in the entrance to the shop.

>>Is Christian here? I need some money from him.<<

When she spoke, it was obvious she was not a little girl, she was a full-grown woman, though a tiny, diminutive one, with a fey, pixie-like look to her, as if she were made of gossamer and might blow away at any moment. She stood no more than about five foot tall, with a round, fairy-like face, with beautiful high cheekbones. Her skin was darker than most Germans I’d met, but with an odd ashen quality that made it look almost translucent, highlighting huge, sleepy eyes a shade of grey so light they looked colourless.

But it was her clothes that arrested my attention. Even amidst the unconventional fashions of West Berlin, her clothes stood out. She was wearing an old-fashioned, close-fitting black lace dress, the sort of thing my Great-Aunt would refer to as mourning clothes, with a long hem that might have been a tea dress on anyone else, but hung almost to her ankles. Around her neck were draped a selection of glass and crystal beaded rosaries, though all of the crucifixes on them had been turned upside-down. Her dark hair streamed down her back in long, ratted waves, with streaks of colour so closely matted together that it was hard to tell what hue it was meant to be dyed, though the roots near her head showed at least an inch of deep black. She was wearing shiny crepe ballet slippers, with a line of water damage seeping above the soles into the silk, over laddered black tights, and over the top of the whole ensemble, was draped an oversized man’s formal dinner jacket, complete with tails.

She blinked, slowly, with a faint reptilian air, taking in first me, then Gudrun, then Bettina, before turning about, her eyes lighting on Blixa, fiddling about with the headstock of his guitar.

>>Christian<< she repeated. >>I need some money. About 20 DM should do it, but I need it now.<<

Blixa looked up, as if only just realising he was being addressed, spied the girl, and suddenly frowned, his face growing steadily more panic-struck. >>Jana<< he said, his voice slowly rising, struggling to stay calm as he removed his guitar from around his neck. >>If you’re here, and Unruh is at work, then who is watching the squat?<<

>>It’s OK<< said the girl, her voice becoming more childlike as Blixa grew more visibly alarmed. >>I left the door on the latch, and the key under the mat... I really do need that 20 DM, though.<<

>>Scheisse!<< exploded Blixa, and I had never seen him move so fast, leaping over the sofa and collecting his huge vinyl jacket in one fluid motion before dashing out the door and down the street, still pulling his coat about him as he broke into a run. That was always the problem, with squatting. Once you occupied a house, you couldn’t leave it unoccupied. At best, you might come home and find some other squatters had taken over your space and changed your locks. At worst, you could come home to the landlord – or the police – tossing your stuff into the street.

The girl seemed unperturbed by his sudden absconding, turning her eyes to us. >>Bettina, do you have 20 DM. I really do need it, quite urgently.<<

>>Sorry, Jana, love. We just took the day’s float back to the bank, about an hour ago. We don’t even have change for a fiver right now<< said Bettina, and even I could see she was lying, as she and Gudrun had clearly been at the shop all afternoon, working on the jumpsuits.

The strange pixie-waif turned her colourless eyes towards me. Her eyes widened, as her thin eyebrows seemed to float up her forehead. >>And who is this? I don’t think we’ve met.<<

Gudrun’s mischievous grin lit back up, as I could feel the tension in the shop start to rise. >>This is Carter. Carter is an artist. She’s going to draw Blixa. This is a picture she drew of me. Don’t you think it’s good?<<

Jana squinted at the drawing, and smiled. >>It looks just like you, Gudrun.<< But then she turned to me. >>I don’t suppose you have 20 DM?<<

>>And you are?<< I blurted out, wondering when someone was going to let me in on the secret.

>>Oh! Where are my manners?<< she said, with the delicacy of a Victorian heroine, then moved towards me and extended a hand. Her fingernails were so long they looked almost like talons, the fingernails of someone who had never soldered a fusebox in her life, and painted the colour of dried blood. >>I’m Jana. I’m Christian’s girlfriend. He lives with me at my squat over on... over on... oh, you know the Strasse over there, just before the railway bridge.<< She waved her hand gently, breezily, the same sort of expressive gesture that Blixa liked to make.

>>Christian?<< I stuttered, wondering if I should know this person.

>>Oh, sorry, I forgot. He doesn’t like to be called that any more. I mean, of course, Blixa.<<

I gave her the 20 DM I had in my wallet just to make her go away. Honestly, I had no designs on Blixa, but something about her just completely unnerved me. That strange, fey, dreamy smile; her otherworldly manner, folding the money into her bra before pressing my hand in thanks, and flitting from the shop as suddenly as she had arrived.

Bettina and Gudrun exchanged glances. >>She’s getting worse. Someone should do something.<< muttered Bettina.

>>What is to be done? You know Blixa won’t see sense about her<< Gudrun replied. As I looked back and forth between the pair of them, Gudrun turned on me. >>You shouldn’t have given her that money. You know it’s going straight to her drug dealer.<<

>>You and Blixa are a fine pair to get sanctimonious about drugs<< I stuttered, feeling rather defensive.

>>We indulge<< Gudrun retorted back. >>A line of coke here, a bit of hash there, it’s hurting no one. But Jana dabbles in smack, and she is in the fast lane from dabbling to dependent, so giving her money helps no one.<<

>>Heroin<< I said limply, feeling very stupid that it had taken me so long to understand. I had little experience with junkies. Even the squat where Maud and I had taken shelter in London had a strict no heroin policy. Junkies were unreliable, they stole things, and even in an anarchist squat that believed in sharing common property, it was not OK for common property to have to be fetched out of the local pawn shop because someone had needed a fix. Suddenly, I understood why Bettina had moved so defensively to the cash register. >>And Blixa knows? Why doesn’t he do something?<<

>>Blixa’s a man<< said Gudrun, rolling her eyes and lighting another cigarette. >>And like lots of stupid men, he wants to be a knight in shining armour. He likes to think he can rescue the helpless little naive waif, and that he can somehow just... love her out of being an heroin addict.<<

>>What do you expect him to do?<< said Bettina. >>I mean, she’s our friend, too. I’ve had serious talks with her, telling her we’re all concerned about her health. But you know how she gets, how she just goes all vague, and waves her hands, and says she’s sure all will be well in the end. She’s like Blixa, a hopeless optimist.<<

>>You’re right. There’s nothing you can say to Blixa, either, to make him see that she’s not getting any better.<<

I stood there, musing through my own thoughts, my petty annoyance at Gudrun’s earlier mischievous cruelty seeming very, very small by comparison. I couldn’t get that strange, fey child-woman’s face out of my mind, that slow reptilian blink that must have been the effect of heroin withdrawal. There had been times when the break from Maud had felt so sharp and so painful I thought I would die of it, and maybe, then I would have been tempted by the hope of oblivion. I wondered what on earth this strange, fey girl was running from. Very slowly, I found my voice. >>Sometimes people have to really hit bottom, in order to climb back out<< I said, and turned to go.

>>Yeah, well, you don’t have to help them on the way down<< said Gudrun quickly. >>Just don’t give her any more money, OK?<<

Chapter Text

Work was so busy for the next week that I didn’t get the chance to pop round Iron-Grey again. Once he was confident that I wouldn’t wreck his van, Schumacher started to let me drive everywhere, fiddling with bits of kit on his lap on the way to the next job. But my grasp of West Berlin geography was still not very good. I knew approximately where the main avenues were, but as soon as I got onto the side streets, I would find myself all twisted around, somehow invariably head east, and then suddenly bam! the van would be up against the graffitied slab of the ominous grey Wall. The native West Berliners never even mentioned it, this massive thing so huge and omnipresent they had stopped even seeing it. But the rare tourists were fascinated by it. I would have been fascinated by it, but every time we started to drive alongside it, Schumacher would cross himself and tell me to get us the hell away. It did no good to spend too much time in the presence of the thing, he said, as if the wall itself had a malign influence, quite separate from the soviet soldiers on the other side.

We drove from one inner city neighbourhood to another, from our yard in Tempelhof up to Kreuzberg, through Schöneberg and sometimes as far afield as Moabit, crossing little canals and rivers and tributaries of the Spree on the way. Although I’d heard rumours that there were posh suburbs to the far west, full of parks and lakes and ‘villa areas’, the bit of West Berlin we serviced didn’t seem to have much in the way of beauty. Every few blocks, there still lay large scars of abandoned land that looked almost unchanged since the tanks had rolled out. Apart from brief glimpses of the Tiergarten, the rare trees I saw were more likely to be growing out of bombsites or ruined houses than the fabled Linden Avenues I had read of in books from the 1920s. Sometimes we drove past the huge, hulking bulk of the great curved arc of the fascists’ monumental airport to far-flung industrial areas on the other side of Tempelhof Airfield. But then I’d take a wrong turn getting back on the Autobahn, turning East instead of West because I wasn’t used to driving on the right hand side, and bam! there was the grey no-mans-land of the Wall again like the punchline of an unfunny joke a belligerent child wouldn’t stop telling.

Schumacher liked to lecture me in the van, on our drives to the next job. It wasn’t the electrical knowledge he wanted to tell me about – he said I was smart, and I could pick that up quickly enough – it was the customer handling. What to do with an unsatisfied customer. How to extract more money someone who didn’t want to pay you what you were worth. How to deal with the back-seat driver who thought they knew more about your own job than you did. I groaned internally, as I had already dealt with some of them, usually men, who wanted to insist to me ridiculous things that violated the basic laws of physics, when discussing the electricity running in their own walls.

The muggy closeness of August was starting to give way to the clear, crisp chill of September. Posters had gone up around the huge circus tent that had sprung up on the bomb-damaged area around Potsdamer Platz like some unearthly mushroom, advertising a “Great Downfall Show”, some kind of anti-musical festival that Wolfgang, one of the regulars at the Risk bar, had assembled, featuring all of our friends.

For over the past few weeks, the mysterious names that I had known only from Blixa’s cassettes started to be attached to the people I met at the shop, at the Risk bar, and around the city. Blixa and Andrew and the awful teenager, together with the pair of Hamburg punks called Mufti (the short but very muscular man with a forelock of curly gingery-blond hair) and Mark (the tall, handsome, Asian bassist who had accompanied him that first night at the Risk bar) – that lot had a band called the Collapsing New Buildings. Swishy Wolfgang, who was always so quick with his cutting wit, he and another handsome boy, and a girl who played drums, they were the Deadly Doris. And the gang of tough pirate girls with big boots and dark lipstick, who had adopted me, they had been first Manic Depression, then Mania D, and now, since Beate had decamped to Düsseldorf with Chrislo, Bettina and Gudrun had been in secret discussions to regroup under the name Malaria! Slowly, the tangle of West Berlin nightlife was starting to make sense to me, as I attached names to the few dozen faces I saw every week.

And all of these friends were now putting on a giant variety show together. Gudrun and Blixa had even decided to bury their musical differences to perform a set together. That, I would like to see! I had already decided to tease Gudrun about how her opinions changed, depending on what options were available.

But the next time I went back to Iron-Grey, Gudrun wasn’t there, though Bettina was. I liked Bettina, I liked her serious, quiet manner, in comparison with the boisterous but sometimes rather too obstreperous drummer. And she was pleased to see me, too, wanting to unveil the prototype of the new jumpsuit, and have me try it on. Honoured, I went in the back room to change. When I emerged, I felt a little unsure of myself. She had changed the design, and I felt quite self-conscious, noticing how she had brought in the waist to fit my form a little more closely, and moved the fastening so it zipped up diagonally, futuristically, across the chest to the shoulder.

>>You look fantastic<< assessed Bettina with a sharp nod. >>Here, Gudrun made these belts to go with them, so give it a go.<<

She handed me what appeared to be the seatbelt from an aeroplane seat, a long strip of black ribbon and the metal lump of the release, and I belted it around my waist, cinching it in tight, surprised by how it pulled the whole look together.

>>I’m just going to sew the Iron-Grey logo on the arm, and then you can wear that to Risk tonight<< Bettina said, pulling out a patch.

>>I can’t wear this out.<<

>>Why not? You are a walking advertisement for the shop.<< Bettina threaded a needle and eyed up my sleeve, as if she were planning on just sewing it directly to my skin. >>We need someone who isn’t Blixa to go around in our clothes – I mean, he is a good advert for the shop, in that the clothes do look good on him, but with his tall, slender figure, he just looks good in anything.<<

>>But this... well, that’s the exact problem... it makes me look like I have a... figure.<< I tried to keep the disdain out of my voice as I pronounced the word, but still, it dripped from my tongue.

>>That is the point.<<

>>I liked my baggy, androgynous, unisex overalls.<< I sulked.

>>This, too, is unisex<< insisted Bettina. >>But it puts the sex in Unisex. Unisexy. You need to get out there and get laid. Stop mooning over Gudrun. She’s straight, you know, though she doesn’t look it.<<

>>What?!<< I sputtered, feeling myself flush again. >>I do not... moon.<<

Bettina clucked her tongue at me. >>You are very obvious. Gudrun finds it a little... off-putting.<<

>>She told you this?<< I gasped, burning with shame.

>>She didn’t need to.<< With an iron grip, she held my arm as she sewed on the patch with the name of the shop. >>This is West Berlin. There is something for everyone here. You need to find the one that is for you.<<

I felt like a puppy that had been whacked on the nose, but still, I was smart enough to realise that I was being warned off. A couple of the other girls arrived, Claudia and Chloe wanting to see the finished designs, sparing me the indignity of further conversation, but internally, I was mentally turning over Bettina’s words over and over again. Really, I wanted to go home and mope – moon, even – but the girls refused to allow this, threading their arms through mine and pulling me down the street towards the Risk bar. Even as we approached, eyes appeared at the peephole, and the door swung inwards, granting us admission. Bettina walked in with a proud, quiet air of possession, with the rest of us following in her wake. It really paid to have one of the local rock stars in your party, if you wanted to get served. Maria whistled when she spotted us, and Blixa’s tufted head appeared above the counter. He was kneeling down to rewind a tape, but stood when he saw us.

>>Wine for the ladies, and coffee for the gentleman?<< he offered with a wide grin. >>You are going to draw me tonight, yes, English?<<

>>Maybe<< I said, and felt his eyes pass over me as he looked me up and down, before coming to rest on my waist with a curious expression. I felt so self-conscious about the cinched waist that I tugged at it a little.

>>I like your belt<< he observed, and I felt a tiny twitch of relief that it was my clothes he was coveting, not the newly feminised form.

>>Gudrun made it<< I shrugged, as he emerged from behind the bar and drifted off to make the coffee for me.

Maria took over his job at the tape machine, and loud music soon echoed about the room. In the weeks I had been going there, I had started to recognise some of the music. Maria liked to play old American country music, primitive rock’n’roll, and loud, fast-moving punk. Blixa liked to play dub with heavy, heavy basslines, and of course all of the local music that he sold on his cassettes. He had no shame about playing his own music, and I had come to recognise his banshee wail when it appeared on the bar stereo, but he also had no reservations about playing his friends’ music, loud, and often, so that every now and then, a song would come on, and a little cheer would go up around the musicians responsible. Although there were, of course, little rivalries and local jealousies, the West Berlin musicians did not waste time tearing each other down like the London punks did. And I found the genuineness with which they saluted one another’s efforts truly heartening. It wasn’t just the girls who treated their music-arts-film-fashion scene with that hearty German cordiality; they all genuinely seemed to enjoy swapping their talents about.

By the time I had finished greeting all my new friends, Blixa had emerged with my coffee, carrying it on a little tray in one hand, as he brushed at his nose with the other. But as he spent his usual time crossing the room, Bettina looked back and forth between me and him, and the special order.

>>Why don’t you drink alcohol?<< she asked, but in a far kinder tone than the Germans usually demanded. Bettina, at least, sounded curious, rather than judgemental.

>>I just don’t like the taste<< I shrugged. >>It’s disgusting.<<

>>I don’t think anyone drinks alcohol for the taste<< she laughed, in her deep, throating voice. >>More for the effects.<<

>>I don’t know, I think people do. They always talk about the bouquet of the wine or whatever... but you see, I lost my sense of smell when I was young. So it doesn’t have that kind of bouquet, or aroma, or anything. Without a sense of smell, alcohol just tastes vile; it’s like drinking a glass of petrol. There’s no effects that could possibly be worth that.<<

Bettina sipped at her wine thoughtfully, before conceding, >>Hmm, maybe you do have a point there.<< But then her mouth widened into a smirk. >>But that would explain why you get on with Blixa so well, though. If you never have to experience his... ripeness!<<

I was about to ask what she meant when Blixa finally reached me with my drink. >>Your usual, my dear. Coffee for the English gentleman.<<

I grinned and thanked him, for the coffee was one of those small rituals that reaffirmed our friendship, though I usually switched to coca-cola over the course of the night. Or maybe it was his way of getting a little break, as he always emerged slightly re-energised from the backroom, blinking excitedly in a way that had little to do with caffeine. I was learning not examine any of my new friends’ habits too closely, from mysterious Soviet contraband to itchy, dripping noses. But tonight – disaster! – a large, beefy skinhead was sitting in my customary bar stool over by the window.

>>Never mind<< said Blixa. He handed me my coffee, and strode across the floor. As we stood, biting our nails over whether Blixa was going to finally push it too far, and get the shit kicked out of him, Blixa walked over, tapped the skinhead on the shoulder, and started to talk to him at lightning speed. The skinhead just looked surprised as Blixa babbled blue streaks at him, his eyes huge, his eyebrows dancing like two dark question marks above his face, his expressive hands acting out some story that we couldn’t quite hear. The skinhead’s eyes widened larger, and for an awful moment, we thought Blixa was done for, but to our great surprise, the skinhead shifted his bulk, then climbed out of the chair, collected his things and walked towards us.

He shook Blixa’s hand, then very politely addressed us >>Excuse me, my ladies. Please, do take your table, and accept my humblest apologies.<< He moved through into the back room, leaving me to take my seat, while the girls all started unloading their coats onto the little shelf.

>>What did you say to him?<< demanded Bettina.

Blixa just smirked and put his finger to his lips, nodding jerkily. But then he seemed to change his mind and pointed the expressive finger at me, his long narrow face breaking into a glorious grin. >>You are, of course, now committed to drawing me tonight.<< And with that, he loped back behind the bar, took down a large water glass from the shelf and filled it up from a bottle of Russian vodka, then started serving thirsty customers again.

I pulled out my sketchbook, and opened up a fresh page, slowly inking out boxes, as I wanted to document the comical scene I had just witnessed. Under my pen, the skinhead became even more enormous, and Blixa even more skinny and weedy, little more than a pair of enormous cheekbones and a wild bush of hair. Manon and Christine, who had arrived a little later, and had not seen the altercation, looked over the comic as I drew it, and roared with laughter. When Blixa came by, emptying ashtrays and picking up empties, and saw it, he immediately loved it, and insisted that he needed to Xerox it and sell it at the shop with the fanzines.

But as he walked away, he stopped, turned back and looked at me carefully. >>Draw me properly now<< he insisted, with a strange expression. >>Draw me like you drew Gudrun.<< Although he had drunk nearly half a pint of vodka by that point, he did not appear drunk, just animated, his eyes particularly piercing as he gazed at me, before loping back to the bar.

I stared after him as he retook his position behind the bar, feeling very odd, with Bettina’s words about being too obvious echoing in my brain. And he must have been aware that I was staring, because he stood up a little straighter, then grabbed a chunk of his hair and started to, well, preen, back-combing it so that it stood up perpendicular from his head, these two or three long tufts among all the uneven shaved bits. It shocked me a little, this man who was somehow both oblivious to, and deeply aware of his own beauty. And I stared at him, trying to figure him out, if he was aware of the effects of his unusual looks, or if he was trying to destroy them, with that weird haircut and his odd clothes. The black ballet top, with the scoop neck that showed off the extreme thinness of his shoulders, did he know how that invited eyes to caress his throat? Or did he just find it cool and comfortable, during a long shift where he was wearing skin-tight rubber trousers?

His eyes flickered back towards me, while I pondered the trousers, as if checking I was still looking at him. And as I pondered, I realised I was already drawing, even while hating myself a little for giving in to the urge to trace his lines with my pen. Obvious, try-too-hard, and off-putting. I tried to shield what I was doing from Bettina, but soon Gudrun appeared at the door, and gestured for her friend to join her, then pointed towards the bathroom at the back of the club. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were going to talk about me, and my face burned with shame at the thought of Bettina delivering to Gudrun the outcome of our little talk. Obvious. Off-putting.

>>She’s smiling<< observed Chloe, shaking me out of my self-pity. >>That means it went well with the negotiations for the new bassist.<<

>>What?<< I stuttered. >>New bassist?<<

>>That’s where she was tonight. She went to talk to Susanne from The Skin about filling in for Beate at the upcoming concerts.<<

Fuck. Stupid me. Always being overly self-conscious about things that other people were oblivious to, and oblivious about the things I should have been more self-conscious about.

When Gudrun and Bettina returned, they both seemed in better spirits, smiling and laughing and discussing their plans for the upcoming concerts, what songs they would play, what they would wear, what films they would show during the performance. Although it shocked me a little, how quickly they had replaced Beate, still, I was a little in awe of how dedicated Gudrun was, and how quickly she was pulling a new band together from the ashes of the old. But still, she glanced at my sketchbook when I went to take a sip of my coffee, and I wasn’t quick enough covering the ink with the blotter, and I swear, the look that passed over her face when she saw Blixa’s spiky hair and protruding cheekbones, it looked like relief.

 

The evening quickly filled up with fun and conversation, both Gudrun and Bettina bubbling with excitement at the new line-up of their band, and talking about gigs they would start booking in the near future, once Susanne had learned the songs. And, as so often was the case, talking about their own gigs turned to talking about other band’s gigs, friends who were playing at the Excess, or more famous bands who would be appearing at the SO36. Then someone mentioned that Martin, who ran the SO36, would be doing a showing of art-films at a gallery space near the Hochschule, and at that point, Bettina turned to me and nodded.

>>You’re coming to that, aren’t you, Carter? I think you’d really like it. My friend Tabea will be showing some of her films, which are really quite your case.<<

I shrugged vaguely and stuttered >>I didn’t know I was invited?<< Growing up forever the odd one out, I was always afraid of imposing on other people, and obviously, I did not want to appear too keen towards Gudrun now.

>>Of course you’re invited<< laughed Gudrun, blowing smoke sideways out of her mouth. >>Don’t be so uptight and English. If it’s a public show, they want people to go, so just turn up and say hello. You don’t have to wait to be invited.<<

Manon smiled and gently nudged my arm. >>I think Carter is shy. You can come with us if you like.<<

>>Come with you where? Invited to what?<< Blixa’s low, deep voice abruptly appeared in the middle of our conversation as he plucked their empty wine bottle from the little shelf at my elbow. Although he looked as though he were technically supposed to be collecting the empties again, he was clearly enjoying the opportunity to stick his long, pointed nose into everyone’s business.

>>Martin’s film-showing up by the Hochschule<< supplied Bettina.

>>Oh yes, we are all going to that.<< It was all Blixa needed as an invitation to join the conversation, tucking the empty bottle under his elbow as he leaned back against the wall beside me, crossing his long legs and digging in his pockets for a pack of cigarettes. He offered me one, then when I declined, lit one himself. >>Are you coming to our Great Downfall Show on Friday?<<

>>Yes, I think so...<< Blixa’s presence, standing so close I could feel the warmth coming off his rubber trousers, unnerved me slightly.

>>Will you have your van?<< interrupted Gudrun.

>>I will see if I can borrow it, if you like?<< I immediately offered, my hopes leaping into my throat for a moment, before another internal voice kicked in to say: Oh god, just stop it. Obvious and off-putting.

But Gudrun smiled, pleased. >>I need to get my drum-kit from Kreuzberg to the Potsdamer Platz for the performance with this one. I’ll put you on the guest list if you can help out.<<

>>I’d be delighted to<< I replied, with considerable relief.

Blixa laughed, throwing back his head and letting out an animal snort. >>Careful, Carter, of being conscripted into other people’s Downfalls.<<

I knew he was making a joke, but something about the way he said it rubbed me the wrong way. >>Why are you lot all so obsessed with such negativity and destruction, Downfall and Collapse and all that?<<

Pulling his lips back from his teeth, Blixa gave a great bray of laughter. >>Because it’s the End of the World. At this point in time, we are living through the end of days. You know this, right? I don’t think this society has more than... perhaps three years left, at the most.<<

I looked at him, a little confused. >>Do you mean politically, or metaphorically, or are you talking about The Bomb, or what?<<

>>I mean it quite literally<< said Blixa with a sharp nod.

>>And in you’re in favour of this?<<

>>I am neither for, nor against. It is simply a matter of fact. There’s no point in fighting what is inevitable; one might as well do one’s best simply to experience it most fully.<<

>>But people have been foretelling the End of the World since the time of the Ancient Greeks<< I mused. >>Do you really think it’s going to happen this time?<<

Blixa’s eyes suddenly lit up at the mention of the Ancient Greeks. >>Have you heard of the famous German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann?<<

>>I have, as a matter of fact.<< I blinked at him a little, as I was surprised that he had heard of such an obscure figure. But then again, maybe the man was more famous in Germany. >>He was the one who interpreted Homer literally, and discovered the long lost city of Troy, yes?<<

Now Blixa seemed really animated, as if he were genuinely excited. >>Yes, this is the one. Do you know, when he dug up the lost city of Troy, which the Ancient Greeks supposedly destroyed, he found seven cities, all piled one on top of another. It was destroyed again and again, and restored again and again. After each downfall, people pick up and go on. Civilisations rise, civilisations fall, except they don’t really fall. Humanity just goes on living, in its own way, in the ruins, until the next thing comes along. So the end of the world is... you know, it is just making way for the next thing.<<

>>But the Ancient Greeks did not have the Nuclear Bomb, OK?<< I countered. >>I think our capacity for Apocalypse is qualitatively different from anything that has ever gone before.<<

Blixa merely shrugged. >>So the Russians – or the Americans, I don’t really care who starts it – wipe out civilisation on earth, in the blink of an eye...<< Spreading his hands, he made a gesture like an explosion, the tip of his cigarette letting off a dramatic burst of glowing embers. >>Something will come after it, that is more interesting than what there is now, I have no doubt of it.<<

>>You seem awfully confident that something will come afterwards – like the human race is going to survive a nuclear bomb?<<

>>The Medieval Church thought that the invention of the Longbow would signify the end of the human race, because it could pierce armour. Somehow, we got over it<< he snorted.

>>Somehow I don’t think we will get over total immolation by nuclear bombardment. Have you seen film footage of Hiroshima, of Nagasaki? Shadows, on the walls of buildings. That is all that was left. Where people were immolated, in the blink of an eye, and all that remained of them was the shadow of where they had been standing. Not to mention radioactive fall-out, nuclear winter... this is different from the Longbow, Blixa, and qualitatively different from the invention of Gunpowder or projectile weapons, because this is not an invention which kills just individual men or ruins buildings, like a sword or even a V-2 rocket. This is an invention which destroys planets. Not just human life, but all life. First the blast furnace of the explosion, then the nuclear winter afterwards kills everything left alive over the coming months. The Earth itself may never recover from a nuclear winter.<<

>>First fire, and then ice? That sounds very interesting to me, indeed, I would like to provide the soundtrack for our impending doom, first the fire, and then the ice. I think that would be a very interesting proposition indeed, to make art during the end of the world.<<

A line of half-remembered poetry popped into my head, which I struggled to translate into German. >>Some say the world will end in fire. From what I’ve tasted of desire, I vote with those who are for fire. But if I had to die twice, I’ve known hate enough to vote for ice...<<

Blixa’s face lit up, both physically and metaphorically, as he sucked at his cigarette, his lips curling into a smile as the tip flared. >>That sounds like poetry.<<

>>It is poetry, from what I can remember. I think it’s Robert Frost? It’s better in English, though, as it rhymes properly. ‘Desire’ and ‘Fire’ rhyme so well it’s a bit of a cliché in English, but obviously, ‘Sehnsucht’ and ‘Feuer’ don’t rhyme at all.<< I muttered by way of explanation, suddenly embarrassed by the quote.

But Blixa exhaled his cigarette smoke in a long, low hiss, his voice giving rise to the word “Seeeeeeeeehnsssssucht” like a sigh. >>See, I don’t just write songs about Downfall and Collapse. I write songs about desire and yearning and energy, too. But people never notice the songs about love; they only notice the songs about Collapse.<<

>>Well<< I said quietly. >>I haven’t seen your band.<<

>>Maybe you should<< he insisted. >>You might understand me better.<<

For a long moment, we stared at each other, eyes locked together, as I felt a prickle of electricity shimmer across my skin. But abruptly, over the low roar of conversation, we both heard Maria call out from the end of the bar.

>>Blixa!!! What, is this your fourth cigarette break of the evening, or your fifth? Can you get your skinny rubber-clad arse back behind the bar, please? People are lined up three deep, for fucks sake.<<

>>It’s only my second break<< Blixa sighed deeply and rolled his eyes. But as he peeled himself off the wall and strode back towards the bar, he turned and half-smiled towards me. >>I shall see you at our Downfall, then, yes?<<

Chapter Text

A carnival atmosphere prevailed at the festival at the Circus Big Tent on the Potsdamer Platz, which had come together under the moniker, Brilliant Dilletantes. (The spelling mistake, Wolfgang insisted, was deliberate, an oh-so-punk gesture of randomness and defiance.) Of course I had been conscripted, first for my van, by Gudrun, to transport gear from various squats and spaces about the city, and then again, by Blixa, for my toolbag of tricks, to make sure that all of the various multitude of instruments, both professional and home-made, had appropriate electrical supplies. It was a Friday, but Schumacher seemed happy, or at least accepting enough of the situation, to let me have the afternoon off. And to be honest, I liked being conscripted. My new friends were exciting and extremely glamourous, and it made me feel, well, important, and in the thick-of-things to be considered useful to them.

The New Buildings, who I still had yet to see live, presented a particular challenge. Andrew had turned up with an odd assortment of barrel drums, springs, bits of sheet metal and just plain rusting junk, which had sent the venue’s soundman into a bit of a tailspin. It was suggested, politely, that he might want to share a more conventional drumkit with one of the other bands, perhaps Gudrun’s, but Andrew was having none of it. He had sold his drumkit, he insisted, in order to pay the rent on the sprawling garbage-heap where he lived. And it was a point of principle, he insisted, that its replacement had been built from scraps salvaged from building sites where his labour was exploited for miserable wages. Andrew was very sharp, and really quite political, and could be savage when he chose to. He and Mufti ganged up into a little wall of defiance over their unconventional instruments. Mark, the handsome bassist, was doing his best to be diplomatic, explaining that the unconventional instruments were their Unique Selling Point, trying to smooth things over with the venue’s soundman, with the help of another of the performers, also, confusingly, called Mark.

This new Mark, however, to my great astonishment, was somehow speaking rapid-fire German with a pronounced Mancunian accent. I had never heard the like, but it wasn’t until Gudrun did the introductions (Gudrun had a knack of stepping in and doing introductions at precisely the right time) that I discovered the other Englisher on the scene. Mark was a tall, scrawny, slightly overenthusiastic music geek with an odd penchant for dressing like a policeman, but after four or five months without hearing a single other English voice (American voices, sure, on the radio, but on the street they usually belonged to soldiers, and were best avoided) I was a little overcome with emotion. Rather than standing back a little and circling each other slowly, as I normally did with new men, I threw myself into conversation with gusto. When he realised I was associated in some way with Malaria! he became as friendly as could be, chatting with great enthusiasm about our friends’ music, name-dropping half a dozen bands I had never heard of, that he considered them the equals of. The Fall. The Dead Trousers. The New Order. Who even were these people?

But it was over this friendly chat at the soundboard, that I became aware of Gudrun’s effect on people, for Mark was clearly smitten, and kept going out of his way to do whatever she asked. I’m not even sure she was consciously aware of it, and I don’t think that it was a deliberate strategy on Gudrun’s part. It was more like she just had such infectious energy and such charisma, that other people’s plans quickly became aligned with hers. But what was even more interesting to me, was the way that Blixa seemed to observe the way that she worked, and he emulated her in his own fashion. Gudrun worked her charms very subtly, by a gentle kind of persuasion underlying her energetic conversation; but Blixa just flirted outright, with anyone and everyone, not even verbal flirtation, but really playing on his physical allure, rolling his beautiful eyes and flexing that long, sinuous body, so graceful in those form-fitting ballet tops, in a way that demanded attention even while resisting touch. Blixa knew he was beautiful, I realised with a shudder, and seemed to use that beauty as a tool to get what he wanted. And suddenly, I felt oddly embarrassed about the amount of time I had spent drawing him. Honestly, there wasn’t anything of sexuality in the way that I drew him; I just admired his face and his body the way I would admire a well-designed piece of architecture, or a pretty view.

There was nothing underhanded in the way that either of them operated; it wasn’t like either of them ever seduced people into doing things they didn’t want to do. It was more like they were both aware that sexual charisma was a kind of currency, a social capital they were both willing to use in their single-minded pursuits of their musical aims. Neither of them ever begged; they never even had to ask most of the time. People of all genders, impressed by Gudrun’s cool beauty, and Blixa’s beautiful coolness, would find themselves offering them things, not even with the aim of impressing, but just with the aim of getting to be part of their exciting and cool worlds. And suddenly, I saw how I had blundered in, in exactly the same fashion, and felt slightly ashamed. Obvious and off-putting. Bettina had been right; her comment had been a kindness.

So I hung back slightly, by the sound desk with the men, watching Gudrun work her magic, and watching Blixa watch and emulate Gudrun, as a form of education. It was such a change from the repressed sexual politics of London, which you had to pretend was on the level, but seemed to explode into violence the moment anyone got drunk. Instead, it was like a tacit but implicit understanding of the subtext of sexual commerce in the music scene. It was shocking to my perhaps repressed British sensibilities, but at the same time so fascinating that I felt compelled to watch. So I was so absorbed that I almost missed it, when Manc Mark tapped me on my shoulder.

“If you’re an English lad, you might have an interest in my thermos here!”

It genuinely took me a moment to remember how to speak English. “Oh ja?” But as he opened it, I caught a glance of a warm, milky-beige liquid. “Oh my goodness, is that tea?”

“Earl Grey, stewed fresh this morning.” He held out a Styrofoam cup, and poured one for me.

“Oh blimey, I have not had a cup of Earl Grey since... oh, you don’t even want to know how long it’s been.” I sipped, enjoying the slightly floral aftertaste. “Are those biscuits?”

“Go on, help yourself,” he offered, opening up the metal biscuit tin I had seen in his bag.

I dipped one in the tea, and savoured the sensation of crumbly biscuit dissolving in sweet tea, one of those childhood delights that never got old. Of course, it was some weird German biscuit that didn’t taste quite right, but the herbal tang was alright with the flowery aftertaste of the Earl Grey. “Oh, this is so nice. Germans don’t know what they’re missing.” I finished the first biscuit and started on a second.

As I reached for a third, Manc Mark moved to intercept, covering the tin with its lid. “Yeah, you might wanna slow down with those. Save some for later.”

I washed down the rest of my tea over the next few minutes. “Is there more tea, though.”

“Yeah, right, no worries.” He poured another cup and we mockingly toasted one another.

“Where do you get this from?” I asked, savouring the flavour. It was the most delicious tea I had ever tasted in my life, the taste of Bergamot so vivid in my mouth I caught the ghost smell of an English meadow.

“Ah, the tea, my Mum posts to me. The Dutch Cookies, though, those are special recipe from Amsterdam.”

No, I was definitely smelling cut grass, which struck me as distinctly odd. There was no grass underfoot, just trampled ground, and anyway, I couldn’t smell. I sat up and tried to concentrate, but the music from the stage seemed to be pulsating, shimmering, elongating, until the notes were like a long, thin ribbon, reaching out from the stage towards the mixing desk, the notation all cramped together like Blixa’s handwriting on a shiny strip of tape entering the mix through the flickering VU meters. “Dutch cookies,” I heard my voice say, echoing through my skull as if from a million miles away, thinking it was an odd phrase for an Englishman to use, and suddenly Gudrun was at my side.

>>Oh my god, Mark, what have you given her? Carter, you didn’t eat any of his cookies, did you? Carter, look at me, oh my god, her eyes are like two black pools... Carter, can you hear me? Come away...<<

>>Her?<< asked Manc Mark, a little surprised, then started to laugh, his high-pitched nervous giggle stampeding like horses across my field of vision. >>Oh my god, she’s completely wrecked.<<

>>She doesn’t take drugs! She doesn’t even drink, you limpwit<< hissed Gudrun, as she quickly grabbed me by the arm and started half pulling me, half carrying me through mile-high forests of trampled grass and waving multi-coloured circus flags to a slightly quieter area. This place seemed as palatial as a Bedouin encampment, all swirling tapestries on the wall, and hanging tassels and bells and coloured lights refracting off every surface. >>Carter!<< she cried, slapping my cheeks gently, and I tried to focus my eyes.

The fog cleared a little, as I saw Gudrun’s concerned face leaning over me. There was no Bedouin camp, it was a plain beige canvas space somewhere in the depths of the Big Tent. >>Gudrun! What’s happening? Aren’t you supposed to be onstage?<<

Blixa appeared behind her, his face wreathed in smoke that seemed to waft about his face, mixing with his hair until it was yards long, swirling and sinuous, coiled like snakes which slithered down towards me, caressing my skin and hissing charmingly in my ears. >>What has she taken?<< he asked in his deep, low, slow voice, the snakes catching his words and repeating them on and on until they turned to glittering silver air.

>>Space cakes. Mark reckons two or three.<<

>>I’ll get Jana. She’s good with overdoses.<<

But I clutched at him as the smoke curling around his head transformed into an ominous mushroom cloud. The mushroom cloud filled with the word, Hiroshima, which someone seemed to be chanting somewhere off in the smoke. The reference seemed to tug at me urgently, remembering that embarrassing conversation, back at the Risk. Suddenly, I was deeply ashamed of the way I had stared at him, drawing him and leering at him, in a way I found it difficult to explain. >>Blixa<< I said, his name clicking on my tongue. >>Blixa, I’m so sorry.<<

>>What for?<< he asked, shaking his head, sending little mushroom clouds cascading down the shoulders of his coat like a miniature apocalypse. I couldn’t possibly tell him I was ashamed he might think I desired him from the way I stared at him, so instead I concentrated on the mushroom clouds, and oh god, had I really quoted Robert fucking Frost while talking about Hiroshima.

>>The last time we spoke, you tried to talk to me of the apocalypse, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I stupidly just quoted poetry at you. You must think me such a fool, such a... such a...<< I wanted to say ‘flippant’, but when I reached for the German word, it seemed to slither out of my mind. >>Un-serious person.<<

>>Un-serious?<< echoed Blixa. >>Why?<< I hadn’t realised I had taken his hand, but he squeezed it reassuringly.

>>It is barbaric, to write poetry, after Auschwitz<< I quoted, feeling my face flushing.

But Blixa’s eyes lit up, as he recognised the quote. >>Adorno was an old fool. It’s not about culture and barbarism. It’s about emotion. Poetry is the only possible response to the horror of Auschwitz, of Hiroshima – Hey! Can someone tell Borsig to knock it off with the soundchecking already?!?! – an expression of the inexpressible. In the face of destruction, poetry says what philosophy cannot. So to your point... well, I think you are a more serious person, because you respond to Hiroshima with poetry.<<

Finally, the chant about Hiroshima ceased echoing, as another person joined the small crowd gathering around me.

>>What’s going on?<< Wolfgang’s face appeared between Blixa and Gudrun’s, his voice lovely and calm, but it was hard not to stare, as his face was completely gold and shining like the sun, and he seemed to have sprouted a pair of feathery horns. Oh, bloody hell. I was definitely hallucinating now.

Four and a half months in Berlin, and that was my first encounter with drugs. The whole evening turned into a kind of intense hallucinatory wonderland, a cavalcade of delights one after the other, though I am not sure I could tell you what any of the bands actually sounded like. They sounded amazing, like nothing I’d ever heard before, like audio fireworks strung out across the stage, in a steady progression of ever more amazing tableaus, but I’m still not sure that any of them were real. People I knew from Iron-Grey and the Risk bar seemed to come and go across the stage, as a tall blond man in a suit announced the acts: Andrew did something, as did the Awful Teenager. But it took me some time to realise that any of it was actually music. The Deadly Doris droned and buzzed somewhere in the background as I lay there, hallucinating giant iridescent insects hovering over the city. They seemed to be wearing exotic animal costumes, their faces shimmering with bright colours and gold sparkles, and Wolfgang seemed to be flickering back and forth between being the Great God Pan one minute, and then the Devil the next. I had never seen such an incredible, lively performance, but then again, considering the Bedouin tapestries that turned out to be plain canvas, I was learning not to trust my senses.

At one point, I became aware that Gudrun and Blixa had gone onstage and done some kind of improvisation, with Gudrun hammering out a tribal beat and Blixa chanting and intoning something about Chutney over the top, but none of it really registered. The order of the bands seemed all jumbled up, as hours, years, centuries later, as tendrils of green vines grew over my ears, a woman I would have sworn was the legendary film-star, Christiane F did her best to hold the stage with the awful teenager. Blixa, tall and impossibly beautiful in his rubber suit, came on and did something to her amp, and I couldn’t take my eyes of him, I was so high. I lay on a little carpet on the floor, hearing anti-music echoing through the crowd as I watched the insane movies my brain projected on the back of my eyelids, or on every available surface if I kept my eyes open.

The huge tent was so full, I barely recognised the place. There were hundreds, maybe even a thousand young people crammed into the space, watching the performers, listening to their strange music, their faces coming and going and overlapping into one another like a surging sea. Punks, art students, squatters, everyone seemed to have come together for the concert.

At some point, Jana had appeared like a serene vision of a virgin saint, wearing a white lace dress that seemed to shimmer like icicles caught in the sun, her long, ratted hair taking on streaks of pearlescent peacock colours that I couldn’t tell if they were real or just the drug, for her locks seemed to twist and writhe like snakes. She sat beside me on a large pillow which seemed to grow or shrink with the light, until she was like Alice’s caterpillar sitting up on a huge mushroom, chain-smoking fags she lit one from the butt of another.

She was, as Blixa had promised, remarkably good and remarkably calm, her little-girl voice dragging me back down when I got too high, holding my hand when the music got so intense it started intruding on my other senses like damp creeping up a rotten wall. So this was what people were chasing with those highs they pursued in nightclubs and in squats? Sounds became visions, colours had tactile textures and beautiful music became so intense I could taste it on the back of my tongue. And most disorienting of all, my brain somehow seemed to fill in the detail of smells I hadn’t experienced in years. How could people stand to live like this? And yet, at the same time, even as my head suddenly writhed with unexpected bursts of bleach or rosebushes or toasting cinnamon rolls, I could understand how this kind of thing could be appealing. Time disappeared. West Berlin disappeared. My sense of my self, as a body in the world that other people had expectations of, completely disappeared. My mind felt like an iridescent bubble, floating free of the meat-cage in which I lived.

I didn’t know how long the experience lasted. It might have been hours. It might have been days. Jana got up at some point, and fetched water, which she made me drink. And suddenly, I was roaringly hungry. When we wobbled outside to find a refreshment cart, the sky was very dark. Jana ordered two of these awful sausage things that I normally disdained, and I paid, though she had to select the coins for me, for German money had lost all meaning, these shiny trinkets that people placed so much value in it had become only scraps of waste metal in my hand. The wurst, however, was the most delicious thing I had even eaten, and I devoured both of them, as Jana nibbled on candy floss that stained our hands and our mouths pink. She really was astonishingly pretty, this tiny child-woman, with innocent eyes and a knowing mouth, laughing as we tore off wisps of cloud and ate them.

>>These clouds do taste strawberry, yes?<< I wondered aloud.

>>I think so, yes. They just taste pink to me. But you must be coming down, as you remember German now.<< She smiled at me proudly.

>>I’ve been speaking German the whole night<< I insisted.

>>If you say so!<< she laughed, and her laugh was like tinkling bells and running water. >>I think Blixa’s band are about to go on now, if you’d like to go and see them? They can be a bit scary, though...<<

>>Are they very loud?<< My sense of hearing was still distorted, though the strange echoey thing had finally stopped, and loud sounds no longer sent plumes of colour and bursts of disorienting smells across my vision.

>>They can be. If it gets very frightening, you can hold my hand, if you like<< she offered. Without thinking, I took the proffered hand, and we walked through together, back into the tent. It was even darker inside, with very dramatic light up on the stage, where Andrew’s pile of junk had been assembled into some kind of apocalyptic landscape. The crowd was pushing closer towards them, but Jana picked a careful path around the outside. >>You don’t want to get too close. You might get hit by something.<<

>>Hit by what?<< I asked warily.

>>You’ll see. Blixa says he goes into a kind of trance when he performs, like he doesn’t always know what he’s doing. Oh, look. It’s starting. What do you think of the new trousers?<<

>>New trousers?<< I asked, and followed her gaze. Blixa stood in the centre of the stage, his chauffeur’s cap draped mysteriously across one eye, the other carefully lined with kohl. His rubber coat was clasped tightly around his skinny waist with the same type of airplane seatbelt that I had only, the previous week, been wearing with Gudrun’s Iron-grey jumpsuit. And on his legs were not the old, worn trousers where the fabric backing showed through the rubber worn away at the knees, but a new pair of far more realistic leather-looking things that actually clung to his skinny frame, their shiny folds highlighting his extreme thinness. Drugs or no, they were the most fascinating trousers I had ever seen in my life. >>Those are very nice trousers<< I agreed, watching them wrinkle and bend as he unfurled and then removed his coat. Underneath the coat, he was wearing a shiny black tunic, also made of some rubberised material, that puckered and caught the light. His hips jerked back and forth, and I watched, entranced, seeing his form not even as human limbs, but just shapes of highlight and shadow, perfect geometric forms.

>>I’m glad you like them. You paid for them after all<< she laughed, squeezing the hand I had forgotten she was holding.

>>You bought Blixa’s trousers with that money?<< I gasped, no longer sure what to believe.

>>Of course. They turned up on a market stall, his exact size, and I knew if I didn’t buy them straightaway, they would be gone. They look good, don’t they. I knew they would fit him beautifully.<<

I turned to look down at her, studying her carefully. >>They said you’d spend the money on drugs.<<

>>They would<< she chirped, and I was about to ask her what she meant by that, when we were cut off by a plume of noise from the stage, so loud it seemed to burn everything in its path. The effects of the drugs still lingered, transforming overspill from one sense into another, and yet the noise didn’t scare me or hurt me. It was just like being buffeted with sound, like standing in the bow of a ship as it crested a wave, and letting the wind and ocean spray almost push you backwards, a sound so strong it could knock you down, or hold you up if you fell. It was exhilarating, breathless and urgent. It took me a moment to realise it was Andrew’s drumming. Mufti leapt up, shirtless, from where he had been crouching, tense with nervous energy, and started dancing about, pounding with a mallet on his heap of scrap metal. The beat started, slow and hypnotic at first, and then speeding up as the bass joined in, until it was pounding along with my heartbeat, so overpoweringly loud that all of us were caught by it, hundreds of heads swaying along, powerless under its spell. And then Blixa ripped off his hat, showing hair that had been scraped back with a razor, almost to the scalp in places, and started to wail.

I couldn’t even do justice to the change that came over Blixa when he performed onstage. Naturally, I knew with the part of my conscious mind that was making its way out from under the influence of the drugs, that this was our Blixa. Slightly goofy, enthusiastically grinning Blixa, high on coke, his motor-mouth running at speed, making jokes at Gudrun’s or Maria’s expense; capricious, charismatic Blixa serving up free drinks as the pied piper of the Risk bar, leading everyone to keep drinking until the sun came up; cool and standoffish Blixa wrapping his cloak of aloofness about him like his rubber coat, even in the midst of a crowded Kreuzberg gig. Yet the Blixa that appeared onstage was none of these Blixas, and yet somehow all of them. He came alive, his whole body twitching with that animal nervousness, his limbs imbued with a superhuman grace as he stalked the front of the stage like an alien insect from outer space. His fallen angel face, his long, lanky limbs, those expressive hands alternately hammering at his guitar or communicating in their own individual language. And then there was that instrument like nothing else on earth, his voice.

His voice, which I had heard before, in the window of Iron-Grey. A voice which had whipped up the excitement of children, the derision of older people, and incited my curiosity, but had sounded mostly just alien. And yet, surrounded by this beautiful, storm-like cacophony of steel and feedback and noise and shards of sound like flying glass, here, his voice made complete and total sense.

Blixa chanted, he screamed, he shrieked, and then sometimes, he would pull back slightly from the microphone, open his mouth wide, and let loose with a howl that seemed to capture and express all of the rage and pain and anger in that fucked-up poor, desperate, beautiful city of West Berlin, and yet at the same time seemed to liberate us. He didn’t sing, so much as he channelled something deep and primal that surged into him from the city around him. When Blixa opened his mouth, there was not one shred of repression or social nicety in the way that he just let loose and poured all of his emotion into this concentrated moment of pain. It was terrifying, and yet it felt like a benediction: I understand your pain, and I accept it, and it flows through me, out into the world.

At that point, my nerves still jangling from the drugs, my whole system thrown into disarray, any other kind of more conventional music would have been too much, would have irritated and overpowered my disarranged senses. And yet, the New Buildings’ anti-music, in that state, was somehow less than, and yet also more than music, in a way that perfectly suited my state of mind. Even as I clung onto Jana’s hand, watching the anti-spectacle unfolding onstage, the thought penetrated my mind... Blixa up there is just so far ahead of the rest of us that we don’t even understand what we have in that man.

And the next thought was even less welcome: I am falling in love with that man.

My mind recoiled. I gasped a little, and dropped Jana’s hand as if I had been burned. No. Don’t be absurd. This isn’t real, this is the drugs talking. I will believe anything when I’m this high, even that Deutsch Marks are just shiny pebbles with no value. I can’t be in love with Blixa. He’s a man. This isn’t real, it’s another hallucination.

Chapter Text

But the feeling stayed with me, would not leave me alone, and was still the first thing in my head, on waking the next morning, crumpled in the back of the van. (I discovered later that Manc Mark, perhaps feeling a little guilty over unintentionally drugging me, had found me curled asleep backstage, picked me up and placed me in the van, then driven me to the address painted on its side.) I stretched the kinks out of my back, washed my face and mouth out in the work bathroom, and somehow made my way home on an early morning bus, but my feelings for my friend had not changed.

It was impossible, I told myself. There was nothing to be done with this love. He had a girlfriend, who was now also one of my friends. And even if he had not, what on earth would I do, loving a man? I didn’t have a clue, how this creature would even fit in my life. I’d screwed a man once, just to see what it was like. Sweaty, uncomfortable and not much fun, to be honest. And let another feel me up awkwardly in the dark, forcing my hand down onto his cock until it spurted in my hand. I hadn’t felt anything either time, except that it was a lot of hard work, for very little reward. Men did not excite me. I wouldn’t have a clue what to do with Blixa, even if I got him, and the idea of getting him, that was absurd. And yet still, I loved.

I did the only thing I knew how to do, with a love like that. I drew. I finished off the silly Blixa and the Skinhead comic that I had started at the Risk bar. I drew another comic, inspired by the strange visions that had marched across my eyelids as I lay under the influence of the drugs, at the Great Downfall Show. In the comic strip, Berlin was melting and reshaping itself in the fire and heat of the Collapsing New Buildings’ music until the earth buckled. The ancient cemetery across the road from my Great-Aunt’s house disgorged its inhabitants, as one by one the bomb-damaged tombstones uprooted themselves and marched down the road, towards the Circus Tent on the Potsdamer Platz. The audience parted, as the New-Buildings played, to admit the new revellers, the musicians pounding their instruments, Blixa with his hands raised in benediction as all of the tombstones danced about in front of him. Then I drew an eye-catching black and white cover, had fifty copies made at a local instant print shop, and put them together as a little cartoon booklet, named “Kollaps Komiks” after one of Blixa’s poem-songs.

I sold some of them at the Iron-Grey shop. The rest I handed out to friends, at the gig that the Collapsing New Buildings played with Malaria! the next week.

Blixa absolutely loved Kollaps Komiks to literal bits. He read it over and over, and kept a copy of it in his back pocket for weeks, showing it to friends and fans alike, until the paper physically wore out. And I drank up his praise like an alcoholic gulping down cheap Russian vodka. I told him that if the comics were good, it was only because his music had inspired me so, and it was only half a lie. The stories were good because his music had inspired me; but I only wrote them down so feverishly because my insane, impossible love for him was like a fuel I had to burn, or it would burn me up.

That next gig, which was at the SO36 supporting Malaria!, was maybe not as exciting, since I now knew what to expect from the New Buildings. But it was far more nerve-wracking, now that I felt like I had an emotional stake in the outcome. I got out of work at 5 on the dot, and rushed over in the van, as I had agreed to transport Gudrun’s drum kit from the space where they rehearsed to the club. I always agreed when Gudrun asked me to do something with the band. I loved feeling part of that band, this group of serious young women in our pirate gang. Although we all laughed and had a wonderful time, hanging out at the shop or in bars, onstage was an entirely different matter with them. They had a very severe dress code – dark suits, black shirts, dangerous looking pointed black shoes – and styled themselves with that very stark white and dark red make-up. And they took themselves, and their music incredibly seriously.

But Gudrun, although she was clearly nervous about the gig, was bursting with other news. >>This came, from Beate<< she explained as she climbed into the front seat of the van, and pulled out a padded brown envelope with a Düsseldorf postmark. Bettina’s head appeared in the gap between the seats as she opened it, and out slid four cassette tapes, with very plain covers in red, blue, black and silver, simply declaring “CHBB”.

>>Ach, men! Always wanting to go first. It should be BBCH<< snorted Bettina.

>>But that spells a very rude word in English<< said Gudrun.

>>Not quite, but close enough<< I laughed, then gestured to the van’s stereo. >>Are you going to put in on?<<

>>I’m a little scared to listen to it<< Bettina confessed. >>What if we don’t like it.<<

>>It’s Beate. Of course it’s going to be excellent<< snapped Gudrun. Only she was allowed to criticise Beate and her life choices; if anyone else said anything less than charitable about her friend, she was as enraged as a mother lioness.

>>What if it’s better than us<< Bettina countered.

>>Just put it on<< I snapped, and as I stopped at a red light, I took the tape from Gudrun’s hand, and put it into the tape player.

There were a few moments of tape hiss, and then the music started. It was very, very different from anything that anyone in Berlin was doing. There was no guitar, nothing the slightest bit rock, or even anti-rock. Instead, there was a pulsating electronic tone in the bass register, and a harsh electronic drumbeat, accelerated to a fast, danceable rhythm. Tape loops and atmospheric sounds whirled about the ear, as a woman’s voice drifted in and out, saying garbled, almost unintelligible things.

>>Well<< said Bettina, from the back seat. >>It’s very Düsseldorf, isn’t it. She’s gone all electronic, like a Kraftwerk record or something.<<

>>It’s nothing like Kraftwerk<< snorted Gudrun, who was still staring, astonished at the tape deck, as if expecting her friend to appear inside it. >>This has a heart, and a soul, unlike those stuck-up Düsseldorf boys.<< She paused, continuing to listen with rapt attention as the music took a definite swing towards the danceable, the bassline exploding into a sort of synthesised metallic throb that had us all nodding our heads along. >>I actually think that Düsseldorf has done her good.<< Another pause as the music kicked up a gear and I found myself swivelling my shoulders in time as the electronic bass synth seemed to warp and bubble like a pot boiling over. >>And it pains me to admit it, but I think that psycho Chrislo has done her good. This is extraordinary.<<

>>Are we going to write to her and ask her if we can stock this in Blixa’s tape cabinet?<< asked Bettina.

>>We can do better than that. I’m going to go to Zensor and tell him to get it in stock to distribute to all of West Berlin.<< The tape seemed to have invigorated Gudrun, and she was in a fine mood as we got to the venue. As I parked out front of the loading bay, she took the tape inside, and asked the soundman to play it over their sound system as we loaded in the gear.

>>What is this?<< asked Mark, the first of the New Buildings to arrive, punctual to a fault, as he trudged out to give us a hand loading in. >>It’s... wild. Fantastic bassline.<<

>>It’s Beate’s new band. Isn’t it absolutely amazing?<< gushed Gudrun. It was one of her greatest strengths, that she never seemed to bear a grudge, and was always willing to rep for friends she believed in, as loyal as she was hot-headed.

>>Your little bassist? She made this.<< Mark looked impressed.

>>Uh-huh. Maybe your little label should hurry up and sign them, before some hot-shot Düsseldorf label snaps them up<< shot back Gudrun, always on the lookout for some networking opportunity.

As we wrestled the equipment onto the stage, the other Malaria! girls arrived, one by one. Manc Mark, who was doing sound, arrived and set up behind the sound desk, nodding at me rather sheepishly. “Alright?”

“Much better, thanks.”

“I’ll be offering you tea, but maybe not the biscuits today,” he teased, relieved that I did not seem to hold the events of the previous week against him.

“Maybe later,” I laughed, and settled down to watch the band as Gudrun sat down at her drum kit.

>>Can we just run through the new one, quickly?<< she suggested, as Manc Mark walked around her, positioning the mics around her kit. She had given me a tape of the songs they had been working on, which I played in the van when Schumacher allowed me, so I was already a bit familiar with how their songs went, but I had no idea how intricate they could be to play live. The track she wanted to work on had an odd, disjointed stop-start rhythm that was really catchy, and stuck in my head like toffee, but apparently it was the devil to get right. She and the new bassist went over it again and again, making sure that it flowed from one bit to the next. A quick riff, stop dead, then Bettina would sing a line a capella, and then they would count to three and pick up on the off-beat. Gudrun said it was influenced by Free Jazz, where you played not exactly on the beat, but around the beat. Either way, it sounded great to me, though Manc Mark had to stop them.

>>Sorry, ladies, but I’m going to need you to do a proper soundcheck now. Gudrun, can you give me the kick drum?<<

Gudrun made a face, and started to pound her foot on the kick drum’s pedal, as Manc Mark twiddled various knobs, and the sound started to spring to life in the club sound system. But Gudrun soon got bored with just playing the kick, and started to throw in the occasional snare hit. I could tell she was trying to emulate that very mechanical, machine disco of Beate’s band, and after about a minute, she totally had it, making me swing my hips to dance, but Manc Mark put a stop to that, reminding her to concentrate on the task at hand. Back to the plodding BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! and no more machine beat, but I could tell that the tape had really impressed her.

And yet, even in that wonderful, close-knit, pirate-gang of the West Berlin scene, there were still sexist assholes who wanted to ruin it for everyone. I was standing with Jana, and Blixa, who was in a weird, high-spirited, confrontational mood after the energy of his band’s set. We were watching Malaria! play, and I was dancing around a little in my spot, because I was enjoying them so much. I loved hearing my friends make such a brilliant sound onstage, the way their odd, seemingly disjointed lines would weave together, all these disparate pieces of music joining together and interlocking like the pieces of a machine. The bass held it all together with its rhythmic repetition, as the drums thundered out a beat that was then picked up by the guitar and repeated, before being passed to the squiggle of the synth, and then somehow it would all come together like clockwork gears as Bettina sang over the top. Susanne, the new girl, fit in perfectly, as if she had been born to play with them. I did not know her other band, The Skin, but apparently they had a thing for wearing nice suits onstage, in tribute to old-fashioned jazz bands. Susanne had brought her very formal dress sense into the band with her, and the rest of Malaria! had decided to follow suit, wearing these mannish tailored clothes that looked stunning with their very stylised vampish make-up.

It was so arty, so quirky and angular, and yet at the same time so catchy, those almost nursery rhyme chants of Bettina’s that you couldn’t help but go home singing, at the end of the night. The little riff, and then the stop, and then Bettina strode up to the mic and chanted “Geh duschen, geh duschen, ab in die Fabrik...” and the drums kicked in absolutely perfectly in that weird stop-start Free Jazz rhythm, just how they had rehearsed it over and over at soundcheck.

But there were these two jerks behind us, who kept making snotty comments, mostly about the way that they girls looked, and how they must all have been lesbians, in those severe black suits, and how they both knew a sure-fire cure for lesbianism, hur hur hurrrr. I shifted uncomfortably, and threw a sideways glance at Blixa, but he was doing his aloof thing, sunglasses over his eyes, wrapped in his aura of cool the way he wrapped his rubber coat and his fetish cap around him, so no one would come and accost him, standing where he was in the audience, watching his friends’ band.

And then the lads behind us moved on to the subject of the music. Gudrun’s drumming, in particular, they strongly objected to, as one of them started up again. >>God, what is with this shitty drummer. Like, just... pick one beat and stick to it. She can’t even play, she’s just all over the place. I could do a better job of drumming than this...<<

At that, I turned around and threw a very evil glare at them. They were off-duty soldiers, from the look of their haircuts, though I couldn’t quite place the accent. But the glare just seemed to enrage them.

>>What the fuck is that in front of us<< one of them started up, deliberately catching my eye. >>Is that a boy or a girl?<<

>>And its girlfriend? Boyfriend? The long, stringy, mangy, fleabitten thing standing next to it... I don’t know. Is that thing with the shit-for-hair even human?<<

I could feel Blixa bristle beside me, as he realised they were talking about us.

>>I know one way to find out<< laughed the really ugly, bull-necked one, the same one who had complained about Gudrun’s careful, precise beats. >>Stick our dicks down their throats and see which one hollers soprano or bass.<<

Slowly, Blixa turned gracefully around, languidly letting his rubber jacket fall open at the waist. Posed with his hands on his hips, his pelvis tilted slightly forward, he looked the two soldiers up and down, licking his pink lips in a gesture that was at once slightly obscene, and yet somehow highlighted his intense androgynous beauty. >>Alright<< he drawled, tilting his eyebrows to a mocking angle as he curled his lip into a sneer. >>Which one of you two is actually man enough to slip me your dick.<<

The two toughs exchanged odd glances, and seemed slightly taken aback, like they had expected to be unchallenged bullies, to be predators, and were alarmed to find themselves suddenly the prey.

Myself, I would have taken advantage of the sudden silence to quietly walk away, but Blixa, as if drawn by some strange masochistic urge, actually stepped closer towards them, rolling his wide shoulders so that the fabric of his shirt caught against his slender chest in a way that was uncannily alluring. He didn’t stop until he was only an inch or two away from the larger soldier, the air between them seeming to pulse with the electricity of danger or sexuality or both. >>Well, come on, Muscle Mary, let’s see your limp dick, then. Or are you just... all mouth and no trouser?<<

The soldier stepped back, unnerved, but Blixa, who did have a couple of inches of height on him, though he was only half his width, moved even closer, looking down into the man’s face with a devastatingly contemptuous angle to his expressive eyebrows.

>>A hard man is so good to find...<< he whispered huskily.

>>Get away from me, faggot!<< In an instant, the soldier uncoiled and struck with the swiftness of an adder. Raising his hands to physically shove Blixa away, he seemed to forget that he was still holding a plastic cup full of beer, and lost hold of it, the alcohol sloshing out everywhere. In his haste to retreat from Blixa’s unnerving sexual display, he slipped, and toppled over, collapsing in an ungainly heap. Clutching at his comrade for balance, he pulled the other soldier off his feet, too, sliding on the wet floor, so that Blixa, in his rubber wellies, was the only one left standing, laughing at the chaos in front of him.

>>Well, while you’re down there, ladies, if you wouldn’t mind blowing my pipe<< cackled Blixa, as the soldiers’ faces turned red with rage.

“Scheisse!” yelped Jana, as she realised what was happening, and with lightning-quick reflexes I would never have credited from that dreamy, ethereal waif of a girl, she grasped Blixa by the elbow and pulled him backwards, away from the soldiers and towards the backstage door. My sense of victory over the assholes was short-lived, as I realised what would happen once they got to their feet. Seizing Blixa’s other elbow, I lifted and physically dragged him in the direction Jana was trying to pull him, before his sarcastic mouth could get us in any more trouble.

Even as the bull-necked one was climbing up from the floor, his smaller mate had launched himself after us, bellowing at us in a language I didn’t understand.

>>Andrew! Mufti!<< I shouted as we reached the backstage door, and pulled it open, shoving Blixa and Jana inside. >>Fuck! Where is a bouncer?<< Mufti appeared, holding a large metal crowbar he used in the finale of their performance, with Mark and the awful teenager in tow. >>We’ve got trouble<< I shouted, and looked around for some kind of weapon.

Mufti rolled his eyes, hefted the crowbar in his hand and stepped outside. He was short, compact, but with his shirt off, he looked powerfully strong. Mark, who was tall and muscular, seized a power drill which had been plugged in by the size of the stage, and the teenager grabbed a length of heavy iron chain that they used as percussion on another song. As the soldiers arrived at the door, the three of them took up position just outside it.

Expecting to confront two skinny fags and a small, goth pixie-girl, the soldiers looked very shocked indeed to find the rest of the New Buildings, lined up with heavy demolition equipment. For a few moments, they faced off in tense silence, before the bull-necked soldier spoke.

>>That fag spilled my beer<< he asserted.

>>You can buy another beer<< suggested Mufti, with far more politeness than I’d have given him credit for, as he tested the crowbar’s weight against his hand.

>>Your fag friend needs to pay for the beer<< the smaller one retorted.

Blixa, who never did know when to leave a situation alone, stood up on his tip-toes, to gaze out over the top of Mufti’s head. Catching the bull-necked soldier’s eye, he winked and gave a mincing wave before calling out >>Coo-ee! If you fancy a drink with me, darling, just ask!<<

The bull-necked soldier advanced, his nostrils blazing, but Mark also stepped forward, and gave a blast on the power-drill, waving it menacingly in the soldiers’ direction. Mufti smiled politely, and said >>Now, my friend Mister Chung here is schooled in the ancient Chinese art of trepanation, so unless you’d like some extra holes in your skull, I suggest you look for your drinks elsewhere.<< Mark, who I knew to be a rather scholarly young man, with a good head for business figures and no experience whatsoever in the dark arts, buzzed the power drill a few more times, and the soldiers stepped back.

The lanky, babyfaced Teenager, who was clearly itching for a fight, stepped forward, swinging his chain rather casually, as if it were a lasso. He looked the heavier soldier in the mouth and squinted, as he needed glasses he was rather too vain to wear, since he had discovered girls. >>When you die<< he asked >>Can I have your teeth? I really want some teeth to, like, decorate my amplifier with, so it looks like an open mouth? I tried cat teeth, but they’re just... you know, they’re just not the right size. I’m not being funny, but... you’ve got really big teeth, so I reckon your teeth would do nicely. Can you open your mouth a little wider, so I can see them properly?<<

The soldiers blinked, taken aback, then exchanged looks. Mark buzzed the drill again, and suddenly they seemed to rather deflate, shaking their heads with alarmed expressions, as they started to back slowly away. >>These fags are completely fucking verruckt!<< >>You don’t want to get in a ruck with these mental cases, they don’t behave right.<< Another moment, and they slunk away into the crowd.

>>Jesus fucking Christ<< swore Mark, dropping the drill, before turning to glare sideways at Mufti. >>Ancient Chinese art of trepanation? What the fuck was that?<<

>>You know, you’re always doing that uncanny Chinese meditation thing before gigs and shit, to get you in the mood<< shrugged Mufti.

>>That is Qigong, the spiritual practice of exercises and meditation, to clear the mind and focus the energy before performance. Not some ‘weird Chinese shit’ thank you very much<< sighed Mark long-sufferingly.

>>No it’s cool, old boy, and I have seen you focus your energy with total precision against violent audiences in Hamburg, it’s cool, that’s all I was trying to say<< replied Mufti with his hands palm-up in an appeasing smile.

>>Oh man, I really wanted some teeth<< sighed the Teenager, shifting his chains with a slightly dejected expression as Mark and Mufti slapped each other on the back and hugged it out like brothers. >>I asked my dad if I could have his, when he had some root canal work done, but his were too rotten to use. Where do you think I can get some teeth, for my amp?<<

>>You do realise<< sighed Mufti. >>That they are probably going to come back in an hour with the rest of their squad, and beat the living shit out of us.<<

>>They were Russian<< shrugged Blixa. >>Couldn’t you hear their accents? They’re not even supposed to be this side of the wall. They won’t wanna be caught over here. Anyway, if they come back, Carter has a van. She can get us away.<<

>>I will?<< I gasped, letting out a breath I hadn’t realised I had been holding.

>>Guys, I’m serious<< the Teenager continued to whine as the band retreated to the dressing room. >>Where can I get some human teeth? Do you think they sell them on the Black Market in East Berlin?<<

Chapter Text

The next day, at Iron-Grey, as the girls picked over the details of their performance, specially recorded on the portable tape recorder they used in the shop, Gudrun heard bits and pieces of the argument on the recording, and frowned.

>>I had almost forgotten that interruption. What the fuck was Blixa playing at? Why was he picking fights during our performance? Was he trying to upstage us, again?<< she grumbled.

>>No, it wasn’t anything like that, I swear. I was there, he had a good reason for why he reacted the way he did.<<

>>What, did someone insult his haircut? Honestly, if he makes such a spectacle of himself, what does he expect?<< laughed Susanne, who was new, and didn’t know Blixa as well as the rest of us.

I frowned darkly and shook my head. >>He would laugh in someone’s face if they insulted him. But insulting or threatening his friends is a different manner. I don’t agree with what he did, but I know he had his reasons for doing it.<<

>>What happened? Tell me the truth, Carter<< said Gudrun, very low.

And slowly, like pulling teeth, she extracted the whole story from me. I didn’t want to tell her, wanted to shield her from that kind of shit. The awful, sexual comments about their stage presence. The way he had insulted the drumming technique she had worked so hard to achieve. And, to top it off, that final bit of extra added sexual menace, that awful threat to rape myself and Blixa, I still wasn’t sure which of us he objected to more, though I did my best to tone down the way that Blixa himself had escalated the situation.

Gudrun went very quiet, which was unusual for her. I had expected her to roll her eyes and come back with some sharp, spikey comment, so typical of Gudrun, who had the capacity to reduce the snottiest scenester to rubble with a lash of her tongue, though generally she preferred to work through charm. But her silence shocked me a little. Everyone seemed very tense, Manon examining her fingernails intently as Susanne and Christine exchanged glances. Bettina nudged her gently, as if to say, you know, are you OK, and finally she spoke.

>>Well, at least those soldiers were honest in their opinions of us, unlike the rest of the backstabbing West German music scene<< she announced, very darkly.

>>Oh come on, that’s ridiculous. West Berlin loves you. You’re local heroes.  You were the first band I even heard of, when I arrived in the city<< I protested.

>>In West Berlin, yes, it’s like a comfortable little nest made of all our friends. In West Berlin, they get us; they love and accept us. But when we go and we play these shows out of town and deal with the rest of Germany, the same thing always happens. We play with the Deadly Doris, and they get signed to a record deal, and we don’t. We play with the New Buildings, and they get signed to a record deal, and we don’t. We play with Jump Out Of The Clouds, and even they get signed to a record deal, and we don’t. It’s starting to get a little old. We play in England, we go on the John-Peel show, and he loves us. But it’s the conservative German record companies. They’re all run by men. They’ll throw their money, and their time, and their resources at all these other bands, but not us. Like they don’t trust us. They want to look at us, sure, take pictures of us and use them to sell their magazines, but invest in us?<<

>>That’s not entirely true<< I pointed out. >>I mean, you have tapes out. Blixa says your tapes sell really well.<<

>>We make our tapes ourselves<< pointed out Gudrun icily. >>We record them ourselves, in Blixa’s basement, then we release them ourselves, promote them ourselves, and then sell them ourselves, in our shop.<<

>>Well, that way we get to maintain complete control<< insisted Bettina. >>It’s better this way, no one tries to sand off our rough edges, and make us into something we’re not. I mean, can you imagine if we signed to a label that tried to give us beauty treatments and turn us into the Go-Go’s or something.<<

>>I like the Go-Go’s<< protested Christine.

>>I like the Go-Go’s too<< conceded Bettina. >>But we are not like them, not at all. We are very divisive, and I like that we are so divisive. We polarise audiences. People really absolutely love us, or they want to throw things at us and drive us out of the room. We inspire passionate responses, and I’d much rather inspire passionate responses, than people just shrug and go ‘they were alright’. We are dedicated, confrontational, strong women. We make dedicated, confrontational, strong music.<<

>>The New Buildings are also dedicated, confrontational and divisive<< Gudrun countered. >>And yet a record label from Hamburg is quite happy to give them a lot of money, so they can go into a proper recording studio, not just Blixa’s basement, and make a proper record, on vinyl, which will be properly promoted and properly distributed about Germany.<<

Bettina fell silent for a moment, then piped up again. >>But Beate always said that we were far more brutal than the boys. I liked that about us.<<

Gudrun arched one of her exquisite eyebrows in a disbelieving expression. >>The problem is not that we are more brutal than the boys. The problem is that boys are allowed to be brutal, and strong, and yet if we are the same... it scares people.<<

>>Berlin boys, brutal and strong?<< I chuckled, trying to break the tension in the room, which I felt oddly responsible for causing, through describing the squaddies’ banter. >>I mean, Blixa, that great, long, skinny spaghetti noodle of a man? He couldn’t be brutal and strong, even with a... with a dynamo made of testicles!<< Everyone laughed, even Gudrun, as I stood up and minced about dramatically, pretending to be Blixa, even going over to the window and standing there pretending I was performing, stamping my feet like a petulant toddler, the way that Blixa did when he sang. The tense mood lightened as Manon rolled a joint, and Bettina reached for the wine bottle, and started to refill everyone’s glasses.

>>I’m sorry, I’m banging on like a broken record again<< sighed Gudrun, holding out her glass for more wine, as if this were an argument they had been having for years, before I had arrived on the scene. >>I’m just tired of asking these questions. I go to the cinema, and it’s all boys’ stories. I open a book, and it’s all boys’ stories. I turn on the radio, or go to a gig, and it’s just all boys’ stories, and boys’ voices, all over again. I’m not asking for the moon on a stick. I’m just asking to hear women’s stories, and women’s voices, you know, once in a while. Women are 50% of the human race, so we should have 50% of the stories. And yet we seem to get about 5% of the stories. So if I go to a gig, and I don’t hear women’s voices, why is it so wrong if I decide to stand up, and shout with my own voice, so that there is at least one woman there?<<

We all exchanged glances, feeling Gudrun’s fierce gaze upon us, and I realised I didn’t have any answers. What she had spoken of was something I had noticed, constantly, but never knew to put a name to, until Gudrun had spoken up, and almost crystallised it into being, by giving it a name. The whole topic confused me. What about my own strange predicament, definitely not a man, and yet not a woman either? I had always emulated the stories I read growing up, adventure stories about pirate gangs or running away to sea or what have you, but they had always been stories about boys. And the few stories about girls that I read, the girls were all stupid and ineffectual and cared only about ponies and dresses and foolish, inconsequential things, while the boys got to stow away on ships and have adventures. Would I be me, this weird inbetween thing I was, if I had ever got to read stories about girls that smuggled on board pirate ships and had adventures? I had no way of knowing.

When Susanne spoke up, she was laughing, almost like she was teasing Gudrun. >>Why don’t you start your own record label, Gudrun? Do it real DIY style. Take a leaf from the Anarchist squatters.<<

>>Anarchist squatters...<< muttered Gudrun darkly, and looked about the room carefully as if making sure we were alone. I knew we were all supposed to support the squatters, and Blixa and Andrew were both very keen that we attended demonstrations and showed solidarity because they both lived in squats (though really, I suspected they secretly just liked watching the argy-bargy that often erupted at these demonstrations) so what she was about to say would probably be considered disloyal, even counterrevolutionary by the boys in our scene. >>They talk a good talk, but have you noticed, who it is that does all the speaking at their demonstrations, and at their meetings about communal housing, and who it is that makes the coffee, and cleans up afterwards? Have any of you ever been in a communal squat where a man did his fair share of cleaning up the shared spaces – the kitchen or the bathroom? Have you ever seen a squat, where a man did the dishes? I mean, have you?<<

Christine laughed openly at that, then covered her mouth as if she knew what she was saying was totally unsayable. >>I mean, we all know, being an anarchist means never having to do the dishes.<< Our eyes all drifted over to the small kitchenette space, where dirty dishes – mostly from Blixa’s breakfasts – crowded the sink.

>>But if you try to raise these issues at the meetings, if you try to say to them, well, what about women’s issues. What about the division of labour, what about women’s needs...<< hissed Gudrun.

Manon snorted, and imitated the high-minded speech of the revolutionaries. >>Now, now, Comrade-ina. We will attend to these things after The Revolution. When we have thrown off the bourgeois Capitalist chains, then we will have gender equality.<<

>>I am tired of waiting until after The Revolution. I want equality for women now<< insisted Gudrun.

>>I want equality for lesbians and gays now.<< Bettina caught my eye as she said this, and a shiver passed through me, wondering if she knew.

>>If they can’t even institute these basic things at their meetings, where they are in complete control of everything, do you even trust them to keep their promises about what will come after the revolution?<< added Gudrun, and we all knew this was heresy, but we all nodded.

There was a creak at the door, and we all jumped, as if worried about being overheard voicing our disloyal opinions, but it was only the wind. Bettina got up and pushed it closed again, her eyes falling on Blixa’s cabinet of cassette tapes. >>I mean, how hard can it be to start a record label. If Blixa can do it, surely anyone can.<<

Manon picked up the topic as she finished rolling the joint, lit it, and passed it round. >>I mean, you’ve worked at enough record shops, Gudrun. Surely you should know how the process works. You’d probably do it better than the boys. You have more sense in your head than Blixa, Andi and Alex put together.<<

Gudrun’s eyes flashed as she smiled wickedly. >>Maybe I will! And I will sign only women. Well... no. I won’t directly say that I will sign only women. I’ll do it the way that the boys do it. I’ll sign one man, who is extremely pretty and very useless, and keep him around, just so that when... when Alex, or Wolfgang, or whoever else asks, ‘Oh, Gudrun, will you release my band on your label’, I can turn around and say... ‘Well, sorry, Alex, I’d love to release your experimental noise tape, but you see, I’ve already got a man-band on my label’. And then sign his girlfriend.<<

Everyone collapsed with laughter as the joint reached her, and she took a very deep draw with a very silly, pompous expression, because we could all picture exactly how the boys in the scene would react to such a situation.

>>... actually, that’s not such a bad idea. Christiane is one of the first people I would sign!<<

It was a pipe dream to us, but it was no pipe dream to Gudrun. The idea took hold in her, that evening, and she started to make enquiries, to put out feelers, to expand her network of filaments and connections into a genuine plan to make something happen. If West Germany wasn’t interested in her pirate gang of strong, determined women, then she would take them abroad, to America, to New York City, where she had some friends from art school. That was the power of Gudrun’s will. She barely spoke English, but she got in touch with her friends in New York, and she had Manc Mark pull in some of his contacts from Manchester (apparently those mysterious names I hadn’t recognised – The Fall and The New Order – pulled quite a lot of weight in New York!) and she materialised an American tour, and even an American record label that were interested in maybe putting out a 12” for them.

And so Malaria! decamped en masse to the States. They had got in contact with Nina Hagen, a Berliner girl who was enjoying some success over there, about playing some shows in support of her. And Manc Mark’s contacts with some other promoters and some friendly bands in New York and Philadelphia and Washington DC came through with some dates, and off they went for a short tour. I had to admire the immense nerve of it, how Gudrun, with charm and charisma and sheer determination, managed to open doors, and then propelled her band through. People who had not really been prepared to like them, because they were a gang of fierce-looking, self-determined women, found themselves taken aback by how good the music was once they heard it, music that was just too urgent and important to ignore. America, I was quite sure, would not know what hit them once Malaria! touched down in New York.

While the girls were away, I somehow got roped into helping look after the shop, at least on the evenings that Blixa went off to rehearse with his band. It wasn’t difficult, as almost no one ever bought anything, except the occasional tape or fanzine. Mostly, it was about keeping the door open and the lights on, and talking to whoever turned up. For the shop served in some ways as a hub for messages. Almost no one in West Berlin had a telephone, and answering machines were unheard-of. So people would drop by and ask for Gudrun, and I’d tell them that she was on tour of the States. Then people would drop in and ask if I had seen Blixa or Nicholas or Christoph or any number of people from the scene. I didn’t have a clue who some of these other people were, so I told them to write down a message and pin it to a cork board over the counter.

People loved that message board! For the most part, the notes were simple, like >>Max! Meet us at the Excess club on Thursday<< or >>Blixa – we need more copies of the Stahlwerk cassette at Zensor<<. And of course, there soon developed the usual announcements of >>drummer needed, kreuzberg<< and >>spare ticket to Friday’s concert at Metropol for sale<<. But Blixa liked to leave more arcane messages that made sense to no one but himself. >>Make way! Make way! There is no creation without destruction<< and >>if we all concentrate our thoughts in the same direction we ourselves can become the phoenix of the new rising from the collapse of the old<< and >>we are living not in the last days of the old but the first days of the new!<<

When I was really bored, I used to like to pencil in little rebuttals and comments at the bottom of his notes. >>who cleans up after the destruction is what I want to know for cleaners are the truly creative ones, bringing order from chaos<< and >>someone’s first days are not always someone else’s last days have you never seen how a baby gets born<<. At first I thought Blixa might be annoyed by these little interruptions, but it turned out that he loved the to-and-fro, and often asked for sticky tape to add on another reply underneath the last, until the little dialogues expanded and grew in length into little streamers of conversation, mostly in quotes. I have no idea if he recognised my handwriting, or even realised it was me, but I delighted in those long, surreal quote-battles, and I think that he did, too.

>>You are born on your own, and you die on your own, everything else is up to you!<<

>>No one on this damned earth is EVER born on their own, unless you do not consider mothers to be people?<< Clearly, Gudrun had been rubbing off on me.

One day, Jana came wandering in, looking a little lost and spaced-out, reading the messages on the board as if looking for some kind of sign. She didn’t even notice me until I spoke.

>>Hey, Jana. Why aren’t you at the squat?<<

She shrugged sort of vaguely and continued to read the board. >>They’re rehearsing. It’s awfully loud. Would it be OK if I put a message up?<<

>>Of course, anything you like.<< I tore out a page from my sketchbook and handed it to her, along with a marker for writing out a message.

>>TAROT READINGS<< she printed, in a rounded, slightly girlish hand. >>Past, present and future, all will be told, starting from 5DM. Ask for Jana<< and then there was the address of the squat where she lived with Blixa, only a few streets away from my house.

I was bored, so I bit. >>You do tarot readings, huh. Can you do one for me?<<

She turned and fixed me with a very intense gaze for quite some time. >>Are you sure you want to know your future?<<

>>Come on, what harm can it do<< I tossed back, playing around a little.

The look she gave me seemed genuinely meant to spook me. >>You have no idea.<< But I shrugged, not willing to be scared off by some child’s game. It was like kids who tried to scare you by telling you the Ouija Board was moving by itself when you knew it was them doing it all along. She turned, pulling a small cardboard box out of her voluminous black bag, then sat down on the sofa, taking the cards out of the box and shuffling them gently, touching them as if they were delicate flowers. >>Come here and sit down.<<

I did as I was told. >>Do I have to cross your palm with silver?<<

>>You’re my friend, I’ll do yours for free. Now, I just want to hold your hand for a minute, over the cards. No, don’t touch them directly. Take my hand, while I hold the cards.<<

I laughed a little, raising my eyebrows the way that Blixa had mock-flirted with the soldiers at SO36. >>If you want me to hold your hand, Jana, just ask..<<

But she rolled her head backwards, and started to breathe in a very laboured way, and for a moment, I wondered if she was playing around, or if she was genuinely about to have some kind of fit. But no, she shook her head like a dog shaking water off its fur, and started placing the cards on the coffee table in front of us. Then she peered at the cards, and frowned.

>>Well<< I said, casting my eyes over their muted colours. The deck was old, and very well-worn. >>At least I don’t see Death, or a skeleton riding a horse, or anything super creepy.<<

>>Death is not the worst card in the deck<< she said, in a slightly world-weary tone.

>>Which one is? Do I have any of the bad ones?<<

She frowned more deeply. >>The Nine of Swords is pretty bad.<< She moved her hand over a picture of a man sitting up in bed, weeping, surrounded by daggers. >>But I don’t think this is for you. This is someone around you. Someone who has not entered the picture yet, I don’t think.<< She moved her hand lower, touching a card with a dark drawing of a medieval tower being struck by lightning and bursting into flames, as the whole thing seemed to be collapsing into a ruin.

>>Collapsing old buildings<< I joked, but she gave me such a look, I immediately regretted the quip.

>>This is the worst card in the pack. The Tower<< she insisted. >>But it’s odd, where it is. See, these are the two forces at tension in your life, here and here.<< She gestured towards a picture of a magician and a picture of a buxom woman in a floral robe, with a crown of stars.. >>But this card here, the harbinger of doom, this is the card that you need to concentrate on, and bring more of into your life, in order to resolve the tension between the two opposing forces, and reach this, the final outcome unless you change course.<< Her hand moved to the last card, which had a picture of two people proposing a toast under a winged lion head. >>The Two of Cups. This is a very good card.<<

I shrugged. >>Well, it all works out alright in the end, I guess. That’s good.<<

But Jana was looking at me very, very strangely. >>It is as I thought<< she said softly. I waited for clarification, looking over the cards, but they were just painted pictures on worn paper. Leaning forwards, she took me by the wrist, and forced me to look back at her. >>Carter, you see, I have the Second Sight.<<

I stared at her, my eyebrows raised, waiting for her to laugh, to make a joke out of it, to tell me she was kidding, and haha, gotcha, what a fool I was for falling for it. But none of those things happened. The waiflike girl just continued to gaze at me with a slightly apprehensive, slightly dazed expression, as I wondered if she really believed this stuff, or if she was just really high.

>>If you say so, Jana<< I finally shrugged, pulling my hand away from hers.

>>My Dad used to be an American serviceman, before he met my Mama and settled here. His family is Creole, from New Orleans. These things are common in that side of the family. I’ve heard stories from my Grandma.<<

I stared at her, suddenly realising that she actually believed it. >>Jana, you know that stuff is just superstition. It’s not real<< I said, very slowly and carefully, trying to back my way out of the conversation.

>>You don’t believe me. No one believes me<< she sighed, and started to pack away the cards. But then she threw me a glance. >>Blixa believes me.<<

>>Does he<< I said, resolving to have a conversation with him about not pandering to people’s delusions when they insisted irrational things.

>>I have predicted enough things for him, that he learned not to doubt me. I told him, I had a dream he went to Hamburg, and he would find the other half of his identity there. The bottom half. Sure enough, when he went to play in Hamburg for the first time, he met Mufti and Mark. And he told me they were going to and come and play with his band. They become the other half of the New Buildings. And their band was called Downwards. Hence the bottom half, don’t you see?<<

>>That’s kind of vague, don’t you think?<<

>>How about this, then? I saw a photo of a man in a fanzine, and I put my finger on his photo and said ‘that man will sign you’. I had no idea who he was. He wasn’t even onstage, he was just standing in the audience. When they go to Hamburg, Blixa met that exact man, and he owned a record label, and he signed the New Buildings. Is that vague?<<

>>Are you sure it was even the same man?<<

>>Quite sure.<< Her conviction really was unnerving.

>>Alright, you have the second sight. Tell me what’s in my stars, from your tarot reading<< I teased, not meaning to sound quite so much like I was taking the piss, but she was clearly offended.

>>Never mind<< she said, a little huffily, folding up the deck and putting them away. >>You will find out for yourself in the end.<<

Chapter Text

That October, both of Malaria!’s offshoot bands beat the mother band’s new line-up to releasing vinyl, which we all knew was the only format that really counted, as this meant they could be reviewed in the newspapers, and actually played on the radio, as opposed to just in shops and bars.

Beate’s and Chrislo’s band, who had started calling themselves Les Liasons Dangereuses, released a very strange record indeed, with lyrics in Spanish, sung by a teenage oddball who went by the name of Krishna. It was a genuinely odd-sounding record, with a huge electronic bassline, of the sort we had come to expect from Beate and Chrislo, heightened by Beate’s chattering sound sculpture textures, while that loopy singer recited these kind of singsong little stories over the top in snatches of Spanish, French and broken German.

No one understood what it was about, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that that insistent mechanical, stomping beat had an absolutely irresistible hypnotic appeal that could instantly fill any dancefloor with a pulsating, joyous mass of revellers. That beat was a monster, somehow more brutal in its minimalist electronics than Kraftwerk, and yet more playful than the German-American Friendship’s hammering industrial blasts. The Spanish lyrics, especially, triggered the happiest associations, of sunshine and holidays on the Mediterranean, and people could not pile onto the dancefloor fast enough whenever it came on. Blixa put it on at the Risk bar early on a messy Sunday morning, and was astonished to see even the crowded front bar turn into a mass of people jumping up and down and shouting along “Los Niňos, si, los Niňos!”

And of course the Collapsing New Buildings released their own dirty, nasty, roiling cauldron of hymns to chaos and collapse. Old Schumacher had got used the Malaria! tapes I used to play in the van, and even came to like some of the songs. But he stared, aghast, at the tape deck, the first and only time I tried to play Collapse in the van. >>What have you done to the car stereo? Is it broken? Have you and your friends blown the speakers?<< he demanded, until I had to take the tape out and play some of his favourite nostalgic Schlager tunes to prove that the stereo was fine, and he did not have to take any recuperative damages out of my paycheque.

One song in particular caused him particular annoyance, picking up the cassette cover, with Blixa’s scrawled handwriting, to establish that he was hearing what he thought he was hearing. >>Listen With Pain?<< he scoffed. >>Kids of your generation, you’re too coddled. No one who had grown up during the war, with American bombers screaming overhead, and the sound of hand to hand fighting in the streets, would need to make a song called Listen With Pain.<<

>>You know, our generation do have a lot to be angry about, with unemployment, and the state of housing in Berlin, and what with the Americans and the Russians about to blow us to bits with a nuclear bomb at any moment...<< I tried to protest, with the sort of political bent that heard Blixa complain about, but Schumacher was having none of it.

>>Nonsense!<< he snorted, and that was the end of it. I soon learned not to talk politics with Schumacher, for no matter how much rioting there was in the streets, or how bad the police violence against the squatters got, it was never as bad as the events of ’45. And I soon learned not to play the New Buildings in the van when he was there.

But that clanging cacophony, and that rage, and that pain in the New Buildings record, it really caught something, a sickening bile that was spewing out of West Berlin, all chaos and decay, as if in direct active squat-punk resistance to the calm and pristine electronic soundscapes of shiny, futuristic records like Kraftwerk’s Computer World. West Berlin, and the New Buildings in particular, seemed determined to be a rotten, festering boil on the face of the modern, streamlined West Germany, reminding them of the past rotting away inside their present. And the disaffected youth of West Germany needed to hear it. The New Buildings were about to leave on their own tour of West Germany, and as if to rub in the joke, they called it “The Berliner Sickness” after a nasty comment one of the local politicians had made about the West Berlin squatter scene.

For weeks before they left, Blixa made a point of coming round the shop I was helping to look after in Gudrun’s and Bettina’s absences, and seeking me out to tell me each bit of news personally, and to generally boast about his band’s good fortune. He was obsessed with the reviews of his band’s record, and would bring them to the shop, to pick over and discuss, trying to establish, not so much if the review was good or bad, because he didn’t seem to care about whether people liked it or not, (in fact he seemed to revel in the reviews where the critic had absolutely loathed the record) but to establish if they had properly understood, what it was that the band were trying to do. They were deliberately trying to be abrasive and irritating and un-musical. And of course, each visit and each review and each bit of gossip was usually accompanied by some request towards me.

See, Blixa had discovered that I was good at fixing guitars. Before Malaria! had left for the States, someone had given Gudrun an old broken electric guitar, which she just wanted to keep round the shop, and practice her fingering on, without making too much of a noise. One evening, while I was bored, waiting for the girls to get ready to go out, putting their lipstick on or whatever, I picked up the guitar, shook it, and heard something rattling around inside it. After carefully taking the strings off, I got a screwdriver and opened it up, only to discover that one of its electrical bits had come loose inside it. I soon worked out the problem, rewired the connection, found a replacement for the missing part, which turned out to be a volume knob, and soon had it plugged in to their little transistor radio amp, just to check that it worked. Of course I couldn’t play the guitar at all, but as soon as Blixa heard a noise coming out of that guitar that had been broken for years, his eyes went all big and round and he stared at me in a way that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

He came back the next day, with his own guitar, which he wanted me to take to pieces and fix the wiring, which had developed a bad habit of cutting out if he hit it too hard, which, of course, being Blixa, was almost every time he hit it. This guitar, I viewed as a challenge, for the problem was that it was completely filthy inside. I did the best I could to clean out the muck, the dust, the bits of cigarette ash, and general grime, then replaced as much of the badly corroded wire as I could reach.

As I worked, sitting on the sofa with the bits of guitar spread out in front of me on the low coffee table, Blixa sat himself down at the shop counter. He rested his sharp chin on the back of his hands, and started to study me very carefully, his eyes absolutely glued to my fingers, as I worked with the screwdriver, bits of wire, and the soldering iron.

>>Can I ask you a question, Carter?<< he finally said, his voice very low and deep.

>>Of course<< I shrugged, thinking it was just going to be something about electrical wiring.

>>Are you a lesbian?<< Again, he kept his voice low and deep, like it was the most natural question in the world, but I was so shocked that I started and had to react quickly not to drop my soldering iron.

>>That’s kind of a personal question<< I hedged, squirming under his gaze, wondering what on earth had brought this up.

>>I did ask if it was alright to ask you<< he protested.

>>I suppose you did, though to be fair you didn’t tell me what kind of question it would be.<<

He started to twist his body back and forth on the rotating clerk’s stool by the counter, though he kept his head lying on his folded arms, and his eyes carefully on my hands. >>You’re not going to answer then.<<

>>I just want to know what on earth made you ask<< I retorted defensively.

He shrugged lightly, the fabric of his ballet top puckering over his exposed collarbones. >>Well, it’s what Bettina reckons. And Bettina’s got a good radar for girls who are for the girls, if you catch my meaning.<<

I stared back at him, wondering awkwardly for the first time, if Bettina had had an underhanded reason for warning me off Gudrun, that had nothing to do with Gudrun’s discomfort. >>Well, I am for the girls, but I’m not sure I’d call myself a lesbian.<<

>>You also go with men, sometimes, then?<< asked Blixa with the casual nonchalance of someone asking if I took milk and sugar in my tea.

Looking away from him, I stared down at my hands, feeling the colour start to rise in my cheeks. I was trying very hard not to think about going with men that way, with Blixa’s distracting blue eyes on me. >>No, I’m not really into men. Not like that...<<

>>So you go with girls, and you don’t go with men. Is that not a lesbian?<<

>>You go with girls too<< I shot back, a little more sharply than I intended. >>Does that make you a lesbian?<<

A grin spread across his face as his eyebrows nudged sharply up and then down. >>There are some who might say so.<<

>>Don’t be ridiculous<< I snapped. >>It’s obvious you’re not a lesbian because you’re not a woman.<<

>>You sound very sure of that<< retorted Blixa and this time his eyebrows were starting to raise more slowly, with the distinct warning of a dog whose hackles were going up.

>>It takes more than a bit of eyeliner and a ballet top to make you a woman<< I shot back.

>>And you’re the expert<< sniped Blixa.

At that moment, I pulled back, mindful of Blixa’s sharp tongue. >>No. That’s exactly it. I’m no expert on being a woman at all. I don’t feel like I meet Bettina’s definition of a lesbian, because I don’t feel like a woman myself.<<

Blixa nodded as his face returned to calm. If I thought he’d be taken aback by this confession, he was rather sanguine about it. >>Yes, I can see that.<< Slowly, he smiled and lowered his eyebrows from battle stations. >>You often feel very masculine to me, like a man, if I’m honest.<<

It seemed like he was trying to put me at ease, but I felt my personality starting to fray at the edges a little bit, the way it always did when I tried to explain. >>Well, I don’t feel entirely like a man, either. I feel like a... I don’t know what I am. Not being one thing doesn’t automatically make you the other, does it? This is, I think, why I really don’t like going with men. They always try to make me into The Girl in the relationship, and you know, I am not A Girl. I don’t know how to be a girl, not for anyone. But with women... I don’t feel like I’m put into that box quite so much. Which men always try to put me in.<<

>>But there are ways in which men can be with other men that don’t involve either of them being ‘The Girl’...<< Blixa started to venture, but I cut him off.

>>I wouldn’t know anything about that<< I replied quickly, curtly, trying to make it clear this time of questions was over. I did not want to think about men who were anything, especially the way he was now, very carefully and deliberately rubbing his finger back and forth across his lips, without even taking his eyes from my hands.

>>Look, your guitar is nearly finished<< I blurted out. >>Do you want to fetch your little amp and try it out?<<

The conversation was successfully diverted, as Blixa stood up and climbed over the sofa to retrieve the radio receiver he used as his amp. When he plugged it in, he was delighted with the results, as the guitar’s rewired pickups were about twice as loud as they had been before. And every time he came round for the next few weeks, he had another bit of kit that he wanted me to open up and take a look at. And every visit was accompanied with another exciting piece of news about another exciting gig they had booked, until it seemed like they were going to be visiting every city with a music venue in the whole of West Germany.

I tried to be happy for him, but when I heard the news, I found it hard to share in his band’s excitement. Having Gudrun and Bettina being so far away was hard enough. But he was going to be away for over three weeks – nearly a month! – and I was finding it hard to imagine descending into Berlin nightlife without Blixa as our pied piper. I had got used to him being at Iron-Grey all the time, sitting on the counter, or in the window, enthusing about the latest thing, putting on a cassette of ‘this amazing track’ or hooking up his film projector to play some Super-8 film he insisted was art and we all needed to pay attention to, now. And of course, the band he had just discovered would be playing somewhere in the city, or the artist would have some impromptu show in a gallery or a shop, and he would make us all pile into the van to go off and see. Blixa’s relentless energy and enthusiasm was so infectious it carried us all along, long after the time I should have been asleep.

I complained, once, about the hours we kept, when I had been conscripted with the van, after a long day of work, at the end of a long week of work, to drive him and Wolfgang out to some obscure location up in the French Sector, for some strange art show cum performance art party that Wolfgang had some pieces in. But when I complained about my exhaustion, Blixa had looked at me, quite seriously, then dug in the pockets of his voluminous vinyl coat, and produced a small plastic bag containing a variety of pills of dubious origins. With his long, bony fingers, he extracted one, and held it out as an offering to me.

>>I don’t take drugs<< I reminded him, though I had to admit, my resolve was wavering, after discovering that I had experienced no lasting ill effects after the overdose on space cakes at the Great Downfall Show.

>>It’s not really a drug<< he insisted. >>It’s not like hash or coke or smack or anything. It’s only Dexedrine. Perfectly safe, perfectly harmless. They give them out to American servicemen so that they can stay awake through their overnight watches. Even housewives take them, to keep their figures trim.<< He patted his absurdly skinny belly, and I realised that he had dressed up for the party as if for a gig, wearing his best rubber trousers with the buckles just below the knees, and a clean leotard top, his eyes carefully mascaraed, the left particularly painted round with a ring of eyeliner.

I looked at the pill, feeling exhaustion creeping through every bone in my body. I knew I had several choices. I could drop the lads off, and drive home to bed, knowing that I had severely disappointed and let down my friends, who were expecting a ride home, to avoid the long trek through unfamiliar neighbourhoods full of foreign soldiers, where they were likely to face being beaten up for looking, well, more than a little bit queer. Or else, I could try to catch a few hours’ kip in the van, but that meant I would miss out on whatever exciting goings-on were going to be happening in that warehouse, where both Wolfgang and Blixa had assured me, things were going to get really, truly decadent. Or I could take Blixa’s special American pill.

I took the pill.

Blixa grinned at me, his wide lips pulling back from his sharp, pointed teeth, raising his eyebrows as if to say, you’re really one of us now. I didn’t feel anything, I still just felt tired and slightly annoyed as I locked up the van and followed him and Wolfgang through the night to the glowing lip of the warehouse door beyond. Inside, the light was dim, and mostly red, giving the place the aspect of the inside of a volcano, or maybe some Dantean Hell, as we pushed inside. It was crowded with bodies, almost entirely men. Wolfgang had claimed that there was going to be an art exhibition, but I could see little art, and a whole lot of decadence, as bodies slipped against bodies in the dim light.

>>I’m going to find the bar. Do you want anything?<< I shouted in Blixa’s ear, and he nodded, making a gesture that indicated that he wanted a beer.

With some difficulty, I located a couple of drag queens selling their wares from huge barrels full of ice and bottles, and managed to exchange a few DM for two bottles of beer and a can of coke. But then I had to push my way back through the throbbing mass of hairy flesh and bits of leather, to try to find my vanished friends. I asked a passing construction worker in a leather harness of some sort that looked totally unfit for any construction site I had ever been on, if there was any actual art in the place, and he pointed back towards a doorway further inside. I persevered, and pushed through into a lighter, less crowded room, where, true to Wolfgang’s word, there was some kind of exhibition, and the two lads I had come with were standing round looking at the pieces. I handed out the drinks, and as I sucked at the can of coke, I started to feel the exhaustion start to lift from my limbs. I wasn’t tired any more, in fact, I could probably stand to go on looking at weird art for a few more hours. It took me a few minutes, mostly from Blixa’s sniggering, to work out that the weird photos on the wall, all of these dark gaping voids surrounded by abstract patterns of swirling lines, were actually close-up photography of gaping anuses.

>>I was supposed to have a piece in this show<< Blixa told me proudly.

>>Where is it?<<

>>The beastly philistines took it down. I was too outré for them<< Blixa sighed, rolling his eyes extraordinarily.

Wolfgang curled his handsome face into a smile, cupping his hand for an exaggerated stage whisper. >>He submitted a set of artfully semen-stained sheets. It wasn’t too outré, darling, it was just a health hazard. It stank!<<

I glared at Blixa, who was now snorting with laughter, then pushed past him, out through a door into what I thought was the bar again, but turned out to be a crowded dancefloor, almost slick from the sweat pouring off the dancers. There was a weird grinding synth music in the background, over which a bored-sounding English girl recited something about being hot on the heels of love, and the bodies on the floor seemed to grind and throb in time with it. There was no band, only a DJ, and over where the impromptu stage was, a pair of naked muscular men with soldiers’ haircuts and large, fake, simulated weapons painted with flags, were pretending to assault one another with the cardboard rifles and machine guns, then rubbing up against one another in a strange performance, wrestling, as sinuous as snakes. I smirked, thinking of the toughs that had chased Blixa and me at the SO36, then looked to the side, for on either side of the stage, as someone’s idea of a camp joke, a pair of topless girls were gyrating in time to the music. I stared, sucking at my coke like I had been in the desert for so long I had forgotten that I was even thirsty.

The girl on the left was a typical androgynous Berlin girl, short dark flapper haircut, gash of red lipstick, and slim, boyish hips. But the girl on the right, she was a goddess. She was curvy, ever so slightly plump, with large breasts that swung hypnotically back and forth to the thrust and cut of her wide, voluptuous hips. Wavy red hair tumbled over her freckled shoulders in a loose up-do like something out of a 1950s pin-up magazine. She looked like something from another age, as if Brigitte Bardot had been yanked out of a dazzling Technicolor 1950s film and thrust into the gritty grey world of West Berlin. Slowly, I became aware of a thudding noise that was not the music, and a high-pitched whine cycling in my ears, as I felt the whole world simultaneously shift gears both up and down, so that I seemed to be standing at the edge of some tunnel vision that was perfectly centred around the beautiful woman, tipping me inexorably towards her. Swallowing the last of my soda, I flipped the can away, completely heedless of where it landed, and found myself pushing towards the stage, intent on the girl.

Twenty minutes, half an hour, an hour, I don’t even know how long it took me to attract her attention, because either my racing brain had slowed down to the rate of the thudding beat pulsing through my eardrums, or the world had finally sped up to the relentless pace of the high-pitched whine coursing through my veins, but I eventually – abruptly – found myself up on the podium, dancing with the red-headed goddess. Every one of my senses was on fire, my energy surging, completely rejuvenated by the heady promise of sex that seemed to emanate from every pore of her luscious body. I didn’t even know what had come over me, I just knew that I had to be near her, all of my inhibitions peeling away like a bad sunburn to reveal some raw, red creature beneath, boiling with lust. I flirted, and I teased. I brushed up against her, then pulled away, letting her follow me. Christ, I had forgotten what it was like to dance with a beautiful girl who responded to my flirtations, pressing up against me, letting her nipples drag against the rough canvas of my jumpsuit. Putting my hand out, I held it for a moment only a few inches from her nipple, waiting for a reaction, as her eyes closed to slits, and a raspberry coloured tongue appeared to lick her painted lips. And I swear, it was she who thrust her breast into my hand, as my thumb and forefinger found themselves closing about her nipple. Not ten minutes later, I was kneeling down before her, dancers whooping as I licked at her breasts, her knee-high boots pressing me into submission. I felt drugged, stupefied, by the intoxicating sensation of her sweat, as she bent down to whisper in my ear.

>>You’re not a queer, then?<< There was no maliciousness in her tone, just a steady appraisal of the situation.

>>I am for the girls<< I assured her, burying my nose against her fishnet tights.

>>Coz I’m working tonight, but I could give you a private dance, with a happy finish, if you have money?<< She named a price, as I stared up at her, gobsmacked.

Lust made me insensate, disbelieving of what she was offering. >>You mean, you would have sex with me... for that?<<

She laughed, and caressed my hair. >>Of course, sweetie. You really are such an innocent, aren’t you?<<

The sum was high, but seemed inconsequential compared to the beauty of her body. What were Deutschmarks after all, but shiny pebbles? I wanted to shower her with them. Shapely thighs, wide hips, that gently little curve of her belly that seemed to press itself into my face as if demanding to be kissed. >>Where can we go?<< I asked desperately. >>I have a van...<<

>>I’m not getting in a car with you, lad, innocent or not. There’s an office, in the back. Let’s go there.<< I followed her meekly, just clutching her hand, feeling like my knees were shaking and my whole body was just quivering with lust. How long had it been? I felt myself all churned up inside, waiting for the trick, wondering what was going to happen to stop this, or if I really was, finally, about to get laid. As we reached the office, I closed the door behind me, but she pulled it open, ajar just an inch. >>Look, my colleagues are just down the hall<< she warned. >>If you pull any funny stuff, I just want you to know, I will shout for them.<<

>>No funny stuff<< I assured her, going over to her and pressing my mouth against her just at the nape of the neck, kissing and sucking and nibbling, as I felt my blood roaring in my veins. She was several inches shorter than me, just the right height, even with the stiletto heels of her go-go boots, so I pulled her body against me, feeling for the soft flesh of her rounded ass. She clung to me, parting her legs, so I went to kiss her mouth, but she turned away.

>>No, that’s not on offer, don’t you know anything, little boy?<<                                               

>>I’m so sorry<< I gasped, pushing my fingers inside her fishnets as I nibbled hungrily at the soft parts of her neck.

>>Oh, what the hell, you’re seriously handsome<< she shrugged, and brought her mouth up towards mine. Our lips met, and I pushed my tongue inside her mouth, exploring her like a forgotten continent. Her tongue was a revelation, her mouth as soft as the flesh of some ripe fruit, her teeth like a pearly staircase to further delights as she raked them across my tongue. My hands went to the back of her head, feeling the texture of her hair as I pulled her towards me, locking her lips against mine. It had been so long since I had kissed a girl, and all of those months of frustration and lust went into that kiss, until both of us were breathless. As I pulled away, she smirked at me, and tried to straighten her now-lopsided up-do. >>Wow. You’re a good kisser, cutie.<<

>>Only an appetiser<< I assured her. >>I want to kiss you down there.<< I gestured with my chin towards the dark cleft between her fishnet tights.

>>That’s extra<< she warned me.

>>I got money<< I assured her, and sank to my knees. I pushed her short, leather skirt up out of the way, only to find the fishnets attached to suspenders, and she wasn’t even wearing knickers. Oh Christ, the texture of her skin made my head spin as I lifted her and pushed her up onto the desk, parting her legs and thrusting my face into her cleft. She moaned a little, and started to writhe, and I had no idea if the writhing was another thing I would have to pay extra for, or if the way she thrust her fingers into my hair and clutched me against her was genuine, but good god, I had forgotten the way that a girl could move underneath me, and how much that excited me and turned me on. I was lost in my own lust, sucking, licking, grabbing great handfuls of her freckled flesh, every iota of my energy focused on my mouth, wanting to push myself up inside her where everything was warm and wet and wonderful. I found myself showing off, all those little tricks that Maud had taught me, making her gasp and lose her breath. The little pants grew sharper and shallower, and she let out a long, low, animal moan as she came, her face crumpling up as if in agony as I pulled back to watch, finishing off the job with my fingers.

>>Oh my god<< she muttered, lying back against the desk. >>I’m not used to coming, for real, when I’m at work.<<

I laughed a little, feeling proud of my handiwork, even as my better reason told me she probably said that to all the guys. >>I’m not like the other guys.<<

She sat up and kissed me again, and I tried to warn her that my face was sticky with her juices, but she didn’t seem to care, licking it off me as she showered my face with her attentions. But then she seemed to compose herself again, taking a more professional tone as she tried to exchange places with me. >>Now, about your happy finish.<<

>>No, that’s OK<< I tried to protest as she reached into my lap and unfastened the flies of my boiler suit, but her hand slipped inside my clothes before I could stop her.

Her hand touched the absence where she had clearly expected my equipment to be, and she abruptly stopped and just stared at me. I froze, and for a long minute, we just stared at one another, as I wondered what she would do, if she would scream for her colleagues, if there would be an abrupt explosion of violence, and I would be expelled from the club, or worse... But she seemed to recover from her surprise in a moment, and covered it up with professional ease. >>Oh<< she said aloud, then smiled. >>You are really not like the other guys, then. Lie down, I can handle this.<<

I lay back on the desk, not even really caring what I was lying on, as all of my nerve endings were concentrated on that one spot between my legs, where she was pushing her plump fingers inside me. Her thumb found the head of my clitoris, and started to massage, very gently and very professionally, as if she knew what she was doing. Granted, I was already very turned on, from the taste of her pussy, from the whole experience of dancing with her, maybe even from that awful drug that Blixa had given me, which had indeed made me alert and randy, but it seemed only a matter of moments until my whole cunt quivered and then exploded around her, in a huge mass discharge of relief. The events of the past few months seemed to leave me, as I felt a deep sense of peace and wellbeing just flow across me, leaving me quietly energised.

She lay with me for a few moments only, then she got up, and retrieved her bag, wiping herself off with some tissues, before telling me what my bill was. I sat up, feeling a bit awkward as I reached into my jumpsuit for my wallet, only to grow alarmed as I heard a deep, low voice tell me >>Better check your wallet to make sure she hasn’t already taken it.<<

I jumped, for the inch’s gap between door and frame had widened to about six inches, and Blixa’s face hovered inbetween. For an awful moment, I felt myself flood with shame, wondering how long he had been there, and cast my eyes downward towards my wallet. But it was fine; my money was all there. I counted off the bills for the beautiful go-go dancer, now trying to fix her clothes and her make-up in a pocket mirror, then glared at Blixa. He was staring, with a mixture of curiosity and surprise and interest, not at the girl, but at me, in a way that made me feel distinctly uncomfortable.

>>Do you want a go<< she asked Blixa in a most straightforward tone, as if asking him if he wanted another bottle of beer. >>You’ll have to wait a minute while I fix my hair, but I won’t re-apply lipstick if you just want a blowjob.<<

>>I haven’t got any money<< said Blixa simply, and her interest in him evaporated as she went back to her toilet, though he continued to stare at me.

>>Were you watching me the whole time?<< I demanded, feeling weirdly compromised. I hadn’t been ashamed of going with the beautiful girl until this moment, but Blixa’s gaze made me feel suddenly like I had done something quite wrong.

Blixa’s lips parted in a wicked grin. >>She will probably charge you extra if I did.<< I continued to glare at him. >>Look, you are a newborn innocent baby when it comes to West Berlin nightlife. I just wanted to make sure you were not ripped off.<<

I said nothing, but put my wallet away and did up the snaps of my jumpsuit. The warm glow of the sex had not left me, but the other roaring sensation in my ears, was finally dimming, and I was starting to feel tired. >>How much longer is Wolfgang going to want to stay?<<

>>Wolfgang has gone home on the back of a motorbike with a beautiful young man of his acquaintance. We won’t see him again tonight. We are free to go back to Schöneberg any time you like.<<

At that, the beautiful girl looked up again. >>Schöneberg?<< she asked hopefully. >>You said you have a van, yes? Can you drop me in Friedenau, if that’s not too far out of your way.<< It was actually quite a bit of a detour, but the way she was looking at me, nibbling slightly on her protruding lower lip, I knew I would say yes, even had she lived in Zehlendorf.

>>You’re from Friedenau?<< demanded Blixa, his eyes widening.

>>Well, I live there now, what of it<< she shrugged defiantly.

>>I was born in Friedenau<< said Blixa very slowly, and as she turned to look at him, something passed between them that I didn’t understand.

She smiled when she saw the van, even though Blixa cut her off and leapt for the passenger seat in the front. I cast him a dirty look, then opened the sliding back door for her. >>You’re an electrician?<< she asked.

>>Yes<< I said, and went round to the driver’s seat. >>I’m called Carter.<<

>>You must earn good money, working as an electrician in this city<< she said appreciatively, fingering the various tools strewn over the back of the van before finding the small jump seat and sitting down.

>>I do alright<< I told her, as Blixa cackled with laughter.

>>You got any cigarettes?<< she asked.

>>I don’t smoke... but Blixa does<< I told her, expecting him to offer her a cigarette, the way he would casually supply them for Gudrun or Beate or Bettina, but he stayed silent, his arms crossed across his chest, not even reaching for his pack. >>Blixa<< I said, a little too sharply. >>A cigarette, please?<<

Finally, he extracted his cigarettes from his jacket, pulled two out, lit them both, then handed one to me, just to be an arsehole. I rolled my eyes at him, and handed it back to the girl. “Danke.” “Gern Geschehen.”

Blixa clammed up completely, sucking at his cigarette, as he lapsed into unusual silence, forcing the girl to fill up the space as we drove, giving me directions to her home. Friedenau turned out to be a pretty but densely-packed warren of lovely old-fashioned apartment buildings arranged on avenues in sweeping quadrants around attractive squares. Here, there were trees and lush green spaces like I had never seen in my neighbourhood.

>>You live here?<< I asked, surprised at how posh it looked, though I guessed appearances could be deceiving.

The girl squirmed in the rear-view mirror. >>Well... no. Take the next turn, we’ve got to go over that bridge across the railway tracks. I live on the other side of Friedenau.<<

Blixa laughed, a short, mean-sounding snort. >>Yeah, I thought you might.<<

>>You think I’m trash because I live on the wrong side of the tracks?<< said the girl defensively.

>>That is my side of the tracks. Where I grew up<< he almost growled.

Almost as soon as we’d got to the other side, the buildings changed, from pretty Art Nouveau terraces to large, ugly, monolithic blocks that looked a lot like council estates. As we grew closer, Blixa grew more silent and withdrawn, though the girl did not seem to notice, directing us down a side-street.

>>Can I see you again?<< I asked, as she gestured for me to pull up to the kerb outside one of a whole flock of almost indistinguishable apartment blocks.

She seemed to think this over for a moment, then nodded, and pulled out a scrap of paper from her bag. >>If you have money, of course.<< She handed me the piece of paper, on which she had written her name – Ilsa – and the name and address of a coffeeshop in the red light district, then disappeared without so much as a backwards glance, let alone a kiss goodbye.

Blixa seemed to stew, as we drove away. Finally, he spoke, in a moralistic tone that rendered his beautiful voice rather ugly. >>Well. So you are visiting prostitutes now. What will your fine feminist friends make of this, I wonder.<<

I turned to look at him, unable to understand why he was acting this way. Clearly, it was not about the practice of visiting sex workers, as Wolfgang chatting up rent boys had aroused his mirth, not his condemnation. Was it something to do with the fact that it had not really previously registered with him, that I liked women, despite that awkward conversation in Iron-Grey? It was one thing, to have a friend who was queer, in the abstract, but quite another to confront it in the soft and juicy and throbbing flesh. But if that were the case, why did he take me to that party, full of men who were ‘for the boys’, where I was surrounded by drag queens and groping men in muscle shirts? Blixa clearly had no problem with homosexuality in the flesh, if it were male flesh. And yet Blixa definitely seemed to be sore at me about something.

Again, I felt a wave of shame. I could not understand West Berlin at all, how one minute it seemed so absolutely free, and the next it seemed so moralistic and condemning. As I pulled up outside the squat where Blixa lived with his girlfriend, I looked up at the window, and saw the cover of Kollaps Komics hanging up in a place of honour as a display, next to an advert for the New Buildings’ album. How much love had gone into making those drawings, and yet here he was angry with me, because I had done this shameful thing of going to bed with a prostitute. I grasped for straws, trying to think of a way to justify what I had done, and maybe even get him to like me again.

>>You promised me the party would be decadent<< I pointed out. >>So I indulged in a little of that decadence. Don’t you think it’s important for artists to understand decadence? Wasn’t that what you were discussing with Gudrun the night we met?<<

>>You think something as tawdry and banal as going to bed with a prostitute entails real decadence?<< sneered Blixa, putting his wellies up on the dashboard and kind of curling up in a ball, rather than making any move to get out of the van. >>Do you genuinely have that little imagination?<<

I straightened up, feeling the need to defend myself, my face growing hot as I spoke. >>So it’s OK for male artists to go with prostitutes to find their inspiration – Egon Schiele, or Munch or Manet does so, and it’s a foundational experience of their artistic, worldly education, but for me...<<

>>Artistic, worldly education?<< quoted Blixa in a taunting tone, and I suddenly saw myself through his eyes, a complete novice, little better than an idiot. >>How old are you?<<

>>Age has nothing to do with it<< I sputtered. >>Rimbaud ran away to Paris and experienced all the decadence of the disarrangement of the senses when he was what – 16? 17?<<

Blixa laughed aloud at that, not even his taunting cackle, but a genuine snort of hilarity. >>So that’s it, you try a little hash and take one pep pill, and suddenly you’re Arthur Rimbaud, are you?<<

I stared down at my knuckles, gripping at the steering wheel, feeling all of the confidence and exhilaration of the evening draining away, utterly humiliated by the easy way he demolished my most intellectual arguments. Why was he even still sitting in my van, why didn’t he just piss off and snark away somewhere else? As my ego dropped into the gaping chasm of self-loathing I had not yet learned to recognise as a speed come-down, Blixa continued to loll in the passenger seat, picking at the buckles on the calves of his rubber trousers.

>>Alright, I’m twenty<< I confessed at last, when the silence grew too much to bear. >>How old are you?<<

>>I’ll be twenty-three in January<< he supplied, with an almost adolescent petulance to his voice that made me smirk. January was months away; he was like a little boy claiming to be nine and three quarters.

>>You’re barely older than me.<< For some reason, I’d thought Blixa was far older, maybe 25 or 26, from the amount of things he already seemed to have accomplished in his life. >>And I don’t see how you have any right to judge me. I take my inspiration where I find it. And I think it’s important to have... experiences. Emotional experiences, even tawdry and banal ones. If one is to create art that has any real meaning, real understanding of emotional impact beyond empty, button-pushing attention-seeking and cool and transgression just for the sake of transgression.<< My words, slow to start, picked up momentum until they were like an avalanche, but Blixa’s head snapped to attention.

>>Wait, is that what you think I’m doing?<< he suddenly demanded, as if I had finally landed a blow to pique his own ego.

>>Semen stained sheets, I mean really<< I reminded him, and suddenly he squirmed, his mouth breaking into a helpless crocodile smile as he glanced sideways across the van at me. Our eyes locked, the hostility abruptly gone. And in that moment, he looked so beautiful I would have forgiven him anything, if only I could capture that funny half-smile, get it down in pen on paper. >>You know, you keep saying you’re going to pose for me, properly, and then you don’t<< I suddenly blurted out.

He looked up, startled, studying me with that one mascaraed eye from under his cap, as his smile turned suddenly genuine. It shocked me, how pleased he looked to have been asked. >>Of course I will, naturally, any time. You just don’t ask.<<

>>Well, you’re going off on tour next week<< I pointed out. >>When is there time?<<

>>Sunday morning, after work. I will make time<< he offered, looking really quite insistent about the whole thing. >>Will you photograph me? I’ll go home and change after work, if you want to take photos.<<

>>I can take photos, yes. It would be good to draw from photos, while you’re away. Where shall we meet?<< I sputtered, wondering what I was getting myself into, my head spinning as I thought through the possibilities.

>>Where do you live?<<

Oh no. With the atmosphere as weird and as spikey as it had been on the drive home, I wasn’t sure I wanted him in my apartment. And oh god, what would my great-aunt make of this creature? >>I live across the road from that old cemetery. You know, the one on Monumentstrasse?<<

>>Old Saint Matthews Churchyard?<< Blixa’s eyes lit up as he uncurled and put his feet back on the floor. >>Did you know that the Brothers Grimm are buried there? They wrote my very favourite story ever. Do you know it, the Town Musicians of Bremen?<<

I shook my head, thinking only of a way to keep Blixa out of my great-aunt’s apartment. >>Shall we do the shoot in the cemetery, then? I’ll meet you at the gate.<<

>>Perfect.<< He opened the door and leapt out of the van, then smiled at me as he held the door open, his customary good mood completely restored. >>I will see you soon, yeah?<<

Chapter Text

On Saturday night, I dropped in at the Risk bar only long enough to make sure that Blixa had remembered his promise, then took off for what passed for West Berlin’s red light district, dressed in my best clothes, with a crisp new shirt, and polished shoes. I had never in my life deliberately gone out with the intention of commissioning a prostitute, in fact, I had never, until a few short days ago, even considered going to a prostitute. But Ilsa’s cheeky pin-up smile and plump limbs consumed my thoughts. I knew I was not in love; I was not deluded enough to think that. But lust was a powerful motivator, and I was carrying around so much frustration inside me that I wanted to slake my thirst in her body.

And anyway, wasn’t it true, what I had told Blixa? If I wanted to be an artist – a real artist, not just a cheap dauber of doodles – didn’t I have to throw myself into every kind of emotional experience with gusto? And wasn’t lust, even a dizzying, morality-warping lust that could be slaked with a few shiny pebbles, an emotional experience worth exploring? That was what I told myself, as my van inched west down the busy Kurfürstendamm.

I had a bit of trouble locating the café, in the triangle between Olivaer Platz and Uhlandstrasse, just off the bright lights of the Ku’damm. Driving through that area at night at a slow speed was pretty much an invitation for every working girl in the city to come strolling up to your window. But as I looked over the assembled crowd, trying to spot that flaming ginger hair, I saw only henna and rouge. Finally, I parked the van and made my way into the café she had given me the name of. As I strolled inside, trying to act casual, a couple of girls called out to me, the traditional greeting >>Hey, sweetie<< but I could see no trace of Ilsa.

>>Are ya looking for someone, my lad?<< asked one of the older women in a thick Berlin accent, looking me up and down.

>>Yes<< I stuttered, slightly relieved to have an actual question I could answer, rather than one of the intimidating come-ons. >>I’m looking for a girl called Ilsa. Short, buxom, long red hair?<<

>>Ah yeah, we know Ilsa. She’s one of our gals, usually works this patch. But I’ve not seen her tonight, dearie.<< she said in an almost motherly tone.

>>Well, if you see her, can you tell her Carter is looking for her?<< I couldn’t remember if I had even told her my name, so I added. >>The electrician.<<

>>Can’t tell one workman from another in the dark<< cackled the woman. She eyed me expectantly, and I wasn’t sure what was required of me, until one of the other biddies started to laugh.

>>Ya tips a messenger, dontcha, sweetie?<< she suggested.

>>Oh, of course<< I muttered, hoping I wasn’t getting completely taken for a ride, as I produced a few DM from my pocket.

>>Ah, now that jogs me ole’ memory<< said the oldest woman, the one in the leopard print coat who had first addressed me. >>Carter the Electrician, lookin’ for Ilsa. We’ll tell ‘er if we see ‘er, won’t we, girls. We’ll get you fixed up, my lad, don’t worry.<<

>>We got lots of redheads, if you’re looking for a redhead<< the other woman added, crowding in closer.

I rolled my eyes as I realised which way the wind was blowing. >>Have yourselves some drinks on me, ladies<< I told them, pushing over some more DM. >>But I’m looking for Ilsa.<<

When I got home, I didn’t fancy going back to the Risk bar and facing Blixa’s teasing, so I opted for a few hours’ sleep. He would come over in the morning anyway, an eventuality I wasn’t sure how I felt about now. He had been charm itself when I dropped by at Risk, but then again, he had been surrounded by all his friends, in an expansive mood, being treated like a rock star about to go off on tour, as one of his filmmaker buddies even chopped him out a line of cocaine on the end of the bar, as a goodbye present. I had already started to hate how people acted when they were on cocaine, all empty and hollow-headed, full of air like windbags, talking at speed but saying nothing. I wondered how long it took to wear off, and hoped that Blixa would at least be acting like a human being by the time he got to the cemetery.

I slept a little, at least until the sun came out, then bathed and dressed and headed out. It was a beautiful morning, crisp and cold, with a faint mist rising from the ground as the sun hit it. I grabbed both my cheap, tourist camera, and my good SLR, stuffed them in my bag with my sketchbook, and headed downstairs, only to find Blixa already outside my apartment building, staring up at it.

>>How did you know I lived here?<< I asked suspiciously, quite sure that I had told him to meet me at the cemetery gates.

>>I didn’t. I’ve just always been curious about this building<< he confessed, squinting up at the large, heavy, iron-bound front door. A faded sign, in an old-fashioned looking typeface from before the war, declared >>females only<< above the entrance. I realised, as Blixa stood on the pavement staring up, that although I had never seen fit to test this rule, I had never seen a man in the building, apart from that one morning that Schumacher had been summonsed to fix the electrics.

>>It belongs to my great-aunt<< I explained.

Blixa tilted his head back, craning his neck to take in the façade, which had clearly once boasted beautiful pieces of plasterwork, before being marred by bullet holes and shrapnel scars from the war. >>The whole thing?<<

>>Well, she lives on the first floor, in those grand rooms with the arched windows, and rents the rest out.<<

Blixa’s face abruptly changed, as he wrenched his gaze from the building’s façade to my face. >>I had no idea you came from money. Are you only playing at being an electrician, then? Slumming it, down here in the gutter with us lot?<<

That must have been the cocaine talking. For a moment, I bristled, but refused to rise to his needling. >>I pay rent, the same as everyone else does. Being a landlord these days, in this part of West Berlin, it hardly pays for the coal to heat the place.<<

>>Huh<< snorted Blixa, a little dismissively, and I wondered if the whole day would be spoiled by this weird sparring between us, but then he looked back up and resumed his study of the building, as a slightly dreamy, nostalgic expression came over his face. >>When I was young, we used to call it the old witch’s tooth building<< he said, in a faraway voice, as if lost in memories. >>My grandparents said that before the war, there was a whole row of these grand houses, facing the cemetery. But bombs fell on either side, knocked out a few houses first on one side, and then the other. So it stood up like a senior’s single tooth, in the midst of a rotten jaw where the other teeth had worn away. No one knew how it had survived, but it did. Some said the owner was a witch, who had done a deal with the devil to keep her brothel safe. Others said that it was the power of the Blessed Virgin Mary, protecting all the virgin ladies sheltering under this roof.<<

I laughed aloud at the thought of my stately old great-aunt resorting to either. >>I doubt both of those stories very much. But old Schumacher told me that my Aunt’s personal assistant, Grete, was a fire warden, so she always made sure there was a barrage balloon tethered to the roof.<<

>>Well, either way, for many years, it was the only house standing on this block. When I was a child, it used to be quite spooky to walk by, this one lonely house with only the cemetery for company. And then, about ten years ago, they threw up these horrible new-buildings next door.<<

I laughed, again, at the way he shoehorned in a reference to his band, like men always had to remind you that they were in a band. >>Well, for me it is a very convenient place to live, for not a lot of money. My rent is cheap; and I get free food and local phone calls. So I cannot complain.<<

Again, Blixa moved his gaze from the tall, slightly forbidding house to my face, but this time he smiled in camaraderie. >>Come, let’s go to the cemetery. I will show you the tombs of the Brothers Grimm.<< Threading his arm through mine, he lead the way. >>Did you know, my very first job, out of school, was working in a cemetery? Not this one, but a State cemetery out on the other side of Schöneberg?<<

>>You’re such a liar<< I laughed. >>You’re just making that up to make yourself sound cool, but you don’t. You just sound like a big old Grufti.<<

>>I’m not a liar, it’s true<< he protested playfully, thrusting his other hand into the pocket of his coat to make it billow out around him. >>What do you think of my outfit, by the way? Will it pass muster for your aesthetic? I borrowed this coat to look stylish for your pictures. Or do you think it just makes me look like a ‘big old Grufti’?<<

Looking him up and down, I realised he must have gone home and bathed and made some kind of effort with his appearance. He was wearing his new rubbery trousers again, which clung to his slender calves, with his wellingtons buckled over the top. Over his usual ballet top, he had thrown one of Gudrun’s asymmetrical knitted sweaters, adjusted to leave one shoulder exposed, and over the top of all of this, he had artfully arranged a long, black trenchcoat with such a military appearance that I wondered if he had borrowed it from Manc Mark. And then, of course, there was the cap, and one of his eyes ringed as usual with very precise eyeliner, his eyelashes darkened with mascara and his lips tinted with what might have been lipgloss. He looked, to be fair, startlingly beautiful, like the androgynous angel I had first encountered at the Risk bar, and I felt my irritation at him falling away.

He held the iron gate for me as I passed through underneath the arches into the cool calm respite of the graves, the old-fashioned headstones and mossy paths feeling a million years away from the frenetic pace of West Berlin. As we wandered about, Blixa and I started to relax, and show one another stones and funerary statues we particularly admired.

>>I love this skinny old man<< he laughed, pointing up at a long, emaciated bronze figure like a Giacometti. >>Don’t you think he looks a bit like me?<< His attitude seemed different in the morning light, more like the energetic, fun, playful Blixa I had met all those months ago, and less like the irritating rock star wannabe who had been annoying me recently.

>>I can see the resemblance...<< I agreed, but trudged onward. >>This one is my favourite<< I sighed, as we reached a huge grotto like a half-shell, with a marble statue of a woman standing, arms spread, in front of a black and gold frieze of a setting sun, filled with masonic symbols.

Blixa grinned, and climbed up into it with the enthusiasm of a child. Kneeling in the lap of the statue, his head raised and arms outstretched, he stopped and turned to smile at me, until I realised he was posing for me, and wanted me to photograph him. I took out my cameras, and started to frame the shot carefully, before snapping him. Although I had gone out the previous day and bought a few more rolls of film, I was still painfully aware of how expensive it was to get film developed, and used the shots sparingly.

Then he climbed down, and sat beside what looked like a strange dragon-griffin creature, and I saw that there were two seats to either side of the memorial, like an opulent art nouveau bus shelter. >>Family Jockel<< he read, settling into one seat and pulling out a cigarette as I took the other seat. >>Well, they seem like they were really something when they were alive.<<

>>It doesn’t matter who you are when you’re alive, and how grand your tomb is. You’re still dead. You’re all dust by the time you get to a cemetery<< I intoned in a faintly grandiose manner.

>>Oh, but not if you believe in the grand resurrection of the dead, in the final days before the Last Judgement<< intoned Blixa, blowing out his cigarette smoke with such a rakish tilt to his eyebrows that I couldn’t work out if he was joking, or if he really meant it. “Dem bones, dem bones, gonna rise again...” he sang, in imitation of gospel blues.

>>That’s not how the song goes. Come on<< I said, as it was too chilly to sit in the shade, on the cold marble bench. We walked further into the cemetery, stopping to read the stones or admire statues. I tried to remind myself that film was expensive, and I should use it sparingly, but Blixa was being so charming, and posing so alluringly that I found myself taking more and more shots. In front of the camera, it was the same as when he was onstage; he started to come alive. I framed him through the viewfinder, caressing him with my lens, watching how he would smile or glare, or do that strange, wide-eyed innocent gaze back at my camera, his whole face transformed by his pout, or the angle of his expressive eyebrows. I didn’t kid myself that he was flirting with me, as he smouldered at the lens, his lips pouted, his cheeks sucked in to make them look more hollow; I knew he was flirting with the camera itself. But Christ, he was beautiful, standing, leaning against one of the monuments in his long coat, which made him look taller and slimmer and somehow more ghostly, his face wreathed in smoke from his cigarette.

>>Oh, let’s photograph this one...<< he cried, crushing the cigarette underfoot before skipping to the next memorial, sloughing off his coat as he climbed onto a ledge, holding his chiselled-looking cheekbones against the chiselled marble of a graveside angel. The way his asymmetrical jumper hung off his exposed shoulder echoed the classical gown of the statue, the living flesh angel and the dead stone angel nearly as pale as each other, despite the blackened streaks of smoke damage. He looked up into the eyes of the angel and frowned, puzzled. >>Do you believe in angels?<< he asked.

>>Well, that depends on what you mean by angels. Do I believe in winged ladies flying about plucking the souls of children? Of course not. Don’t be absurd<< I scoffed.

Blixa turned and laughed his braying laugh, rather spoiling the image of the beautiful boy. >>I must admit, when I was a child, I found it slightly creepy, the idea of a Guardian Angel. I asked my Mama: what, does she watch me even when I take a piss?<<

The disparity between the beautiful pose and the vulgar language made me laugh aloud. >>I can’t imagine that went down well.<<

>>But then, in the Bible, angels aren’t guardians at all. Even the word – it means messenger in Greek. That God is far too important or grand to speak to mortals, so he sends this winged telegram delivery service instead<< mused Blixa, nose to nose with the angel.

>>I thought it was more the idea that God was so far beyond our mortal ken or comprehension that he needed emissaries, or our minds would burn up like toast at the mere Presence<< I teased, deciding to just go along with the strange conversation. Maybe it should have surprised me more that he had actually read the Bible, but his taste in reading seemed quite omnivorous.

Blixa climbed down off the angel and strolled along a path, kicking at leaves as we passed a row of more modern memorials. >>Fear and trembling and the sickness unto death<< he murmured, almost to himself, then suddenly turned and fixed me with a piercing stare. >>Do you believe in God?<<

>>No, of course not<< I said, almost reflexively, laughing nervously at the oddness of even being asked.

>>The English are all natural atheists, I suppose. You’re all natural cynics. Rebels. For the Germans, I think it is harder. Especially Prussians. A desire for order, cosmological and theological, is baked into our souls.<<

>>Do you...<< I paused, before saying the almost absurd thing. Obviously, I had occasionally known religious people. There had been a couple of girls at school who had been swept with great religious passions, though it had commonly been held to be a bit odd to care that passionately about anything. But I did, generally, just assume that most people were sort of gentle, ignorant atheists, more out of lack of being bothered with all that schoolgirl passion, than any true religious or irreligious sentiment. >>...believe in God?<<

>>I don’t know<< he said in a quite determined tone of voice, and he looked almost as surprised by the answer as I did.

Then he turned, and with a great dramatic sweep of his long coat, he stormed off until he reached another monument, a sculpture of a mourning woman, with a carefully chiselled veil over her face and one of her arms lifted gently over her head. And there he paused, gazing down thoughtfully at the names of long-dead Berlin bourgeoisie. I was filled with a sudden tenderness for the boy, so I tried to probe further. >>So you’re an agnostic, then.<<

>>No.<< Again, the very determined note to his denial. >>An agnostic – from the Greek, a- gnosis – believes that such knowledge, of whether there is or isn’t a god, is not even possible. I don’t even have that strength of conviction. I simply don’t know.<<

Leaning back against the statue of the mourning woman in an echo of her pose, he pulled off his holey jumper and arched his back exactly like a topless dancer, and though his chest beneath the ballet top was smooth and flat, I felt a small bolt of electricity surge through me at how strikingly similar the gesture was to the way that Ilsa had danced. He turned his head towards me – or rather, the camera – and licked his lips, and gave me such a look that my knees almost shook. For an awful moment, the idea crossed my mind that he was doing it deliberately, like he wanted me to desire him, though to what ends was a complete mystery to me. Blixa just seemed to like to be looked at, like a small child who couldn’t stand not to be the centre of attention.

I snapped the photograph, then, dragging my eyes away from his body, I looked about me, all the crosses, the angels, the families resting in the Lord. >>I suppose, in a place like this, it’s easy to see the need for that belief, the desire for certainty. To know that your loved ones are safe in the bosom of a god that cares. In the face of all this piety, it feels almost churlish to refuse it, and arrogant to insist that all these thousands of Marks spent on tonnes of marble are in vain, and yet...<<

>>I don’t know. In the face of all this simpering piety is where I feel the most blasphemous. I want to tell them their platitudes are empty, there is no god, and nothing awaits, only a tumultuous chaos, in an eternal night filled with pain.<< His sharp eyebrows were definitely mocking as he pulled his jumper back on, then wrapped the coat around him, as protective as his cynicism.

>>So you don’t believe, really. You’re an atheist at heart<< I suggested, with more than a hint of relief.

But Blixa whirled on me, his eyebrows knitted together in a flash of something that looked almost like anger. >>I told you I don’t know.<<

I tried to tug him back to good humour, with a bit of his normal sparring banter. >>But you seem to be perfectly sure of everything else, Blixa. You’re absolutely certain that the government is corrupt and should be brought down. You’re totally convinced that the Russians or the Americans are going to plunge us all into nuclear Armageddon. You have one hundred percent conviction when it comes to telling us all, vociferously, what music is shit and what music is good...<<

But his face didn’t resume its usual mischievous smirk. Instead, he seemed to look more confused, and slightly bereft. >>Yes, and this is the problem. I don’t like not knowing what I believe. Especially something so important. It bothers me, not to know, what I think on the subject. I mean, religion – organised religion, Christianity and so forth – I think it’s a scam. I think it was invented, as a tool of repression and control. I can’t believe in Heaven or Hell, it all seems like a myth designed to frighten a child, to my ears. You better behave, or Nanny will banish you to a burning underworld.<< He waved a finger about dramatically, like an angry nursemaid. >>Yet still, I maintain this persistent and insistent belief, which I know is irrational, and yet it is unshakable, that I have a soul. That there is more to me than bone and flesh and that which withers into dust.<< He kicked at the dust again with his tall wellies, as if he were kicking at the remains of his god-fearing ancestors.

>>It seems to me<< I said, as reasonably as I could. >>That one does not have to believe in religion, or even in gods, to believe in the soul. Some electrical spark of mind, of brain... some pulse of consciousness that separates us from the inanimate.<<

>>Electricity<< he laughed, and the mocking tone was back. >>You always want to bring it back to something physical, something a scientist can measure with a meter, but I suppose that’s what I get for trying to talk about God with an electrician.<<

There was a part of me that felt slightly piqued, because if an Englishman had said this, I would have taken it for a subtle dig at class, and I wanted to assert that I was an electrician by accident, not by birth. But I had gathered, from his comments about my great-aunt’s house, that Blixa was far more working class than I was, and even viewed this with a hint of pride. But anyway, that clearly wasn’t what he intended, as he said ‘electrician’ in the same manner he had said ‘scientist’ or might have said ‘accountant’.

>>I don’t see why you shouldn’t talk about God with an electrician<< I lobbed back. >>After all, wasn’t Jesus supposed to have been the son of a carpenter?<<

>>My father was a carpenter. That doesn’t make me the Son of God<< he shot right back, his face growing animated, as if he were enjoying the verbal sparring.

>>Well, it would be rather inconvenient if you were, as I can’t imagine how difficult it would be, to be unable to decide if you believed in yourself or not.<<

Blixa threw back his head and laughed his unrestrained braying-donkey laugh again. It really was quite astonishing, the disparity between his spiky, sarcastic Berlin cool, and that absolutely uninhibited snort of joy and amusement.

>>Of course I believe in myself<< he asserted, and at that moment, I could see that that was precisely what was so irresistibly attractive about Blixa. He really did have one hundred percent confidence in himself, that seemed to blaze out through his eyes as a kind of charisma. And to people like me, who were constantly fretting and doubting and questioning themselves, it was like an irresistible beacon, a signalling light demanding approach, and yet some kind of drug one could burn oneself on.

>>This is, I think, perhaps why the English take to agnosticism more easily.<< I said softly. >>Because if, like me, you are riddled with self-doubt and ambivalence, then you learn to live with ambiguity and contradiction and you learn to accept the condition of simply not knowing, and never being able to know.<<

His face, slowly, completely changed. As he continued to gaze at me, the confidence slipped, and I found him looking a little bit lost, his eyes huge and staring, with the unfocused slightly glazed look of someone who had been up all night. And yet this little-boy-lost expression, the genuine hunger for knowledge in his eyes, it seemed only to heighten his otherworldly beauty. Confident, arrogant Blixa was beautiful and sexually irresistible and yet totally unassailable, but this Blixa, a little vulnerable, his beauty scared me, unmoored me, made me want to run away from that outthrust lower lip.

I took a few more photos of him standing there against the grimy marble, then wandered off to scout out a new location, refusing to give him the satisfaction of staring as he stretched his elegant limbs to the sky like a ballerina, as if saluting the deity he couldn’t work out if he believed in or not. And as I came round the corner, I was confronted with a row of four solemn, black marble pillars, all with the name “Grimm” chiselled into them.

>>Are these your brothers?<< I called out, and he came leaping over a tombstone to join me.

>>Oh yes<< he said, marching up to Jakob, and climbing over a mound of ivy to pose by the stone. >>Please take a picture of me with them, my long-dead brothers.<< I snapped away with the camera, wondering whether to frame the picture dead square with the four pillars, so that Blixa’s insouciant pose became the focus, or whether try to capture the tall, gothic redbrick tomb a little way behind them on the diagonal. As I stumbled about, trying to frame the shot, he posed, then pulled out his pack of cigarettes and lit another up. >>Do you know the story of the Bremen Town Musicians?<<

>>I can’t say I do.<<

He extricated himself from the grave plot, and plonked himself down on a cold iron bench that seemed to have been set up to sit and admire the Brothers Grimm. >>Come here and I will tell you.<<

I sat, but found the iron far too cold. >>It’s too cold to sit down. I need to be moving around, or I’ll freeze.<<

>>Come here<< he repeated, and put out an arm to catch me, folding me into the warmth of his embrace, trying to wrap his huge, flapping back coat around my shoulders as well. The heat of his body surprised me; he was so skinny and so pale he looked like he should be as cold as marble. And yet he seemed to give off an energy that heated me, as he sat there, smoking, his arm around me. >>There was, once, a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster, all of whom had been abandoned by their owners, because they were no longer of any use.<<

>>What, were they too old, or, what...<<

>>Hush, let me tell the story. They had been cast out. Because they were too strange, or too unusual, or because they simply did not meet their owners needs any more. The world is cruel to outcasts, as you know. So anyway, they found each other, and they all made a pact, that they would go to Bremen to become musicians, because Bremen was known as a Free Town at that point.<<

>>What does that mean?<<

>>Well, it meant that you could set up as a tradesman when you were an apprentice, and not have to have a master. But the animals took this to mean, that they could live there, in freedom, rather than have to have masters. So they all agreed, it is better to go to Bremen, and become musicians – something better than the death which they could find anywhere.<<

>>Animal musicians<< I protested.

>>Look, do you want to know the story, or don’t you?<< He demanded, and I fell quiet. >>So the four animals, they come along to a cottage, which is all lit up as if for supper, and when they look inside, they see these four robbers settling down to dinner, to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.<<

>>How did they know they were robbers?<<

>>Because they were all wearing masks, and holding great bags marked Swag, of course. Stop interrupting. Anyway, the animals decided to sing, and make music, and there was this very great caterwauling of donkey braying, and dog howling, and cat yowling, and rooster crowing, and the robbers were frightened, and they ran off screaming and afraid. So the animals went in the house, and settled down to a very nice dinner, after all.<<

>>What made it think that it was their dinner, and that they had any right to it? If they’ve just driven four innocent farmers away from their dinner, how are they any better than robbers?<< I was only teasing, because it seemed to annoy Blixa so much to have holes picked in his stories.

>>It’s not stealing, if you steal from thieves<< he insisted, gesturing insistently with his long, bony fingers.. >>It is the redistribution of goods, which is a socialist aim, is it not?<<

>>You’re a Socialist now?<< I teased. >>I thought you were an Anarchist.<<

>>Anyway, be quiet.<< Taking me by the shoulder, he shook me gently, good-naturedly, but I took the hint, and fell silent. >>The animals knew that they were robbers, because they recognised some of the goods, which had been pilfered from farms that they had once lived on. So they settle down for the night, after a nice meal. And at some point, one of the robbers comes back. But the cat wakes up when she hears a noise, and the robber sees her eyes, and thinks they are the coals of the fire, and tries to light a candle from them, and the cat freaks the fuck out, and wakes the others, and the cat scratches the robbers, and the dog bites the robber on the legs, and the donkey, she kicks the robber with her hooves, and finally the rooster flies up and drives the robbers from the house with a great cry. And the robber runs away, screaming to his companions that he has been scratched by a witch, which is the cat, and knifed by an ogre, which is the dog, and cudgelled by a giant – the wily donkey – and finally driven from the cottage by the screams of a judge, calling down vengeance on them from the rooftop. So the robbers decide this is too much for them to bear, and leave the neighbourhood permanently. And the happy villagers, all of whom have been suffering under the robbers for years, are so grateful that they let the outcast animals have the cottage for their home, and they live there, happily, making their music, for the rest of their lives.<<

I burst out laughing, elbowing Blixa affectionately in the ribs. >>I can see why this story appeals to you, yes. Mufti is as stubborn as the donkey, and Andrew as faithful as the dog, and Mark as clever as the cat, and you, I imagine you, with your shrill Judge’s voice, you have got to be the rooster.<<

He sucked at his cigarette, and smiled at me sideways, out of the corner of his eye. >>You know me and my friends all too well<< he said, leaning towards me and nudging me gently. And at that moment, in that gentle nudge, I suddenly saw all of us, Blixa and his motley friends, Gudrun and her pirate girl gang, and Wolfgang and the filmmakers, and yes, even me, as the outcast animals living for free in the magical cottage of West Berlin. With that image in mind, I was filled all of a sudden with a wave of the most powerful affection for Blixa, and so I leaned over, put my arm around his skinny waist and rested my head against his shoulder, squeezing him tight and wishing I could capture this moment, capture this whole beautiful, burned-out city, and all its beautiful burned-out people, and just hold it in my heart forever.

Blixa returned the hug, wrapping his arm tighter about my shoulder, and resting his head gently against the top of my head. He took one last drag of his cigarette and then flicked it away. Then he moved forwards slightly, and looked down at me, and I swear, I don’t know what came over him, but he got a look in his eye like he was going to kiss me, and started to move his face closer and closer to me, like if I didn’t pull away, our mouths were going to collide.

I pulled back sharply, and abruptly leapt up from the seat, moving away from him quickly, and going to retrieve my bag of cameras from the step where I had left them. >>Are we going to take more pictures?<< I blurted out, trying very hard not to meet his eye, trying to process what had just happened, both why he had tried to kiss me – had he really tried to kiss me, or had that been my imagination? – and why I had leapt away so sharply, as if I had been burned. >>Because I don’t want to let these out of my sight, you know? They’re not valuable, but... well, they might look like they are to a thief or a junkie.<<

Blixa stared at me from the bench, his beautiful face registering first surprise, then a wave of hurt, and then finally just confusion. Maybe he didn’t really understand what he had just tried to do, either. He stood up awkwardly, casting about him, as if he had lost something, and then he found the belt of the borrowed coat and fastened it tight about him, as if he could keep something in, or someone out, by buckling his belt so tight he looked as if he almost couldn’t breathe.

>>I...<< The long isssccccchhh sound of his German dissipated in a plume of icy breath, as the temperature was dropping. >>I need to go<< he blurted out. >>I have... things I need to attend to. Before we go on tour. I guess I shall... I shall just see you when I get back from tour.<< And he turned, and in a flash of that long black coat, he was gone, not running but striding, his skinny legs pounding down the street outside the barred walls of the cemetery as fast as his feet would take him.

I sat down on that step for some time, just staring after him. No, this was absurd. Blixa had a girlfriend, a very beautiful and kind girlfriend, who was one of my friends. And I was gay, for fucks sake. Well, no, technically, I meant, if I felt like a boy most of the time, and I was into girls, did that make me gay or straight? I had no clue. And Blixa was... well, I had been about to say that Blixa was a man, but that wasn’t the whole truth, either, was it? Blixa was powerfully feminine, with his adopted girl’s name, and his make-up smeared face, and his camp, theatrical manners; but he was at the same time, both very feminine and somehow still very masculine – domineering, bossy, arrogant – as well, all wrapped up into one perplexing body. Whatever he was, he confused me. It was impossible. And for the first time, I actually found myself glad that he was going away for several weeks.

Chapter Text

It was three days before I was back in the red light district, slowing down every time I passed an intersection, scanning the girls for the glimpse of red hair. I parked up, and went to the café, but almost immediately, a bleached-blonde girl in a too-tight dress told me >>Are you the English lad with the thing for red-heads? Herzogin is looking for you.<<

>>Herzogin?<< I stuttered. It meant something like Duchess.

The bleached-blonde nodded over her shoulder, and my gaze fell on the older woman in the leopard-skin coat, who I’d met the first night.

>>Hangover<< she called, snapping her fingers at me, rolling her words in her strong Berlin accent. >>Electrical feller, buy us a drink.<<

>>Have you seen Ilsa, Herzogin?<< I sighed.

>>Gi’ us a drink and I’ll tell yer.<<

I dug out a few DM, and she smiled triumphantly, and told me the name of the intersection where Ilsa could be found. It was quite far out along the avenue, almost out by the City Autobahn, so I took my van, slowing down when I saw the flaming curls of her hair, and the swell of her arse in that tight leather miniskirt. My heart leapt as I pulled over and rolled down the window, and saw that it was, indeed, my Goddess.

>>Ilsa!<< I called out.

She turned and looked at me like she had no idea who I was, as she started her negotiation process almost mechanically, going down a laundry list of acts, and what they might cost.

>>And what would it cost for you to clock off for the night, and come home with me?<< I asked, feeling my heart pounding in my chest. The first time I’d done this, it had been drugs spurring my courage, but now it was sheer adrenaline.

She laughed, and named a sum that was close to a week’s wages.

>>Fine<< I said. >>Get in the van.<<

It was only when she climbed in the van, that she seemed to register that she had seen me before. >>Hang on<< she said, blinking slowly as if surfacing from a long, deep ocean dive. >>I know you.<<

>>Yes.<< I nodded.

>>You’re that fag who turned out to be a dyke.<< For a long moment, we looked at one another, as I tried to work out which part of that I was supposed to be insulted by. But she didn’t say it in a sneering or cruel manner; in her world she was simply stating a fact. Finally, she smiled, and nodded. >>I know a hotel we can go to, where they won’t ask questions. Go down that alley there, you can turn around and come out on the main Strasse.<<

I took her to that no-questions hotel, and fucked her senseless, stripping her to the skin before climbing into bed. She was so beautiful I just wanted to stare at her without letting her see me, but she tugged at the fastenings of my boiler suit until I removed it. But when she tried to pull my vest off, I stayed her hand.

>>No<< I said slowly, kissing her shoulder.

>>Let me see you. I know you’ve got to have tits. I want to see them.<<

>>Absolutely not<< I insisted, and fortunately that time she let it go.

I spent hours, kissing every centimetre of her freckled skin, pouring all of my lust and my frustration and my confusion into her soft, plump, yielding body. I ate her up greedily, wanting to make her come again and again, even as she kept telling me that it was bad for business for her to come, for real. Her clients wanted fake orgasms, all sighing and cooing and swinging her hair about, not this dirty, sweaty, gurning-face and shuddering rictus grin of almost-agony. And after she came, she insisted on getting me off, pulling my pants off my hips and trying to get her face between my thighs, but again I stopped her.

>>You’re funny about that, too, huh.<<

>>Please, just don’t.<<

>>I don’t care that you’re not a man. Can I just... with my fingers? It seems unfair that you don’t get off, too.<<

Lying back against the pillows, I folded my arms behind my head and let her push two of her fingers inside me, playing with the tip of her thumb against my clitoris until I felt my body spasm into orgasm. I felt so peaceful, just lying there, with my arms around her that I didn’t want to speak, didn’t want to do anything, but just feel her heartbeat against mine.

But afterwards, she asked for a cigarette, and I had none, so I took my wallet and wrapped myself in my jumpsuit, and went downstairs to buy a pack from a machine. I recognised the brand that Blixa smoked, and bought them, then returned and tossed them onto the bed. She lit one, and the haze of smoke reminded me of Blixa, who I had been trying so hard to forget. When she had finished it, I took her hand to kiss it, but the slight stain of nicotine on her flesh reminded me of Blixa. And so I took her fingers and pressed them between my thighs, staring into her huge blue eyes as I used her like a toy to get me off again.

And I woke to the sight of her bent over the night-stand, gently lifting my wallet. >>Hey<< I cried, disgruntled, and hating Blixa for being right.

>>I was just taking my fee, and then enough to pay for the hotel, OK?<< she protested, blinking her not-at-all innocent blue eyes at me as she tossed my wallet back into my lap. I counted what was left, and was surprised to discover that it was true, in fact, she hadn’t even taken all that she had said she would charge me the previous night.

>>Don’t I owe you more than this?<<

>>Discount for regulars<< she shrugged, and kissed my shoulder before slipping out of the room.

Of course I became a regular. Berlin was starting to build habits in me. I was hooked, just as much as I realised she was, the first time I saw her pulling a syringe, a lighter and a small spoon surreptitiously from her purse, as she disappeared into the bathroom. How could I have been so dumb? But I was in over my head.

It was Ilsa who took me to my first genuine lesbian bar of Berlin, laughing and bouncing up and down on my knee as I stared about me, genuinely flabbergasted that such a place existed, even though the inside seemed like a time warp back to the early 70s, with ads for women-only communes and lessons in how to knit your own menstrual supplies. We had drawn a few odd looks, slightly hostile glares as we walked in, but it wasn’t until I went up to the bar that someone said to me >>are you sure you’re in the right place, my lad?<< and I realised they had genuinely taken us for a heterosexual couple.

My voice went thin with nerves, and shot up about an octave, as I stuttered something like >>We don’t want any trouble, my girl and I are just looking for a place we can have a quiet drink together.<< Only then, did the woman at the bar choose to see my smooth skin, and recognise my lack of an adam’s apple, before allowing me to buy a soda pop and a glass of sparkling wine for Ilsa.

But with Ilsa perched on my lap, her arm draped around my shoulders with the casual air of possession I didn’t care. It was somewhere we could kiss freely, and caress one another without a care in the world, and we didn’t have to worry about being bothered by Ilsa’s customers.

And it was Ilsa who took me to a sex shop, and showed me the things that one could purchase, if one had money, in the demi-monde of Berlin. Lifelike dildos, that one could attach to a harness that went about the waist and upper thighs. She told me to buy one, and wear it under my clothes when I came for her in the van, so that I could take her standing against the wall in the alley behind the café, then leave to go back to work, and she could go on to another customer. That, she wouldn’t charge me for, she teased. In fact, it was good to be seen with a regular fellow, especially a tall, smart-looking fellow like me, so that her clients wouldn’t try anything funny with her if they thought they’d face my wrath. Her ‘regular fellow’? Oh, the sweetness of that phrase. I became Ilsa’s acknowledged lover, even among the other working girls.

Ilsa pulled me into the other side of West Berlin, a world of whores and seedy hotels and sex that seemed to live in a dark parallel to the music and art scene that I had started to inhabit through my acquaintance with Gudrun and Blixa. And Ilsa’s world was a world where I existed as a body, a body with desires and secretions and needs, not just a mind.

I was happy, truly happy, for perhaps the first time since I had arrived in West Berlin. For those early weeks, as Ilsa and I got to know one another’s bodies, I was dazzled, just dizzily in love. Even the sight of her, wobbling down the street in her knee-high go-go boots towards my van, she made me grin like a fool, feeling my heart pounding in my chest. Her smile of relief, when she saw it was me, it made me feel about ten metres high. I would laugh, and kiss her, and then tease her by pulling the pins out of her hair, so that tousled up-do would come tumbling down, her flame-coloured curls falling all about her shoulders. I started to dream ridiculous thoughts – that if I could just earn enough money, I could tempt her off the streets, and get her to kick, and then she would be mine, mine alone, and I wouldn’t have to share her with all those dirty men.

Malaria! came back from their tour of the States, but I had started neglecting my friends at Iron-Grey. Instead, I was working double shifts at Schumacher’s to earn the overtime, going out in the morning and afternoon with the old man, then again in the evening with his younger deputy, a cousin who was on call for the emergencies. I, who had never lacked for money, needed the money desperately, to cover all those extra visits to the red light district, because even when I wasn’t paying for her, my money seemed to evaporate in the presence of Ilsa. Schumacher was delighted with my renewed interest in work, as he confessed he had been afraid he was on the verge of losing me to those no-good rock’n’rollers. If I studied hard, I could take the certification exam soon. And if I passed, he said he would give me his rusting old van, and he would buy a new one, and that way, the firm could have two full-time vans for call-outs, neatly doubling their income.

But it was Gudrun, who was the only one of the music scene to seek me out, and find out where I had disappeared to. She actually turned up at Schumacher’s one afternoon, all decked out in a stylish Iron-Grey jumpsuit, knocking confidently at the door to the yard and striding in without even waiting for a confirmation. Both the Schumachers, the old man and the younger cousin, stared at this apparition in her heavy boots, her short haircut and her bright red lipstick, then turned to me with something of a newfound respect, as they looked her up and down and found her beautiful.

>>So this is where all Carter’s money goes<< whistled old Schumacher, as Gudrun rounded on me.

>>Carter, where have you been? We haven’t even seen you since we got back from New York.<< she half-pleaded, half admonished.

>>I’ve been really busy. With work. I’m taking a certification exam just before Christmas<< I hedged.

>>You can’t drop in, even on a Saturday night? Or do you just not come around, now that Blixa isn’t in town?<< The insinuation she intoned into Blixa’s name carried one meaning to me, but clearly quite a different one to Schumacher, as he made the same assumption about Blixa’s gender that everyone else did, upon hearing the name without seeing the boy.

>>Tee hee hee<< wheezed Schumacher, turning to Gudrun with a conspiratorial wink, though he was clearly trying to make trouble. >>I’ve heard this Blixa name before, so much so that even an old man like me notices. Are you telling me, Carter, that you are two-timing on this beautiful young lady with this Blixa character?<<

Gudrun looked at Schumacher with a gentle smile that acknowledged the compliment, then turned back to me, with a perplexed expression. >>Wait. You and Blixa? Is that a thing, and not just gossip?<<

>>Don’t be absurd!<< I protested. >>Blixa has a girlfriend.<<

>>Doesn’t mean anything. They have an arrangement<< shrugged Gudrun, looking even more perplexed.

Old Schumacher’s eyebrows shot up across his forehead. Me, he had long since come to consider a harmless oddity, but this potential lesbian love triangle turning to a love quadrilateral before his eyes, this was almost too much excitement for him to contemplate. At that moment, I knew I had to get this conversation away from prying eyes as fast as possible, so I seized Gudrun by the elbow, and hurried her out of the courtyard, and into the bowels of the building, marching her through the supply storeroom, and into the tiny vault at the back, mostly because it was the only room in the building that I was absolutely sure was soundproofed. (A copy of the key, I had discovered, was on the keyring for the van, which I now carried with me whenever I was on the job.)

But Gudrun’s eyes grew huge as she looked about her, taking in the Russian goods, the US Army gear, and the heaps and heaps of cigarettes. >>Oh my god<< she gasped. >>Schumacher is in on the Black Market, isn’t he. That’s why he turns such a blind eye to your extracurricular activities with the van.<<

>>Quiet<< I insisted. >>We don’t talk about that here, OK.<<

She picked up a carton of cigarettes and examined it. >>He totally is. There’s no German customs sticker on this.<<

I sized the carton from her and placed it back on the shelf. >>There was no customs sticker on the cigarettes you paid me with, that first night, either.<<

Gudrun smirked at me. >>The band has a, erm... very keen admirer in the American army. But I don’t imagine Schumacher gets all this kit from starstruck young officers.<<

I didn’t particularly want to go back to the conversation we were having before, but it seemed less complicated than addressing Schumacher’s connections to the Black Market. >>Look... hang on, but what did you mean by Blixa has an arrangement?<< My curiosity won out over my desperation not to talk about Blixa.

A wicked smile spread over Gudrun’s face. >>Jana and Blixa? They have a kind of open relationship. It’s very modern. See, Jana thinks it doesn’t count, if a boy goes with a boy, or a girl goes with a girl. They don’t consider that cheating.<<

>>I’m... not... a boy?<< I stuttered hesitantly.

>>Well, you keep insisting to us you’re not a girl<< Gudrun shrugged, her eyes flashing with mischief.

>>And anyway...<< I cast about blindly. >>They might not consider it cheating, but I would. See, it’s nothing to do with Blixa, why I haven’t been around. I’m... you see, I’m... well, I have been seeing someone.<<

Gudrun’s face lit up, as if she were both surprised and genuinely delighted at this news. >>Really? Anyone I know?<<

I shook my head briskly, trying to imagine the feisty feminist art student and the almost criminally undereducated street urchin that was Ilsa ever coming into contact. >>No one you know.<<

>>Look, I am genuinely happy for you, Carter. But you don’t have to hide it. You can bring... him? her?<< She settled for ‘sie’ after a brief questioning gaze, and a confirming nod from me. >>You can bring her round the shop if you like. Pretty much everyone I know is gay or bisexual. You dating a girl, it’s not a big deal, at all. I’m just happy if she makes you happy.<<

>>I don’t know that it would be her scene, to be honest.<<

Gudrun frowned. >>What makes you say that? Is she very proper or something? You English, you’re into that kind of thing, aren’t you.<<

>>Quite the reverse<< I almost laughed. >>No, I mean, just... She met Blixa, and she and he really didn’t like one another.<< And then I shut up, because even the memory of that first night was very strange.

>>So Blixa has met your girlfriend, but I haven’t?<< She sounded genuinely piqued.

>>It was only by accident. It wasn’t intentional.<< I remembered, suddenly, the way that Blixa had walked in on me having sex with Ilsa that first time, and felt even more uncomfortable, twisting around awkwardly.

But Gudrun misinterpreted my discomfort. >>Well, it’s no wonder that Blixa had his nose put out of joint by you getting a girlfriend.<<

>>What do you mean?<< I growled defensively.

>>Oh, come off it, Carter. Honestly, I think that you and Blixa should just go off somewhere, and just screw. Get it out of your systems, and then I don’t have to hear about you from each other any more.<<

>>What.<< It was news to me, that Blixa discussed me with Gudrun. But then again, Gudrun was Blixa’s best friend. Who else would he discuss such things with? Certainly not his girlfriend. His girlfriend, with whom he had an arrangement. No, wait. This was absurd. My head felt like it was spinning.

>>And don’t give me this, ‘oh he has a girlfriend’ nonsense. We are beyond that sort of thing, in this scene. It’s one of the central tenets of our feminism. We reject this kind of cattiness. We don’t compete with other women, and especially not over men. We support each other. And that means not indulging in this misogynist, catty personal jealousy over other women. Just have a word with Jana, and say, you know, you and Blixa have this thing that you need to work through, and you need to just sleep with one another. I’m sure she will be fine with it.<<

I stared at Gudrun, horror-struck. It wasn’t even the idea that I should go to Jana and negotiate, in an un-catty, un-competitive fashion, for the rights to screw her boyfriend. That sounded so sensible and so German that I could completely imagine Jana blinking her slow junkie gaze, and suggesting what trousers I should have Blixa wear when I took him off to bed him. It was the idea that even Gudrun could see my stupid, unrealistic, impossible, passion for Blixa ,as if it were shining all over my face. >>You cannot be serious<< I managed to stutter.

>>I am completely serious. It’s not healthy, the way that you and Blixa fixate on one another. You should just screw, and get over it.<<

I stared at her, trying to work out how on earth to respond to that, to remind her, that I didn’t even like boys. My mind tried to process this idea, but it slid straight off the detail that Blixa and I seemed fixed on one another, because that was just too impossible to contemplate, and pounced on the word fixation. >>Wait. So. If you say now, oh, everyone’s bisexual in this scene, and you say, now, oh, that it’s not healthy to fixate, and the correct response is to just screw, and get it out of your systems... Why on earth didn’t you just screw me, when I was fixated on you, all those months ago, instead of getting Bettina to warn me off?<<

>>Oh.<< Gudrun sighed deeply, and seemed to suddenly deflate like a balloon. >>Oh, Carter, I’m sorry you were hurt by that. But it had to be done.<<

It astonished me, but I was also slightly relieved that she didn’t even try to deny it. >>So I was good enough to flirt with, when you wanted free electrical work for the shop, or free rides to gigs, but not good enough to screw, even for the sake of my mental health, and to prevent fixations?<<

Gudrun bit her lip, and I felt suddenly awful for my outburst, like I had wounded a small child. >>Oh, Carter, stop it. Don’t take it so personally. I do like you. And I do actually think that you’re very attractive, you’re a very handsome... person. But you...<< She paused and sighed again. >>Carter, you’re hungry for something I can’t give you.<<

>>What?<< I stuttered. >>What’s that supposed to mean? What is it that you think I want?<<

Gudrun’s jaunty confidence seemed to drain out of her face. >>I don’t know what you want. And I don’t actually think that you even know. Which makes it a bit scary, your hunger. Because that’s the problem, like you’re not looking for sex; you’re looking to an answer to all your puzzles. And I can’t solve your puzzles. Because honestly, Carter, you just confuse me.<<

>>Confuse you?<< I echoed, wishing I could end the conversation, back out of it the way I came, without causing any more hurt, but at the same time, I had to know.

>>You confuse me, and not in a good way. I mean, sure, I mostly like boys. But yes, I have experimented and gone with girls a couple of times, and that was nice, too. I enjoyed it. There’s nothing wrong with it. But with you, Carter, I don’t know what you’re about. You’re not a girl looking for an exciting fling with another girl; but it’s not like you’re a man I can have a relationship with... uuhhh... you...<<

The long, dissipating end of her ‘dissssccccchhhhh’ reminded me so painfully of Blixa’s awkwardness, that morning in the cemetery before he left for his tour, that I physically winced. >>I’m not a boy, or a girl, and not even the cool, sexy West Berlin kind of androgyny, but the hungry, scary, confusing kind, and so I don’t fit anywhere in your cosmology.<<

>>Oh, Carter, it’s not like that. We all like you, whatever you are. You’re just Carter, and you know we all have a very great affinity for you. You’re my friend.<< But she stumbled over adding the –in to Freund. >>But this too confuses me. What do I even call you?<<

>>You wouldn’t screw me, because you didn’t know what grammatical ending to use with me?<<

>>It’s not about all that, it’s not about anything as silly as German grammar, you make me sound so absurd. It’s not your pronouns, it’s...<< And here she suddenly swerved just as the truth came out. >>It’s your intensity. Your hunger. Like I said, it can be a bit scary... But, look, anyway, what does it matter. You have a girlfriend now, don’t you?<< she asked hopefully, as if hoping this could restore the great gash that she had ripped through the core of my being.

>>I do have a girlfriend now<< I echoed, a little defiantly, wondering at what point Ilsa would start to find my awful scary intensity so off-putting.

Chapter Text

When Gudrun had gone, finally, leaving me to nurse my bruised ego in peace, I suffered through the torments of Old Schumacher’s comments for a few more hours. Then I borrowed the van, and drove straight to the corner, out by the far section of the Ku’damm, where I knew that Ilsa usually worked. I didn’t care what it would cost me. I just knew I needed to go, and work through my problems, rubbing up against the skin of a woman who didn’t care what my body was or what pronouns she should use with me.

But Ilsa wasn’t on her usual corner. She wasn’t at the café either, and neither was she at the coffee stand out near the City Autobahn, where the girls huddled in cold weather. Thinking she might have been with a customer, I drove to the cheap no-questions hotel, and waited for an hour outside, knowing she was nothing if not punctual, and would not allow a session to go on over the allotted time limit. But she wasn’t there either, and the clerk, true to his word, pretended not to know a thing about Ilsa, even though he had seen me enter and leave with her many times over the past six weeks.

Dejected, I drove back to the café, and tried to buy Herzogin a drink, but she shook her head darkly and refused my money. >>No one’s seen Ilsa in a couple of days<< she hissed, bending her head so close to me that her hair brushed my skin.

>>Where could she have gone? Has no one heard from her?<< I pushed.

Herzogin looked around, checking to hear that no one else would overhear us, before pushing her lips so close to my ear I could feel her leaving traces of lipstick on my skin. >>I know Ilsa likes you a lot, and you’re her regular fellow, so I’m only telling you as a favour to her. Word is, there was a raid up in the French Sector the night before last. A couple of girls haven’t checked back in, since then. Ilsa is one of them. ‘Trude is another. And French Zusie is still missing, too.<<

The information shocked me. I had always thought that prostitution in West Berlin was, if not entirely legal, well, certainly not considered anything worth bothering too much about, from a legal point of view. I considered it to be mildly immoral, what Ilsa did, and something I felt sometimes ashamed about having resorted to, but no more bothersome to my sense of legal obligation than Schumacher’s little tangles with the Black Market. Legality was, well, flexible, in West Berlin. But perhaps in the French Sector, different rules applied.

>>They always take the foreign girls first<< said one of the other old-timers at my table. >>Less people notice, if they go missing.<<

>>Ilsa is foreign?<< I felt stupid for not even noticing.

>>She’s Danish, sweetie. Did you not hear the accent? Like many girls, she came down for a weekend visit, and just never went back. It’s easy to get stranded here on the Island.<<

Something dull thudded in the back of my head. >>But she can’t just disappear. She has.. well, she has...<< This time, I bent in so close to Herzogin’s head that the bristles of her ears brushed my lips. >>She has a habit. She never carries more than a day’s supplies on her, and she always comes back home to score.<<

Herzogin widened her eyes as she looked at me, as if barely believing any human being could be so freshly hatched. >>The French police know that, sweetie.<< I had never heard my own innocence turned into such a liability, as the way she pronounced that word. >>They count on it. It makes the girls real desperate.<<

I simply stared at Herzogin, trying not to freak out at what was finally registering on my brain. If I had been more of a man, I would have done something. Would have even known what to do. Vague plans formed in my head, the idea of going to the French Military Police with money, and trying to get her out. But I had absolutely no idea how to suggest a bribe, and knowing my luck, I would have landed myself arrested for corruption, in a cell somewhere far away from Ilsa. My own impotence stung me, and I’m ashamed to say that I thanked Herzogin for her time, left her some kind of tip, and slunk out of the café like the ignorant child I was. A real man would have known what to do. But it was rubbed in my face, yet again, that I was not a real man.

I drove around West Berlin for the rest of the night, scanning every girl on every corner for red hair, just desperately praying that Herzogin and her friend were wrong. I drove all the way up to the French Sector, hopelessly looking for the police station, but even if I had found it, what would I have done? So instead, I turned around and drove home, but of course I couldn’t sleep.

It was two weeks before I found out for certain what had happened to Ilsa, and by that time, my anxieties had caved in on themselves, and my heart just felt hollow and dead. I had been out on the Eastern stretch of the Ku’damm, on an emergency job with old Schumacher; or rather, he sat in the passenger’s seat of the van, and directed me as I climbed up a ladder and repaired the power supply for a display of neon lighting that advertised a shop beneath.

But as I climbed down, bathed in the blueish glow of the now-working neon, a tiny ball of leopard skin coat and tinted silver-blonde hair came rolling up to me. >>You’re Ilsa’s feller, ain’t ya!<< It wasn’t until she spoke, with that broad Berlin accent, that I realised it was Herzogin. I had never seen her outside of the café, off the barstool on which she was customarily propped up.

>>Yes, I am. Is there any word of Ilsa?<< I gasped.

Herzogin nodded slowly. >>Buy me a drink?<<

>>Of course.<< I dug in my pocket for the DM, but had to hit Schumacher up for some money. >>Is she back? How is she? Where can I find her?<<

Herzogin squirrelled the cash away somewhere inside the leopard skin coat. >>French Zusie came back from the French Sector. Fucking froggy bastards knocked out one of her teeth. That’s going to cost a pretty penny to fix.<< It strained the limits of my German vocabulary to understand her slang, but Herzogin was at least an educational experience, every time I talked to her.

>>What about Ilsa?<< I pressed on.

>>Deported!<< yelped Herzogin. >>They can’t touch French Zusie coz she got a German feller by way a’ marryin’. But turns out Little Miss Ilsa is underage. Only seventeen.<<

>>She told me she was nineteen<< I stuttered.

>>She told us all so, but ‘er Danish papers told a different tale. So they packed ‘er on a train and sent ‘er back to Copenhagen. No return to West Germany for five years, or least until ‘er Majority.<<

I stared at Herzogin, feeling my hopes shuddering and sinking below the waves. Ilsa was underage? But working at a party like that, I had never thought to ask. >>Well, thanks for the information.<<

>>Well, I thought yer might wanna know, since you were her regular feller.<< And with that, she nodded sharply, and shuffled off down the street. “Tschuss!”

Loping back to the van, I felt like my heart had been hollowed out with some kind of rusted implement. But old Schumacher was leering at me. >>First that beautiful Gudrun with the shop, then that Blixa girl that caused all the trouble with her, and now this Ilsa? Some teenage Danish beauty? My god, I thought the young men were bad. Get a female apprentice, your aunt told me, that way there will be no trouble with girls stealing them away. But my god, Carter, you have more girlfriends than the rest of my apprentices put together.<<

So Ilsa was gone, just as quickly as she had arrived in my life. My weekly pay packets were my own again, and just sat, slowly burning holes in my pockets, without Ilsa’s habit to race through them. But my sexual frustration was once again the thing that consumed my every waking moment that I was not at work. I tried going back to the lesbian bar where she had taken me on one of our brief, sweet dates, but without a girlfriend, it just felt cold and cliquey. I didn’t drink, so I sat nursing a tonic water, and no one so much as approached me. In my jumpsuit and cropped hair, the untrimmed top of which was slowly expanding into an unruly quiff, I didn’t seem to fit the tone. The 70s did not seem to have ended in there, and the earth mother long stringy hair and hand-knit tampons thing really did not do it for me. I quietly paid for my drink, and did not go back.

The next evening, I sheepishly went back to Iron-Grey, though I hadn’t spoken to Gudrun since that weird afternoon at my workplace, and tried to slink quietly through the front door, praying no one would notice I had been away.

But it was Bettina at the counter, who almost shrieked with joy when she saw me. >>Carter! Your new girlfriend has given you the evening off, to come and talk to your old friends? Oh, let me make a pot of coffee just for you.<<

It took every ounce of self-control I possessed not to burst out crying. But I knew that Bettina was the kind of radical feminist who likely went on marches against the exploitative evils of prostitution, so I pulled myself together, and tried to piece together some cover story. >>I... I don’t have a girlfriend any more.<<

>>Oh no, sweetie, what happened?<<

That casual word, sweetie, that all the working girls used with me, it just opened the floodgates, and let the tears rip. >>She got deported... back to Denmark.<<

As I collapsed onto the sofa, Bettina abandoned making the coffee, and just came and sat down next to me, putting her arms around me, and softly smoothing my hair. >>Oh, sweetie, it’s OK, If you need to cry it out, just cry it out. Don’t be ashamed to cry, it’s only natural. Your heart has been broken.<<

But again, that devilish word ‘sweetie’ only reminded me further of the café, and how Ilsa had addressed me, bringing it all back. I just whimpered against her, just feeling like everything was falling down around me.

>>Is there anything you can do? Were there conditions to the deportation?<< she asked, sensibly, when my racking sobs abated a little.

>>No return for five years. I will never see her again.<<

>>You can go to Denmark. It’s not that far. You can take the train to the coast, and then there is a ferry to Copenhagen. Listen, I fell in love with a girl, while on tour, and she lives in New York City! Copenhagen’s a lot closer than New York, let me tell you.<<

>>I don’t know where she went... I have no address. I don’t even know...<< I realised with a start that I had never even known her last name. How could you be in love with someone whose full name you didn’t even know.

>>I wish you were a drinker, because I would take you out and get you really, totally blitzed right now<< sighed Bettina, in a somewhat less than motherly tone. >>It would make it feel better.<<

>>I am starting to understand that impulse. Because right now, I could really go for one of Manc Mark’s Space Cakes, and the sweet oblivion they bring<< I sobbed into the damp patch I had cried on Bettina’s shirt.

>>Well, it’s funny that you should say that. Because Manc Mark just sold me a nice, big block of hash, earlier this afternoon.<<

And that was when I realised that West Berlin really, truly was warping my sense of morality and right and wrong, because I said yes. She locked up the shop, and put me in a cab, and took me home with her. Bettina, to my surprise, clearly had quite a bit more money than the rest of us, because she didn’t live in some grim squat. She lived in a rather grand loft on the top two floors of another huge, pre-war apartment block, though this one was in considerably better nick than my great-aunt’s bomb-scarred building. The whole duplex apartment was done out in very chic, minimalist Berlin style, with massive paintings hanging on the walls, underneath the very traditional high-ceilings with lovely ornate plaster still decorating the fireplaces and the light fixtures. Bettina’s housemate, she explained, was a film maker, and was amassing a quite a good collection of the most modern of art.

But we retreated upstairs, to a beautiful open studio space which was clearly Bettina’s, from the bits and bobs of half-finished clothing designs hanging about. As I browsed nosily through her bookshelves, admiring her collection of fine art books and feminist tracts, she dug out an ornate Turkish style water pipe, and started to pack it with dense, crumbly greenish compost that had the same vegetable tang as those Dutch cookies that Manc Mark had fed me.

Within half an hour, the room was full of herbally scented smoke, and I felt as if I were floating on a cloud of incense, somewhere very high up in the heavens above Berlin, which I could see splayed below me from a sloping skylight. Ilsa was melting, seeming very far away from me now, the heartbreak only barely a dull ache in the cavity of my chest. Bettina had vaguely suggested at one point that we ring Gudrun and get her to come round, but fortunately this idea seemed to be dropped quickly when I showed no enthusiasm for it. Gudrun and Blixa, and the weird things that Gudrun had told me about Blixa, and his fixations and his ‘arrangements’ with Jana seemed to be very far away indeed.

The vines of the writhing art nouveau fireplaces seemed to writhe and twist, swirling about my head. The telephone rang, and Bettina went to answer it, talking for a while, as I lay on the sofa and sucked at the water pipe, and stared into space. A short time – or maybe a couple of hours, I lost track of time completely – later, people I did not know arrived. Bettina introduced them, but their names flowed through my head like sand, and I mostly ignored them. One was the housemate, Tabea, a rather butch looking young woman with close-cropped and carefully styled white-blonde hair, who I knew of vaguely as a friend and some-time collaborator of Wolfgang’s. And there were two other women, a couple it seemed, who I had also seen out before with Wolfgang. All three of them were film-makers of some kind. Everyone started to chat, about films at first, then Bettina started talking about this really hot actress she’d met in New York, and I felt myself detaching from the conversation and then from reality itself. People spoke to me, but I barely answered. I just lay on the sofa and watched the silent movies playing behind my eyelids.

The best ideas for comics always came to me when I was stoned, so I asked Bettina for a pad of paper and a pencil. I drew for hours, but nothing I wrote down made any sense. But still, the images rushed along inside my eyes, as I struggled to get them on paper. A Dantean vision of a volcano’s chamber, all red lit, and writhing with muscled men. Go-go dancers with bellies made of water pipes, and you sucked on their nipples to draw generous draughts of hash-smoke. French policemen bashing down gravestones, that turned to teeth in a giant’s mouth, and the giant rolled his enormous tongue, and simply swallowed them, along with a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster. A strange creature who was half boy and half girl, half angel and half demon, who opened up her long black cloak and arched her flat chest at me, saying >>You confuse me, but in a bad way...<<

I came to, back at home, lying crumpled on the floor, in the front hallway of my great-aunt’s house, with no idea how I got there. Trying to climb to my feet, I stumbled over a package left casually on the stairs, and saw my own name. Confused, I ripped it open, and saw piles of photos. The photos I had posted off for developing. Dozens and dozens of photos of Blixa, with his heavily mascaraed eyes, smouldering at me in a cemetery. He looked as good as I remembered, his skin oddly fresh in the cold air. And then, I had forgotten, but before sending them off for developing, I must have fired off the last shots of the roll when I was with Ilsa, for there she was, her flaming hair reduced to black and white, lying naked on a hotel bed, her legs pulled up and her breasts bared in the perfect pin-up pose. And as I started climbing the stairs to my bedroom, I knew I had to write my visions down before they dissipated.

I drew for days, calling in sick to work and telling Schumacher that I had the flu. I certainly felt wretched enough, though whether that was the heartbreak or the aftermath of the drugs, I wasn’t sure. But as I stayed in my room, barely leaving to make more coffee or trudge down to the bathroom, my pens scribbled black and white lines across the paper, as Kaos Komics followed Kollaps Komics.

When they were done, I did a larger run than of the first batch. They sold them in Iron-Grey, and then Gudrun, declaring that issue two was even better than the first issue, persuaded other local shops, like Zensor and the Shit-shop to carry them. Gudrun was feeling much more pleased with life, as the trip to America had been very fruitful. Though she, unlike Bettina, had not acquired an attractive American girlfriend, one of the bands they had met in New York, some Australian chancers with a silly name like the Birthday Cake or something like that, had invited them to be the support act at a big show in London, about which Gudrun was very pleased indeed. They did invite me to go with them – and in a van that Manc Mark was hiring, so they weren’t even after my vehicle – but I declined, as I was still feeling very guilty about making up the time I had skived from work.

Three days after Gudrun and the Malaria! girl-gang left on tour again, Blixa and the New Buildings came home, a little dazed and shell-shocked, but relieved to be back home in West Berlin. The tour, it seemed, had been quite hard work, polarising audiences across Germany. People either hated them, spewing violent abuse that only spurred them on to more abrasive noise, or else they ignored them. And if there was one thing Blixa hated, it was to be ignored. Very few Germans outside West Berlin really seemed to know what to make of this band of outsiders, too awkward, too defiant, too noisy to fit into either the conventional German pop structure, or the typical Hamburg-style idea of what Punks should be, all leather jackets and knucklehead testosterone antics. Everywhere they went, they seemed to start fights, because they were far too intellectual for the belligerent German punks, and yet too scruffy and punk and confrontational for the intellectuals. Wherever they played, they were better at generating controversy than they were at generating ticket sales, it seemed.

But the controversy had generated notoriety, and the notoriety had inspired a huge buzz, that soon reached beyond the borders of Germany. Other cultures seemed curious about these Germans, in a way that Germany did not seem curious about itself. Or, perhaps it was just West Berlin, which the prosperous block of West Germany was starting to see as a little bit of an embarrassment, a poor relation to be swept under the carpet and not examined too closely. But, in the New Year, there was to be a European tour. Even if West Germany wasn’t keen, France, the Netherlands, and even Austria wanted a taste of this bizarre and divisive band that were becoming known for playing home-made instruments with extreme violence, and even taking drills and jack-hammers to the venue in pursuit of their art.

On their return to West Berlin, the New Buildings played not one but two sold-out shows, one at the SO36, the home-coming gig, and the other a few weeks later, at the Metropol, a larger and more upscale venue than they had played before. It was technically a benefit concert that they were contributing to, in support of one of the bigger squats, where Andrew and at that time Alex were living, but the larger venue was definitely a step up. Punk bands played at the SO; proper touring rock bands played at Metropol.

After nearly a month on the road, the band had pulled together into a tight unit, the songs flowing into one another in a well-constructed symphony of noise. And Blixa, who had always had a compelling stage presence, seemed to be evolving into a magnificent frontman, half carnival-barker, half ringmaster of some bizarre circus. At times, it looked bloody dangerous up there, with sheet metal and heavy equipment flying around, but the way that Blixa stalked back and forth, this striking, black-clad angel of death, tall and thin amidst all the chaos, he was riveting.

He had this trick that he performed, where he would stand up at the microphone in the front and centre of the stage, and place a huge black sleeping mask completely over his eyes, so that he stood there blinded before us, an incredible act of faith, given the chaos raging around him, heavy axes flying and plumes of sparks exploding without warning. With his eyes closed, he sang from the bottom of his heart, as if feeling blindly for words. It was an oddly powerful gesture, that sent a shiver down my spine.

The Malaria! girls, fresh back from London and full of praise for the show they had been part of, kept me company at the SO36 gig, but it was Bettina I sought out now, rather than Gudrun. Bettina and Tabea, and their tough little knot of ‘women-loving women’ had completely accepted and absorbed me, as if that six-week affair with a girl none of them had even met had been some kind of initiation ritual to make me one of them. But I was grateful for the comradeship, of course, and clung to them.

Wolfgang and his band, the Deadly Doris were supporting, and there was a great deal of friendly back and forth between the various groups, and much good humour. The Deadly Doris didn’t play songs, so much as they constructed musical moods, and filled their between-song spaces not with banter, but with strange performance art pieces, such as Wolfgang casually setting a mic to a brewing electrical kettle and amplifying the act of making a cup of coffee. They were very funny, very camp and very arch, pushing the boundaries of what was music and what was non-music in a completely different way from the New Buildings, but they worked well together, and the evening was a great success.

The Metropol gig, though, became very odd in atmosphere over the course of the night. Somewhere between the bit of the evening where Blixa was swanning around the venue, telling war stories of their beleaguered tour to enraptured scenesters, and the bit where he disappeared to go onstage, Jana appeared, and clung to my arm, guiding me off into a booth. I was already a little stoned, so I didn’t think about this, and just followed her meekly. Pushing me into the inside of the booth, she took the outside seat, so that I had the better view of the stage, but she had the exit. At first, I was pleased of her company, as some of the more political members of the squatters’ movement intimidated me a little, really pressuring you into supporting their cause, whether you were a squatter or not. So Jana seemed like a much better companion than some aggressive anarchist who wanted to lecture me on the joys of communal living until I coughed up some money. At first, our conversation was light and cheery. But after exchanging pleasantries, she seemed a little more animated than her normal, ethereal calm, looking about her twitchily before pulling me closer into her confidence and staring at me quite intently.

>>So I hear you have been through a break-up<< she said urgently, looking at me so intently with her unnerving colourless eyes. >>Was it absolutely awful?<<

I closed my eyes for a moment, and let the blindsided shock of the question roll off me. Really, I was getting a little better at handling the fact, if not the idea, of the breakup, but it was still disconcerting to be asked about it so directly. Blixa, to my relief, hadn’t actually mentioned it, though I was certain he had to know, as Gudrun seemed to have told everyone, spinning it as part of the yarn of why Kaos Komics were so good.

>>I’m not going to lie<< I confessed, when I had pulled my unravelling mind back together. >>I was gutted.<<

>>Gutted<< repeated Jana slowly, a little unsure, and I wondered if German used the same idiom, for I, unthinkingly, had just used the verb that one used to describe preparing fish or game to be cooked.

>>Sorry, that’s a metaphor. I don’t mean it literally<< I clarified. >>But it hurt, it really did. It felt like someone put a hook in my heart, and pulled it out through my throat.<<

>>How awful<< agreed Jana, looking slightly less alarmed, though still worried. >>The Nine of Swords. I told you so. It was in your reading.<<

I just glared at her, as if to say, you are completely bollocking me, trying to get a look into the pupils of her eyes to work out how high she was. Not that I had much right to criticise her on that front, as I had sucked down half a joint before the show, with Bettina, but clearly I wasn’t high enough for this tarot nonsense.

>>But you mustn’t brood, Carter. People tell me that you have taken it badly, that you have been brooding.<<

>>Gudrun<< I sighed, rolling my eyes. >>You know how Gudrun exaggerates everything.<<

>>Bettina<< she countered. >>And Bettina is not given to exaggeration in the same way. Besides... being gutted like a fish, that does not sound like a pleasant experience or a healthy attitude.<<

I looked down, biting my lip, and wishing I had some more hash to make this conversation bearable, as Jana’s careful positioning of herself so that I was on the inside of the booth meant that I could not escape. Glancing over towards the soundboard, I checked to see if Manc Mark was doing sound, as I knew he was always good for a spliff, but it was actually the Awful Teenager, Alex, bent over the desk. No comfort there, and no escape from this conversation I really didn’t want to be part of.

>>No, I’m serious, Carter. You mustn’t get all upset and become depressive over it. It does you no good. It’s quite unhealthy. A good-looking person like you, you should get out there and play the field. Have a good screw, that is the best way to get over it.<<

>>Jana!<< I protested. >>I appreciate the concern, but I am fine as I am.<< Turning towards the stage, I tried to concentrate on the New Buildings, watching Blixa stalk back and forth across the stage like an insect overlord in his tight rubber trousers and his black ballet top.

Jana followed my eyes for a minute, then looked back at me, watching me watching her partner, examining my face carefully as if searching for something. >>Perhaps you should have a screw with Blixa. He likes you. And I swear to you, I would not mind at all.<<

>>Jana!<< I almost yelped, having almost entirely managed to forget their little arrangement since Blixa’s return. >>I have no interest in Blixa, in that way, no matter what Gudrun has been telling you.<<

>>Gudrun?<< asked Jana, widening her eyes in surprise, scratching lazily at the lace around her arms. >>What has Gudrun to do with it? I say so only because I see the way you look at him. And I’ve read your comics. They’re very good. Look, I understand. He’s a good man, to have a screw with. He’s very affectionate, and yet very energetic. You two would do one another good. And he could use it just as much as you.<<

>>I don’t like men<< I almost spat, desperately wishing myself out of the booth, anywhere but in that club, watching the New Buildings, having Blixa’s girlfriend tell me exactly what he was like in bed. But Jana would not let up, her words tumbling out of her mouth in a sing-song rush that the laid-back girl never normally hurried over anything.

>>Going to bed with Blixa is not like going to bed with a man at all. He’s very feminine, ninnerine, femininnerinnerin. He’s acrobatic, acquiescent, almost passive, passes-service, service-servant<< she started to almost sing, in a girlish voice, then suddenly seemed to snap to, with an odd expression, as if she wasn’t entirely sure what she had just said. But then her eyes lit up, and she added >>He likes the girl to go on top.<< A heartbeat’s pause. >>Or the boy. He’s not too fussy about the gender of his lovers.<< She peered at me closely again, as if she either couldn’t see, or didn’t care about the blush spreading quickly across my face and neck. >>What is your star sign?<<

>>Aries<< I almost sputtered, relieved to change the subject, even to something as absurd as astrology.

>>Oh, perfect. Blixa is a Capricorn. Capricorn, Airy-corn. The ram and the goat, you go well together.<<

>>Look, I’m sorry, but please could you let me out<< I suddenly snapped, no longer caring if she thought I was rude. >>I need the toilet...<<

Finally, she shifted, and stood up to let me pass, though I headed, not for the toilet, but the door out of the venue, pushing anarchists out of the way before they could accost me for cash. >>I honestly don’t mind at all<< she called after me as I fled.

Chapter Text

Of course, I was the last to know the gossip that all of West Berlin had been buzzing with for days. And I didn’t even hear it from Blixa, as I was desperately avoiding him, and whatever weird arrangements he had worked out with that strange, eerie sing-song child. I heard it at Bettina’s, when I went round, desperately trying to make a connection through Manc Mark, because I found I needed my own supply of hash, to keep my mind from falling apart every time I thought of how I’d lost Ilsa. Bettina phoned Manc Mark, who agreed to stop by her flat on his way to a Deadly Doris gig that evening. He invited us along, so we decided to have a smoke first, then go to the concert. Manc Mark had just packed Bettina’s lovely Turkish water pipe, when Tabea, Bettina’s beautiful butch housemate appeared, having smelled the sticky-sweet herbal scent of the smoke. So she sat on the sofa and smoked with us, plying us with the latest news before we headed out.

>>Blixa and Jana have definitely split up<< she announced salaciously, and I felt all the air go out of my lungs as if I’d been punched in the gut. >>That’s why he’s moved into your shop, which Gudrun is not entirely pleased about.<<

>>It’s not that Gudrun is displeased... no, let me tell you. It’s my name on the bills, and Gudrun didn’t even ask me if he could move in<< grumbled Bettina, in complete contradiction to what Gudrun had earlier told me. For a moment, I wondered if he had in fact ever asked either of them if he could stay there. >>She says it’s not her fault, he just appeared, moving in bit by bit so that she didn’t realise it was happening. But Blixa and Gudrun are as thick as thieves, you know they are.<<

>>I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s been a long time coming, I’m only surprised Jana didn’t kick him out sooner<< said Manc Mark, a little superciliously.

>>Why?<< I stuttered, still reeling from the news. >>What have you got against Blixa.<<

Manc Mark switched quickly to rapid-fire Mancunian English. “Look, love, nothing against your mate. But honestly... I know everyone in West Berlin has a bit of a screw loose; you have to, to live in a bonkers city like this. But Blixa, mate, Blixa’s got the entire fookin’ clockwork upstairs coming out his ears, if you know wharrah mean.”

>>I don’t think she threw him out<< said Bettina, speaking over the top of Manc Mark, to show that she knew that the slangy, rapid-fire English was meant to exclude the others, and she disapproved. >>I thought it was by fairly mutual agreement. He was the one who moved out, after all. If she’d left him, she would have been the one to go.<<

>>He shouldn’t have gone on tour for so long<< Tabea whistled in a tittle-tattle voice. >>Leaving a pretty girl like that alone, bound to come to trouble.<<

>>So she dumped him? Did she start seeing someone else?<< I asked, barely believing it of her. Jana, beautiful though she was, struck me as some fruity ethereal batcake, with her tarot cards and her ‘second sight’; not some erotic temptress. But then again, if she had been playing the field, that would explain the urgency with which she pressed me to sleep with her cuckolded partner, if she wanted to assuage her own guilt. God, these Germans did my head in. How they acted in public like everything was so straightforward and on the level, but subterfuge seemed to lurk everywhere.

>>Well!<< Tabea took a deep draw from the water pipe, then looked about the room, as smoke wafted from her nostrils, smiling as if she were holding in more than the drug. The theatrical trick worked; none of us said a word while we waited for her to complete her gossip. Finally, she exhaled and passed the pipe to me, laying her arms along the back of the sofa as she reclined, smoke billowing from her mouth. >>Did you notice that she stopped touching everyone up for money, when he went off on tour.<<

I opened my mouth to protest that she didn’t spend the money on drugs; she spent the money on Blixa last time, but my mouth was now full of hash smoke, and Bettina cut her off. >>Maybe she kicked. She did say she was going to try to.<<

Tabea didn’t wait to allow another interruption this time, pulling her cigarettes out of her leather jacket. >>She didn’t kick. She’s been higher than Skylab for weeks, and you know why?<< Without missing a beat, she extracted a lighter and lit one. >>She’s screwing her dealer.<<

>>No way<< ejected Manc Mark, taking the mouth of the hose from me, unwinding it from around the table corner, where it had caught. >>No dealer on earth would support a habit like that for a little pussy, no matter how good looking Jana is. It’s just not good business practice.<<

All three of the lesbians burst out laughing at him at once.

>>What? What did I say?<< he protested, looking as innocent as someone could plausibly look, with a policeman’s hat draped over one eye and the pipe of a hookah sticking out of his mouth.

“You are such a Manc,” I teased him.

“You say that like it’s an insult, ya soft bloody Southerner.”

>>I mean, you think with your wallet, and not with your heart<< I clarified.

Tabea opened her cat-like eyes all big and round and faux-innocent. >>I think her dealer is thinking with an organ a little lower than his heart, to be honest. Jana can be very... original in bed. Men are so stupid, they can get hooked on that kind of thing.<<

I wanted to pump her for more information, but I didn’t get the chance, as Manc Mark checked his watch and said we better hurry up and finish the pipe. I floated on a cloud of hashish down the street and into the club, where Wolfgang appeared in fancy dress and kissed everyone on the cheeks, thanking us all for coming down. Wolfgang and Nicholas had their own take on the Blixa-Jana triangle, and we ended up going through the gossip all over again.

>>No, it was definitely Jana that ended things<< Nicholas insisted, all wide-eyed and breathless, like this was the story of the season. >>All that touring, he’s been away so much, and you know musicians are never faithful on the road.<<

>>Speak for yourself, just because you can’t keep it in your pants<< said Wolfgang, rolling his eyes. >>I’m sure Blixa had his reasons, and he’ll thank us to keep us to keep our noses out of their business during this difficult time for them.<<

>>Oh, darling, like you don’t have a dog in this fight<< retorted Nicholas before breaking into giggles.

Wolfgang fixed him with a distinct gaze, and walked off in the direction of the stage, and then there was a burst of noise and the concert was beginning, so we took our seats. And all my thoughts were washed away by a wave of noise and music and the desultory chatter of incredibly high people in the wee hours of the morning.

 

Blixa was at Iron-Grey the next time I went round, one afternoon after work. Of course he was there, he lived there now. His things were all over the back room, his dirty dishes in the sink, his music on the stereo. He acted happy to see me, and raved about the comic, and asked if I had managed to get the film of his modelling developed, wanting to know how it had come out. I didn’t mention my break-up; he didn’t mention his. It seemed simply easier that way, dancing around the questions that that would have to open up. I told him the photos were good, that they had come out really well. He asked if I could get enlargements made for him, as the record company wanted such things. I laughed and told him I wasn’t made of money, and he nodded his head decisively and said he would ask around, as with so many friends who were film-makers and photographers and artists, it was not a hard thing to find a darkroom.

I agreed, but the atmosphere in the shop had changed since Blixa had moved in. Andrew seemed to have taken up permanent residence in the cellar, designing and making odd home-made instruments down there, so that there was always the sound of banging going on. It was busy, like it was always busy on a Friday evening, full of people who wanted not necessarily to buy the clothes or the cassettes, but who wanted to hang out, to enjoy the social scene, to make connections. But Blixa’s scene was slightly different from Gudrun’s. It wasn’t as if the shop suddenly filled up one day with awful men, as Blixa’s friends were, for the most part, artists and gay men, and those soft, slightly effeminate West Berlin dandies where you just couldn’t tell. But the pirate-girl-gang meetings moved, from the shop to Gudrun’s squat, when it was warm, or Bettina’s and Tabea’s grand apartment, when it was cold enough to need their luxurious heating.

For the soft, mild Autumn had ended, and little had prepared me for the sharp, biting cold of Berlin winters. The question, constantly, at home and at work, became one of heating. The very air changed, as everything grew acrid with the tang of coal. For the principle source of heating in Berlin was old, Victorian era coal stoves. Ugly burlap bags thick with black soot or coal dust appeared everywhere, for sale in shops, on the street corners, and the obtaining and burning of the stuff became a constant concern. Even without a sense of smell, it wasn’t the stench for me, but the constant fumes, and we all walked round constantly with eyes rubbed red from the smoke.

My Great-Aunt had a strict regimen for the provision of heating for the women who lived in the boarding house upstairs. It was a waste to provide heat while people were asleep or out at work, so the great furnace in the basement was stoked to provide heat and hot water only from 6 until 9 in the morning, and then again, from 5 until 10 at night. And, of course, it was my job to make sure that the great coal bins that fed the thing were always stocked, a task for which Schumacher’s van proved very helpful in procuring those vast quantities of coal sacks to make up the stocks if we ran out between the weekly deliveries.

Tabea had an aversion to the cold, and the money to make sure that their coal stove was always well-stocked, even if Bettina had to struggle up the stairs with the bags. Other friends, such as Gudrun and Manc Mark, simply didn’t bother. Why heat a house if you just weren’t going to be there? Hence, they would go out every evening, to Iron-Grey, to Café Mitropa just round the corner, or to the Risk bar, just to enjoy the warmth which could be obtained with the purchase of a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer, which worked out cheaper than lugging those awful sacks of coal up the stairs. Wolfgang, the lucky sod, had somehow managed to sublet a modern apartment in a post-war building, which had the magic of electric heating – and a power shower! Unheard-of in Berlin! – though this was very expensive and had to be carefully regulated or Blixa would come round and spend two hours steaming up the bathroom just to get warm.

Suzanne’s other band, The Skin, shared a ramshackle rehearsal space cum band house with a couple of the other scene bands in an industrial area near the Wall in Kreuzberg, suspicious burns and bullet holes in the walls, oddly new wood around the brand new lock on the front door, that sort of thing. That didn’t even have running water above the ground floor, with its primitive kitchen and outside loo, so they didn’t bother heating anywhere the water couldn’t freeze. However, their cavalier attitude towards electricity, running illicit wires like vines from the mains, it terrified me. Suzanne had me come round and do a few rudimentary checks since Malaria! were rehearsing there now, fixing some really dangerous home-made wire-jobs, and trying to impress upon her bandmates the importance of grounding and insulation, but need always won over caution.

But at least it kept me in employment. Schumacher’s business picked up as the weather turned cold. If we were lucky, it would be a big installation job of putting electrical heaters into clean, but usually rather shoddily constructed new-builds. (Though I could no longer hear the term “new-builds”, even in a work setting, without thinking of Blixa’s mob.) Not so lucky were the hack-jobs, of trying to navigate ancient and unreliable wiring, to install new electric heaters into old buildings without turning them into fire hazards. And the very worst of all, was trying to clear up the emergencies of shorts and tripped circuits and electrical fires in habitations that made The Skin’s band house look like a palace of modern safety. Schumacher wouldn’t touch the squats; he said they never had any money and it wasn’t worth the trouble, even if the squatters could persuade the electricity company to turn on the power legally. But these were the places where my friends lived, and I simply wanted to see them alive after the next big freeze.

I studied for, and passed the basic electrical certification exam, both the written portion of the test, and the practical. So I was now qualified to take on my own simple, basic jobs. But Schumacher, with a wink and a nod, urged me instead to take on the more lucrative emergency calls, in which we were almost licensed to print money, as people were so desperate. But I spent a lot of time, on the clock and on my own time, going into squats and illegal band rehearsal spaces and studios, just making them safe.

Christoph from The Skin, who it turned out, didn’t actually live at the decrepit band-house, but in a much nicer (and better heated) loft around the corner, contacted me privately about installing the same kind of lovely power shower that Blixa had boasted to him that Wolfgang had. I got one cheaply for him wholesale, and he paid me cash under the table, but then begged me not to tell Blixa that he’d got one. But of course Blixa found out, as he had a bit of a radar for other people’s luxuries and added Christoph to the round of friends he just coincidentally dropped in to visit when he got a bit ripe, since there were no washing facilities at Iron-Grey. Maybe it was a little annoying to Christoph, but it was good for me to pick up a reputation as a person who could install electrical heating and power showers.

So I became not just known in the West Berlin music and arts scenes, but considered a useful person to know. It was an odd position for me, to be considered a friendship worth cultivating, but I enjoyed it. Especially the first time that some musician I didn’t really know came into Iron-Grey and started asking intently, not for Blixa or Gudrun, those social butterflies around whom the music scene spun, but for me.

An elaborately made up and slightly swishy man appeared one day, and demanded that I, and only I, would do, to do something about the absolutely appalling state of his band’s rehearsal room, and could I please come now. I drove him back in my van, and was shown into what looked like a squalid squat from the outside. But the inside was like another world, all velvet flocked wallpaper and gold curtains, and two very beautiful women were lounging in formal ballgowns in the shadows of a romantic, candle-lit lounge that just happened to be draped with the usual accoutrements of amplifiers and drum kits, amidst piles of phoney Louis XIV kitsch.

One of the beautiful girls leapt to her feet as she saw me struggling in with my toolbox. >>Is this the luscious lesbian ‘lectrician?<< she asked, and I felt myself bristling.

>>I’m Carter<< I said guardedly. >>I’m here to do something about the lights?<<

>>Don’t worry<< said the other beautiful girl, walking up to me and doffing her wig to revealed a shaved head, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. She dropped her voice about an octave, to finish in a man’s tone >>I’m Salomé. We’re all family here, darling.<<

The first girl, who I realised was also a drag queen, started to circle me slowly. >>Look at these muscles. Ooh, and this toolbelt.. Is this real?<< She squealed as she wrapped her fingers lightly around my arm to cop a little feel, just below where I’d rolled up my sleeves.. >>Oof! Why don’t you have a cock? Are you sure you are no twink, because if this is what the lesbians look like these days, honey, I might be tempted to start eating at the fish bar!<<

>>Down, girl! Behave!<< tutted Salomé and gestured with a torch towards the hall closet, where, presumably, the misbehaving fusebox was located. >>There is work to be done?<<

I smiled saucily and shouldered my tools, feeling a little more at home now I realised why it had been me they had called. >>Don’t worry, ladies. I’ll have your fusebox sparking in no time.<<

The pair of them tittered and swooped round me like a pair of bats as I sorted out the wiring. It was a ten-minute job to change a fuse, but they made such a fuss as if I’d rewired the entire house from top to bottom, when the power surged and the lights came back on. Salomé found my fee, plus a nice bonus for the late-night call-out, then handed me a business card that said >>Horny Beasts<< on it in a very fancy typeface. >>If you ever need anything<< she intoned very seriously. >>You give me a call. I know everyone in this town, darling. Everyone.<<

 

The only downside of my new professional status was that the Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt did a cursory check of my physical faculties when I applied for a transfer of registration of Schumacher’s old van, which he had given to me when he’d bought a brand spanking new one for the company. The KBA accepted my English driving documents without fuss, but found my eyesight wanting. Now, I knew I didn’t have the greatest eyes, and I wasn’t always great at recognising faces from a distance. But the news that I would have to wear glasses, in order to drive the rusty old van I was now spending every weekend afternoon tinkering with, that did not please me.

I turned to Bettina for help. And Bettina referred me to her glamourous and fashion-conscious American girlfriend, who was visiting West Berlin ostensibly on a modelling job, but mostly spending all of her time lounging about and driving Bettina wild. I had never, in all my life before, encountered anyone quite like Anne.

The first time I met her, I had just dropped by Bettina’s to complain about the glasses situation, and as Bettina went through into the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee, this exquisite creature came slouching out of the bedroom, wearing a flame red merry widow bustier, with a white feathery marabou cloak, like something out of a Marlene Dietrich film, draped over the top. She was easily as tall as me, but she was wearing stilettos that put her at about six foot, and the way she looked me up and down made me feel quite peculiar.

“Bettina,” she drawled in a rather patrician New York accent. “There’s a beautiful youth here in your living room. Let me... slip into something more comfortable.”

I sputtered a little and fell silent, as ‘beautiful’ was not an epithet that anyone ever tended to apply to me. When Bettina reappeared with the cafetiere, I turned and gaped at her in astonishment, but Bettina smirked somewhat proudly, as the blonde creature reappeared, wearing a boxy, masculine-cut suit over the top of that flame-coloured push-up bustier. “Have you met my girlfriend, Anne?”

Bettina had always been one of the most stylish women I knew, mixing chic black clothes and butch leather trousers with dark lipstick in the Weimar art student kind of vein. But Anne, she took androgyny to a whole different level. She had a long, thin, slightly ambiguous face with high cheekbones and a sharp jaw, but she kept her hair cropped very short in a very masculine style, albeit dyed platinum blond. Her gender-fuck fashion sense mixed very chic, very elegant, but slightly butch menswear with the most exotic and slightly erotic of undergarments. Whenever we left the house with her, people on the street would actually turn to do a double take, to see some stripper’s bustier peeking out from under a pinstriped banker’s suit, like they could not tell if she was a man wearing kinky undergarments, or a daring woman with a particularly androgynous style. And Anne, though she was not, yet, famous, had a blue-blood air of celebrity about her, so that we were always shown to the very best table at the Jungle whenever she was in town.

Between the pair of them, Bettina and Anne really seemed determined to get me to try to make something of my look. To be honest, I had never really thought about having a look before. Mostly, I just thought about making sure I passed for ‘generic bloke’ in a way that wouldn’t attract too much notice on building sites.

“Carter,” Anne said to me as she sat me down, and dug her long, elegant fingers into the mass of my unruly black hair. “You have such good bone structure, if you’d just do something with it... and this hair... is it real?”

“What do you mean, is it real? It just grows from my head like that.” I hunched my shoulders, as instead of inheriting my mother’s soft, silky, honey-coloured German hair, I had ended up with my Anglo-Irish father’s thick, black, horse-like mane, which had always been considered incredibly ugly by my family.

“The colour is to die for – I have too many ex-lovers back home who had to turn to Miss Clairol to get it this deep a shade.” She dug around in her handbag until she produced a comb, and started to back-comb my quiff until it stood up perpendicular on the front of my head. “Oh, look at that, Betts, I haven’t even put any styling product in it. Hang on, let me do your eyes.” I suffered in the chair, as she pulled out some kohl, sharpened the pencil, then started to menace it threateningly towards one of my eyes.

“I don’t ever wear make-up,” I protested, trying to bat her away.

“Why not?”

“Make-up is for girls,” I snorted. “I’m not a girl.”

“Carter,” said Anne very carefully, taking my blocky chin in her long, elegant fingers and turning it towards her. “Listen to me, because this is important. Gender isn’t something you wear. Your gender isn’t in your clothes, your make-up, your hair, though those are all very good places to start. Just remember, even though those things are important, they are only a paint-box. Just costumes. It’s all drag. Because gender is how you feel, deep down in your heart. Any man wearing a dress is still just a man wearing a dress if he doesn’t do it with the right attitude. It’s how someone carries themselves that makes them a man, or a woman, or something inbetween. True masculinity is not about refusing to wear eyeliner, it’s about how you project yourself while wearing that eyeliner. Now look up, no, right up at the ceiling, and let me show you.”

Settling down, I pondered what she had just said as she poked and prodded at my eyes. And I thought, of course, about Blixa. Blixa wore eyeliner all the time. I could very easily imagine him turning up in a dress without a moment’s thought, and yet it wasn’t at all the way that he dressed that made his gender so hard to read. It was, as Anne had suggested, the way that he carried himself, the way he moved, his fluid, expressive hands, his dancer’s way of weaving his shoulders so that a simple shrug could convey a thousand words, the graceful way he stood, and bent, and flexed, and the devastating precision he deployed his eyebrows, or his sneer. Blixa would still be neither a man nor woman, but simply a Blixa, in a dress, in a three-piece suit, or completely nude.

Finally, Anne was done torturing me with that kohl pencil, and my chin was released. “Now. Look at yourself.”

I was genuinely surprised by the defiant Victorian street-urchin who stared back from the mirror over Tabea’s fireplace. “I look like Joan fucking Jett.”

“Yes,” pronounced Bettina, with a Teutonic hint of ferocity that scared me a little. “You do.”

“Nah, I’d say more Johnny Thunders,” observed Anne, producing a paisley-print scarf from somewhere in her voluminous carry-all bag, and wrapping it around my neck in a loose bow. “Lord, now that man was a proper heartbreaker...”

“If you are trying to make me jealous with your heterosexual crushes, it is not going to work,” teased Bettina, stretching herself out on the sofa behind us.

“Heterosexual, heteroschmexual,” laughed Anne. “He thought I was a boy when I first met him. Not that it matters much; he still gave me the eye. It just doesn’t matter, does it. If you find someone attractive, the genitals are pretty much the least important aspect of it.”

“Well, what is important, then, if genitals are not?” I stuttered, feeling my whole head starting to spin under her heady influence. It wasn’t that I desired Anne – after all, she was Bettina’s lover, and despite West Berlin social mores, I didn’t really fancy sharing – but this worldview seemed intoxicating, exhilarating, seductive. The things she said just rearranged my mind.

Anne left me, and walked over to Bettina, who was sat, smoking and pouting on the sofa. “Noses,” she drawled, gently tapping her lover’s very pointed Prussian nose with her blood-red fingernails. “I have a definite thing for good noses. And hair, of course. Hair is the single most important thing to me,” she insisted, digging her fingers into Bettina’s thick, brown schoolboy crop. “If the hair, and the nose, and the style is good, what’s down below doesn’t really matter to me.” As she thrust her tongue into Bettina’s ear, Bettina looked like she was about to protest at something, but as their kiss started to turn passionate, she seemed to forget whatever she was going to say.

I didn’t like to stare, but Anne fascinated me. She would dress as a boy one day, a girl the next, but more often than not, some strange and flamboyant mixture of the two. And as she tried to dress me up, lending me clothes or styling my thick black hair into outrageous peaks, she both encouraged me, and inspired me. She dragged me in her wake, on her and Bettina’s shopping trips, and pushed me to try on clothes that I admired, but never thought I had the confidence to pull off. And slowly, maybe not at work, but definitely going to gigs, and going out on the town, I started to push my dirtbag butch thing into the realm of ‘old-fashioned dandy’. Fitted shirts started appearing in my wardrobe, as did a couple of old-time waistcoats with lapels. Proper Levi’s were almost impossible to get in West Berlin, but when she left, Anne took my measurements back to New York, and gifted me with a pair she’d found in a second hand shop on Broadway down near Houston, making a special note of the address, imparting this mysterious location with a near mystic appeal. I dressed myself more carefully, and found that I started to enjoy the lingering glances from both sexes. As a girl, or in the guise of a shapeless teenage boy, I’d never attracted much attention. But as an androgynous dandy, people were suddenly intrigued when I walked through a room in what Anne called my ‘soft butch chic’.

And it was Anne who sorted out my vision problems for the KBA, so that I could be issued with a German drivers’ license and the registration for my beloved van. She had an extremely good eye for what would suit my facial shape, and combed through vintage spectacles until she found me, not some modern metal and tinted glass 80s monstrosities that the fashionable shops were selling, but a pair of very old, round, horn-rimmed glasses that looked like something a professor at the Bauhaus would have worn. I got my prescription filled into those, though the optometrist complained about grinding the lens to the right shape. And when I put them on, combined with my man’s haircut, and my old-fashioned clothes, I was astonished at the Weimar intellectual who stared back at me.

Gudrun’s jaw actually dropped. the first time she saw me, in my new glasses, wearing a stiff Victorian gentleman’s waistcoat and shirtsleeves. >>God in heaven, Carter, you’re handsome in those.<<

The compliment was a welcome one, not just because it pleased me to be considered attractive by Gudrun, but because it made me feel that we were, finally, back on completely friendly and non-awkward terms after the weirdness of the autumn. I had accepted that she didn’t fancy me, but still, it felt nice to be admired.

And Blixa? Blixa’s eyes flickered over me with an expression that made me shiver. Blixa was going through a very weird period, since he and Jana had split up. First he scraped his hair back, almost to the skin, which was very ugly, really highlighting the bony longness of his pale Prussian face. He had always been lanky, but without a girlfriend, he seemed to simply forget to eat, and started becoming almost painfully thin. And he was starting to act... well, there was no other way to put it, really. He started to act really faggy, like he was no longer just slightly camp, in the way that so many West Berlin men were all camp. He actually started to act like heterosexuality and even masculinity itself was something he no longer had any use for, and was just casting away from him like abandoned luggage now he no longer had to hold on to a girlfriend.

I caught sight of him sometimes in gay bars, where I went with Bettina and Anne and Tabea and the little butch clique. They were all trying to make me get out there, on the scene, to meet someone new, a nice girl to help me get over Ilsa. So it wasn’t like I was actually looking out for Blixa, but his strange, ethereal beauty just seemed to shine out over a crowded room, whether he wanted it to or not. All the things he did to make himself look more ugly only served to make him look more unusual, and therefore more beautiful. The way he was carrying himself had changed, since he got back from that first tour, like he had discovered something new about himself out there on the road, as the focus of hatred and adoration from people who had not grown up in West Berlin, and knew nothing about him.

His odd aloofness intensified, and I would catch sight of him, standing against the back wall of a club, wrapped up in that rubber gear, the leather-boy cap tilted down over his mascaraed eyes, just projecting an air of fuck off, don’t talk to me, like no one would dare approach him, and I don’t know if he actually pulled, or if he just went there to pose. And yet, still, I just couldn’t take my eyes off him, the intensity of his eyes, and how they seemed to reach out across a crowded room, that judgemental glare that seemed to look down into your very soul, and I thought of the rooster on the rooftop in his favourite story, and thought, yes, that’s you. I had never known anyone with that kind of intensity and charisma, who could just stand in the background, and somehow suck up all the attention in the room.

Those clubs that Bettina and Anne took me to, they were an education in themselves, so different from that earnest earth-mother lesbian bar that Ilsa and I had visited. Men dressed like women, women dressed like men, and I saw same-sex couples snogging openly, in booths or against the wall, in ways that made my head spin. In the shadow of the Wall, all morality seemed to have gone out the window, and absolutely anything would go. And yet, of all the strange creatures, horny beasts, drag queens, male impersonators, fags, queers, lesbians, dykes, twinks and butches, the strangest creature of all was still Blixa.

Bettina gave him shit, sometimes, in an over-friendly, slightly familial tone. >>So you’re gay again now?<< she teased him as she gave him a bottle of beer he was too poor to buy himself. >>I knew that whole Jana thing was just a phase.<<

>>It’s not a phase, Betts<< retorted Blixa, in the most sulky, petulant tone, though he and I were almost studiously avoiding one another’s eyes.

>>I’ve seen all of your phases, since you were fifteen, darling<< countered Bettina. >>Straight, bi, gay, bi, straight again, like a yo-yo. Will you ever make up your mind?<<

>>I don’t see why I should ever make up my mind<< shot back Blixa, his eyebrows reaching a dangerous level of sarcasm that I would immediately have backed off from. >>If someone wants to suck my cock, what matters to me is if they’re hot, not what kind of hole they have for me to put it in.<<

Bettina just laughed, and reached up to ruffle his hair, which only infuriated him. >>You boys and your cocks. I’m so glad I never have to deal with this shit... My lover is all boy, no cock, and I’m proud of it<< She roared with laughter and stuck her arm through Anne’s, as we plunged on deeper into the club.

But just for a moment, as we passed, Blixa’s eyes and mine met, with a tiny but unmistakable blast of electricity as his eyes widened and his pupils dilated. He licked his cracked lips nervously, but seemed unable to speak. I didn’t nod, I didn’t smile, I just froze, like a startled deer, until I could hear Tabea up ahead. >>Bettina! Anne! And my goodness, Carter... why it’s the full triumvirate of tuxedo babes tonight. Love the pencil moustache, Anne, suits you! Everybody’s here! DJ, put on Bette Davis Eyes for us Harlow blondes, we want to dance!<<

Those clubs made all the difference to me, in many ways. They were the first place in my life, where I had ever felt normal. The bartender at my favourite was Salomé, the drag artist and musician whose rehearsal space I had made habitable, so she always greeted me with warmth, smearing me with lipstick, introducing me to her drag queen friends as >>the luscious lesbian ‘lectrician<< and refusing to let me pay for drinks. The fact of knowing that there were other women like me there, not even butches, but something more elegant, more refined, more decadent, wearing carefully clipped hair and tuxedos, with monocles as outlandish as my 1920s architect glasses, and the way they nodded at me, with a deep familiarity, made me feel whole in a way I had never felt before. It was for them, that I had started dressing up really, to win their approval and maybe even their acceptance. And yet Blixa, in that place, no matter how he tried to dress up like a little leather twink in his rubber cap, the way he held himself aloof, as if there were an invisible Berlin Wall around him, he just seemed to grow stranger and stranger in that environment.

We avoided one another, even though we were both aware that the other was there, because we often caught each other staring. Even though we greeted one another at Iron-Grey or at the Risk bar with the same warmth and friendliness as ever, we rarely spoke, in those meat-market gay clubs. Because if Blixa turned up in a club, I would know with absolute certainty, that I wasn’t going home with anyone that night.

It wasn’t like I was a massive seducer or player of the field. I didn’t have Anne’s poise and air of celebrity, and I didn’t even have Bettina’s air of mystery and elegance. I was just tall, and rather shy, and a little bit awkward, and all too painfully English, but thank goodness, there were some women who occasionally found an appeal in my bumbling approach. Or, more likely, they approached me, because something in me seemed to appeal to mothering types. I tried to be up front and honest about my situation, and explain that I was just getting over another badly broken heart, that I had rotten luck with girlfriends being torn away from me due to circumstances beyond our control, and that I really wasn’t looking for a relationship, but my friends just insisted I should not spend my convalescence brooding at home. And miraculously, sometimes that line even worked, and some lovely girl took me home for a shag and a warm breakfast afterwards. (Oh god, if only I had known how easy it was for a butch to get a shag in certain places in West Berlin, I might never have gone with Ilsa in the first place.)

But if Blixa was there, my wits seemed to desert me. I wasn’t able to navigate that delicate space of the pick-up, orienting myself to desire lines and subtle clues as to possibility. Blixa’s mere presence created a gravitational well that seemed to divert all those sticky trails of attraction and potential away from the available women swirling around me.

We didn’t talk about it. We met up at Iron-Grey and talked about music and clothes and books and art just like we always did. We took pills and stayed up all night, arguing about the non-existence of god. I went to the Risk bar on a Saturday night with Gudrun and the gang, and he greeted us with hugs and free drinks (wine for the girls, cans of coke for me) and we even went in the back room for an illicit draw of hash when he was on break before returning, giggling, to our usual stations, him at the bar, and me sitting in the window drawing the nightlife of West Berlin. And we never ever talked about what we were doing, staring at one another so intently, in those spaces where we were supposed to be meeting the demands of our flesh.

Chapter Text

Christmas was approaching. Our walled enclave was emptying out, as the art students went home to their families, and those who could leave, did. Gudrun, who surprised me with the joy she took in such a kitsch, uncool holiday, took me round a large, jolly Christmas Market, buying little trinkets for her friends and her family. She gave me a small, painted wooden ornament of a drum, >>from the little drummer girl<< to remember her by, before disappearing back to Lüneberg Heath to spend the holidays with her mother and sister.

Schumacher had given me the week off, in those dead days between Christmas and New Year, and I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. At the end of November, I had written a half-pleading, half-recalcitrant letter to my parents, suggesting that maybe I could come home over the holidays? But I received a less than enthusiastic response saying that they were going away, and anyway it wouldn’t be nice to be in Britain when the weather was so miserable, so I should save my visit for the Spring.

On Christmas itself, my Great-Aunt and Grete threw a slightly maudlin ‘waifs and strays’ party for those sad ladies who were staying in the boarding house. I put in a brief appearance, accepted a slice of some impossibly heavy Stollen (half of which I fed to the lapdog, Fritz), drank my yearly thimbleful of lukewarm sekt just to remind myself that I hated the taste of alcohol, and left them to their old lady revels, retreating to my bedroom to read.

The days slid into one another. I went out to the shops to buy dog-food for Fritz, and ran into Beate, who was home visiting her parents for the holidays, so we went for a coffee and a catch-up chat, as I filled her in on the Berlin gossip she had missed. She told me that she was, still, deeply in love with Chrislo, but she was starting to understand why people had tried to warn her off him. He was a genius, it was true, but he was also erratic and unpredictable, and had started to become, well, unreliable. He scared her a little, with his drinking, and his drug-taking was becoming a little reckless. And yet the pull of amazing sex and even more amazing music won out over her common sense. It seemed the course of love never did run true, but I told her, from the depths of my experiences with heartbreak, to hang in there. Difficult love was better than no love at all.

But as I was walking home afterwards, I glanced at my van, parked fortuitously in front of the house, and was annoyed to see someone had left a large, black plastic rubbish sack resting on its front bonnet. Oh, what a nuisance to have to clean that up, can’t people get rid of their own coal-sacks, I thought to myself... but as I grew closer, the black plastic sack moved, and unfolded legs, and resolved itself into the long, narrow form of Blixa, who had been perched on the front of my van as if waiting for me.

>>Carter<< he greeted me, with boyish enthusiasm, his face cracking open in a grin. >>I’ve just made the most fortuitous discovery.<<

>>Is it soap?<< I teased, for Blixa’s lax attitude towards cleanliness was a source of unending dismay among the Iron-Grey staff.

>>Do you know, I am house-sitting for Wolfgang, over the holidays, since that lucky thing has been invited to spend Christmas with a highly attractive antiquarian bookseller in Rome. And do you know what I have discovered that he has, in his apartment?<<He was clearly in an expansive mood, bouncy and full of energy.

>>If it’s another collection of disgusting gay pornography, I don’t want to know.<<

>>Better than that<< he insisted, gesticulating wildly and waggling his pointed finger towards me in his glee. For a minute, he looked at me expectantly, but I refused to play his game, and would not guess. >>Carter, he has a darkroom. You must come, immediately. And then we can do the enlargements of your photos.<<

>>Oh.<< I had almost forgotten that he had said he would look for a darkroom for me. That was actually a pleasant surprise, as I hadn’t had access to a proper darkroom since school. >>Are you sure he won’t mind us using it, though?<<

Blixa gave a self-satisfied little nod. >>Wolfgang specifically told me: I may use anything in his house, except the aged whisky. Darkroom chemicals are not whisky, so therefore, clearly I may use them. Come round now, won’t you? You’re not busy, are you?<<

I blinked at him for a moment, then realised that I was on holiday. I didn’t have anything better to do, so I might as well take him up on the kind offer. >>Alright. Let me go and fetch the negatives.<<

>>I’ll come with you<< said Blixa, following me up the steps like a puppy.

>>Erm, that’s not a good idea<< I said, pointing to the sign above the door, saying >>Females only.<< But Blixa looked at me with such huge, round, disappointed puppydog eyes that I found myself craning my neck, trying to spot if my Great-Aunt was at home.

When Blixa realised what I was doing, he supplied. >>No one answered the door, when I rang. I do not think your relatives are at home.<<

None of the lights were on, on the ground floor. It was risky, but... oh, what the hell. >>Alright, but let’s go up the back.<<

I let him in through the service entrance, leading back through a narrow driveway to the central courtyard. We slipped in through the gate where I normally loaded in the coal, then went up the back stairs. Blixa looked around, completely curious, as if he had never seen an ornate, middle-class townhouse before, and showed every intention of just wandering through into the formal rooms at the front, until I physically grabbed him by the sleeve of his rubber coat and shoved him into my room.

Without even waiting for an invitation, he flopped himself down on my bed, then started looking around, taking in the wall to wall bookshelves, and the various sketches and posters tacked up around the room.

>>What city is that a map of?<< he asked, pointing to the huge colour map of London over my desk.

>>That’s my city. It’s London<< I sighed, tempted to reach out and trace the path of the Thames with my finger.

>>Why do you have a map of London over your desk, when you live in West Berlin<< Blixa demanded, sounding a little annoyed.

>>I don’t know. It keeps me from getting homesick, I suppose<< I mused. >>And sometimes, I guess it’s a way to try to make sense of West Berlin. That I try to translate, to map Schöneberg to Shoreditch, and Kreuzberg to Hackney.<<

Blixa looked almost outraged. >>Why would you do such a thing? That doesn’t even make sense. What has Schöneberg to do with... Shardeetch?<< He said the English name rudely, like a piece of gristle he had stuck in his teeth.

>>Well, you know, they’re kind of similar. The central neighbourhood where all the cool kids and artists hang out; the working class neighbourhood that is still a bit rough, next door...<<

>>West Berlin isn’t London, it’s West Berlin. You can’t translate. You have to learn the new meanings of this place, not compare it to your English world.<< This seemed to have really got his goat for some reason.

>>Do you speak English at all, Blixa?<< I probed, feeling a little defensive.

“A leetle,” he replied, and smiled as if he were showing off.

“When you speak English, do you think in English,” I asked slowly and deliberately. “Or do you think in German, and translate each word, each phrase into English?”

He had to stop and pause to contemplate that. “Zhat is how it vas vhen I started to learn, ja. But as you learn, it comes more quick. Vhen you can zhink in English, vizzout zhe German, zhat is ven you haff really learnt English.”

>>Maybe you have to learn a city, the same way you learn a language. And you do have to translate, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, until you learn to think in your new city.<<

>>Hmmm<< he said, as if thinking it through, but as I turned and dug through my desk, trying to find the negatives, his eyes started to wander again. >>Are these books all yours?<< he demanded.

>>Well, most of them<< I barely glanced at them before returning to the hunt. >>The English ones are all mine, but most of the German art books are my aunt’s.<<

Blixa picked up the book nearest to my bed and read the title aloud in halting English, “Zer Univerze Vrom Virst Principles; Basic Physics For Zer Vorking Man.” before adding >>Are you reading this for work or pleasure?<<

Fearing he would lose my place, or worse, I took the book away from him and laid it on the desk. >>For curiosity.<<

>>Tell me about physics, then<< he urged. >>I am very interested in this subject. I read a little while ago, a very interesting book on physics, called The Tao of Physics, which enumerates the ways in which science, as it becomes more abstract, approaches the principles of ancient Chinese philosophy, and even mysticism.<<

>>Did it answer your questions about god<< I wondered aloud.

>>No. But it’s really quite extraordinary. Do you know this book?<<

>>I know it’s likely to be rubbish. If you want a good book on science, just ask me, Blixa, I’ll find you something good. Richard Feynman is a good place to start. But don’t go messing around with that Quantum Mysticism bullshit, Blixa. It’s bollocks. It will absolutely rot your brain.<< The parcel from the developers was not in the top draw, so I moved to the middle.

“Bollocks” said Blixa, repeating the English word that had slipped in without my noticing. >>But wasn’t Oppenheimer also a physicist, one who worked with the atom bomb? When the test succeeded, when the Bomb went off, he did not quote physics or science or atomic theory, he quoted the Bhagavad-Gita: Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds. It was he who invoked Shiva dancing, destruction in one hand, creation in the other. This is the basis of mysticism itself.<<

>>It’s a metaphor, Blixa<< I sighed. >>An allegory. I doubt very much whether Oppenheimer was really a mystic. He was a pragmatist, who faced an impossible choice. Feynman, on the other hand, Feynman’s a really interesting character. As much a poet and a beatnik as a physicist. You’d like him.<<

>>What do you think of alchemy, then? I suppose you think that’s all bullshit, too.<< The way that Blixa said Scheisse made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, putting some real Prussian disdain into it. >>I am right now reading a very interesting text on alchemy, that posits it was a metaphor, an allegory of the political situation in Europe during the Renaissance. Just the same way we now describe metaphors of our current political situation using the Bomb, describing the state of collapse in a nuclear implosion, the H-Bomb, as a way of describing the state of collapse in our own society. What do you make of that? What do you think of Alchemy?<<

>>I think alchemy is interesting as the basis of Western science, but beyond that...<< I shook my head, trying to ignore the rustling noises coming from my bed as I stopped searching the middle draw and moved to the bottom. >>It’s like astrology is interesting because it forced ancient cultures to keep very accurate star charts which formed the basis of proper astronomy, but I wouldn’t put any faith in it, or plan my life around my star sign.<<

>>I love astronomy, I have loved it since I was a child<< piped up Blixa, his eyes lighting up and suddenly looking as if I had piqued his interest. >>But I also find astrology very interesting, as a method of how people conceptualise the various personalities<< he insisted, in his contrarian voice. >>It is the basis of psychology, too.<<

Finally, I located the packet of photos, though I didn’t know why I had hidden them away at the back of the bottom drawer, like I was afraid of someone finding them. I opened up the packet to check, and oh yes, that was why I had hidden them. The topless photos of Ilsa. I took those out of the pack and stashed them back where I had found them, making sure I took only the Blixa negatives and prints, but I could hear giggling from the direction of the bed.

I turned to see, with slowly creeping horror, that Blixa had got the drawer of my bedside table open, and what was worse, he had extracted the leather harness for my strap-on, and was holding it up, eyeing it with intense curiosity.

>>Give me that!<< I snapped, lunging to close the drawer before he could discover the dildo, but he rolled away from me, holding the harness out of reach. >>What are you doing, digging around in my things anyway. How dare you!<<

But he was snorting with laughter, examining it closely. >>What on earth could it be. Could it be something... lesbian?<<

>>You know perfectly well what it is. Now give it back to me.<<

>>It is a sex thing, yes?<< Wriggling on the mattress, he held the contraption over his slender hips and started to thrust suggestively.

>>Knock it off, Blixa<< I snapped. There was a brief tussle between us, and I wrested it from his grip, but he continued to stare at me with a really odd expression, like half-challenging and half-curious. >>Come on<< I said, just wanting to get him out of my bedroom before my Great-Aunt could come home. >>If we’re going to go to this darkroom, then let’s go. I’ll just leave a note for Grete saying I won’t be home for dinner, and then we’ll head off.<<

>>Alright, alright<< he grumbled, as I swept him out of my room, and almost frog-marched him down the stairs back to the courtyard before he could start picking up the photos of my family on display in the long, passage-like Berliner-Zimmer, to peer at my relations.

It wasn’t that long a drive to Wolfgang’s modern apartment block, but Blixa commandeered the stereo and put on one of his tapes. >>Have you got any hash?<< he asked hopefully.

That, too, I had grabbed from the hidden place at the back of the desk, but I didn’t want to give him ideas. >>Not when I’m driving. Maybe later.<<

We climbed the stairs to Wolfgang’s – so it seemed that even swish modern flats didn’t get you a lift – and Blixa let us in with a spare key hidden up above the lintel. Wolfgang’s flat was almost exactly what I had expected: very modern, rather sparse except for a vast quantity of books, bits of his art in progress everywhere, erotic prints of young men on the walls. Curious, I took off my shoes, made myself comfortable, and nosed about in his shelves, admiring the eclectic mix of philosophy, esoterica and fairy tales. Clearly this was where Blixa had been doing his reading on alchemy and the Tao of Physics.

But Blixa was poking around in the boxes at the foot of Wolfgang’s desk. >>Do you like the posters?<< he asked in a teasing voice, gesturing with his eyebrows towards the naked men.

>>Mapplethorpe, yes? They’re very tasteful<< I replied, refusing to let him get to me.

>>Tasteful?<< Again, he let out a little grunt of laughter, but then he seemed to find what he was looking for. >>Go on, roll a spliff.<<

I looked around for rolling papers, then found a pipe on the desk, its bowl already sticky with resin, so I loaded that, took a few puffs and passed it to Blixa.

>>Do you want to see the photos that Wolfgang took of me, earlier this year?<< he offered, though I should have known from his grin, that he was up to no good.

>>If Wolfgang took photos of you, why are you after mine?<<

Blixa’s grin became positively wolfish as he handed me the box. >>I can hardly send these to the record company.<<

As I lifted the lid to look at the photos, I saw a small, feral boy curled in a ball, his teeth bared at the photographer. The spiky hair looked very familiar, as did the long, thin limbs, as it permeated my somewhat stoned brain that these were art photos, and that Blixa was completely nude. I looked through them, marvelling at the marble paleness of his almost hairless skin, and the photos were so beautiful, and so lovely to look at in my hash-enhanced condition that it didn’t really dawn on me, that this was an odd thing to be doing, to be admiring nude photos of the friend sitting only about twelve inches away from me on the sofa. Blixa was absurdly beautiful, and intensely photogenic, with a charisma that seemed to leap off the glossy photographic paper, and his angular body looked more like some kind of sculpture, or some exotic tropical seashell, than it did a young man.

>>Do you like them?<< he asked, passing the pipe back to me, tapping me on the elbow as if surprised that I was responding to them so positively. If he had intended to shock, which, knowing Blixa, he probably had, he had not succeeded.

>>They’re beautiful photos. Wolfgang is extremely talented, he really does have a particularly good eye.<<

>>He has more than a good eye<< Blixa giggled, a little coquettishly, and I wondered what that tone was supposed to signify, if I was supposed to be shocked by the nudes, but I had been hanging around West Berlin art students for so long that nudes no longer phased me in the slightest. I dug a little deeper, and found a few snapshots of Wolfgang and Blixa, hanging out in what looked like the Café Mitropa, Wolfgang’s arm draped around Blixa’s shoulders with an intimacy that looked more than just friendly. As I studied the angle at which the two boys’ heads echoed one another as they leaned into each other’s bodies, I thought again of how Blixa and Wolfgang flirted at the Risk, and felt the ground beneath us, that I thought was so solid, shift ever so slightly.

And at that moment, it suddenly dawned on me that he might have had an ulterior motive in showing me the photos, that had nothing to do with shock at all. I knew, in theory at least, that Blixa went with men sometimes. I’d seen him on the pull in gay clubs, and both Jana and Bettina had said as much. It was no big deal, as Gudrun had once told me. But to see photos of him with a man, especially a man I knew, well, it threw me a little, though I couldn’t say why.

He and Wolfgang were old friends, I knew that. And anyway, why was he showing me nude photos that his friend had taken of him? And photos of him and Wolfgang that seemed to indicate that they... Oh god. I lifted up the next layer of photos and suddenly caught a glimpse of a clutch of Polaroids of Blixa and Wolfgang just full-on snogging in a corner of the Risk bar, tongues and all. I swallowed nervously, put the clutch of nude photos that I had been holding in my hand back on top of the Polaroids, refusing to dig any further. It was none of my business. And what’s more, I just didn’t want to know. I felt, very strongly, that whatever had happened between Blixa and Wolfgang was their business, not mine. And whatever reaction it was that Blixa thought he was going to get from me, with these photos, I made a deliberate choice not to give it to him.

Whatever weirdness he had in mind, I decided I better nip that thought in the bud. >>Right<< I said, closing the box and standing up. >>Where’s the darkroom, then?<<

>>Oh, we have to set it up in the bathroom.<< Blixa stretched languorously, like he didn’t really want to move from the comfortable sofa.

>>Well, give me a hand.<< I insisted briskly, and walked through into the next room. Oh, shit. I had walked into the bedroom, and it was decorated in predictably Wolfgang style, with large Tom of Finland prints hanging above the bed. The covers of the bed had been left in disarray, as if someone had only just got out of it recently, and the pillows still bore the imprint of Blixa’s head. Best to get out of there quickly. Muttering to myself, I went back to the living room and selected another door, which was, luckily, the right one.

Although it had been nearly two years since I had set foot in a darkroom, it came back very quickly as I stepped into the large, tiled bathroom. There was an enlarger folded away on a sideboard, with a couple of rubber trays for developing fluid, which fit perfectly over the large double sink. The chemicals were all stacked neatly in one side of the linen cupboard, and there was even a second lightswitch, which turned on a red darkroom bulb. As Blixa flicked through the pack of photos, indicating which ones he liked best, I set up the enlarger and filled the tubs. Then I turned on the red light, turned off the overhead light and set down to work.

It was actually a joy to remember how much I liked the printing aspect of photography. Setting up the negative, doing test strips, framing and composing the area of the shot I wanted to use; it all felt very soothing. I soon got into a rhythm, doing the whole thing like an assembly line. Turn on the enlarger’s light, time the seconds of exposure, then flip the print into the developing bath. If I timed it right, I could go back and set up another print for exposure, and flip the print through into the fixer as the timer ticked down. Developer, fixer, soak in a bath of water to get the chemicals off, then hang it up on the line to dry.

I’d made about half a dozen enlargements, when I heard the water in the bathtub start to gurgle. >>What are you doing? I’ve got enough water to...<< But as I turned, I saw Blixa standing, completely stark bollock naked on the bathmat, bending over to test the temperature of the water.

>>I’m just going to take a bath<< he informed me, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. Under the red light, his slightly pimply skin looked so perfect and so smooth he didn’t even look human. That hairless, boyish skin, dusted with freckles, smudged with dirt, his skinny chest, so thin the ribs showed through, those long, coltish legs, and in the centre, like a fat white worm... no, don’t look there. >>You don’t seem to need my help?<<

>>No.<< I yanked my eyes away, and turned back to the counter, trying to concentrate on putting the last few prints through the process, and doing my best to ignore the splashing sounds as Blixa stepped into the tub.

My body was going through the motions of printing out photos, but my mind could not stop dragging itself back to the sounds of joyful bathing behind me. Blixa was loud, as always, splashing about, singing to himself a bathing song that he seemed to be making up on the spot, chasing the soap when he lost it underwater.

I finished the last of the sheet of photographic paper in the open box, and looked around for another, but I didn’t dare open a fresh pack. Although Blixa seemed unconcerned about Wolfgang’s resources, I made a note to myself to buy him some supplies to replace the ones we’d used. But as I started to clear up, Blixa demanded my attention again.

>>Carter can you give me a hand?<< I moved towards him, trying very hard not to look at him, though fortunately, the water lent him a modesty he completely lacked. >>Can you just make sure, and scrub the bit in the middle of my back that I can’t reach? Jana always used to tell me to use a bath brush on it, so I didn’t get blackheads, but Wolfgang hasn’t got one long enough to reach.<<

For a moment, the thought shot through my hash-addled brain that he had got to be joking, but I found myself taking the brush, soaping it up, then rubbing it up and down the length of his back, almost counting the knobs of his bony spine. Leaning forwards so I could reach all the way down, Blixa started to make an odd noise, almost like a cat purring, that definitely spoke of pleasure.

>>That hit the spot! Many thanks.<< He grinned up at me as I handed the brush back to him. >>Shall I shampoo my hair? I have friends who swear to me that you should never wash your hair. It destroys the natural oils, they say. But it’s kind of fun to lather it up, don’t you think? Hand me that bottle?<< He gestured to a tube of shampoo that was just out of his reach up in the shower caddy, and I found myself having to lean across the bath to fetch it for him. >>What scent is it? Wolfgang has some weird taste in perfumed soap. Does it smell bad or good?<< But instead of raising the bottle to his own nose, he held it out to me.

>>I am the last person you should be asking that. I have no sense of smell at all.<<

>>Really?<< Blixa’s eyes widened as he turned to observe me. >>How did you lose it, or did you never have it to start with?<<

It was something I hadn’t thought about in so long, I had almost forgotten that there had been a time when I could smell. >>When I was in my early adolescence, I used to get terrible, terrible nosebleeds all the time. The doctors said they would do a procedure to cauterise my nose, to stop the bleeding. When it was done, sure enough, I had no more nosebleeds. But my sense of smell was pretty much gone.<<

Blixa grinned at me. >>I’m not so good with smell, either. I broke my nose when I was younger. If you look at it carefully, you can see it’s not straight.<< He turned to me and laid his finger along the ridge, so that I could see there was a slight crook to it. >>And ever since then, I’ve had terrible problems with my sinuses, like I caught a cold one day, and the damned thing has never left, for three years. It’s always dripping, always itching. And I can’t smell much, either. The girls at Iron-Grey are always teasing me, telling me I stink. I just can’t tell.<<

>>I... wouldn’t know...<< I said as he started to splash about in the tub again, dipping his head underwater to wet his hair, so that the lower half of his body popped up again, his organ flopping against his thighs.

>>Do you want to lather it for me?<< he offered, holding out the bottle, but I started to back away, feeling the complete absurdity of the situation. Blixa merely shrugged and set about lathering up his hair, whistling as he scrubbed it first one way, then the other.

But my brain didn’t seem to be working, and it wasn’t just the drugs. Maybe it was normal for healthy young Germans to bathe in one another’s presence, lather each other up in the tub, but my repressed English mind was screaming. I retreated to the other side of the room, and stood against the counter, just staring at him, drinking in his beautiful features and long angular body. I thought I had finally got to the point where I was OK with Blixa’s presence, and found his beauty an inspiration, rather than a torment, but I just felt helpless in the presence of this young man bathing. He seemed to be completely aware that I was staring, but didn’t seem bothered by it, smiling back at me as he shaped his soapy hair into different styles.

>>Now for the fun part<< he said, and dipped his shoulders, slipping elegantly below the water line. But as his head disappeared, the other half of his body rose, as I could see his organ lying inert against his thighs.

But finally he emerged, his hair plastered to his head like a seal, his eyes looking almost unnaturally large when he pushed the water out of them with his thumbs and opened them, blinking.

>>Can you grab me a towel?<<

It was hard to move, but I did as I was asked. I needed desperately to sober up or smoke some more hash, enough to make this situation somehow less surreal, as Blixa climbed out of the tub and started drying himself off. I couldn’t quite tell if he was simply oblivious to my flabbergasted amazement, or actively enjoying it, rubbing the towel back and forth across flesh that almost glowed under the red light.

>>Is it OK if I turn the light on, or will it damage the photos?<< he asked, almost innocently.

>>They’re fine; they’re just drying<< I stuttered, and suddenly the room was flooded with light. And there stood Blixa, almost marble pale, though I could see, now, the occasional bruise and patch of bad skin. He was just a man, not the marble angel that posed in the cemetery photos.

Finally, he finished towelling off his hair and hung the wet towel over a rail. And for a very long minute, the two of us just stood there, gazing at one another, Blixa standing very erect, his head up, his shoulders thrown back, his thin chest puffed out, while I tried to physically shrink away from him, collapsing into the sink counter, afraid of how much I wanted to touch him.

>>Are you just going to stare at me all night, or do you want to do something more?<< he asked, his voice low and even, and at that moment, I realised that we had both come here with a very specific purpose. Both? Wait, no. I meant, that he had come here with a specific purpose he had not chosen to share with me. No, really? Don’t be a naïve little coquette, I thought to myself. Even before I had seen the nude photos, I had seen him lying on my bed, playing with the harness of my strap-on. I had deliberately chosen to pick up the hash and bring it with me. I had known, even if only subconsciously, exactly his purpose in bringing me here, though I had chosen to actively ignore it. Ignore it? Maybe I had even actively embraced it. I just couldn’t think with his body so naked and beautiful in front of me, like my skin was going to start to physically hurt if it didn’t meet his.

>>What else do you expect me to do? Get out my sketchbook and draw you?<< I panted, just buying for time, trying to put off the eventual decision.

But Blixa’s head suddenly snapped to attention, as his face lit up with excitement at the idea. >>Yes<< he said, turning to the mirror to push his shaggy wet hair out of his face, then quickly reapplying his eyeliner with an expert hand. >>Good idea. I would like that.<<

He opened the door, strode out into the living room, still completely naked, and located the pipe and my bag of hash, loading up another bowl full, striking a match and puffing to get it lit before taking a long draw, then handing it to me. And as I stood, trying desperately to suck more of the drug into my system, he dug about, and found a few sheets of drawing paper, an artist’s clipboard, and a coffee can full of pencils.

>>Come<< he said, and walked through into the bedroom with an almost absurd amount of self-confidence. It didn’t seem to bother him at all that he was naked, in fact he seemed to revel in the complete freedom of his long, graceful limbs. I followed as if in a dream, taking the pencils and paper from him, as he lay down on the bed with the unselfconsciousness of a young animal. He posed, lying back and arranging his limbs into a pleasing arrangement, then lay his head against the mattress, gazing up at me with a hungry expression, the darkness of the kohl around one eye highlighting the paleness of the other.

I put the pencil to paper, and started to draw, mechanically, almost automatically, as if there were no conscious thought between the eye and the pencil. And I knew, as I drew, that this was an erotic act, that tracing his outlines with the drawing was as close as I would ever get to tracing his skin with my fingers or my lips. And he watched me drawing him, his full lips twitching up in a half-smile, as if he was enjoying being watched, being drawn, being captured.

Finishing the sketch, I pulled out another piece of paper, than gestured for him to move. He obliged me by changing position, and I started another drawing. I caught the tilt of his head, the sharp angle of his hip, the long slope of his thigh, but left his organ a vague suggestion before going back to fill in the details of his face. His huge eyes, his prominent cheekbones, those lips like a ripe fruit begging to be tasted. And then I thought, the hell with it, and made a dedicated study of his cock, with his neat balls hanging behind.

I gestured for him to change position again, and took out another sheet, filling this one with the tangled sprawl of his long limbs across the mattress. I did another, and then another, until I had a pile of half a dozen nude drawings of Blixa. And then I found I had run out of paper, so I picked up a sheet that was only half covered, and started to draw a second Blixa curled up sleepily against the first. But it was only as I started to draw the second set of genitals, in comparison to the first, that I realised it was starting to grow, lengthening and filling out, rising sharply away from his thighs as he became erect. He was enjoying this.

>>This is turning you on?<< I asked quietly, barely trusting my voice to put a name to this weird thing that was happening between us.

>>Of course it is. You don’t find it erotic to be watched, to be admired?<<

>>Not at all<< I almost spat. >>I prefer to be the one who watches.<<

>>Yes, I can tell.<< And with that, he shifted, changed position, and spread himself openly across the mattress. The gothic arch of his thin chest looked like an icon of St Sebastian, his face a solemn Burne-Jones with haunted eyes, and his straining cock giving some competition to the Tom of Finland posters above his head. His legs parted, his thighs splayed so that I could see not just his genitals, but the dark cleft between his buttocks and the hint of an entrance. For an awful moment, I imagined what it would be like to enter him, and then shuddered. >>You’re cold<< he observed. >>Come here.<<

>>I’m not at all cold.<<

>>Come here<< he almost growled, and I knew better than to deny him. Carefully, tentatively, I put down the drawing block, and shuffled towards the bed on my knees. As he rolled over onto his side and made room for me, I stretched myself gently onto the bed. Only a few inches apart, we stared at one another, my gaze conflicted, as if I couldn’t decide whether I was afraid of him, or wanted to eat him up. He reached out and took off my glasses, and everything became slightly unfocused, the crook of his nose, the intense blue of his eyes, the faint dusting of boyish freckles across his taut cheeks. He was so passive, lying there, just letting me look at him, not even making a move to touch me, his body so tender and vulnerable as he splayed himself out before me. That passivity attracted me, reminded me oddly of the way that Maud used to lie, naked in bed, letting me watch her. I looked at his lips, and bit my own, barely daring to breathe. Finally, he spoke aloud. >>Kiss me?<<

I bent forward, closed my eyes and kissed him. Although I had been expecting his face to be rough, sandpapery like a man, his skin was very smooth. My lips touched his, and found them plump, yielding, so I pushed inside with my tongue. Sourness, the taste of smoke and something unpleasant, something slightly rank and rotten, like two-day-old coffee. No, this was all wrong. My mind was aflame, intrigued, aroused, whirling like a child’s toy, but my body absolutely refused to go through with it. I pulled away, opening my eyes.

After a moment, he noticed something was wrong, and opened his own eyes. >>What is it?<< I just shook my head, unable to articulate what was going wrong inside me. He was beautiful, and the way that he was lying splayed beside me twisted and churned me up inside with the desire to... something. But that kiss had felt wrong in a way that had little to do with his bad breath. >>Have I got this wrong? I know you are attracted to me. I can see it in your eyes, in the way you look at me, like you want to eat me up.<<

>>Blixa, I’m in love with you.<< I hated the unambiguous, undeniable word the moment it was out of my mouth, but I realised with a start that I had said it not to bind him closer to me, but to push him away.

>>I know<< he said, and smiled. >>Me, too.<<

Chapter Text

The words he said, ich auch, meant ‘me, too’, but the way he said it left some ambiguity as to whether he meant he loved me, or if he loved himself, too, because it was obvious, from the way he lay there, his naked limbs splayed out in joyous abandon, that he enjoyed his own beautiful body.

>>We should... Carter, we should do something about this. This electricity between us. Because I feel it, too, you know. You see, I am always aware, when you walk in. Your... intensity is so erotic that I can feel your energy, from across a room. If I walk into a bar, or a club, and you are there, I can almost taste, it, a certain charge on the wire. A magnetism. A tension. And it’s not healthy to let all this erotic tension come between us like this. We should resolve this in the simplest, and most expedient manner. We should just screw, and get over it.<<

I just stared at him for quite some time, alarmed to hear my own tension for him described so perfectly in plain German. It surprised me, to discover that he noticed me, when Blixa’s whole shtick was to pretend that he never noticed anybody.

But finally, painfully slowly, I found the words to speak. >>What if I don’t want to get over it?<<

He looked back at me, his face completely puzzled. >>How so?<<

>>What if I don’t want to be healthy? What if I’m... what if I’m just... an invert?<< It was a queer, old-fashioned word that I had read in one of my great-aunt’s books on psychology: Abweichung. No one in West Berlin used that word any more, they just said ‘schwul’ or ‘anders’, unless it was maybe Salomé, making some ironic comment on his own perversions. >>I mean, we’re already aware that what I am is not psychologically healthy. Not a boy, not a girl either, and not happy and proud with it, like Anne or like Salomé, but just some mixed-up in-between creature no one knows what it is.<<

Blixa just looked at me, his eyes very serious, but his mouth twisted into a grim smile. >>Whatever you are, I am the same. This is, I think the magnetism that draws us together.<<

>>Magnets that are the same repel each other, they don’t attract. You’d know that if you read a proper book on physics, and not this Tao of Quantum Mechanics rubbish. Two magnets need to have the polarity reversed to stick together.<<

He actually laughed aloud, that funny boyish snort-laugh that meant he was unselfconsciously overcome with glee. >>A girl so masculine that everyone takes her for a boy, and a boy with a girl’s name and a face full of make-up and manners so feminine everyone simply takes him for a fag. We are neither of us, the opposite sex, not really. We are both of us, something somewhere in-between. But, as you say... with the polarities reversed, me pointing from the masculine towards the feminine, you pointing from the feminine towards the masculine. Somewhere in-between, the same, but reversed.<<

We both continued to just stare at each other, as I realised that what he said was true, lying so close together there was barely an inch between us, though our knees touched. It had been so long since I’d actually lain like this, staring into someone’s eyes, that I had forgotten how intense it could be. Ilsa would not allow it; she had grown very quickly bored and rolled away from me. Even with Maud, it had taken months of furtive glances and accidentally-on-purpose hands brushed against one another’s skin, before we had worked up the courage to lie like this, gazing into one another’s eyes, trying to understand, let alone articulate, what longing we were experiencing for each other. And yet, with Blixa, here we were, and he was just lying there, staring at me, looking into my eyes like he could see into the very bottom of my soul, and he did not even blink.

It was an age before I spoke. >>Maybe you’re right. And I do desire you. But I don’t want to have sex.<<

>>Why not?<< He wasn’t angry, just genuinely curious. >>Is it because I’m a man?<< He glanced down, towards the swollen organ bouncing tightly against his belly. >>You can take me like a woman, if you would rather. In fact, that idea rather excites me. Isn’t that what the harness is for?<<

He said it without the slightest hint of guile, as if he were offering me a piece of Christmas cake, rather than offering to indulge a fetish he knew excited me. His eyes were open and honest, and a little desperate, as if this idea didn’t just excite him, but consumed him.

>>You know I prefer women, so you’re just offering to be a woman for me<< I said, with the hint of an ironic smile.

>>I know it’s more complicated than that.<<

>>You have no idea how complicated it is<< I snapped, suddenly angry, with a rage that had little to do with the boy lying in bed with me. >>For you Berliners, it’s so easy. Gay, bisexual, queer, it doesn’t matter to any of you. It’s all normal here. You have no idea how hard it’s been for me.<<

>>So tell me.<< Reaching out a hand, he laid it against the side of my face, touching me for the first time, in a surprisingly tender gesture.

>>I’m not spilling my guts for you, when you keep everything about you so tightly tied up under that rubber suit.<<

He took a deep breath, then let it out in a giant sigh. >>I was in love with a girl, who is a junkie. I did everything I could for her. I wanted to save her from her demons. And then one day, she chucked me, because she had a vision, a premonition that I was going to betray her for a man. A tall, skinny, English-speaking man with intense blue eyes and a messy black quiff.<< He looked at me, but he didn’t even need to add that that sounded the very description of me.

>>That’s absurd. You know she only has those visions because she takes too many drugs. It’s the same when I smoke hash, but I’m smart enough to know that the hash is the cause of the visions, even if they are inspiring for my art.<<

But Blixa ignored the sneering tone to my voice, continuing on completely calmly. >>She wasn’t on drugs when she had this vision. It was first thing in the morning. She’s not like you or me, you know, taking drugs to heighten the creativity. She takes so many drugs to stop the visions. If she doesn’t take drugs, she says that they crowd round her, like so many dead souls battering at the windows, begging to be let in, and she can’t sleep on account of their voices.<<

I stared at Blixa, suddenly realising that Jana’s problem was worse than we had all thought. Hearing voices. Strange bursts of agitation. The echolalia of sing-song word-salad when she was wound up. Believing she could read people’s minds and predict the future. >>Blixa. Geliebte. You know those are not the symptoms of clairvoyance. Those are the symptoms of the onset of paranoid schizophrenia.<<

>>I don’t think so.<< Blixa’s eyes flashed, then he gave me a long, appraising look. >>You have no idea what Jana has been through in her life. The only little black girl in our class... for a couple of years, she was the only black girl in our entire Gymnasium. I feel for Jana, for what she went through, because I saw it. I can’t stand bullying. I can’t stand bigotry. Not against anyone, but even less for a girl I loved. When they bullied her, I felt it, right here, in my own ribcage, what they did to her.<< He thumped his chest, just over his heart.

Biting my lip, I found it hard to meet his gaze, feeling like such an arsehole for the way I’d doubted Jana, treated her like a borderline idiot at times. He was right; I had no idea what she’d been through.

>>But Jana’s life is not up for debate. I told you my heartbreak. Now you tell me yours.<<

I screwed up my eyes very tight, trying not to let the tears come. >>Can I trust you? No one in West Berlin knows anything about me. I don’t want to go round Iron-Grey and hear it third hand from one of Gudrun’s friends.<<

He made a gesture over his chest. >>Cross my heart. The only place it might end up, is in a song. But songs are like your stories, your comics. They are art, they are made up, so they are not the truth, but they are also the truth. The true truth.<<

And so I told him about Maud. I told him how we had met at boarding school, two horny teenagers with no other outlet for our feelings. How feelings had led to passions, how fumblings had led to carnality, how a simple sexual outlet had led to the blossoming of overwhelming first love. The boarding school soon realised that this was not a normal teenage crush, that would burn itself out, and be abandoned for natural, ‘normal’ love, when we graduated and met the men we would be fated to marry. Our families were alerted. We were expelled, and then separated. And yet the separation enflamed our passions. We both wrote, feverishly, sometimes several times a day. And finally, we decided to run away together.

We had walked out of our respective colleges, met each other on the platform at King’s Cross, walked off into the crowd, and vanished. For over a year, we had lived a kind of hand to mouth existence in the squats of East London, Hackney and Dalston and London Fields. Maud had made friends, quickly, in the music scene. Myself, shyer, I had shaved my head to pass for a boy, and threw myself into manual work, and tried to avoid gossip with the lads on the building site where I trained to be an electrician.

And one day, her family had found her. A photo, published in the NME, of Maud and I at a gig in a squat belonging to some musicians we knew, had attracted the attention of the private investigator her family had paid to find her. Enquiries had been made. The musicians, not wanting to bring the police down on their squat, told the investigators where we were living. (I never trusted squatters again, after that.) And one morning, the police had swooped down in a raid, hauled us out of the single bed where we lay, and dragged us off in the back of a squad car to the police station, where we were forcibly separated, and handed back to our families, because we were both under 21.

We never saw each other again. When I wrote to her at her family’s home, my letter, intercepted, opened and thoroughly read, was returned to me with a note telling me that Maud had been sent to Canada to work as an au pair, and that I was never to contact them again. And my parents, shamed first by my expulsion from school, then by my disappearance, had decided to punish me by sending me to Germany, to the mouldering house of this ancient distant relative, to be bored to tears by dust and decay, until I saw the error of my ways and abandoned lesbianism and returned to academia.

And I said this, with a very snide English sarcasm that didn’t quite translate into German, Blixa started to laugh. Yes, I was trying to be funny, in that very English hide-your-true-feelings-with-sarcasm sort of way, but he wasn’t tittering as if at a snide aside, he had rolled over onto his back and was almost shaking, with great, animal brays of laughter.

>>What?<< I demanded. >>It’s not that funny. I mean, this is my life, Blixa. They have ruined it.<<

>>How is it ruined. Explain this to me.<< He poked me very gently on the edge of the shoulder.

>>My parents kicked me out of my home, just for a start.<<

>>My parents kicked me out of our home, when I was 17<< he replied knowingly, waving his finger towards me. >>It didn’t ruin my life. It saved it.<<

>>Your parents kicked you out? What for?<< I blinked at him, struck by our sudden similarity.

He shrugged a little peevishly, like it was still a sore spot. >>For being expelled from school.<<

>>You, too? For what?<< I almost willed him to say, for being queer, but his face grew genuinely sour, as if this still irked, years later.

>>Damage against school property. I set the student council room on fire. I mean, I said I was going to do it. It was the platform I was elected to the student council on – vote for me and I will set the whole bloody farce on fire.<< I started to laugh at the defiant way he described it, because it was hard to believe that Blixa had ever been a student, let alone a member of the student council. >>Expelled not just from that Gymnasium, but the whole Berlin school system, before I even had a chance to sit the Abitur. And for that, I was thrown out of my family home. Does it look like my life is in ruins?<<

I bit my lip as I looked back at him. By whose criteria, I wanted to ask? Because I saw two young men before me. One was a staggeringly ambitious artist whose passion and dedication burned through his life and the lives of everyone around him like a beacon, pulling us on to greater heights of music and culture and art. The other was a worryingly thin young man, who worked part time in a dirty little bar, sang in a punk band so divisive their gigs erupted into violence, and who slept in the back room of a friend’s shop.

Instead, I sighed deeply. >>I lost my girlfriend<< I said quietly. >>I’ve lost two girlfriends now, and I’ve lost my family, who did not even want me to visit at Christmas, because they know I’m queer. My life is in ruins. And although I am trying to make the best of it, living in the ruins, as all good Berliners do... you know, this is the laughter of black humour, of a person has had everything taken from them. Not because it’s funny.<<

But that only made Blixa start to giggle again. >>Carter, it is funny. Your family sent you to West Berlin, to cure you of lesbianism? This is the funniest thing I have heard, since... since... I heard the rumour that David Bowie and Iggy Pop moved to West Berlin to kick drugs, not even realising that West Berlin was the heroin capital of Europe.<<

I stared at him, feeling something very strange stirring inside me. >>I had not heard that rumour.<<

>>Oh come on, it was the funniest joke in West Berlin through the 70s. So for your parents to send you here, of all places, to a Ladies Boarding House, to cure you of lesbianism... no, it is too, too delicious. I am dying of the irony.<< He pretended to fan himself, his gestures growing even more effeminate as he rolled his huge, expressive eyes.

>>Why do you say Ladies Boarding House, in that tone? What are you implying<< I demanded, irate at this smear on my Great-Aunt’s reputation. >>Is this like when you were insinuating it had been a brothel, because it survived the bombardment?<<

He stopped laughing and looked at me, as if realising that there was a part of the joke I wasn’t getting. >>Your German is so good I sometimes forget you weren’t born here, and you don’t know things we take for granted.<<

>>But I was born here. My mother is German<< I explained patiently. >>She married a British officer, and settled in the British Sector, where I was born.<< And I was struck again, as I told it, by similarity. My story sounded so oddly akin to Jana’s. Well, Blixa certainly had his type. That both Jana and I were both deeply, intimately of Berlin, the city of his birth, the only home he’d ever known, and yet somehow still marked as alien.

>>You were born in Berlin?<< asked Blixa, more than a little surprised. >>I didn’t know that. And yet, somehow... it makes sense. And not just how you speak German so fluently.<<

>>It’s complicated. Since my father was British, and the army base was British territory, I was born a British citizen. But my mother’s family were from the other side of Berlin. You know, when the Wall went up, it went up overnight.<<

>>I know, I remember it well<< he snorted, as if vaguely insulted that this Brit was explaining his own city’s history to him.

>>How could you? You must have been a baby.<<

>>I was two and a half<< he protested. >>And my parents used to speak of it. Though not often.<< He was genuinely excited now, his attention piqued by the idea that my life and his city had somehow intersected.

>>My grandparents spoke of it often. It was their favourite story; how they escaped the Wall. It was the day after my mother’s birthday, so my grandparents had been visiting our side of the city for a little party at my Great-Aunt’s house. My grandmother had drunk too much wine with dinner and fell asleep, so she and my grandfather stayed over. And when they tried to return home the next afternoon, they found they couldn’t. Without the proper papers, they were trapped, and my father was afraid of what was going to happen in the newly divided city, so he resigned his post, then left for home and took me, my mother, and her parents all with him back to England.<<

He shook his head. >>You missed some pretty bad years. They talk about the economic miracle, the Kennedy visit and all that, but in our side of Friedenau, it took a while for the benefits to trickle down. But my Mum has told me some stories of the blockade, the airlift, before I was born. They were hungry all the time, when she was a little girl.<< His face darkened, and something seemed to close behind his eyes. >>My father doesn’t really like to talk about it at all, though.<<

I nodded to indicate I understood. >>My Great-Aunt doesn’t like to talk about those days much, either. Grete, on the other hand, Grete loves to tell stories. I get the sense that she was a little bit of a rebel, and not adverse to striking a few deals on the Black Market. My Great-Aunt has said many times, that they wouldn’t have got through the War, or through the early days of the Peace that followed, without Grete.<< At her name, Blixa’s head suddenly perked up.

>>Grete<< he said slowly, with very great importance. >>Is that the other grand old lady in the photographs in your hall.<<

>>Yes<< I said. >>That’s her. I’m not sure she’s such a grand old lady, though she is formidable. She’s my Great-Aunt’s personal assistant, they came through the war together, and have been inseparable ever since.<<

Blixa started to giggle again, clearly trying to hold it in, but his eyebrows spoke of his deep amusement on his account. >>Personal assistant, eh? And where does Grete sleep?<<

I stared at Blixa, as this was something I had simply never thought about. >>She has... offices... of some kind, upstairs. I’ve never been in there, but...<< Wait, no. As I thought of all the mornings that I had encountered the two old ladies on my way to work, or coming home from partying at the Risk bar, I realised I had never once encountered Grete coming down the stairs in her ornate, old-fashioned dressing gown. She only ever came from the front rooms, my Great-Aunt’s apartment. There were not two bedrooms there. I knew the arrangement of that house very well. The kitchen, then the long open Berliner-Zimmer where we ate and socialised and generally lived, leading through to the front of the house, with its formal sitting-room, and the boudoir beyond, where my Great-Aunt slept, with her lapdog in a basket at the foot of the massive double bed. The household offices were at the back, above my room, for I had the smaller, less grand bedroom at the back where a housemaid would have slept in the Kaiser’s time. I heard footsteps up there during the day, while the house went about its business. I had never once heard footsteps up there at night. My face must have told Blixa everything, about what I had seen every day for months and months, and yet consciously refused to recognise.

>>I think, your family did not send you to West Berlin as a punishment for being a lesbian, or to try to change you. I think that they sent you here, because they know exactly who – and what – you are, because they already have one in the family.<<

I thought again, of the speed with which my Great-Aunt had accepted my mother’s request, how she had insisted that I come immediately. >>I have thought of it all this time as punishment, but in all earnestness it was a kindness?<<

As I sat with this new knowledge, feeling it somehow seeping into my bones with its truth and its rightness, I felt my eyes overflowing with tears. Blixa reached out and wiped away the trail with his long, elegant thumb. >>I think so.<<

I lay for a very long time, just trying to think this through, as he reached up and found the hashpipe. My Great-Aunt had been trying to give me a home. Even in finding me employment, she had been trying not to get rid of me, but to encourage me to stay. Schumacher had known what I was, from the very first day of the job. He must have known Grete and my Great-Aunt since... since... I wondered how on earth the pair of them had survived the Nazis and their purges of ‘inverts and degenerates’. By lying, and pretending for decades that Grete was only a personal assistant, that was clearly how.

Blixa relit the pipe, took a few draws then handed it to me. >>I don’t think you are going to have a fuck with me tonight, are you?<<

I shook my head sadly, as I inhaled the acrid smoke into my lungs and held it there. He seemed to accept this information, but as I exhaled, I felt the need to explain. >>Honestly. It’s not because you are a man... I don’t even think of you as a man. I think of you as something like me, half and half. It’s because I am in love with you.<<

He eyed me warily. >>You know, like I said, I don’t think your German is as perfect as it sounds. What do you mean, when you say love?<<

>>You must know what I mean, because you seem so certain that having a fuck will end it.<<

>>The only thing I know about love, is that it doesn’t last<< he shrugged. >>I don’t think this is lasting love, with us. I think for you and me, it’s the sensation of wanting what we can’t have, the feeling of yearning, that fuels this passion. Yearning does not survive having.<<

>>But what if I’m actually enjoying the sensation of being in love, of wanting, of... obsessing? What if it’s not you that I want, but the feeling of wanting? What if this yearning is an energy, an engine that drives me, drives my drawing, drives my little stories, drives those stupid little comics everyone likes so much?<<

And Blixa suddenly opened his eyes very wide, and just stared at me, not with the blank incomprehension I had been afraid of, but something even worse. He stared at me like he understood exactly what I was talking about, and it scared him to death. But then he took another draw of the pipe, and blew smoke away from me, over his shoulder, shaking his head a little wildly. >>I think you are in love with love itself.<<

I shook my head slowly. >>I am not. I hate love. It ruined my life. I am against love. I am anti-love.<<

>>You are not anti-sex.<< This with a very camp and slightly mocking raised eyebrow.

>>I hate having a body<< I confessed, feeling suddenly very exposed in front of him. >>I hate that it has urges, and desires, and needs.<<

>>You have a very beautiful body<< said Blixa, and I stared at him. It was only the second time ever, after Anne, that anyone had ever used that word with me. Even Maud, who I knew, had loved me completely, unconditionally, had treated my long, spare, wiry body as an obstacle to be overcome. >>You have a body like an athletic young man. It excites me.<<

I just looked at him, feeling something twisting about inside me. >>if you think saying things like that will make me have sex with you... No. The reason I cannot have sex with you is because you say things like that to me. I can’t be your girlfriend. I can’t even be your boyfriend. But I need to be in love with you. My obsession is an energy that drives me. I need that energy, more than I need a fuck.<<

>>I understand<< he said, nodding slowly. >>I understand more than you can possibly imagine.<<

>>How<< I said, maybe a little too dismissively, looking at his beautiful face and thinking, how on earth has this man ever not got exactly what or who he wanted? >>How can you possibly understand, what it is to want, and not have?<<

>>It’s how I feel about you at the moment<< he quipped, poking me again.

>>So this is why you feel you have to have me<< I shot back. >>Why you demand from me something I can’t give you. You want some reaction from me that I cannot possibly fulfil. Like you want me to be someone I cannot be, some bisexual West Berlin lad who has a nice fuck with you tonight, as casual as having a cup of tea, then goes back tomorrow as if it meant nothing at all.<<

But slowly, the sarcasm fell away, and very strange expression came over his face, not quite fear, but something very like it. >>This feeling, I know completely. I know what it is to be wanted, in a way that I can never fulfil. I...<< The expression shifted, to something like annoyance, and for a moment I was afraid I had offended him. >>You know, when I say things like this, everyone laughs and tells me, oh, Blixa, you are so arrogant. I do not think that I am arrogant.>>

I didn’t mean to laugh quite so loud, but I did. >>Now why would anyone think that?<<

He gave a little shrug and a half-smile, but then his face grew serious. >>Listen. Is it arrogance to believe in oneself? To like oneself. Is that arrogance or confidence? I think that I am confident, and that I know who I am, and what I believe, and I say it convincingly, and people find this... well, they find it intriguing. I am not merely flattering myself if I say people find this attractive. I know I’m not the most handsome man in West Berlin. I’m no movie star, but I make the most of how I am. I have a good look. I make myself interesting. Reinvent myself. I know I’m charismatic, and energetic, and I know how to make things happen. And so people become weirdly...<< He grasped for words in a way that seemed very uncharacteristic for the normally extremely articulate young man. >>Infatuated.<<

>>I’m not the only person who is obsessed by you, is what you are trying to tell me<< I said quietly, trying to understand the message he seemed to be trying to get across. Don’t think you’re that special to me. I get this all the time. Suddenly, I saw his decision to show me Wolfgang’s photos in a different light.

>>Carter, I think you have a particularly clear kind of vision. I can tell from your art, from your comics. You are a true artist; you know how to look at a thing and really see that thing, not the social conventions around it. You look at the Risk bar, and you already have everyone’s number, whether it’s Wolfgang being so normal he’s actually weird, or some decent, polite Bavarian farmboy pretending to be a violent skinhead because he’s afraid of the big city. But you look at me, and you see something I like. I aspire to be the creature who appears in your comics, this quixotic Pied Piper of Berlin. You flatter me, like you can see who I want to be. But some people... well, they look at me, and they build a kind of fantasy in their head of who they want me to be. Maybe I’m responsible for this fantasy because it is my words, and my music which has caused them to construct it. It’s made up of bits and pieces and thoughts and images that I put in their heads in the first place. I don’t know.<<

>>How can you be responsible for what other people project onto you, though. That’s in their head, not in yours.<< With a twinge of guilt, I wondered if this was what I was doing, if I just looked at this creature who was not entirely a boy but not a girl either, and only saw myself. Maybe creative people only ever could see themselves in the people that they loved.

>>Well, this is the thing. They become obsessed with me – or this idea of me – and then they start holding me responsible for the things that they say I make them do. Me? My words? Do I make them do these things? Do my words? I don’t know!<< He looked genuinely worried that he might. It was that tiny moment of worry, of concern, that made me think he wasn’t arrogant. >>Do I drive people mad? Am I some kind of vampire that feeds off people’s adoration, that I eat up all of that love, and I grow stronger, and they grow weaker, from this one-sided love that I can’t return, because what they love isn’t actually me?<<

I fixed him with a steady gaze, choosing my words carefully. >>It’s flattering to think that one might have this kind of power, isn’t it? It’s very gratifying to the ego, to think that you have the ability – the charisma or charm or whatever – to inspire so much love as to drive someone mad. That you could affect someone that deeply. But, as you say, it’s not about you. It’s about what’s going on their head. It’s not about the depths of your charisma, it’s about the depths of their capacity for love, or madness, or whatever it is.<<

He looked at me, his eyes troubled. >>But that’s the question, Carter. How deep is your capacity for love? You don’t strike me as a shallow person. I mean, me... honestly, I am very shallow when it comes to love.<<

>>You don’t strike me as shallow. If anything, you sometimes strike me as too intense, too serious.<<

>>About my music, yes, I am very serious, about my writing and my art, certainly. But love?<< He made a dismissive gesture with his hand as if batting an insect away. >>You shouldn’t be in love with me. I am very shallow. I like these things casual. Very casual, with none of the encumbering strings. And yet every time I go out looking for casual, in the clubs, there is you, standing there, with all of your strings, so pretty, so bright, and yet so easy to become entrapped with.<<

I burst out laughing, wondering what on earth had put that image of me in his head. Strings? Me? Who did my best to keep women at a distance by telling them my heart had been broken? >>Now who’s projecting? What makes you think I come with strings?<<

He snorted a little. >>Carter, you come with so many strings and traps and hidden doors, and you don’t even know.<<

>>And even if I did, what makes you think these strings and traps are for you?<<

He opened his mouth with that slightly arrogant expression that meant he was about to contradict me, but before he could get any words out, his expression changed, and his face fell. >>Alright. That’s fair. Maybe it’s not you that has all the strings. Maybe it’s me, that sees, that you are not a shallow person, and thinks... knows that I would not be able to be shallow with you. I feel your intensity; it’s what draws me to you, like an energy, because I would want you to be that hungry for me. And I would need to love you completely.<<

>>I don’t know if I’m a shallow person masquerading as a deeper person, or an extremely deep person masquerading as a slightly shallow one. I have no idea. It’s never really been tested<< I confessed, with a slight shiver. >>I don’t know how deep my capacity for love, for obsession, for madness really is, because I’ve never had the chance to really love.<<

He looked back at me, his deep blue eyes searching, as if he wanted to know something I could never really tell him. I stared back at him, and all I could think was that he was beautiful, this strange, intriguing, clever man, who was both alarmingly insightful, and yet somehow completely naïve. If he wanted me to sleep with him, as he clearly did, why was he telling me that he was so shallow? Was he trying to put me off, or just warning me what to expect? But then again, why was I telling him these awful truths I felt urged to confess? Were we trying to put each other off? But finally he smiled, and touched the side of my face tenderly.

>>You’re always so calm and unflappable. I used to think you were just shy, but then I slowly realised that you are actually very self-assured beneath that British reserve. You just sit back and observe everything with the calm measure of a scientist, like you’re just studying us. I wonder sometimes what it would take to shake that composure... but then again, maybe it’s better not to find out.<<

I almost laughed. >>Calm and composed? Only on the surface. I feel like I’m a great roiling ocean of emotions on the inside.<<

>>Still waters run deep, eh<< he laughed, touching my hair tenderly. >>While I wear my heart on my sleeve all the time, but in reality I’m as shallow as a bath.<<

>>I don’t think so<< I responded carefully, and finally extended one careful, tentative finger towards the centre of his bare chest. >>I know you are a massive drama queen, but in many ways, I think that’s a carefully contrived defence. I think there are uncharted depths to you, that you keep very hidden from most people.<<

>>You think<< he said, with a defiant tilt to his eyebrows.

>>I know<< I insisted, with deep conviction. >>Or I would be able to just have that shallow gone-tomorrow fuck with you. And I can’t.<<

>>Well<< he said. >>If I can’t talk you out of it, then... If you want to be in love with me, then be in love with me. I will eat up all of your love, and all of your adoration, and feed off it, and I will grow stronger and you will grow weaker from this one-sided love. You have no idea what you ask. You want me to be a vampire off your love?<<

I shook my head slowly. >>I don’t think you’re even remotely a vampire. I think this whole scene feeds off your energy, your charisma, your beauty. And maybe I get stronger off you wanting me and not having me, too.<<

>>So this is your way of telling me you are really not going to have a fuck with me tonight no matter how hard I try to convince you.<< he sighed, and looked down the narrow crack between our bodies, indicating the erection that had not gone anywhere, in fact only seemed to have become more insistent. >>Then I have to do something about this. Do you mind if I take care of it myself?<<

>>Do as you wish<< I shrugged, rather curious as to what he would do.

He flopped over onto his back, and took his cock firmly in his hand, though his head remained tilted towards me. >>Will you take your clothes off, so I can look at you?<<

>>No<< I said firmly, and glanced up towards the Tom of Finland posters that had clearly been put right in the line of sight of the bed.

Shaking his head, he smiled wolfishly. >>This pornography does not excite me. Please? Disrobe. I swear to you I will not touch you. I just want to see you.<<

I sat up, and unbuttoned my shirt before slipping it off my shoulders, then raised my hips and slid out of my heavy jeans, then slipped back into bed in my knickers and my vest.

>>And this<< he insisted, looking at the vest, his breaths growing shallow as he continued to stroke at his cock. >>Please let me see your breasts.<<

>>Absolutely not.<<

>>Why not? Did you let your little Danish girl see them?<<

I shook my head. >>Not even Ilsa.<<

>>All the more reason to show me. I know you, like Ilsa never did. She was very pretty, but she was not very bright. You need someone clever, who understands you.<< At least now I knew the reason for that slightly catty, jealous tone to his voice when he spoke of her. I hated that Gudrun had been right, all along. >>Show me. I want to see.<<

Sitting up again, I turned my back on him as I pulled together the courage to slide my vest up over my head. And then I fiddled with the straps of the back brace that I wore, not down over the bottom of my spine, where the other labourers I’d worked with in London got their lumbagos, but strapped down tightly over the embarrassing buds of my breasts. Slowly, I undid the fastenings and slipped it off me, allowing those two embarrassing half-orbs of repulsive flesh to hang free of their bindings. And then I lay back down, next to Blixa, feeling my face flushing as he stared at them, his breaths growing shorter as his strokes grew faster. But to my relief, he made no move to touch them, as I lay there, watching his beautiful, long fingers tighten, until the muscles of his stomach grew tense, and his organ convulsed, sending little plumes of white pearly liquid shooting up across his chest like wet little jewels.

His breaths slowed, his hands grew still, and his eyes half-closed, though I could still see blue half-flickering beneath his absurdly long lashes.

>>Do you still love me?<< he asked.

>>Completely<< I said.

>>Me, too<< he sighed, and this time I knew without question that he meant he loved me. >>Stay the night?<<

I shrugged and looked about me, knowing that I was going to give in, no matter what he said.

>>I promise I won’t molest you. You are safe with me. I just want you to stay.<<

>>You don’t like sleeping alone<< I teased.

>>I don’t like sleeping, at all.<< When I looked at him oddly, he added, with a slightly vulnerable expression that made me realise he was telling the truth >>I am afraid to go to sleep. I do not know why. Gudrun and Bettina have always teased me about it, saying that I am afraid of missing out, if I sleep for a minute, that I will miss some exciting party, some amazing new band, some exhilarating moment of performance in an art gallery or a squat... but no. I am afraid to sleep, and I don’t know why.<<

I looked at him very carefully. >>That’s my fear<< I insisted, feeling more than slightly strange. >>For a long time, after Maud, I was afraid to go to sleep, because I was terrified that I would dream of her, and wake up to find the police snatching her from me again.<<

He looked back at me and smiled. >>Maybe our dreams and fears have got all mixed up, like your magnets with their reversed polarity. Hold me tight, while you sleep. Hold me as hard as you love me. I promise I will be here, when you wake.<<

Chapter Text

Blixa and I spent the night in each other’s arms. At first, I dropped off quickly to sleep, while he stayed awake smoking. At some point, he dropped off, one arm still curled around my shoulders like a child hugging a teddy-bear, for when I woke, he was asleep, softly snoring, his head thrown back across the pillows. He looked so young when he slept, almost like a little boy, his skin oddly fresh, the tensions of West Berlin fallen from his features, giving him a relaxed, almost tender expression I seldom saw when he was conscious. I lay, propped up on one elbow, just watching him, the rise and fall of his skinny chest, the way his eyes flickered under his eyelids as if he were dreaming. And when I could stand it no more, I reached for the sketchpad and drew him, sprawled across the mattress sleeping in boyish abandon.

I slept again, and finally woke around noon, just in time to see Blixa twitching and blinking like he was fighting his way back to consciousness. But he beamed when he opened his eyes and caught sight of me, rolling over towards me and wriggling like an enthusiastic puppy under the bedclothes, placing his hands either side of my face. >>Carter! You’re still here. I was afraid I dreamed the whole thing. I’m so happy.<<

>>Me, too<< I laughed, and moved forwards to gently kiss his forehead.

>>Did you dream about me?<< he asked, his voice very deep, and still thick with sleep.

>>I don’t think I dreamed at all.<< Looking into the intense blue of his eyes in the morning light, I felt awake and yet somehow still dreaming.

But he snorted with laughter, and let go of my face to reach down towards the eiderdown. >>But that’s no good. Let’s go back to sleep until you find me in your dreams, too.<< Grabbing the edge of the bed covers, he yanked them up over our heads, plunging us into sudden darkness.

For a moment, I was disoriented, struggling against fabric, trying to push my way out into the light, especially since he seemed to have dislodged the blankets, so that my feet were suddenly uncovered and quite cold. After a few minutes, I finally found my way out and sat up, though all I could see of Blixa was a long bundle of bedclothes, with a pair of slender ankles sticking out at the end. Desperate to warm up my feet again, I raised my knees and pressed the soles of my feet against the top of his own.

>>Aaiiyee<< the bundle shrieked, and tried to roll away. >>Your feet are freezing.<<

>>Well, whose fault is that, then. Warm me up, please.<<

Grumbling, his head emerged from the bedroll, as he pulled me towards him, wrapping me in his arms and plying his feet against my own, rubbing briskly until our legs were hopelessly tangled together. But at least I was warm now, looking down at his surprisingly lithe and graceful feet.

>>Your feet are so very small and delicate<< I observed, surprised because the rest of him was so immensely long and skinny. But his feet, by comparison, appeared trim and quite neat.

>>What?!<< exploded Blixa, sounding almost insulted. >>They’re nothing of the sort. They’re bigger than yours.<< Together, we wrestled for a bit, as he tried to gain the upper hand – or foot, as the case may be.

>>Lie still<< I urged, until we managed to lie perfectly aligned, my foot up against his. >>Look, your foot is only a centimetre longer than mine. And how tall are you?<<

>>One hundred and ninety centimetres<< he said, with a curt nod and the distinct edge of pride. >>And I wear a size 44 in the shoe, I’ll have you know, so my feet are hardly small.<<

I performed a few quick mental calculations. >>That’s what, six foot... three?<< I glanced over at the bony longness of him, the width of his gaunt shoulders where they escaped the blankets, suddenly realising exactly how enormous he was. >>I’m only five foot ten, and I wear size 43, so your feet are definitely small for your height. Almost dainty, compared to the rest of you.<<

>>They are nothing of the sort!<< he protested very loudly, rolling on top of me and attacking the tender parts of my waist with an attempt at tickling. >>How dare you malign the size of my feet. And anyway, how would you know. You’re a lesbian.<<

As I clawed at his hands, trying to keep them away from my tender areas, I shrieked as I suddenly grasped why he was so irate about my observation of his body parts, and abruptly started to giggle. >>I’m only talking about your feet, Blixa. Which are, to be fair, delicate and dainty and really quite graceful. You have a dancer’s feet. I have no idea about...<< And here I started to laugh openly. >>The rest of you.<<

>>I have been told, in that matter, too, that I am really quite generously endowed indeed<< he protested, sounding genuinely quite irate, to the point where halfway through saying it, I think even he realised how absurd he was being, and stopped tickling me and started to smile. For a moment, we just lay there, him on top, and me underneath, skin against skin, and for that very long moment, we just looked into one another’s faces, as the rise and fall of our breathing started to synchronise, growing ever so slightly faster. It would have been so easy, for him to just move ever so slightly, and slip inside me, as I could suddenly feel his length, hard against my thigh. But I don’t know if he saw something in my face, ambivalence or even fear, because instead he sighed, and smiled, and bent down to kiss me gently on the tip of my nose. >>I think I better go to the toilet, and have a piss, and maybe a wank. It’s up to you if you want to join me.<<

I grinned as he rolled off me. Really, we were going to be alright, if we could already joke like this. >>That, I think, you can really manage by yourself, but thanks for the offer<< I shouted after him.

He came back some time later, with coffee, and a grin that stretched from ear to ear. We decided to stay in bed for the rest of the day, smoking hash, taking pep pills, and eating the remains of the food that Wolfgang had left in the kitchen. He scratched away at writing his spidery poetry. I sketched. Neither of us had a change of clothes, so we just stayed naked. It no longer seemed in any way odd, but it didn’t feel erotic, either. We were just like two children in the Garden of Eden, too happy and high to realise we should be ashamed of our nakedness.

And at the end of those two, three days – I completely lost track of time – something had shifted between us. The tension was gone. I still loved, with an energy that fuelled my drawings, but I was actually completely confident that I was loved in return. Something in him had changed, had softened. He still dazzled and dizzied me, but he no longer disoriented me. I felt like our affection for one another was something deeper, longer lasting than the fizzle of just sexual attraction. It would survive not having sex with each other.

We stayed in bed until the hash ran out, and then we put our clothes back on, and wandered out into the brittle cold air, and parted with a hug, saying we would see each other at some New Year’s party, or at some bar, or at a gig somewhere. And would I come celebrate his birthday at the Risk bar, the week after? Of course I would. Wild horses couldn’t keep me away. For a moment, he just held my face between his hands, and looked at me, like he was trying to decide whether to say something, but finally he just planted a kiss on my forehead, and I walked home with a light heart, feeling at ease with the world.

 

Drawing Blixa like that seemed to unleash something in me. When I got home, I took out my sketches of him, and did new draughts in ink, taking care to render the light and shadow of his body in bold, three-dimensional forms. Something I hadn’t taken much notice of, at the time, but came out as I worked on the drawings, was that Blixa had been eyeing me the whole time I had been sketching him. Going back to the enlargements of the photos I had taken of him in the cemetery, I studied his face. It was the same in the photos, that playful, teasing, bright expression that gazed coquettishly at the camera, perfectly aware that he was being watched, acknowledging his awareness both of his own beauty and the desire it inspired, even as he challenged his viewer – me presumably! – to admit that desire. There was something intensely erotic about that gaze. It wasn’t at all like the way that nude women gazed out from girlie magazines, cheeky but demure with their chins dipped and their lips puckered. Blixa’s stare made it seem obvious that he was in control of the whole sketching situation, something I was oddly envious of as I strove to capture it in the drawings.

It took me completing a self-portrait to understand why I felt so envious. Peering into the mirror I had propped up on my desk, to try and establish if I gazed out with the same expression when I was drawn, I was disappointed to discover that I did not. I hated my body. I hated the way it betrayed me, hunching my wide shoulders to hide the shadows of my lumpy chest. And that mistrust of my own form showed in the way my semblance peered suspiciously out of my own portrait. But Blixa, even splayed naked across Wolfgang’s bed, he looked comfortable in his own body. He looked at ease. Damn, how I envied that ease, how he genuinely looked as if he enjoyed his arched chest and his long limbs. It was true, he often moved slightly awkwardly, especially onstage, with that alien insect grace of a creature accustomed to a completely different gravity. Yet as he lay there, staring back at me out of the drawing with that calm, cool confidence, it was obvious that he did not hate inhabiting his body the way that I hated mine.

As I traced the outlines of his lanky limbs with my pen, then drew back to admire my handiwork, I felt myself racked with a sudden pang of desire, so sharp it was almost a physical sensation. And that felt odd, because it was precisely the kind of unmistakably carnal urge I had not felt while lying in that bed kissing him. What on earth was this, some Pygmalion trip? To love a work of art I had created, more than I loved the boy who had inspired it? No, it was more complicated than that, and yet more basic.

Everything had got somehow all snarled up. The envy I felt for that abandon with which he inhabited those long limbs and that smooth, arched chest had got all tangled up with my desire. But was it desire to copulate with that body, or desire to inhabit a body like that, myself? The pang flared again, as I finally managed to articulate the thought, even as an unspoken idea in my mind. Yet I could not prise apart the twin shoots of desire that seemed to have grown, intertwined around each other, until I could not tell one from the other. Did I want to fuck Blixa’s long, lean, androgynous and yet unequivocally male body, or did I want to have that body, to walk around in that smooth male chest, those narrow male hips with the confidence and self-assurance projecting out from Blixa’s intense blue eyes? Both. Neither. It was impossible to tell. The desire seemed like such an impossible, unruly, forbidden thing. To want sex with a man was unthinkable. But to want a man’s body for myself...?

No, it was absurd. Impossible. There was nothing on earth that would give me a body like that, no amount of binding or stretching or punishing my muscles with manual labour to make them strong and lean. But to look at Blixa’s body, in my drawings, or my photos, was to invite that impossible longing, as much as it was to invite sexual desire for him.

Picking up a fresh sheet of paper, I sketched out another long, narrow body like Blixa’s, resting on his elbows so that his chest was angled up slightly. But instead of Blixa’s long, narrow face, I drew my own. And instead of his coquettish smirk, I drew the suspicious glare of trepidation on my own. For a long time, I stared at the drawing as if it were some magical sigil, this odd chimera, half me and half Blixa, until its malevolent gaze grew too much to bear. No! It was an impossible thing. The drawing inspired not lust, but the same sense of wrongness that I had felt, trying to snog Blixa. Snatching up the paper, I crumpled it into a ball, but I didn’t even dare throw it in the ordinary rubbish for fear of... I don’t know what I was afraid of. Afraid my aunt, or one of our neighbours would find it and laugh at it? Or afraid the thing itself would come to life and stalk around my house like a demon, looking for the creator that had brought its bizarre form into being? Looking around, I found a matchbook. Not taking any chances, I lit the hideous, impossible thing on fire, then tossed it into the grate of the fireplace and watched it burn until there was nothing but ash left.

Then I sat down again, picked up my pencil, and started drawing like a feverish thing. I wasn’t going to question this desire again; I was just going to burn it like fuel and follow where my pencil led me. The wildness left me as my drawings submitted to my own hand and eye again.

I propped the mirror up lengthwise over the desk, then disrobed and lay down on the bed opposite. I tried to draw myself as I was, my wide, mannish shoulders, the two weird blobs of flesh hovering on my chest, the slight swell of my belly, my deceptive hips, then my long legs with calves made muscular from walking. My face, I realised, as I drew, did not look either suspicious or coquettish. I looked ferociously curious, focused, intense. So was that the off-putting intensity that Gudrun had found so scary? Or was that the magnetic, erotic intensity that Blixa found so irresistible? How could two people look at that expression, and see such different things?

But at last, I pulled back and looked at the drawing. It was a good drawing, both technically proficient and actually recognisable as myself, and yet also aesthetically pleasing, mixing the bold lines and flat planes of a Mucha with the angular eroticism of an Egon Schiele, if I might be allowed to flatter myself a bit. I liked this drawing of myself, in a way I did not like my own body. It was like Blixa had said, I had somehow managed to draw around the social convention that surrounded by body, to draw something I actually liked. And I realised, as I looked at it, that I had not actually drawn the self-portrait for me.

 

The next few months were one of the happiest periods of my life. I was young, and free, and happy; in love but enjoying not being tied down. I had a good job, and money in my pocket, and an exciting group of friends to share my good fortune with.

1982 started off on a high note, with a weekend long squat party, at which rotating members of various bands – the New Buildings, Malaria!, The Skin, the Deadly Doris – all took turns swapping out their instruments and playing in various new and exciting combinations, one drummer playing with another band’s bassist, and lead singers of two bands at once singing unusual duets. Even I had a go; although I couldn’t play a note, I ended up whacking on some sheet metal in a glorious racket with Mufti and Andrew while Beate thundered away on the bass and Salomé chanted a fake Latin mass into a microphone. It was a wonderful mess! And Blixa’s birthday at the Risk bar was even messier and sloppier and filled with friends and laughter and illicit substances.

I caught him before the messy drinking really began, as he was stowing away the large black leather briefcase-bag in which he carried his precious cassettes, his fanzines, his band documents, and all his really important things.

>>Look, this is a gift for you<< I said, pressing a plain brown envelope into his hands. >>I’d prefer if you didn’t make a big deal out of it, and I’d really like it if you didn’t show anyone. But I wanted you to have it.<<

Blixa looked perplex and intrigued, smiling with little-boy curiosity as he broke the seal and slowly slid my odd self-portrait out of the envelope. For a long time, he just stared at it, his face slowly taking on a dreamy, slightly lascivious expression, but then he smiled and slid it back into its wrapper. Extending his impossibly long arms, he wrapped them around me like a great black rubber spider, pulling me so close I almost couldn’t breathe, crushing his face against my hair until I could feel his breath warming the top of my ear.

>>Was that a strange thing to have given you?<< I asked awkwardly, feeling a bit overcome by his reaction as I finally extricated myself from his embrace.

>>Maybe it is; I don’t care<< he insisted, tucking it away into the depths of his briefcase. >>The drawing is beautiful. I will treasure it always. But what truly moves me, is the fact that you trust me enough to give this to me.<<

>>Are you two done canoodling back ‘ere?<< called out Maria’s voice, as we shot apart like guilty schoolchildren. >>Honestly, disappearing to some exclusive backstage at your own birthday party, how Blixa bloody Bargeld. Come out you rock star, everyone’s asking for the birthday boy. Bettina’s even managed to find you a vegan birthday cake.<<

Typically, Blixa celebrated his own birthday by giving the music scene a present: he and his buddies had turned their hands to what they thought of as ‘dub’ and released a cassette of remixes and tape loops and weird echoey sound experiments. Since I no longer had Old Schumacher telling me I couldn’t listen to the New Buildings in the van, I nearly wore the tape out, listening to it on the way to work. When I told Blixa my favourite was Sado-masodub, but it wasn’t quite long enough for the drive to work, he obligingly mixed a 30-minute version that covered one entire side of a cassette, with a special custom mix-tape on the other side. Oh, how I treasured that tape, with his distinctive handwriting marching across the front cover, with not just the names, but little comments on the tracks he had selected for me, like he wanted me to know why they were special to him. When the gift proved well-received, he made me another and then another, his own little tributes of love.

At the end of January, the New Buildings went on tour again, out into Europe for the first time. Blixa sent me strange postcards with foreign stamps, his spidery handwriting making hilarious jokes of dangerous concerts and near-misses with their unconventional equipment. He had a little joke with me, that he always tried to send me the most boring postcards, so I never got photos of mountains or grand canals or castles. I got postcards of shopping centres and ugly brick town halls and train stations, which seemed somehow much more fitting. He seemed good-spirited and playful, perhaps even optimistic in the messages.

Compared to their tour of Germany, which I think Blixa had found quite hard work, playing underappreciated gigs to people who were not willing to hear them, places like the Netherlands and France were a lot more exciting. These audiences could get a little confrontational, but at least they reacted. Blixa didn’t mind being hated or screamed at; what he couldn’t stand was to be ignored. After they played Paris, I received a postcard with a weird scrawled message saying >>I don’t ever want to play in West Germany again. Playing gigs in West Germany is shit compared to this! (Well... maybe still in Berlin.)<<

They played in Amsterdam for the first time, and Blixa absolutely fell in love with the city. Well, not so much the city itself as its lively drugs scene. He came home telling me he had tried “the real deal” there, >>not those rubbish little housewives diet pills we’ve been messing with<< but genuine, white-hot amphetamine sulphate, so powerful it was like opening up your skull and pouring the universe straight in, so that he felt focused and sharp as a knife, staying up for days at a time without fatigue.

It all seemed fun at the time; Blixa seemed to be having a marvellous time. He became a different character on speed, sharp and witty and cutting. In an odd way, pure amphetamine seemed to calm him down, so that he became tightly focused and intense, instead of boisterous and manic and exploding in a hundred directions all at once. He wrapped his success around him like a cloak, and sharpened himself on it. We were a tight, loyal, close-knit little scene, and if you were in it – and for the first time in my life, I was in – you were part of something that felt truly magical and amazing.

Malaria! released their first proper record, on their cool New York label, and started to tour pretty intensively in the spring. Manc Mark, who had somehow found himself roped into the gang as their ‘manager’, always tried to drag me along to their out of town gigs, as he knew that I would stay sober enough to drive home. OK, sure, I would sometimes overindulge in a little hash. But I’d inherited an affinity for the peppy little housewife pills that Blixa now considered himself to be so far above, and I’d be alright to drive after one or two of them.

And after a couple of nervous crossings at the Staaken border control, I learned that the issue of passports was a delicate one, that I was uniquely placed to handle. Manc Mark had a British passport, so they would let him out of West Berlin with only a cursory check of the German passengers’ papers. (If you didn’t have a passport, the official papers were such a hassle, as you actually had to apply in advance and pay a fee to cross the border, that everyone in the bands – even Blixa, who objected strenuously to all official documents – sprung for the expensive full West German passport.) Since I, on the other hand, had dual citizenship, and a birthplace listed as West Berlin, I could drive out on my British passport without hassle, then drive the van back into the city on my West German one, and be greeted routinely in both directions, as if I were merely returning home.

It was deeply, deeply weird, driving the hundreds of kilometres through East Germany along tightly controlled and forbidding autobahns, until we reached the border. But the concerts were well worth it, and the trips were always a brilliant time. In my opinion, Malaria! were the best live band in Germany, those five incredibly beautiful women in their coordinated black outfits with a gash of red lipstick, making this drop-dead cool and angular music in clubs from Hamburg to Düsseldorf.

We always liked playing Düsseldorf best, as Beate would appear after a gig at the Ratinger Hof, sometimes with Chrislo in tow, and take us out on the town. And at a strange, darkened club in the Central Business District, we actually caught a glimpse, through a crowd, of those four weird guys from Kraftwerk, sitting there in their perfectly tailored suits and pencil ties, though I didn’t have the nerve to approach them. Gudrun loved them, as she was starting to get properly into electronic music, playing some of the set on the synth before switching back to the drums. But the one time she went anywhere near the cold, robotic Rheinlanders, their creepy drummer tried to chat her up, and she beat a swift retreat.

But then Chrislo, usually hopped up on machismo and drink, and god knows what else, would end up getting aggro with a bouncer, and we’d be out on the beer-spattered pavement of the Altstadt, Beate trying to drag him off before he got really out of control. Their band was doing well, Los Niňos Del Parque was a huge international hit, selling by the bucketload across Europe and even in America. But Chrislo was the first of the gang who was obviously not handling the pressure of success at all. Seeing his handsome face, mashed by a bouncer, was distressing. But seeing him taking it out on Beate, as the two of them would start to scrap, that really worried me.

Malaria!’s hard work was paying off, too. Their 12” vinyl, New York Passage, had gone Top 10 in the independent charts in the UK, mainly thanks to John Peel’s incessant championing of them as “Queens of Noise”, and it also got a huge amount of college radio airplay in the US. For Gudrun, it was a real affirmation, and I think there was a tiny part of her that really got off on telling scenester boys that this ‘girlband’ they had dismissed or downplayed had achieved something special. The taste of success lit a fire under her. They discussed the next step constantly, at Iron-Grey, at the women-only meetings they still held in their flats, and at the rehearsal studio they shared with Susanne’s other band, The Skin.

The band were split on how to proceed. The more cautious side of the group, led by Bettina, were willing to shop around and make a deal with one of the German labels who had ignored them before their success. Now that they had proven their merit, surely even the most sexist of the music industry men would change their minds and offer them the same kind of deal that the New Buildings had been negotiating. Gudrun, and the more independent side of the band, on the other hand, wanted none of it.

>>We already know that they are completely sexist<< Gudrun protested. >>They’re not going to work any harder for us than we work for ourselves. Why reward them for their misogynist attitudes, and give them the fruits of all of our hard work?<<

>>Look, they have good contacts<< Bettina insisted. >>They know all the right people, they have the links already in place. It’s not about who they are, it’s about who they know, and who they can put us in touch with, that we can’t, ourselves.<<

>>But we have contacts<< Gudrun snorted. >>It was me who went to Zensor and asked him, hey, which distribution companies should be carrying our records. And may I remind you, it was John-Peel who called us, not some record company who went begging to him. He called us.<<

Bettina roared with laughter. >>Yes, and you and Beate squawked down the phone at him then hung up, because neither of you could understand a word of English. At least a German branch of an international record company will have someone who can talk English on the phone!<<

“I can schpik englische perfekly vell now, carn’t I, Karteh,” enunciated Gudrun, to prove her point. >>And anyway, John-Peel didn’t take any offense, he did invite us back.<<

>>Look, where are we going to get the money to start a record label?<< asked Christine, who was good at breaking up her bandmates’ squabbling and bringing them back to the bottom line. >>It’s not like copying home-made tapes in Blixa’s basement, putting out an actual album on vinyl. It costs a lot of money up front. Where do we get that kind of money? We barely make a profit on touring.<<

>>So we apply for arts grants, we go to the government for a business loan – they are practically throwing money at anyone who will start a business in West Berlin! We talk to patrons – you know that Wolfgang talked a wealthy gallery owner into giving the Deadly Doris two thousand Marks for them to make a record! You should know these things yourself, Bettina, from starting Iron-Grey...<<

Bettina shifted uncomfortably on the sofa, because it was unspoken but common knowledge around the group, that substantial amounts of the funding for the opening of the shop had come from Bettina’s wealthy family. She didn’t like to talk about it, not only because she felt it created a rift between herself and the less wealthy members of the group (who, coincidentally, were the ones arguing most strongly for self-sufficiency and starting their own label) but because she was always slightly wary of her bandmates asking her to tap into those funds again and again.

>>Well, as you know, Iron-Grey has never managed to turn a profit. We wouldn’t be able to run it at all if we actually had to pay any kind of real rent.<< she finally sighed.

>>We should at least talk to some record labels, see what they’re offering<< suggested Christine diplomatically. >>What can it hurt?<<

And so Gudrun and Bettina dressed up in their best suits and their big boots and their art school hair-cuts, and went off to talk to the first Big Business Record Label who had come sniffing round the scent of their success. Almost from the start, it was a complete disaster, as we found out when Bettina, sheepishly, and Gudrun, triumphantly, picked through the post-mortem at the Risk bar the following Saturday.

>>They were the most offensive male chauvinist pigs I have ever had the displeasure of meeting!<< raged Gudrun as we gathered round the bar, waiting for Blixa to serve us.

>>They were quite patronising<< conceded Bettina, waving her finger towards the bottle of red wine they wanted to share. Blixa grabbed it for her, but waved away her money, as the local punk stars always drank for free when Blixa was working the till.

>>I went in, with all of my research, and all of our touring plans, and all of our sales figures from the last E.P., and all prepared to talk through what we expected to accomplish with our debut album...<< continued Gudrun as the weedy Blixa wrestled with the corkscrew.

>>I really was quite impressed with the plan, it was really good, very thorough<< agreed Bettina. When they argued, Bettina and Gudrun could be fearsome, but when they agreed, they spoke with one voice.

>>And what do you think this prick said? He said, ‘don’t you worry your pretty little heads about that, we have people to handle all of that for you’<<

>>Absolute prick<< echoed Bettina. As if to demonstrate her frustration with the entire male sex, she seized the bottle of wine from Blixa and removed the cork he was still struggling with, using a ferocity that indicated she would rather be removing the record company representative’s head.

>>We have the same problem<< said Blixa with a jaunty nod of his head. >>Record company people are the emissaries of the Devil, and the Devil is commercialism.<<

>>Yes, but this is something you do not have to deal with<< raged Gudrun. >>Because do you know what they did want to speak to us about?<<

Blixa put his elbows on the bar and rested his sharp chin on his skinny wrists to indicate that he was all attention. >>Tell me. The Devil is always in the details.<<

>>Our image!<< snapped Gudrun.

>>Our haircuts!<< roared Bettina.

>>Our clothes!<< rejoined Gudrun.

>>Can you imagine!<< cried Bettina, who was by far the more outraged of the two, though it had originally been her idea to go to a major label. >>We, who have studied design and couture at the school for Kunst!<<

>>We who have been running a clothing boutique for three years<< added Gudrun.

>>Well, I’ve helped<< pointed out Blixa, but the girls just talked right over the top of him.

>>And they think they are going to have image consultants to come in and tell us what to wear and how to cut our hair and what make-up to wear? The arrogance of men!<< Bettina almost shouted, with the tone of voice that could carry all the way to the back of the SO36 even over the roar of the liveliest of punk crowds.

>>We are incorporating our own record label on Monday<< announced Gudrun, and held up her glass to propose a toast. >>We will release our own album.<<

>>I am in complete agreement<< said Bettina, and clicked her glass against Gudrun’s.

Chapter Text

Employment in West Berlin turned out to be like shifting sand. As Gudrun and Bettina went into business founding a record label for Malaria!, they officially bequeathed Iron-Grey to Blixa, so Gudrun could concentrate on trying to learn the ropes of the record industry. But I, too, was having trouble trying to balance my job, with my expanding life in the fast-growing music scene. Old Schumacher was generally pretty cool about whatever hours I liked to keep, so long as the jobs got done, and I did decent work. He was always fairly relaxed about my odd hours, and about my extracurricular work. Finally, he had got the business set up just the way he wanted it, with me in the old van, and his cousin in the new one, leaving him in the office just handling the bookings and the... other, less licit stuff. With two vans on the go, business started doing so well, that the cousin got a Praktikant of his own, a sullen, spotty lad who was really terrified of me, and alternated between leering outlandishly, and being stunned into silence every time I spoke. But, with my own van and my own hours, it was easy enough to ignore both leering lad and stuffy cousin.

On the whole, I tended to prefer the smaller, domestic jobs to the big, building-site jobs that the cousin favoured. I found it really satisfying to turn up on call for some hausfrau in an absolute panic, and calmly restore order and light and power to her stricken household. It didn’t pay as well as the big construction jobs paid, sure. (And old Schumacher had taught me well how to astutely assess a customer’s economic situation, and instilled in me the soft-heartedness of when to offer special discounts to people who looked like they needed them.) But the sense of fulfilment that I got from repairing a second-hand fridge in a house full of skinny kids, and the gratitude that women, in particular, showed me, when I spoke to them in simple, un-patronising German, explaining the problems and being honest about what it would take to fix them... that was worth more than money. People, especially women, came to trust me, and asked for me repeatedly, passing my number from friend to friend as a reliable and respectful tradesperson.

It was a weird line of work, to walk constantly into the most chaotic moments of people’s domestic lives. But I got to see how West Berliners really lived, the stunning contrasts between wealthy American functionaries (who liked the idea of an English-speaking electrician) and the grinding poverty of ruinous tenement blocks that had changed little since the tanks rolled in in 1945. And I seemed to operate constantly in a strange sphere was I was simply taken without question as a man, again and again, simply because I turned up to do a ‘man’s job’ wearing a man’s clothes.

It was funny, because Gudrun often asked me if I experienced a lot of sexism in the electrical repair trade. Gudrun, after her terrible experiences in the record industry, was clearly very concerned about such issues, and asked her friends about them frequently. But to ask me if I experienced sexism on my own job, well, that was an odd one. Because in many ways, yes, it was appalling. There were constant sexist comments on building sites, and jibes about how useless and awful and incompetent women were, from other tradesmen I encountered on the job, or buying supplies at a wholesale warehouse. (Not from old Schumacher, luckily enough – had he done so, I would never have lasted a week on the job.)

But the thing about these comments was, that as awful as they were, they somewhat rolled off my back, because everyone simply took me for a man. I looked like a man. I was as tall and as strong as a man. And in their eyes, I was extremely competent at my job, which made me a man, because women were by definition incompetent. ‘Carter, the English lad’ read to them as a male name. Perhaps it might have been different had I been named Mary or Sue. But because they were expecting to see a man, they saw only a man. And treated me accordingly, with gruff respect. I never got the whistles or the comments that girls, beautiful or not, received if they ventured into these work spaces. But I never would have dared to walk into those spaces wearing a jaunty blouse or a face full of make-up. (Not indeed, that I even owned such things.)

Me, for my own self, never knew how to respond to these kinds of comments. Because, on one hand, it was pretty obvious they didn’t apply to me. I wasn’t useless or incompetent or a sexy piece of arse or a gossiping shrew. Maybe I would have been more concerned had these comments even been directed to me personally. But as it was, it was actually part of my coat of armour that I did not, could not respond to them. Because to respond to them would be to acknowledge that maybe they could be applied to me, and give away that chink in the armour that I wasn’t who they thought I was. And then I thought I really would be in trouble, and the casual ease with which I passed through my working world would be compromised. It would have been real trouble, in my occupation, to be viewed as a girl.

But on the other hand, I did not agree with these comments. I thought of the smart, strong, capable German women I knew – Gudrun, Bettina, Tabea, Grete and my Aunt – and thought that the comments were ridiculous to the point of insulting. And the men I respected did not agree with them either. Old Schumacher, despite his occasional, very affectionate and grandfatherly jokes towards me, if he heard young men on work sites he frequented talking in that way, he would round on them and tell them to wash out their mouths. >>You’re paid to work, not to run your mouths off. A woman gave birth to you, and on my clock you will respect women<< he would bark, in a short, sharp tone that demanded respect, and always got it.

However, just as I was starting to get used to my job, and even like it, settling into a comfortable enjoyment of it, old Schumacher announced his retirement. The company was doing well, the new apprentice had settled in nicely, and the cousin’s wife, Sigrid, had just started working in the office, taking on the bulk of the administrative work. And so the older man decided it was time for him to cash out and sell the business to the cousin. I was sad, as I liked old Schumacher, and looked up to him a lot, as he had taught me so much on a professional level, and he had really looked after me on a personal level. But I was not prepared for how much the company would change, under the cousin, who really was of a completely different mindset to the easy-going old man.

For a start, all the Black Market stuff, and the off-the-books stuff was out. Young Schumacher was aiming to do a lot more of the lucrative government work – big projects, lots of money – but that meant keeping your nose and your books clean. But then he told me that that meant I had to put a stop to my off-the-clock squat and music scene work, or find a way to make it legit. I told him that what I did outside of company hours was none of his business. So Young Schumacher decided to make it his business, by cancelling my long-standing agreement with my mentor that I could work as flexible hours as I wanted, so long as I made up the time at some point. He tried to force me to commit to a regular work schedule.

The thing was, the little, domestic jobs that I tended to favour, they didn’t conform to a regular schedule. Families with shorted-out washing machines didn’t want me turning up at 8am, when they were trying to get their kids dressed and out the door for school. They actually preferred me turning up at 10 or 11, when they were ready for me – or better yet, at 8pm at night, when the fuse had blown in the first place. Evenings were the most popular time to book in calls, when the husband would be home. And the fact that I was occasionally willing to work on a Saturday afternoon, that was far more popular than the ability to turn up at 8am on a Monday morning.

But the younger Schumacher didn’t want me to carry on doing the small, poorly paid, piecemeal domestic jobs. He kept cancelling my little repair jobs and booking me in for large-scale building jobs he knew I hated.

For most of the spring, we battled. Every time Malaria! or the New Buildings or the Deadly Doris played a gig that was advertised in the local paper, or in adverts on walls around Kreuzberg, Young Schumacher – or more likely, his busybody little wife, who wrote out the schedules – would make a deliberate point of scheduling me for an early start the next day. I burned the candle at both ends, though I did not risk going into open rebellion. I pulled a lot of all-nighters, revving through on what Blixa now disdainfully called ‘housewives’ pills’ then rolling into work at 8am having stayed out all night, or caught a few bleary hours of sleep in the back of the van.

Those gigs, especially the wild bacchanalias at SO36, where punk bands from out of town would play, and the local heroes would support, were my passport to this other West Berlin that I had fallen in love with. The music was incredibly intense and extreme, especially the American bands who were starting to come through on tour. British punk had completely splintered, into odd, angular art-rock on the one hand, bands like Bauhaus and Wire who wore their art school references like a mask; and dumbed-down troglodyte Oi. But American punks took the whole thing to another level, becoming more and more hard core in their pursuit of faster, louder, and more extreme music.

And it was the dancing, more than anything, that caught me. I had seen both pogoing, where people jumped up and down excitedly, and slamming, where people careened about, smashing into one another with anarchic glee, before, in London. But the Berlin style of dancing turned pogoing and slamming into a far more communal thing, where a crowd of young people would somehow seize one another around the shoulders and leap about, surging first one way, and then another, a mass of people moving like a sea. I watched, but I did not participate, held back by shyness. Until one day, the Teenager, Alex, arriving late, saw me standing at the edge of the audience watching a band, thrashing my head back and forth to the music, and simply grasped me around the shoulders, howled >>moron dance!<< (which was the title of one of Blixa’s songs) and pulled me straight into the midst of the pullulating crowd.

For an awful moment, I panicked, feeling completely assaulted by noise and sound and strange bodies jostling me from every direction. Another body collided with me from the other side, and knocked me off balance, and for an awful moment, I thought this was how I would die, knocked down and tramped at a punk gig. But to my surprise, I did not fall over. The dense mass of bodies caught me, and held me upright, so that I twisted and lurched, but did not go down. A third person grabbed Alex around the neck, and pulled us in another direction, and the crowd shifted, allowing us through. Someone in the mass of people caught us, and shoved us back in the other direction, and as I looked up, I realised the third dancer was tiny, elfin Andrew, his face twisted into ecstatic joy as the crowd buffeted us, pushing us first one way, then another, in time to the surging, energetic music coming off the stage.

And at that moment, I realised that the dancing was like waves, it was like swimming in a strong ocean current, and that the exhilaration and terror were the same, to be knocked about, and carried, and yet have complete confidence that these people all around you – and I kept catching glimpses of kids I knew, from Iron-Grey, or from other concerts – would ultimately catch you if you fell, support your body and keep you floating. The crush and push of humanity of all sexes was, in an odd way, intensely sexual, and yet, despite the violence of the music and the movements, it was not particularly aggressive. It felt like an intense, participatory communion, more like an orgy than a gang-bang. And from that day, I was hooked. I started going to every gig, with Blixa or Gudrun, if they were around, or with Andrew and even Alex if they weren’t, taking advantage of every opportunity to experience those strange, wild dances.

I grew tighter with the other New Buildings, through dancing and going to gigs. Mufti and Mark were spending more and more time in Berlin, and less and less time at home in Hamburg, though the pair of them seemed to be in half a dozen bands spread between both cities. Mufti was even more of a social butterfly than Blixa, it seemed, though to be fair he was far more of an accomplished musician than Blixa ever was. He was a truly gifted drummer, who could tease a beat out of absolutely anything, from plastic containers, to shopping trolleys, to assorted bottles and glasses left strewn across the bar of the Risk when Blixa had forgotten to collect the empties in a while. But he could also play the piano a bit, and had a natural kind of ear for music, so that when he picked up anything – a guitar or a keyboard or even a banjo – without a single lesson, he could produce some interesting noises out of it, though not necessarily the noises its maker intended. He was just obsessed with sound, with teasing out the timbre of anything – musical or non-musical – that could be plucked or struck or blown or bowed to make a noise. It was that native, inborn sense of musicality that really lifted the New Buildings’ odd music from pure cacophony, to those passages of intense, almost spiritual beauty.

And Mufti, unlike Blixa, actually knew his way around a recording studio. All of the musicians in those days used to carry little portable cassette recorders about with them, not just to play music, but to tape band rehearsals or gigs. Mufti, on the other hand, turned taping everyday things into a kind of art form. He had half a dozen different microphones, from tiny, unnoticeable spy mics you could wear on your lapel without anyone noticing, to large, flat contact mics he would fix to the side of a car to record engine noise. He had a way of joining bands through agreeing to play drums, and then ending up producing the whole record, simply taking over in the studio, by way of his uncanny ability to always make things sound interesting.

First, he had been working with the band that the awful teenager had started with his improbably beautiful and famous girlfriend, Christiane F, already the author of a best-selling book and then film about her life as a teenage drug addict in West Berlin. The German pop music industry were very keen to capitalise on her international fame and her legendary beauty, but the records they wanted her to make, and the records that she and her noisenik boyfriend were interested in making were two very different beasts. After the record company strong-armed her into recording a dreary disco track for the American market, Mufti and Alex liberated the masters and created their own version, which was much less radio-friendly, but much more fun.

Since that had proved such a lark, Mufti and Alex recruited Mark into their studio-based ‘wrecking crew’ and went on to produce yet another prefabricated punk record backing a hot girl singer, this time enlisting a shockingly beautiful Polish woman with a penchant for slight S&M theatrics in her lyrics. The whole thing was manufactured over the course of a month, recorded and released as a kind of experiment in machine-line music assembly, and then disbanded just as quickly. It was fairly astonishing to me, that Mufti and Alex were both quite ordinary looking blokes, and yet they were constantly surrounded by these absolutely stunning girls. Privately, I wondered what their secret was, that these grungy boys routinely turned up these with gorgeous women like Christiane and Mona, and how I could share in it.

Honestly, if I had had the slightest modicum of musical talent, I would have given it a go, as Mufti insisted that frankly, anyone could be a musician, given the right environment. But I declined to participate, preferring instead to study intensely how Mufti and Alex interacted with their fascinating music-capturing machines. The machines, I found interesting, and I enjoyed poking at them, and fixing them occasionally when Alex managed to mangle them.

I really enjoyed that heady atmosphere of West Berlin’s music scene, where bands would form, swap members, percolate through the entire underground economy of clubs and record shops and fanzines, and break up again maybe a month or two later, to be absorbed back into the primordial soup of the city’s musical DNA. Even though West Berlin was a fairly large, presumably cosmopolitan city, the music scene was absolutely nothing like London’s, where people passively consumed gigs and clubs that other people would lay on for their entertainment. People didn’t just watch; they joined in and made things happen. Or maybe it was just that peculiarity implicit in the German language – that fun was something that had to be made, not had. But every time Mufti or Alex turned up with a new band, I would obediently trot along to check them out, knowing that there was fun to be made there.

Blixa, of course, still had the best radar for music, which he shared with me constantly, through those incredible mixtapes he made me like little love letters. I never knew anyone who could make mixtapes like Blixa, though there was an implicit understanding in listening to the things, that they would swerve wildly from the hottest new alternative record on import from the States, to weird machine noises he had recorded because he found them interesting, to home-made recordings either of his own band, or friends’ bands he had gone to see play live. They were wildly adventurous, and for me, who had known little about music before falling in with this crew, they were a musical education in and of themselves.

Either through his music-world contacts or through his obsessive keeping up with zines to stock at Iron-Grey, Blixa always seemed to have his ear to the ground, and a nose for rooting out every cool foreign band that would be passing through West Berlin. He always seemed to know which concerts to go to, which clubs to be seen at, and which bands not just to listen to, but to seek the acquaintance of. At SO36, Blixa, who was incredibly good at networking, with an uncanny ability to instantly befriend almost anyone with the laser beam of his charisma, held court like a rubber-clad aristocrat, swanning backstage and inviting British or American luminaries of alternative music out for a night of free drinks at the Risk bar.

With his new American rock star friends, as well as his own successful band, his social capital was definitely on the rise. Now that he was known to be single, he was a bit of a hot property on the scene, and he certainly played the field. Girls, boys, it didn’t really seem to matter to Blixa, so long as they were hot, and they didn’t have any hang-ups about permanence, or expectations that it might lead to a regular thing. He wanted it known, that everything he got up to, was to be kept strictly casual. He wanted sex, and he certainly got it, without much trouble. Now that he was definitely a local celebrity, he didn’t seem to even have to go looking for liaisons. Blixa just made himself available in that passive, receptive sort of way of his, and sexual partners seemed to almost throw themselves at him.

It didn’t bother me, all that easy no-strings sex. Good for him, I thought, to be honest. We were friends and I felt very secure in the odd kind of totally platonic love we shared. (And he never wavered in letting me know that he did care for me. He was one of the most effortlessly affectionate men I had ever known.) But to see the easy way he shared his beautiful body with anyone on the scene who was willing to keep it casual, that actually made me very glad that I had not joined the ranks of his conquests, that night in Wolfgang’s flat.

Gudrun laughed at me, and teased me that she definitely knew that there was something between us, as I was the one person in West Berlin that Blixa wasn’t fucking. I rolled my eyes at her and told her that not everything was about sex. But secretly? The fact that I had turned him down, and no one knew made me feel, well... oddly special.

I still saw Jana around the neighbourhood, in fact, I probably saw more of her than when she and Blixa had been together. To my relief, but also my slight confusion, she continued to act as if we were bosom buddies, waving at me, even from across the street, if she saw me out and about, and making a point of coming over to say hello. If she was alone, it was fine, and the whole thing was perfectly amicable. We’d just chat for a little bit about clothes or music or the weather, make promises to get together at some point, then go our separate ways. But if she was with her new boyfriend, Johann, well, something about him rubbed me the wrong way.

Johann was good-looking, in a tall, square, cheekboned sort of way – in fact, in many ways he was like a Hollywood handsome version of Blixa – but my god, he knew it. He had long, thick, shining hair where Blixa’s had been hacked away in chunks. And he had a good, square, jutting jaw where Blixa had a thin, slightly recessed chin. His nose was perfectly straight and aerodynamic where Blixa’s was crooked, and he had two rows of perfectly even, perfectly white teeth where Blixa had splayed, gappy tombstones he seldom bothered to brush. And yet his face lacked the bright intelligence of Blixa’s face, that animation that transformed Blixa from merely handsome to utterly beautiful. And he wasn’t just dumb, he was full of himself, too, in a really grotesque way.

Jana would often invite me round, telling me to drop by the squat whenever, and I would make vague promises to visit, that I had no real intention of keeping. It wasn’t that I disliked her at all; it was just that heroin still made me really uncomfortable. But I ran into Johann by himself one night at Risk, flush with money and a little drunk, having just unloaded a large batch of coke. He looked me up and down, and tried to buy me a drink, and when that failed, he just started to ask flat out. He laughed aloud, joking that he’d heard I was a hermaphrodite. My face grew hot, and I told him it was a beastly lie. But then he moved closer and said he’d heard I liked girls; was that true? I told him it was none of his business. He laughed again in a really ugly tone, then moved in even closer and whispered to me that Jana swung both ways, and he really wanted to watch her with another girl some time, and come on, she kept inviting me round the squat, so how come I never dropped by. I extricated myself from the conversation swiftly, and made a note to never, ever go to Jana’s place.

 

But life was becoming complicated enough in other ways. Berlin’s wild music scene had caught me, and seemed intent to keep me, but my fucking arsehole of a new boss just wanted to ride me hard. Young Schumacher was always refusing me days off for concerts, and his wife was always insisting on booking 8am starts on mornings after nights they knew I was going out. They tried to schedule work on my birthday, for which Blixa had told me he was booking out the entire Risk bar for a private party, since one’s 21st birthday was obviously a big deal. But I told that stupid man and his hatchet-faced wife that I had worked out long ago, with their older relation, that we all got birthdays off, and there it was, written into my contract.

I won that round, and had a ball at my birthday party, at which Salomé and Tabea both dressed up in drag and sung Happy Birthday To You in true Marilyn Monroe style. Afterwards, I got a brief snog from each of them, and honestly, Salomé copped such a feel of my muscles that her boyfriend started to look really quite put out. Manc Mark, who I never knew had such culinary talents, either baked or obtained a large tray of hash-laced cake so potent that half of West Berlin was knocked out for two days. And one of Salomé’s femme friends took me home afterwards, and introduced me to the decadent practice of using the little canisters that came with soda-water refills to almost infinitely prolong orgasm while I screwed her senseless. Life was good. I had the best friends in the world.

But work no longer had the relaxed, open atmosphere I had enjoyed under my former boss. It wasn’t just the younger Schumacher who resented me, it was his wife. Sigrid had originally come on board just to answer the phones and run the accounts, and soon ended up trying to run the place. And Sigrid, for whatever reason, though I had initially tried to be polite and well-mannered towards her, took against me, and did everything she could to make my life hell. First, she objected to my uniform, and said that really, to give a good impression, I should wear a skirt to work every day, as she did. I laughed outright at that, and told her if she thought I was going up ladders and down manholes and crawling through basements in a skirt and high heels, then she was off her rocker. And yet still, she stared at me with a whiff of strong Prussian disapproval every time I was about. My habit of unbuttoning my jumpsuit to the waist, and washing my hands and torso at the outside tap when I came in from a particularly dirty job, the same way as all the male workmen did, that infuriated her. It wasn’t seemly, she hissed at me. I would give the men wicked thoughts if I stood around in my dirty grey tank top, washing myself with my broad shoulders and hairy armpits exposed. I should come inside and use the tiny little bathroom with a sink the size of a soup bowl.

Absolute nonsense, I told her, and carried on as I was. She responded by making my hours even worse, scheduling me for early starts every day of the week. But it wasn’t until she made some very direct suggestions that I should come out with them on Sunday morning, to their local church, where I might meet a ‘god-fearing young man who would set me straight’ that I cottoned on to the true source of her dislike of me.

I didn’t know for certain, until the day I offered Tabea and her new, very attractive film director girlfriend, Isabel, a ride out to a photographic supply warehouse on the outskirts of Berlin, and just asked them to meet me at the yard after work. They arrived a bit early, and I had something to check on in the storeroom, so I left them for ten minutes sitting on the front of my van. They weren’t even doing anything when I got back, though I knew Tabea was not shy about public displays of affection. They were just sitting together, holding hands, and chatting, their heads bent together, like lovers do. But Sigrid hit the roof, and called me into her office, her face almost purple as she told me to get those depraved sinners out of her sight. I was completely blindsided by it. I had been in West Berlin for just over a year, and had grown so used to the relaxed and tolerant attitude of my friends, that I had forgotten how to react to attitudes like hers.

After that, it became open warfare between myself and the two Schumachers. The young apprentice stopped even speaking to me, scurrying out of my sight as if afraid that whatever perversion I had was catchy. And a few weeks later, Young Schumacher tried to get his revenge for my birthday holiday. I simply asked for another morning off, as Wolfgang and Andrew were throwing a “Christmas Party in May” featuring all the Risk Bar All-Stars comprised of various New Buildings and Dorises, and, they promised, naked boys in bathtubs and mermaids in various states of undress. Schumacher denied the request. I went to the party anyway, and had a whale of a time, throwing scraps of fish-heads with the best of them, and getting felt up by an androgynous young mer-creature dressed only in a false fish tail and gold paint, while Blixa goaded us on through a megaphone, cackling at the chaos around him.

I just about managed to stumble back to the yard by 8am (which meant missing the tail end of the party) but then collapsed asleep in the driver’s seat of my van with the doors all locked, and could only be woken by fifteen minutes of furious pounding on the windscreen when Sigrid arrived at 10. Young Schumacher was furious. Technically, I was on the property, and so had fulfilled the terms of my contract. But, obviously, while unconscious, I had done no work.

And finally came the ultimatum. In early June, the New Buildings, Malaria! and a gang of other West Berlin band were booked to play a special “Berlijn Festival” in Amsterdam. Given how many of my friends were playing (and how many people wanted a ride there in the back of my van) there was no way I was not joining the convoy of band vans headed West. Young Schumacher, of course, wanted me working, and denied my request for time off. I told him that I was going, whether he approved the time off or not. He responded by telling me that if I went, I was sacked, and what’s more, he was going to confiscate my van. It was a damned lucky thing that Old Schumacher had transferred the van to my name, and I had gone through that whole annoying process of registering the thing (and failing the eyesight test) because I told him to get stuffed. Van and electrician were both going to Amsterdam. I walked off my job, got in my van and drove away, backing it down the alley into our courtyard and parking it carefully off the street overnight in case they got any ideas.

Over drinks at the Jungle, Blixa and Gudrun both told me that I had made the right decision. Blixa even suggested firebombing the yard, but thankfully I talked him out of that. But in the cold, sober light of morning, getting money out of my bank account to pay for petrol for the long drive halfway across Europe, I looked at my bank balance and realised that pitiful amount had to last me until I found another job.

Manc Mark told me not to worry. He had a friend who ran a recording studio, who was looking for a sound engineer with good electrical skills. I told him I knew very little about sound, except from what I’d picked up watching Mufti and Alex at work. He offered to teach me what he knew about mixing, and insisted that anyway, it didn’t matter at all; as what they really wanted was someone who could take apart the ancient recording equipment and keep all the old gear running. We’d be a great fit, he assured me, the owner was as mad as a box of frogs, workdays never started before noon, and we’d get on like a house on fire. When we got back from Amsterdam, he would make the necessary introductions, and the job was all but mine.

And so I tossed my fate to the gentle, early summer wind, loaded up my van with bits of Malaria!’s gear, and headed to Amsterdam to see what life on the road could offer me.

Chapter Text

It was a full day’s drive from Berlin to Amsterdam, so the whole gang had made various arrangements to stay over for a few days, and sample the local delights. The Skin, Suzanne’s old band, were playing at a converted church in the centre of town – oddly enough, supporting that weird Australian birthday-themed band that Gudrun had played with in New York and London – so we dispersed to the various places where we were staying, with the agreement that we would all meet up that night at the gig.

Malaria!, who demanded their beauty sleep, had booked a large room in a tourist hotel for the duration, and I had been invited to stay there. Six girls spread across two king-size beds was a bit of a squeeze, but it was palatial in comparison with what the New Buildings discovered across town. Blixa, pulling in all of his zine-scene contacts, had arranged for the band to stay at a squat for the extra days. (The promoter had booked them a hotel near the venue, but only for the one night after the gig.) But he had walked in to the room he was offered, taken one look at the bed, which he found to be crawling with bedbugs, and decided instead that he simply wasn’t going to bed for the entirely of the 72 hours we would be staying in Amsterdam.

Fortunately, with the resources instantly available to curious young tourists of a chemical disposition, it did not seem like that would be too much of a problem. While the Malaria! girls showered and got ready to go out, I drove Blixa across town to a place where Manc Mark insisted we would be able to score anything we liked. Sure enough, Blixa bought enough amphetamine to keep him awake for a week, while I bought a lump of hash the size of a bar of soap. It looked like we were both going to enjoy Amsterdam. Parking the van in the hotel garage, resolving not to be in a fit state to touch it again for the rest of the trip, we climbed in the back to indulge a wee bit in our chosen substances, then, suitably refreshed and giggling slightly, made our way to the venue to meet the rest of the gang.

Although I had intended to pay for the gig, we got to the door and discovered that Blixa was on the guest list, with a plus one, which he immediately offered to me, plus backstage passes. Well, that was nice of The Skin. Feeling a little blasphemous, we made our way through the main body of the church, through what was once the sacristy to the warren-like backstage area.

Backstage was crawling with Australians. It was deeply weird for me, as though it wasn’t entirely rare to hear people speaking English in the American zone of Berlin, Australian accents took some getting used to. The Skin’s dressing room was full of Malaria!, but still, Blixa and I forced our way in. We showed Christoph and his mates the results of our haul, and they showed us their backstage rider, and there was a fairly amicable swap of food and drink and substances as they got in a good state to go onstage, and we got in a proper state to appreciate them. I don’t know if the hash in Amsterdam was much stronger than I was used to, or I was just exhausted from the eight-hour drive, but I was flagging. But then Blixa offered me a small line of his magic white powder, and suddenly the whole world was sparkling and fresh and exciting and I was wired to the gills, both Blixa and I almost slithering off the walls with the amount of chemicals we had mixed.

We went out into the balcony to watch The Skin. As they played, we all danced, and rowdily shouted our approval of our Berlin compatriots. Although we meant to troop backstage again to offer our congratulations, another band had come out onto the stage, who immediately captured our attention. We all watched, entranced, as a tiny American woman with enormous black hair, an orange streak at the front, recited poetry that was by turns spooky and vulgar, to the accompaniment of a spine-tingling backing tape. Gudrun and Bettina, who always loved to see other women onstage, rushed to the front of the balcony and nodded along approvingly. I looked around me, entranced by the architecture of the church, while Blixa stared, his eyes popping out of his skull and his arms tightly crossed across his chest.

>>This music sounds an awful lot like yours<< I ventured, though Blixa was clearly already retreating into silent, intensely focused amphetamine mode.

>>Oh. Yeah. That’s coz it is. Her record company wrote to our record company a few months ago, asked if we wanted to collaborate. So me, Andrew and Alex knocked this up in the basement of the shop. It’s good, yeah?<<

I nodded my agreement, but then had to sit down, as I was overcome by a sudden fit of the giggles, as I had a sudden image of this goth chick as the priest of this weird deconsecrated church, celebrating some bizarre industrial Eucharist for the crowd of black-clad congregants. Wow, that Amsterdam hash was strong.

When she had finished, we poured backstage again to offer our congratulations to The Skin, and consume a little more of each other’s substances. Blixa cut another line of speed, and I rolled another spliff full of hash, and passed it around. The party in the dressing room was over-spilling into the corridor as more of their friends piled in, and Blixa, Gudrun, the Teenager and I found ourselves outside in the corridor, which was just as well, as the various drugs were hitting us quite hard, and it was nicer to be outside in the relative cool, than inside the rammed and sweaty dressing room. Gudrun kept insisting loudly that we should go and see this headlining band, the Birthday Cake, or whatever they were called, but I was not convinced.

>>I don’t want any birthday cake<< I announced to no one in particular. >>I’m feeling a little bit sick, to be honest.<<

>>Not the Birthday Cake, the Birthday Party<< repeated Gudrun. >>You know, like the Pinter Play?<< As Blixa and I started to giggle uncontrollably, she rolled her eyes at us and strode off back to the balcony to stake out a good spot.

>>The Birthday Cake<< repeated Blixa, jamming his elbow into my side, and my giggling intensified to the point where I felt almost ill. >>How about a birthday hashcake. Can we smoke another spliff?<<

>>Your birthday was back in January. Now don’t make me laugh so much, or I’ll throw up<< I warned, as Blixa and I tried to get a handle on our giggling.

>>That would be very, very punk<< insisted Alex. >>Can you vomit while the band are onstage tomorrow? I’ll mic up your stomach and use the sounds of your stomach acids and intestinal juices and things while you puke.<<

That only made Blixa and I laugh harder, until we were both practically snivelling. But abruptly, the door to the other, larger dressing room opened, and a young woman stepped through. She was pretty, but rather androgynous, thin and delicate, with fine features, prominent eyes, and a birdsnest of spiky black hair tangled on the top of her head. Initially, it looked like she was just going to push past us towards the balcony, but then she stopped, and did an almost comical double-take upon seeing Blixa and I. After looking at us for an almost rude amount of time, she turned and walked back into the room from which she had come.

>>Was it something I said?<< asked Alex, and we all collapsed back into the laughter we had been suppressing. My stomach had settled down a bit, but I was very, very high, much higher than I had intended to be.

The door opened again and the woman came out again. Except, somehow, in the two minutes she had been gone, she had changed, and must have put on shoes with high heels to give her quite a few extra inches in height. And to make the game even more Alice in Wonderland, she had changed into almost the exact outfit that I was wearing – the drainpipe vintage Levis that Anne had bought me in New York, a checked cowboy shirt, a buff coloured waistcoat in an old-fashioned style with lapels, and those very pointed Cuban-heeled boots that everyone in West Berlin had started wearing, after Gudrun and Bettina came back from Italy with a car boot full of them on consignment. I looked her up and down, puzzled, as she looked back at me, staring at me with a perplexity as if she hadn’t just come out and stared at me for several minutes already. It was all very odd.

Blixa started to rustle vaguely inside his rubber coat, like he was gearing himself up to shout >>Fuck off, what are you staring at, take a picture, it’ll last longer<< and other such things that the West Berlin punks shouted at tourists. But Blixa, I could already tell, was really, really hyped on speed, to the point where he was starting to have trouble speaking.

But then the door opened again, and there was a whole crowd of Australians, jostling and laughing and shouting in that harsh accent of theirs. The girl in my outfit was joined by her twin, in the outfit she had worn before, as I realised there were a pair of them, one tall, one short. The crowd spilled out into the hallway, discussing loudly which direction was the way to the stage.

“That way, and down the stairs,” I pointed, as I had seen the sign earlier, but it had taken me a moment to remember that I actually spoke English.

One of the Australians, a particularly ugly one, with a very blunt snub nose and a porcupine’s quill of black hair nodded at us, and said “Cheers” but then he stopped as he caught sight of Blixa. The pair of them stared at each other, and time seemed to slow down and collapse in on itself, everything becoming like slow motion, like the mixture of drugs was totally fucking with our perception of time and space. “I’m sorry, but have we met before?” said the Australian.

Blixa blinked, very slowly, and I could tell, that he was on the same drugs as me, and was probably experiencing the same weird sensory distortions that I was. He just stared back at the Australian with a mixture of puzzlement and defiance.

“Look, I know this is gonna sound really weird,” insisted the Australian in his deep voice, blinking back at Blixa in an oddly reptilian way. “But I cannot shake the feeling that we have met before... Like, don’t laugh, but, perhaps... maybe in, uuuhhhh, a dream or something?” He looked back and forth between Blixa and myself and Alex, as Alex muttered >>Nutjob<< under his breath. “I’m sorry, do any of you speak English?”

At that, I laughed, as I had spoken English to him not two minutes earlier. From the state of his face, and the slow reptilian blink of his dilated eyes, it was clear he was on heavier drugs than either Blixa or I. “I speak English, thank you,” I told him. “I just don’t speak Australian.”

The tall one in the cowboy hat laughed uproariously at that, but the ugly, snub-nosed one turned to stare at me, as if he were working out whether to be insulted or not. To be honest, he did look incredibly familiar, but maybe he just had one of those faces. But thankfully, just at that moment, Gudrun reappeared down the corridor from the balcony. When she saw the snub-nosed Australian, she burst into a wide grin, and trotted up to him, throwing her arms around his neck and greeting him with the warm Berlin double-kiss.

“Niiiick!” she said, in deep, rolling, throaty English, drawing back and smiling her most enchanting smile at him. “I was just coming to see where you are. Your public are chanting for you...” But then she followed his eyes, to see where he was staring. “Oh, have you met one another already? These are the Neubauten boys – well, Blixa and Alex are in Neubauten. Carter is one of our crew. Blixa, this is Nick. Nick Cave.”

“Kick Knave,” I muttered to myself and started to giggle. The Australian shot me a quick glare, but Gudrun carried on, ignoring my interruption.

“Blixa, this is my friend you have heard me speak so much about, from the Birthday Party. Nick, you and Blixa are so alike, I am sure you will be friends. Well... friends or bitter enemies perhaps. Let us hope it will be friends.”

“Blixa,” said Nick, turning the syllables over in his mouth like he was tasting some unfamiliar wine. “Look, can someone translate, because... uuuhhhh. I swear to god I have seen you before. I feel... very strongly... I have the funniest feeling that you and I, have met, in a dream, or a vision, or a... uuuhh, I, erm, maybe in another lifetime? Yeah, I know how crazy that sounds. But I can’t shake the feeling I have known you, for a very long time. Can you understand me at all?”

Blixa just stared fixedly at Nick, and said nothing. Now, I could have sworn that Blixa had at least the rudiments of English. He had dished it out to me on occasion to prove a point, and I had heard him, in the Risk bar, talking to visiting American musicians who had no German at all, so he had at least enough English to take a drinks order, or to wrangle himself on the guest list for a gig. But he remained silent, studying Nick very intently, as if memorising his face.

I sighed deeply and turned to Blixa, translating quickly. >>This guy is totally verruckt, but he swears, he has met you before, in a dream, or a vision, or most likely a drug-induced haze.<<

>>Yes, I know. I have no doubt of it<< said Blixa very quickly. So he could understand, and he was physically able to talk, he was just choosing not to.

“Blixa is the singer of Einstürzende Neubauten,” supplied Gudrun, rushing into the gap, like she just had a gift for smoothing over difficulties between people she was determined to network together. “He has had his photo in many of the music newspapers. Perhaps you have seen him in one of these? He has a very distinctive face; people tend to remember him.”

It’s entirely possible that Nick and Blixa would have continued to stare at one another all night, but the taller of the two androgynous twins piped up, and to my surprise, had a fairly deep and entirely masculine voice. “Come on, Nick. We were due onstage twenty minutes ago. We’re not going to get an encore if we hang about much longer.”

Nick rolled his eyes long-sufferingly. It was Blixa’s gesture, camp and slightly theatrical. “Stop being such an old mother hen, Rowland, we’ll go on when we’re good and ready to go on.”

But the tall one with the cowboy hat stood up straight, adjusted its brim, then walked determinedly down the hall, and the rest of the band followed him like he was clearly the leader, though Nick was last, continuing to throw puzzled glances back over his shoulder at Blixa.

>>What an absolute fruitcake<< I sighed, as soon as they were out of sight.

>>An interesting man<< contradicted Blixa, as Alex got up, and started to walk down the hallway to the balcony. >>We should go and watch.<<

>>You can’t seriously believe all that crap about meeting you in his dreams. That’s a load of druggie nonsense<< I persisted.

But Blixa turned and faced me, his eyes suddenly very wide and very blue in the dim light. >>The last person who told me, upon our first meeting, that we had already met in a dream, was Jana. We ended up being lovers for over three years. So, when someone tells me they have met me before, in a dream, I tend to pay attention.<< With that, he stood up, pulled his cigarette pack out of his coat, lit one, then headed down the hall.

Grumbling, I climbed to my feet and followed him. >>Well, if you and Nick get married in three years, be sure and send me an invitation.<<

Blixa smiled and put his arm around my shoulders. >>Why, Carter, I do believe you are jealous.<<

>>Fuck off, and get your arm off me, you disgusting boy creep<< I teased, though I didn’t struggle too much as Blixa bent over to deposit a soft kiss on my cheek before releasing me.

As the Australians took the stage, Blixa pushed his way through the crowd to the front of the balcony, resting his elbows on the rail, and his sharp chin on his elbows as he gazed down at them.

I’ll be honest. I absolutely hated the Birthday Cake, the first time I saw them. To the point where I started to doubt my friends’ taste in music, as Blixa was clearly entranced, and Gudrun was excitedly dancing with Manon and Christine.

The band played a sort of stripped-down minimal take on punk, with a similar rockabilly feel to The Cramps, but with the Australian cowboy shtick dialled up to 11, and a weird American Gothic vibe that left me, as a Brit, completely perplexed. But they had stage presence, that I would grant them. The tall bassist in the cowboy hat came alive onstage, as lithe as a gymnast, going down on his knees, before rolling over on his back, air-humping his instrument before leaping to his feet again. The spooky-twin guitarist, with the hollow cheeks and the huge, haunted eyes, he abused his instrument and himself, while the singer, who had struck me as a slightly timid, stuttering fruitcake, turned into a completely different beast under the spotlights.

He stalked back and forth like a panther, wailing with a deep voice and an intensity I’d never have guessed from his skinny frame and his narrow shoulders. He stripped off his shirt and got down on his knees, he prayed, he rolled about as if in spasms, then he threw back his head and he howled as if demons from hell were after him. It was all very standard punk-singer theatrics, very Iggy Pop, in fact many of the moves, and the animal shrieks reminded me oddly of the way that Blixa performed. Though Blixa would never strip like that onstage. To him, it was a very deliberate act to keep himself bound up as tightly as possible, and allow no one a glimpse of his skin. But maybe that was it, maybe that was what Blixa saw in Nick, that first night, and wanted to devour, he was staring at him so intensely. Blixa was possibly the most uninhibited and unorthodox man I had ever met, and yet Nick got up onstage, and started rolling around, writhing in a pool of his own sweat and tears, and showed Blixa up as the uptight little Prussian schoolboy he maybe still was somewhere inside.

Blixa, as Gudrun frequently complained, was forever propounding about What Was Truth and What Was False, and what the New Buildings did and didn’t stand for, and what they were and weren’t prepared to accept. Blixa lived his entire life bound up very tightly with these very strict protestant ideas of what was Right and what was Wrong.

And here was Nick, onstage, howling that he did not give a flying fuck about Right and Wrong, in fact, if he could tell the difference at all, he was going to hurl himself as hard as he could into the gaping mouth of Wrong, and not just dance with the Devil, but back the Devil into a corner until he could either fuck or be fucked by him. All that bilious, noxious, toxic masculinity on display down there, the strutting and the chest-baring and the offering-the-universe-out-for-a-fight, it revolted me, to the point where I recoiled from it. It was true, I craved masculinity, and there were days when I would have given anything in the world to have woken up one morning, and just been a real man, instead of this weird, neither-nor half-girl, half-boy thing. And yet watching that man down there, acting out all the most depraved and grotesque parodies of the worst aspects of masculinity, it was like a gruesome reminder of why I never, ever, could embrace fully wanting to become a man. What if I turned out like that?

But Blixa, skinny, androgynous Blixa, with his girlish face and elegant hands, his camp manners and his odd prissiness? He looked down at Nick on that stage, burning with this vision of the most toxic colonial manliness, and maybe he craved that release like he craved amphetamine to ‘help him focus’.

Chapter Text

After the gig was over, I wanted to go back to the hotel, and finally just crash out, as the hash in my system was winning the war with the pinch of speed, and I was flagging. But I was hopelessly outvoted by my friends, all of whom wanted to hang around and go to the Birthday Party’s aftershow. Christoph and Manc Mark had a brief discussion, and it was decided that we would stay, and the whole gang of Germans filed through into the sort of chapel-bar that had been set aside for the bands and their guests. I kept trying to catch Gudrun’s eye, as she had the key to the hotel room, but she was having too good a time, having a very involved conversation with the American Goth chick. The Goth was going on at length about the state of the NYC scene, and how it was completely over and burned out, and was buttonholing Gudrun for information as to what West Berlin was like, was there a good scene and what were the venues and the galleries and poetry slams like. Poetry slams? Gudrun had never heard of a Poetry Slam, and was pumping the Goth for what that might be, was it like a poetry reading, or was it something else?

One by one the Australians came through: first the spooky lesbian twins; then the jazzy type who looked as if he would be more at home in The Skin; then the redhead, then the cowboy with the moustache and the hat, and then finally, after a considerable delay, Nick appeared. He had redressed, in a button-down shirt, and tight leather trousers that looked real, unlike Blixa’s rubber get-up. He looked more than a little dazed, as if he wasn’t entirely sure who he was when he wasn’t up on that stage throwing himself about. Manc Mark went over and said hello, as they seemed to have some previous acquaintance, asked Nick if he wanted to come and smoke some hash with us, then brought him into our group. The odd creature looked at us warily from under the impossible tangle of his black hair, and seemed so uncomfortable in his own skin as he took the spliff from me, holding it daintily between thumb and forefinger as he took a very small draw.

“Gotta be careful, the stuff makes me paranoid as hell” he said by way of explanation, as if rolling around shirtless on a stage filled with electrical gear and glass bottles weren’t the sort of thing to make most people paranoid. The difference between the wild man he became onstage, and the mild-mannered, nervous, almost twitching boy he was offstage was quite disorienting. He accepted a beer, and clutched it between whitened knuckles, and addressed himself mainly to Manc Mark, as he seemed to be the lone native English speaker in the group of Germans, but his eyes kept flickering back across the group to Blixa. Blixa, in a very uncharacteristic quiet mood, stayed completely silent, just staring back with huge, slightly predatory eyes.

And what Nick wanted to know from Manc Mark was more or less the same subject that the American Goth – Lydia was her name – had been interrogating Malaria! on. “So, uuuuhhh, what’s the Berlin scene like? Gudrun tells me it’s, erm, really hot right now. I mean, uuuhhh, yeah, we moved to London because, well, uuuhh, because we heard it was, y’know, uh, the happening place if you wanted to get anywhere in music. But I gotta tell you. London is... erm, well, you see, uuuhhh... no offense, but London’s a complete morgue as far as music is concerned. It’s dead.”

“None taken. I’m from Manchester,” said Mark with a self-satisfied smile, holding out his hand for my joint again.

“Well, in that case, I can be, uuuhhh, well, y’know, I gotta be honest with you. It’s the people in London. I mean, erm, yeah... even in a small scene like Melbourne, people are kinda like.. well, obviously there’s stuff that goes on, on a personal level. But on the whole, you know, you get the... uuhhh... the sense, the feeling, the spirit that you are all in this thing together, right? In London, it’s like everyone’s so busy, erm, just fighting with one another. They’d all stab their grandmothers in the back for a recording contract. There’s no sense of, uuuhhh... you know what I’m trying to say?” The way he spoke was so awkward and halting, constantly stuttering and um-ing and ah-ing and falling over his own words, that it took him an age to come out with anything at all.

“No sense of community,” supplied Manc Mark. “Yeah, mate, that’s my impression of London, too. I mean, Manchester has a bit more of sense of regional pride, or identity, yeah, of community. Everybody helps each other out. But West Berlin... West Berlin is like nowhere else I’ve ever seen in the world, on that front. It’s a little bit magic.”

“Magic,” repeated Nick, sucking at his beer. “We could do with some fucking magic right about now.”

“I mean, look at this lot. Neubauten and Malaria!? They drove halfway across Europe, two days early, so they could come out to Amsterdam and support their friends’ band.”

“No kidding,” mused Nick, turning his eyes towards Blixa again. “You guys know Die Haut, then?”

Blixa nodded slowly. “Die Haut. Ja, wir konnen die Haut.”

“What’s he saying?” asked Nick, a little helplessly, turning back to Mark.

I glanced across at Blixa, raising one eyebrow. >>Are you alright, Blix?<<

>>Everything is fine, Car<< replied Blixa, with the flash of a wicked smile and a flirtatious raise of his own eyebrows in reply.

“He and Die Haut are old friends,” said Mark. “And even Carter – she quit her job to come and support the West Berlin bands here.”

I wanted to punch Mark for saying that, as Nick turned and looked at me really strangely, and I could see his face changing as he looked at me closely, and realised the person he had taken for a boy was actually a girl. “I, erm, I... uuhhhh... I see.” So he was one of those blokes who started to act really weird the moment he realised you were a woman. I hated him even more, at that moment, as I glared at Mark, then rolled my eyes, a real dramatic Blixa-style roll.

Conversation fell silent, as a yawning hole opened in the atmosphere, and I felt my credibility fall into it. I was exhausted, and to be honest, I did not have time for this boys’ club bullshit from British or Colonial men. I cast a meaningful glance over at Blixa, who just smirked back at me, then I announced, “I’m exhausted. I’m going to hit Gudrun up for the key to the hotel. Don’t go to bed too late.”

>>I have no intention of going to bed at all<< retorted Blixa playfully, draping his arm around my neck and depositing a sloppy good-night kiss on the side of my mouth.

I kissed him back swiftly, just to shut him up, but, as I walked away, I heard Nick ask Mark. “So, uh, those two – her and...” he gestured his head towards Blixa as if afraid to mention his name, pronouncing it strangely, like an unfamiliar flavour between his teeth. “Is that ‘Blixa’s’ girlfriend?”

Blixa said, very quietly, almost under his breath >>She belongs to nobody, and that’s the way we both like it.<<

But Mark laughed. “Those two? Who even knows. They got some weird situation going on. But no one even asks those kinds of questions in Berlin.”

>>Ask your friend<< said Blixa, in dangerously playful and slightly mocking tone of voice>>If he wants to try to find a gay bar in Amsterdam.<<

“Fuck off,” said Mark.

“What did he say?” asked Nick.

“He asked if you wanted to go to a gay bar.”

“Uh, erm, well, uuuhhh...” So it turned out that Nick could get even more tongue-tied than he did around a woman. “Look, uuhh, I’ve got nothing against the gays, right, but I’m straight. I like women, you know?”

>>Ask him if he wants to go to a brothel, then<< snarked Blixa, in an even more provocative voice.

“What does he want?” Nick seemed terrified, and yet oddly fascinated by Blixa, like he couldn’t stop staring at this man he couldn’t understand.

“He wants to know if you want to go to a brothel.”

“No! I mean... No! Absolutely not. Anyway, I’ve got a girlfriend...” And I could tell Blixa was settling in to be this obnoxious for the rest of the night, so I walked more purposely out of earshot, to the other side of Gudrun.

Luckily, when I finally got a word in edgewise between Gudrun and Lydia, it turned out that Bettina was also exhausted and wanted to go back to the hotel. So we would take the key, and leave it down at reception after we’d let ourselves in. We got back to the hotel, made the necessary arrangements, and then I lay down in the centre of one bed, and Bettina lay down in the centre of the other, and I was soon fast asleep.

When I awoke, Gudrun was on one side of me, her face mashed up against my armpit and her arm wrapped tightly around my waist, deep in the sleep of the very drunk, while Manon was fast asleep, rolled in a ball on my other side, her spine curved against my hip. I just lay there for a few minutes, feeling the desperate need to urinate, but thinking that at that moment, in bed with half of Malaria!, I was probably the envy of every straight boy in Germany, and every lesbian in West Berlin. I might not have a job, and my prospects looked dim, but in every other way my life was absolutely amazing.

 

For the next two days, this gang of young Germans raced around Amsterdam, sucking up drugs, and culture and the latest fashions, as if with a thirst for life itself. And Blixa developed the most amazing case of mentionitis I had ever witnessed in another human being. Everything was Nick this, and the Birthday Party that, until I wondered if he was even seeing Amsterdam before him, or some reflection of what he imagined Australian outback life to be.

Nick wasn’t from the Outback; of that I was certain. There was something not only in the way he dressed – slightly too fastidious in his skinny-ribbed nylon shirts and his tight pegged trousers – but in the way he spoke, and the way he carried himself, for him to be anything other than a pampered child of suburbia. Even the way he held his cigarettes – not tight, close to the filter, like Blixa was going to suck his right down to the marrow, to squeeze out the last drop of nicotine; but loosely, elegantly, between splayed fingers, like it didn’t really matter if he dropped it, he could always afford another – seemed to me more like an English boarding school toff than the outback punk he represented himself as being. There was something ultimately very phony about this Nick, to me. But Blixa didn’t care. If anything, the falseness was part of the appeal. Blixa didn’t care that the outback punk routine was an artifice, a pose; he just wanted to drink down the artifice like consuming a work of art.

But I was not the only person who had noticed this new fascination. >>Someone’s got a cruuuuusssshhhh<< drawled Bettina when Blixa brought up the Australian singer for about the twelfth time over dinner.

Yet instead of rolling his eyes and throwing back some bitchy rejoinder, as the Blixa I knew and loved would have been certain to do with Betts, he seemed to withdraw into himself, staring at Bettina as if this were an eventuality he had not actually considered. >>I do not<< he finally said, quietly, almost tentatively, as if he could not even convince himself.

>>He wants to come to Berlin<< said Gudrun with a wicked smile, and I suddenly understood why the two of them were such good friends. They didn’t just have the same taste in music; they had the same sharp, slightly mocking sense of humour. >>You should invite him to the Risk bar, get him so drunk he can’t stand up, and then give him a good shove up the arse. He’s so uptight, it will probably do you both the world of good.<<

But Blixa, instead of joining in the fun, gazed back at her with a wounded expression. >>I don’t want to... it’s not like that!<< But then, finally, he turned to me, looking at me with the sort of helpless and scared look of someone who hadn’t been to bed in about 48 hours. >>You understand, don’t you?<<

And as I looked back at him, I realised that he had been bitten by that same bug that had got me, the very first night I walked into that dirty bar on Yorckstrasse. He was in love with the idea of a person.

We sought each other out, after dinner. Gudrun and Manc Mark went off to try to coordinate some plans with the other Berlin bands that were rolling into town, while other members of the New Buildings and Malaria! made plans to go to various gigs around the city. But Blixa came up behind me and seized me around the waist and asked if we could go for a long walk around the city. >>We could consume some substances<< he suggested, but I didn’t want any of his speed. Instead, we smoked some more of the hash, sitting on the lip of a canal, then followed the flickering lights reflected in the water, into the touristy centre of the town.

>>It’s not that I don’t fancy him. He’s a very sexy man<< insisted Blixa, with an honesty that shocked me. >>But I don’t want to have sex with him. I want to... to...<<

>>You want to what?<< I asked, realising I already knew the answer.

He threaded his arm through mine, as we reached the end of our canal, and crossed a small bridge to get to the next spit of land. >>Don’t laugh at me.<<

>>I won’t laugh, I promise<< I said, then added, grinning, in a bad facsimile of Antipodean English, “I’ll even hold your hand and fake an Aussie accent if that would make it better.”

>>Fuck off<< he laughed, then clutched my arm closer, lowering his voice as if imparting an almost unsayable secret. >>I want to write songs for him. I want to make music that is worthy of him, that impresses him. I want him... to be this impressed by me.<<

I laughed aloud; I couldn’t help myself. These were words I could never, in a million years, have ever imagined coming from the mouth of the normally confident and totally self-assured young German, and yet something about Nick seemed to have unmoored Blixa.

>>You promised you wouldn’t laugh.<< he moaned. >>I will never trust you again.<<

>>I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing at me. That’s how I felt about you, when I first met you.<<

>>How so?<< His face was desperate.

>>You want to be special to that man, the way I wanted to be special to you, when I first encountered you.<<

Blixa looked at me with surprise, but then his face relaxed, and he smiled and squeezed my arm. >>Then in that case, what do you think I should do? Because you and I are good friends, now, aren’t we. You are special to me. I want to be as special to him, as you are to me.<<

I smiled, feeling my affection surging towards him, not even thinking about Nick, but just wanting Blixa to be happy, wanting him to feel energised by this crush, not unmoored. >>I think you should get to know him. Actually talk to him, on a person to person level, not play those weird mind games you like to play. Because that’s what you and I did. Talk. And look at us now, six months later. We are good friends.<<

Leaning over, he kissed the top of my head. >>I do love you, you know<< he said. >Completely.<<

>>No, you don’t. But thanks for saying so.<<

>>I do<< he persisted, and I could tell that he was very stoned, because he kept repeated the words, as if entranced by them. >>I love you, I love you, I do. You, I love you. Not Nick. You, you, you, I do, I do, I do.<< It sounded much funnier in German: Ich, ich, ich, liebe dich, dich, dich. Nicht Nick, Nick, Nicht.

>>Shut up<< I giggled, punching him gently and putting my hand over his mouth, but he was very stoned, and continued to murmur it to my fingers.

When he realised I wasn’t listening, he stopped muttering, opened his lips and licked my fingers, so that I dropped my hand from his face and had to wipe his spittle on my jeans. He wanted to sing, so he was going to sing.

But I stopped walking, as we had come to another bridge, and gazed over at the other side. >>Is that the red light district?<< I asked.

His eyes lit up. >>Do you want to go to a brothel?<<

>>Why are you so keen on this brothel business?<<

>>It’s Amsterdam<< he shrugged. >>It’s famous for its brothels.<<

>>There are brothels in West Berlin<< I pointed out. >>And it was you who gave me shit about that kind of thing there.<<

Blixa shifted uncomfortably, and an expression came over his face that appeared almost apologetic. >>I know. And perhaps I feel now that some of the things I said to you then were a little... harsh.<<

I stared at him, wondering if this were the closest thing to an apology I had ever heard escape his lips. >>Yes<< I said quite simply. >>They were.<<

For a moment, we paused in our strides, and just looked at one another, him chastened and me slightly indignant. But then I relented, and bent towards him, planting a soft kiss on the side of his face, just below where his cheekbone met his ear. Of course he was forgiven; I would always forgive him.

He smiled with relief as we started to walk on, his arm entwined with mine. >>Do you miss her? Ilsa?<<

>>Not really. I barely remember her.<< To my surprise, it was not even a lie.

>>Alright. Let’s just walk through and have a look<< he sighed, and we crossed the bridge, still arm in arm. If he had expected it to be exciting, he would have been disappointed. It was the same as in Berlin, slightly tawdry, slightly sad, less about desire and excitement, and more about cold hard cash. Hawkers would walk towards us, but then catch sight of our linked arms, and, taking us for a gay couple, would walk away again, spitting at the ground and muttering something about queers. It was strange the way that how I was read changed with whom I was with. With Gudrun or Bettina, the men of Amsterdam took me for a lesbian and made grotesque noises as we passed. But walking with Blixa, they took me as a gay man. Could a person really be two different genders on the same day, depending on who they were with?

We walked on and on, for another hour or two. Sometimes he talked about Nick, and I could see already, that he was building this huge, elaborate fantasy of a man who probably didn’t even exist. Hadn’t we talked about the dangers of that? Blixa seemed blind, where his fantasy of Nick was concerned. But sometimes we just walked in silence, arms linked, or holding hands, and that was the best. Thoughtful Blixa was the least annoying Blixa.

After a couple of hours, we found we had walked round in a big circle, for Amsterdam’s canals seemed to be in the shape of a giant wheel, always bringing you back to where you started. We were near the hotel, and Blixa turned to me with very dark circles under his eyes in the harsh tourist-light of the city centre.

>>Can I come to bed with you tonight?<< he blurted out, then quickly corrected himself. >>Not for a fuck. Just to sleep.<<

>>You can’t<< I said, feeling something almost like regret. Had we been alone, I might well have taken him to bed and just held him tight, to try and sooth that yearning, that shone all over his face as sharp as pain. >>I’m already sharing a bed with Gudrun and Manon.<<

>>Can I sleep on the floor?<< he shot back. >>I can’t face those bedbugs. The mattress was crawling.<<

After two straight days of heavy drug use and no sleep, I wasn’t entirely sure that the bedbugs were real or hallucinated, but he looked so pitiful, I decided to kick the decision down the road. >>That’s up to Gudrun and Bettina, really. They paid for the room.<<

>>Gudrun will be fine with it. She is my best friend, after all<< he assured me, and breezed towards the hotel, pulling me in his path.

Gudrun rolled her eyes, and said well, alright. Bettina tried to overrule her with a no. Blixa said he was going to sleep in the bathtub, then, at which point Manon suggested we vote on it. In the end, it was 4 to 2 to let him stay, and Blixa curled up in a loveseat, pulling his rubber coat up over his chin. Of course, with all the speed still coursing through his system, he didn’t sleep a wink. But at least he was safe from bedbugs, and imaginary Australians, and other terrors.

 

The show the next day was an absolutely roaring success. Malaria! played an outright barn-stormer of a set, as Manc Mark did his best to show me how to operate the mixing board. Much of the festival, including the New Buildings’ set, was filmed and broadcast on live television. Now, if Blixa came alive in front of an audience, in front of a television camera, he became almost electric. That was something he had learned, from his friends with the Super-8 cameras: how to project his personality into a motion camera. Even burned out and sleep deprived, his eyes looking hollowed out and sunken in, his skin wrecked from the amphetamine abuse, without so much as a piece of fruit passing between his lips for days, he was still the most photogenic human being that ever turned their cheekbones to a camera. Even I, who had seen him perform dozens of times and grown used to his beauty and his charisma, gasped when I saw how he translated to the small screen. He didn’t just look angelic as the industrial howl of the music raged around him; he genuinely resembled an Orthodox icon of a Christ.

And none of us knew it at the time, but in a hotel room on the other side of the Netherlands, someone else was watching Blixa on television, and developing his own intense case of mentionitis about the austerely beautiful German.

But on that night, none of us cared. Malaria!, who had left half the Netherlands in love with them, and the other half wanting to join their pirate-girl-gang, wanted to burn off their nervous energy by dancing. And dance we did, down on the floor of a huge warehouse club, Blixa throwing one arm around my shoulder and the other around Gudrun’s, and screaming that we should dance like morons. Amsterdam didn’t quite know what to make of our moron-dance, and we were quickly thrown out. Not one to be phased by a little wrinkle like that, Blixa suggested that we all adjourn back to the New Buildings’ hotel for a proper party. We stopped along the way, bought a couple of bottles of vodka, and some orange juice for mixer, then six girls, plus Blixa, walked into the New Buildings’ hotel room to find the entire band stark bollock naked.

Andrew and Mufti were both jamming, Mufti on a tiny toy Casio keyboard and Andrew on an assortment of metal lids of the type that typically covered room service dishes, the pair of them bashing out an assortment of German punk classics like Paul ist Tot and Wir Sind Bereit.

On the other side of the room, Alex, who had been up for perhaps even longer than Blixa, was sitting in a corner, rocking back and forth, and engaging in a deep and meaningful dialogue with a small electric metronome. >>Tick tock<< went the metronome, then Alex would repeat >>Tick tock, tock tick<< and collapse into strangled teenage laughter.

Neither Gudrun nor Bettina so much as blinked, as they were long used to the boys’ unpredictability, and set about finding glasses in which to mix their drinks, chummily calling out to the lads to see who wanted to do shots. But Susanne, who was still rather new, and perhaps finding it all a bit much, went to lock herself in the toilet, only to find Mark, also completely naked, jumping up and down in a bathtub full of their clothes, as if he were treading grapes for wine.

>>What on earth are you doing?<< she demanded, and Mark continued stamping as he enlightened her.

>>Bedbugs<< he explained, ever so reasonably. >>The squat where we were staying was absolutely riddled with bedbugs. We didn’t want to bring our little friends into this nice, clean hotel here, so we’ve all stripped off and I’m soaking our clothes in disinfectant, just to make sure.<<

”Wir sind bereit! Wir sind bereit!!!” shouted Mufti, and Andrew echoed “Bereit, bereit, bereit” in a completely different key.

>>Tick tock tick tock<< chanted Alex.

Susanne started to slowly back away, with a slightly... concerned look on her face. >>Don’t worry<< Mark assured her, jumping up and down in the tub, his genitals flapping. >>They’re all dead! Man has triumphed over insect. There are no more of the buggers left alive – I mean, it took a while to catch the ones hiding in Andi’s chest hair, but they’re all dead now! Dead, dead, dead!<<

>>Death is a scandal!<< echoed Andrew, and he and Mufti swung into a joyful cover of one of the Deadly Doris’s most catchy songs. “Der Tod ist ein Scandal! Der Tod ist ein Scandal!”

>>Carter, do you want to go back to our room and crash, maybe?<< Susanne asked a little nervously, as I dug in my jumpsuit for the keys, but found instead the remainder of my block of hash, which would need to be smoked before we attempted to cross the border.

>>No way<< I laughed, looking over at Blixa, who was similarly stripping off and joining in the impromptu chorus, dismantling a metal lamp-stand for his instrument of choice. >>I wouldn’t miss this for the world.<<

Mark emerged from the bathroom, and, upon seeing the half-dozen assembled women sitting on the edge of the bed drinking, suddenly had an attack of modesty, and stripped a sheet from one of the beds, tying it around himself like a toga. >>How do I look?<< he asked, tugging it into place.

>>Beautiful<< said Bettina, fashioning a sort of crown out of a plastic flower arrangement and handing it to him. >>Hail, Caesar, king of the Dandies!<<

As Mark leapt onto the bed like a general surveying his troops and throwing vague supermodel poses, Blixa bashed away on the metal lamp-stand and changed the words to Wolfgang’s song slightly, chanting “Der Tod ist ein Dandy, der Tod ist ein Dandy” then started to extemporise about a tall, skinny black-haired Dandy Death, riding through the Australian outback on a horse.

I rolled my eyes and did my best to shut him up by stuffing a fat spliff into his mouth.

Chapter Text

I paid for all that partying the next morning, when we had to get up early and check out of the hotel for the long drive back to Berlin. All very well for Malaria! and the New Buildings, who had finished their work, and could just sleep in the various vehicles headed back. But that was when my job as a roadie really began, as I needed to load up my van, then drive the eight hours back to West Berlin, only to be interrogated and have my van taken almost to pieces by the border guards, once they heard we were coming back from a three-day trip to Amsterdam. By the time I got back to West Berlin, I was so tired I was hallucinating bedbugs the size of VW camper vans, scuttling up the autobahn off-ramps, but we did eventually get home.

Upon our return, we discovered that the New Buildings’ and Malaria!’s performances on the telly had so impressed a Dutch video artist that he invited them to come and perform at the opening of his show at the documenta 7 exhibition in Kassel. There was no money in it, and the bands would have to find their own way there, but I volunteered my van, and it was such a prestigious event that everyone in West Berlin threw in petrol money to get them there. Salomé was showing some of his paintings at the same exhibition, so we decided to make a Berliner convoy out of it, and all go down together. Salomé, who had actually received some money from the organisation responsible for the exhibition, had decided to hire a house for the duration, and invited the whole West Berlin contingent to stay, so it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The New Buildings’ links with the video art world seemed to be strengthening on all sides. Mufti had been introduced to a collective of experimental filmmakers working in Hamburg, by his mate Klaus, who ran the coolest record shop in Germany, and occasionally attempted to help out managing the band’s somewhat chaotic business affairs. The loose group of artists, writers and musicians wanted to create a science fiction film based on the work of William S. Burroughs, on the subject of sound as a form of mind-control, exploring such concepts as Muzak as pacifier, sonic torture, even strategically-deployed noise as incitement to riot – all the kind of ideas that seriously appealed to Mufti and the other New Buildings. But although the film-makers reportedly had a pretty decent script, and they had already conscripted Mufti and his famous friend, Christiane F to star in the film, they were still very short of funding, and looking for ways to film on the cheap.

For the exciting climax of the film, they wanted to have the protagonist of the film, conveniently called ‘FM Einheit’ (Mufti’s full stage name, though no one ever called him so), deliberately trigger a riot with the subversive power of his home-made anti-music. Now they knew that they could not provide a Hollywood style riot for the film, complete with stunt-men to simulate the violent bits, as they could not pay a cast of thousands to play malcontents or police. So someone had the bright idea of waiting for the political agitators of West Berlin to stage an actual riot, then go out and film Mufti (with the rest of the New Buildings as free extras) pretending to be the instigators of the rather more real violence.

Sure enough, in June, there was a planned state visit by the American president, Ronald Ray-gun (Manon’s ‘shoot you dead, bang, bang’ always echoed in my head, whenever I heard his name). Massive protests were planned among the activist and anarchist communities. So Mufti got all dressed up in the costume he would wear for the film, and the various New Buildings accompanied him with portable cassette players, and they went out into the thick of the demonstration, to wait for the argy-bargy to kick off.

After a year of living in Berlin, I had learned enough about demonstrations to generally have the good sense to stay away from them. There were always a lot of hot-headed young men with big political ideas, and not a lot to lose, just itching for a ruck. But the real problem was the police, who could turn from well-mannered and orderly Germans into raging bully-boys attacking with clubs and boots, at the drop of a harmless firecracker. I didn’t really have that kind of urban sixth sense to understand the subtle changes that let others know that police were moving from just standard hassle to frothing state violence, so the whole thing terrified me.

The anarchists, on the other hand, treated the whole thing like an elaborately staged game. It was a show of force, that they could always provoke either the police or the crowd into turning the protests into combat situations. But Mufti and the film crew were counting on this, to provide a dramatic backdrop for the scenes they were shooting. Crowds gathered. The police gathered. Mufti and the other New Buildings wandered about with their cassette players, while the film crew followed them with handheld videocameras and their omnipresent super-8s.

At first, it was fairly relaxed, as far as West Berlin protests went, a lot of chanting of slogans and banging on improvised drums, a bit of stone-throwing, a bit of back and forth with the cops. And then things went absolutely mental. Abruptly, the sound of gunfire exploded across the streets. People panicked, and ran. Then there was the sound of helicopters, and people stampeded in the opposite direction, back towards the line of the police, who were still at panic stations, looking for the source of the gunshots. The sounds seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere, as the terrified protesters broke through the line of the police and chaos erupted all around.

And Mufti, like a complete muppet, ran towards the sound of the gunshots.

>>Are you totally fucking verruckt<< shouted one of the film crew, as we all tried to head for shelter.

But Mufti turned around, grinning with glee, and pointed to the tape recorder he was carrying as a prop. >>It’s not real<< he shouted back. >>Can’t you hear the slick production reverb on it? They’re sound effects! Someone is playing a tape of gunfire!<< And into the crowd he charged, the musician playing a fake movie-star sound-terrorist, off in search of real sound-terrorists.

It took the police nearly twenty minutes to realise what was going on, and start running around, confiscating tape recorders, and arresting anyone suspicious who was carrying one. But by that point, the crowd had slipped the designated protest area, and become a howling mob, overturning cars and setting things on fire. The fire department was called, but the cops turned the water cannons on the protesters, rather than on the burning cars, which only escalated the violence. Mufti’s film-maker friends got far better footage out of it than they had been expecting, and Mufti himself was pleased as punch that he managed to get a really good tape recording of the riot, all police sirens and chanting mobs and the sickening whoosh of petrol catching fire. (Alex, on the other hand, who always took things just that bit too far, had looked just a bit too convincing as a fake anarchist, and had managed to get his beloved tape recorder confiscated by the police. It took him weeks, and a small fine for disorderly conduct, to get it back.)

But the film-making gang, including Mufti, all seemed both slightly shaken, but also intensely excited, that these things that they had been writing as science fiction, were abruptly becoming real on the streets of Berlin.

The streets eventually cleared of rioters, President Ray-gun went home, and the New Buildings, puffed up on the idea that their abstract art-ideas were becoming reality, went off to documenta 7 to play for the art world where they felt they belonged.

I had no idea what this documenta festival actually was when they first started talking about it, but I had certainly heard of the artists who would be exhibiting there – everyone from Gilbert and George to Marina Abramovic, Andy Warhol to Cindy Sherman, and even a special ‘action’ by Joseph Beuys. Blixa, in particular, was excited at the idea of witnessing Germany’s most exciting modern artist, who had electrified Düsseldorf with his unorthodox ideas about both his teaching methods and his praxis. I didn’t know Beuys’ art well, but I had heard his philosophy of ‘everyone is an artist’ which was quoted often by the art students in West Berlin, and I wanted to know more about this charismatic shaman of the German conceptual art world. So Blixa borrowed a book about him from the library, and sat in the passenger seat of my van, reading it to me as we drove down to Kassel, until I was soon as excited about seeing the great man as he was.

When we arrived in Kassel for the grand opening, the whole city seemed to have been transformed into a giant art exhibition. The first thing that greeted us was a monumentally sized, bright blue icepick thrust into the land by the side of the river. It completely distracted Blixa as he fussed with the map, so we drove around aimlessly for a bit, trying to find our accommodation. But once we located Salomé’s place, and dumped our bags and claimed the available beds and floor space, the groups started to squabble. Some of the more equipment-minded musicians wanted to go straight to the venue where they would be playing the following night, to see what the situation there would be regarding amplification and a PA and the like. But Gudrun, Bettina, Blixa and myself were all far more interested in the opening night of the art festival. So we split up, most of them off to this art bunker where the band would play, and the more art-minded off to the main building of the festival, where Salomé said he would do his best to get all of us in, on the explanation that we were close, personal friends of one of the star exhibiting artists.

To my surprise, the trick worked, and we were admitted (though I assuaged my guilt at not paying to get in, by purchasing a wonderful full-colour glossy catalogue, complete with little biographies of the artists). Immediately, Salomé took us proudly to see his contributions.

>>But they’re breathtaking<< I gasped, genuinely surprised that our friend, who was known as much for the pursuit of decadence and debauchery, as for his drag act and his decadent glam-punk band, Horny Beasts, had produced such unexpectedly pretty paintings, colourful canvases depicting lush water teeming with water lilies. >>You’ve caught the humid atmosphere of Monet’s garden, but with the lush sensuality of Georgia O’Keefe’s erotic flower portraits.<< It was a bit of a teasing joke, as ‘humid’ had an overtone meaning gay in West Berlin slang, but Salomé seemed delighted with the comparison, letting out a chime of laughter.

>>Oh, I do love how you flatter me, my luscious ‘lectrician<< he giggled, pretending to swoon and flutter his eyelids. >>You are invited back to all my shows.<<

But Blixa was impatient. >>Carter’s catalogue says that Beuys is giving a talk in twenty minutes. Can we go over, to make sure we get in?<<

>>Don’t worry<< sighed Salomé, with breezy assurances, but as it turned out, it was quite lucky that Blixa had made us go over so early. For the hall was already rammed to the gills, and if we’d come any later, we wouldn’t even have got in, as it was already standing room only. (I found out later that there were nearly 500 people crammed into a room that was only supposed to seat 300, and many more waiting outside, and craning to hear.) Salomé and Gudrun and Bettina, since they were short, pushed towards the front, but Blixa and I hung back, trying to find some breathing room.

Beuys was electrifying. He didn’t particularly look like much when he shuffled up to the front of the room. Small and kind of gnarled looking, with a weathered face, he was dressed quite simply in a fisherman’s leather vest and a very working class felt hat jammed down tight over his ears. But his eyes seemed to twinkle in his face, with a bright intelligence, and when he spoke, he was spellbinding.

Words poured out of him in great torrents of meaning, as he accompanied his lecture by scrawling phrases and arrows and strange diagrams all over the chalkboards that surrounded him. None of it was difficult or arcane, but the connections he drew were often so surprising and thought-provoking as to be revelatory. And as he leapt from subject to subject, he seemed to fire everyone with that electric enthusiasm. Art was no game to him, no parlour trick or intellectual pastime; it was something real and raw and urgent and important. >>Everyone’s an artist<< he kept insisting, as I slowly realised the true meaning of what he was saying. He didn’t mean that just anyone could draw or paint or sculpt. Because Capital-A Art wasn’t a daub, or a sculpture, or an object at all, it was a way of looking at, and conceiving the world, and he insisted, most strenuously, that every human being on the planet had the right to participate in that collective world-building project. Society itself, he said, was a ‘social sculpture’, and everyone had a role in sculpting it.

Blixa was mesmerised. I could feel him by my side, not fidgeting or twisting about or causing trouble, as he did when he was bored, but completely rigid with attention, his whole body straining to catch more of the work being enacted before us. There was no room to sit down, so he rested his sharp chin on my shoulder, and breathed into my ear. >>This is incredible. He has the same attitude towards art, that we have towards music. This is what I keep trying to say – everything is music. Music is not a note or a melody or a beat. It is a way of organising sound. I’m so excited his ideas are so similar... oh, I should have been a painter.<<

I laughed and put my arm around his waist, leaning into his side. >>There’s still time<< I whispered back. >>You can be a painter if you like.<<

>>Nah<< he shrugged and squeezed me back gently. >>I’ll leave that to you. I want to use these ideas to transform music.<<

When Beuys finished speaking, after having announced his grand new project, a long-running action involving planting 7,000 oak trees across Germany, I expected him to open the floor up to questions, but he did something much more odd and much more intimate. Instead of taking questions and answering them publicly, he invited everyone in the audience to come up to him and address him individually, have a proper dialogue, rather than the shouting matches that Q&As tended to become. I would desperately have loved to go and get in the queue of people waiting to speak with the great man, and in fact Bettina and Gudrun wandered off to try to find the end of the queue. But after ten, fifteen minutes, it became quickly apparent that there was no way that he could possibly speak to everyone who wished to speak with him.

Salomé had already found some other art-world friends, and was having a good gossip about whose paintings had sold for how much, so Blixa and I exchanged glances, then admitted our defeat. >>Shall we go and look at these paintings?<< he suggested.

I nodded, and we wandered off into the halls. Some of the artists I recognised instantly; others were complete unknowns. Some of the images moved me immediately; others of them seemed more arcane and impenetrable, but I found myself challenged and intrigued by them all. Blixa, on the other hand, was as highly opinionated about the paintings as he was about everything else in his life.

>>95% of contemporary art is complete shit<< he asserted, with a curt little nod.

>>Isn’t that exactly the same thing you say about music?<< I retorted, gearing up for a good argument with him, of the sort that could keep us entertained for hours, because, to be fair, I knew a lot more about painting than I knew about the kind of music he listened to, and I thought I actually stood a chance of winning this argument.

>>Well, it’s true about music. But the absolute crap-ness of most music makes us sound good by comparison. You must make it the same for you, with art. To be the 5% of good art that is made to look good in comparison with this.<<

I couldn’t help but laugh at the sheer nerve of him. His self-confidence could come blisteringly close to arrogance at times, but it was charming the way he was always so unrelentingly supportive of his friends. >>Is that a vote of confidence, Herr Bargeld? Do you think I have what it takes to be showing at documenta 8, in five years’ time?<<

>>Well, I know you’re not crap, and you know you’re not crap, so...<< proclaimed Blixa, but abruptly our progress was blocked, as we came to an opening through to another gallery, hung with a heavy curtain that obscured what was in the space beyond it. >>Hello, what’s in here?<<

>>Orgiastic Mystery Theatre<< I read, from the large placard on the wall.

>>Orgies, eh? I am for orgies.<< Blixa’s eyes flashed as he shot me a grin. >>Warning: please be advised that this exhibit contains art of a graphic nature which might offend those of a more sensitive disposition. Visitors must enter only at their own risk.<< Blixa’s grin widened. >>Ah! This sounds far more my case. Shall we go in?<< He held back the curtain with a little mock bow, and we both stepped through.

Inside, there was a long, narrow gallery, which was lined on one set of walls with large, paint-spattered canvases covered in splotches of a kind of rusty dark brown-red. >>Looks like a used maxi-pad; no wonder the men can’t handle it<< I quipped, but Blixa had been drawn to the displays of photos and video which dotted the other side of the room.

>>Relics<< he read aloud. >>These items on display are but relics, a reminder of the intensity which occurs during the theatre, but are no substitute for it.<<

>>Holy relics<< I mused, going over and looking closely at the bloodied canvases. Whatever the stuff was that was clotted and clumped on the fabric, it looked terribly real, bits of flesh and hair stuck in repeating patterns, as if it had been wrapped a number of times around a corpse. >>It reminds me oddly of photos of the Shroud of Turin.<<

But Blixa was mesmerised by the longer texts, and the video playing on a loop on a small television. >>Carter<< he announced breathlessly. >>These are relics – they are residues, artefacts of the Actions – the rituals themselves – that this artist undertakes in performance. Listen to this, what the newspapers had to say... The concept of intensity is key to understanding the Actions themselves. The Actions push performers towards the extremes of feeling – horror, ecstasy, joy – by embracing the extremes of experience: birth, orgasm, death. The Actions are striking for their use of animal carcasses, entrails, and a large volume of blood as materials, calling to mind pagan rituals, cult sacrifice and crucifixion. The point is to push the participants – and there is little boundary between performers and audience in Nitsch’s work – to intense experiences of total abandon, transcending the senses to attain the rush of being wholly alive. Wow, does that sound like anything to you?<<

I moved over towards him, peering over his shoulder at a video of a group of performers dragging an animal corpse around the courtyard of a castle. >>It sounds like a New Buildings gig where something has gone horribly wrong. Like that gig where Andi nearly chopped his leg off, and was dripping blood all over the place, and the audience thought it was all part of the act.<<

>>Well, yes, perhaps a little bit.<< He smiled slyly. >>But I was thinking more of Antonin Artaud. This is like the Theatre of Cruelty pushed to its most logical extreme. Taken out of the theatre, and out into life, as an intensely alive pagan ritual.<<

I peered at the photos that had entranced Blixa so much, depicting extreme scenes of bloodletting and animal sacrifice. >>It’s quite gory. It seems a bit of a rotten deal for the animals.<<

Blixa rounded on me, his eyes flashing. >>You eat meat, do you not? What on earth do you imagine happens in an abattoir?<<

Looking at the photos again, I blinked, wondering if I should become a vegetarian. >>I never really thought about it.<<

>>That’s the point!<< declared Blixa, really quite animated. >>You are so alienated from where your food even comes from, to the point where you are completely alienated from your senses. To eat meat, without understanding it comes from an animal, with guts and blood, is to eat food without really tasting it. These images are so... But oh! It is not enough, just to see the relics. I would love to experience the real thing.<<

>>But you don’t even eat meat<< I pointed out.

>>It’s not about the meat<< persisted Blixa. >>It’s about the rush, the experience, to live in that state of total awareness, even for a few moments. This man – Nitsch – he compares it to a form of drunkenness. To be so deep into the ecstasy of the moment that the performance becomes more heightened than reality itself. Oh! How can we attain that kind of intensity in a musical performance? Attain that state of heightened truly-aliveness, both performer and audience. This is what I want to be doing, Carter, with my music. How to incorporate this?<<

I suddenly understood what he was talking about, why the fire had suddenly lit up in his eyes. >>To make your audience not mere witnesses, but part of the orgiastic rush of the performance. I mean, isn’t that what you do, when you make your performances so dangerous? The sparks that leap out into the audience, the uncontrollable sheet metal that goes cascading off the stage?<<

Blixa already seemed in a kind of ecstatic trance, moving from photograph to photograph, peering into them as if willing himself into the action they portrayed. >>We must find a way to make it more dangerous, then. More intense, more immersive. No more of playing these stupid punk clubs for egotistical idiots who just stare at you, expecting to be entertained. I do not want to merely entertain. I want to make musical performances that are as total as this.<< He stopped before an image of a blood-spattered, half-naked man tied to a cross made of the cross-section of a butchered cow. >>I want the audience to feel like this. If we have to set the stage on fire to get the audience to catch alight, then we set the stage on fire. I will speak to Mufti about how to do this. He has to see this. Tomorrow, I will bring him here and show him. Mufti will understand, he is theatrical, he has the showman’s gift.<<

We rushed from image to image, bourn up on Blixa’s enthusiasm. To see art with him was to experience a whole new kind of looking, the way he carried me along with his zeal like a river in flood. To see even familiar art through his eyes was to see things afresh; to see new art through his eyes was exhilarating. He seemed to be changing, mutating, twisting the way that I looked at art in exactly the same way that Beuys had. To see pictures not just for whether they were pretty or not, but for the worlds they created or rendered possible.

As we strolled the rest of the galleries, drinking in the art with our senses, it seemed as if just the thought of this Orgiastic Mystery Theatre had widened up our eyes and our ears to an almost orgiastic openness. Blixa’s thoughts and comments and comparisons kept returning to the Nitsch work again and again, even more than the Beuys lecture which had fired him up so, as if he could not get this thing he had witnessed out of his mind.

We carried on exploring, and somehow found a party where dinner-jacketed staff were serving finger sandwiches and wine to assembled artists and collectors, and made ourselves at home, gorging on the food and slurping up the wine. Although Blixa was wearing his threadbare button-down black shirt, and I was in a short-sleeved black turtleneck, both of which skirted the limits of acceptability for what artists could get away with wearing to such a formal party, Blixa just looked too charismatic and interesting to be anything other than an artist, so no one even challenged him, and I sailed through the event on his arm. He drank too much, and talked a lot of bollocks to serious curators of the art world, spitting back out the kinds of jargon we had only just read on the placards in the exhibition. But Blixa was just so beautiful and so energetic and so alive that he charmed everyone in the room. I’m quite sure that half a dozen collectors went home thinking they must get a ‘Blixa’ piece for their gallery.

By the time we crept back to Salomé’s rented townhouse, it was quite late indeed. Blixa was now quite drunk, and my head was still spinning from the heady atmosphere of the art party, but we were both ready for bed. Unfortunately, there was already a body in the bed that I had claimed as my own, which was always the problem with these shared accommodations. Considering how long a drive I’d put in, I pouted and refused to sleep on the floor.

>>Never mind<< said Blixa. >>Come and sleep with me. You can talk to me about that Nitsch exhibition, I’m still just burning up with curiosity about the whole thing.<<

>>You mean, you can talk, and I can listen while I fall asleep.<< I muttered, grumbling as I located the rucksack that I had left on the bed as a mark of ownership, but which had been unhelpfully removed to the top of a dresser.

>>Yes, something like that<< he laughed and led me upstairs to a little cot in a garret room, which, fortunately, was still unoccupied, as Blixa had spread his smelly rubber coat over the top of it, and no one ever wanted to touch that.

Both of us stripped off our clothes without thinking, and climbed into bed, wrestling and nudging and elbowing one another to get comfortable, until Blixa just suggested we lie spoon style on the narrow mattress, and he wrapped his enormously long arms around me to keep me from falling out. It was strange how, with any other man, I would never have allowed it, fearing the sexual overtones, but I trusted Blixa so implicitly I felt completely safe with him. We must have whispered back and forth urgently to one another for nearly an hour, about all the paintings and exhibits and photos we had seen, before both of finally wore one another out with our chatter, and fell into a deep sleep.

When I woke, it was already late, as the sun seemed quite high in the sky, but Blixa was still fast asleep, his arms wrapped tightly around me, and one of his legs thrown across mine for good measure. It was nice, actually, warm and reassuring, like a fleshy duvet, and I thought back to the dream I’d just been having, the pair of us wandering through the entrails of some enormous animal, observing such features as the spleen, and the ribcage, and the tiny areolae of the lungs with the same excited interest as we’d examined the paintings the night before. I laughed, and made a mental note to tell Blixa, knowing how delighted he was at his occasional guest appearances in other people’s dreams. Picking up his wrist, I peered at his watch. It had just gone eleven, and I did need to wake him, as in point of fact, I needed the loo, so I nudged him carefully until he woke.

>>No<< he muttered sleepily into my shoulderblade, wrapping his arms even tighter about me. >>I’m not ready to wake up now, you are cruel to wake me.<<

>>I need the loo<< I whispered to him gently but insistently, and finally, he grumbled and released me.

It took me some time to find the loo, which turned out to be downstairs, and I was slightly embarrassed, padding through the kitchen in my underpants and vest, to find Salomé and his boyfriend Rainer eating breakfast and lingering over the newspapers.

>>My god, Carter, you have breasts<< exclaimed Salomé by way of greeting.

>>Of course I have breasts<< I muttered as I headed into the toilet.

>>I hate to say it, but they’re better than yours<< I could hear Rainer laugh through the thin wood of the toilet door.

>>Don’t be beastly<< admonished Salomé.

>>Well, they definitely slept together<< observed Rainer, lowering his voice, though he was still loud enough to be heard next door. >>Do you think they did it?<<

>>Don’t be perverse. Their whole thing is that they don’t do it.<<

>>I bet they did<< giggled Rainer. >>Which one do you think was the top, and which was the bottom, or did they...<< There was a brief pause. >>How do lesbians fuck, anyway?<<

>>I bet they didn’t. And knowing Blixa, always six months ahead of the fashion, you just know, next year it’ll be all the rage, people not having sex as the most up-to-the-minute form of being debauched<< countered Salomé.

>>Do you really think everything is all about being debauched, though<< asked Rainer.

>>Of course! And it’s the only thing left that one can do, in West Berlin, to be really degenerate and deviant, is to have a great love affair, but not have sex. I think it’s quite romantic, really<< sighed Salomé.

>>It is quite sweet, I suppose<< agreed Rainer as I washed my hands and face, then hung back behind the bathroom door, waiting to see what else they would say. To be honest, I was curious, more than offended. >>Did you see them whispering and canoodling, all through the Beuys lecture? Those two are so obviously in love, even if it’s only in a platonic way.<<

>>But that’s the thing about being like us<< sighed Salomé, turning philosophical. >>When you’re queer, literally everything you do is seen as being somehow debauched and degenerate, no matter what you do. So to fall in love – even that becomes somehow politicised, whether you fuck or not.<<

>>Is it queer, though, that’s the interesting question<< countered Rainer.

>>Of course they are.<<

>>Well, they are. So no, I’m not disputing she’s a dyke, and Blixa’s... whatever Blixa is, really. Blixa’s just... everything-o-sexual, isn’t he. But aren’t they, after all, just a woman and a man, no?<<

>>Are they, though?<< mused Salomé.

>>Well, you and I don’t stop being gay, when you’re in drag, do we.<<

>>And I don’t think they stop being gay when they’re together.<<

>>When? I thought you said their whole thing was that they didn’t.<< Both of them laughed. >>But it all comes down to Foucault, doesn’t it. Are people homosexual, or are there just homosexual acts?<<

>>Oh, please, darling, it is too early in the morning for Foucault<< said Salomé and I could almost hear his eyeroll.

I finally opened the door, and coughed loudly, wondering if I should let them know that I had heard every word they had said, but Salomé was suddenly all smiles and sunshine, beaming at me as if the pair of them hadn’t just been gossiping themselves rotten about me.

>>There’s coffee in the pot, if you want it, darling<< he called out to me.

>>Is there rice milk?<<

>>Of course there’s rice milk. We wouldn’t dare have Blixa round if there wasn’t.<< Salomé and Rainer exchanged knowing glances.

>>Better get an extra-large mug for Blixa. Got to keep his strength up for the whole fashionable not-having-sex technique<< I couldn’t help but tease, bumping him gently with my hip as I passed.

>>Ooh, you bitch!!<< howled Salomé, but then started to cackle, reaching out and putting his arm around my hips as he pulled me back towards him and looked up at me with a quite loveable mother-hen expression. >>You know we’re only teasing, because we love you, dear, and Blixa can be such a little slut. Just watching out for you, my darling, one drag artiste looking out for another.<<

Rainer pretended to look shocked as I draped my arm around Salomé’s shoulders and gave him a little hug. >>You can’t call actual women bitches, Salomé, dear. It’s misogynist.<<

>>Carter’s no more an ‘actual woman’ than I am<< guffawed Salomé, fanning himself with the colour supplement like a dowager empress.

>>Ooh! That’s not what you said last night<< I tittered, leaving a kiss on the top of Salomé’s bald head as I went to pick up the coffee mugs. He pretended to slap me on the arse as I passed, and I yelped, but it was all so playful I didn’t feel angry at all about the gossip. It was strange, but with Salomé and Rainer, I never got the feeling that it was actually malicious, the way they so casually gossiped about Blixa and I, but rather the kind of bond-building chit-chat that knit social groups closer together. In their strange way, I knew they only gossiped about us because they considered us family. Just like when Salomé implied I wasn’t an ‘actual’ woman, it felt nice, like some kind of validation that he knew and understood what I really was, rather than an insult. I felt comfortable with them, like I could relax into who I really was around them, the same way I trusted Blixa to sleep in a bed with me.

I was smiling as I made my way back up to the attic, bearing two cups of coffee. >>Move over<< I told Blixa, as I handed one cup to him, and placed the other on the floor by the mattress.

>>Come back to bed<< he moaned, stretching himself out along the wall to make a place for me. >>It’s cold without you.<<

>>You do know Salomé and Rainer set us up last night. They were taking bets this morning, on whether we’d screwed or not<< I said as I squished in beside him.

Blixa paused to swallow some coffee as he considered that. >>Do you want to screw?<< he offered, in all apparent earnestness, sitting up, with a thoughtful, slightly hopeful expression on his face, as if he were offering me the last slice of pizza out of consideration.

I thought about that, and for a moment, there was a curl of the old lust somewhere around my groin. Blixa looked so boyishly beautiful in the morning light, and as I remembered his energy, his excitement the previous night, I found myself wondering just how enthusiastic he might be when he fucked. But as the silence grew heavy between us, and his lips peeled back from his teeth in a wolfish grin as he realised I was genuinely thinking it over, I caught a glimpse of his teeth, covered in plaque, and stained yellowish-brown from the coffee. The idea of kissing those teeth turned my stomach and brought me back to earth with a jolt.

>>Nah<< I said quickly. >>Not really.<<

Shrugging gently, he lay back on his elbows and seemed to accept the answer. But then his face changed, grew abruptly serious. >>I sleep through the night when you’re here, you know<< he said quietly. >>I never sleep through the night. I’m a chronic insomniac.<<

>>I can hardly bottle myself, for you to use as a sleep aid<< I quipped, sipping my coffee.

>>Be serious. I’m trying to tell you something important<< said Blixa, with a slightly wounded tone.

>>You know what’s important<< I told him, turning around and laying my head against the pale expanse of his skin, feeling the warmth of his chest, and hearing the reassuring steady thud of his heart behind his ribcage. >>Waking up Mufti and Andrew, and taking them to see that Nitsch exhibition. If you show them that, they will figure out a way to make it happen with your music.<<

>>Yes!<< exclaimed Blixa, and suddenly he was leaping out of bed, sending the bedclothes flying and nearly spilling my coffee, as he cast about the room for his clothes. Unable to find his own shirt, he picked up the black turtleneck I had been wearing the night before, even though it was almost absurdly too small for him, and put that on. >>The ecstatic ritual. The orgiastic mystery play! Mufti and Andi need to see that! They will understand. You are completely right. Where is my other boot?<<

I drove the whole band over in the van, and this time I hung back watching, as the pack of them raced from photo to photo, laughing and giggling as Blixa explained the radical ideas behind the pictures, and how he wanted to incorporate them into the band’s performance. By soundcheck, they were already quite seriously discussing it all. By the time of the concert, it was clear that they were attempting to put the theory into practice, sharpening the immersive experience of their performance into a transcendent ritual.

The art crowd loved the New Buildings’ daring. And they loved Malaria!, too, these five elegant, serious young women making their elegant, serious noise. Manc Mark sat me down at the soundboard and showed me how to do the live mixing, until I understood the way that guitar, bass, synth and vocals all wove together into their beguiling music. It was amazing to me that something which sounded so simple, could be so complicated to put together from a technical standpoint, but I was really starting to enjoy the whole process of mixing, like I was playing the whole band, using the soundboard.

The whole gig was a smashing success, and Blixa was in a superb mood at the audience response. The art world seemed, especially in the light of some of the more conceptual performance art pieces we had witnessed at the main exhibition, prepared to grasp what they were trying to do as a total performance, in the way that the small-minded punk scenes of West Germany did not. And to my surprise, people who had been at the art party the night before, and recognised him, actually came up to Blixa and shook his hand – not, as I worried, to castigate him for crashing the party – but to congratulate him on the daring conceptual purity of the ‘performance art’ they had just witnessed.

In the van home, the next afternoon, the whole band as a group made a pact that they were not going to tour West Germany as a rock group again. There was no point, declared Blixa. Those stupid, trendy, narrow-minded West German punks simply didn’t understand – or didn’t want to understand – what they were trying to do, in a way that the more intellectual, arty, internationally minded crowds in Berlin and Amsterdam instinctively did. This performance in the unusual and alternative space of a modern art festival seemed to prove to them that there was an audience for what they did, but they would only find it at unconventional gigs, or in an international setting. So after one single tour of West Germany, the band decided that they were never going to tour their home country ever again. If West Germany could not be bothered with them, then they would not be bothered with West Germany.

Chapter Text

Almost immediately, the New Buildings went back to Amsterdam to play another gig with Malaria!, as it was one of the places where both bands were completely accepted and widely beloved. I did not go to this one, as unfortunately, I had a job interview to get through. Manc Mark’s friend with the recording studio, Thomas, was intrigued by the CV I had hastily knocked-together on Bettina’s typewriter, and asked me to stop by for a chat. The more I investigated the situation, the more I realised how incestuous West Berlin was. Manc Mark, it turned out, used to be a freelance sound engineer there, working the odd session to pick up a bit of cash. But he had quit to look after Malaria! full-time, and in fact was going with them to London that summer, where they would begin work on their debut album. So Manc Mark was trying to stay in Thomas’ good books, by helping him out of a squeeze he had created, while helping me into his old role.

It was one of the weirdest interviews I ever had in my life.

The owner, Thomas, who also doubled as the producer and chief engineer on most of the sessions, was a bit of a 70s stereotype, big sideburns, amber-tinted glasses, tall and skinny with a bit of a belly and a truck driver’s belt buckle. >>So what kind of music are you into?<< he started out with.

>>Mostly, I just listen to my friends’ bands. I have to be honest with you, I’m not really much a music... fanatic?<< I confessed, feeling my chances of getting the job going down the drain.

>>So you don’t have a specific taste in music, or ideas about how good bands should sound?<<

I thought about Blixa, and those conversations we had recently had, where he expounded for hours on his very specific ideas about Good Music and Bad Music and how 95% of the music in the world fit into the latter category, though I could never tell what he was hearing that divided them. >>Not really, no. I try to stay open-minded. Is that a problem?<<

>>Not at all! It’s good!<< Thomas cracked a smile for the first time. >>Great, in fact. Open-minded is the foremost quality I need in an engineer. The moment you think you can do the musicians’ job better than they can... you’re done.<< I shifted uncomfortably in the chair, and tried to smile. >>So you’ve got qualifications as an electrician.<<

>>Yes, sir. And I’ve got a couple of years’ experience in the field, too. I’m not fresh out of school or anything.<<

>>We use a lot of fairly vintage kit around here; it requires a lot of attention to keep it going. Are you OK with getting your hands dirty, and using unorthodox methods, fixing things we can’t get a replacement of?<<

I risked a wry smile. >>I’ve done a lot of work around the squat scene in West Berlin. There’s not a lot of money, and not a lot of parts. Make do and mend is a philosophy I’ve really come to admire.<<

>>Alright. Technical test. Change the plug on this<< he said, pushing a small electric light, and a spare plug across the desk.

>>Excuse me?<< I stuttered.

>>If you’ve got qualifications, this should not be hard.<<

>>I need my equipment... a screwdriver to start with, maybe a soldering iron...<<

Thomas gestured off behind me, and I saw some gear scattered across a workbench. I picked up the lamp and the plug, and went over. But as I unscrewed the old plug and put in the new one, I saw that the fuse was completely inappropriate for the wattage of the lamp. >>Oh, you do not want to put that in here. Let me see if you’ve got anything else...<< I dug through the box of equipment until I found the right type. >>That should work better.<< I replaced the fuse, changed the plug, then peered at the lightbulb. >>Is this burned out?<< I asked. >>Is it OK if I try it?<<

He made an expansive gesture as he lit a cigarette.

I plugged it in. The bulb was blown. I replaced the bulb, but it still wouldn’t turn on. So I turned it upside down, and realised that one of the wires had come loose, and soldered it back into place. Again, I plugged in the lamp, flicked the switch, and the light came on. >>Fixed<< I said, and sat down.

>>I like your thoroughness. You’re hired. You can start next week. But I gotta warn you. It’s piecework around here. When I got a band in, you’ll be paid by the day. We start around noon, a little earlier if there’s a load-in, and go through until they stop. But if I don’t have a booking, there’s no work. I do my best to keep us in bookings, as it’s no good for me to have the studio sitting empty. But there is always unavoidable down time. Understand?<<

I stared at him, thinking how amazing it would be, to have a job I would never expect to have to turn up to, before noon. >>Completely. So long as I’m allowed to pick up other jobs in the down time, do repair work, that kind of thing.<<

>>You’re a contractor, you do what you like.<< he shrugged, then added. >>And, if you’re any good at music instrument repair work, which Herr Reeder said you were, we can shoot a lot of work your way. For a small referral fee, of course. But you can set up your toolbench in the cellar downstairs, if you like. Like your own office.<<

>>That sounds great!<< I grinned, and stood up to offer him my handshake, but then he seemed to remember something.

>>Wait, Carter. Can you speak English?<<

“Yes, I can speak English fluently,” I told him.

>>No idea what you just said, I don’t speak a word. But we got a really famous and important American artist coming in, in a few weeks. Huge on the New York scene, so this is kind of a big deal that she’s coming here, and not to Hansa. Apparently, it’s all the rage to record in West Berlin now that Bowie made it cool. But I just want to make sure that someone around here can understand what the fuck she’s saying when she gets here.<<

>>That’s not a problem.<< I was expecting to sign some papers, but it was all very casual. There was a chart on the wall that indicated when the studio was in use, block-booked for days or for weeks. Thomas had another, more experienced assistant sound engineer, named Jürgen, who came in on some days, but he wanted to make sure there was always a staff member on site every time there was a band in. I gave him the phone number of my Great-Aunt’s apartment, and told him if I wasn’t there, they could always leave a message for me at Iron-Grey.

It was, in many ways, the perfect job. The hours were amazing, as I could roll out of bed at my own convenience, and slouch in just before noon, while sessions never went much past 10, or midnight at the very latest, leaving me free to go out on the town afterwards. Days off were my own business, as the studio was booked in slots. Each block-booking could be grabbed or turned down depending on my schedule, though if I turned down too many, Thomas warned me that I would start being passed over for the good bookings.

I was already vaguely familiar with a soundboard from Manc Mark showing me what was going on during Malaria!’s live sets, though Thomas’s had 16 channels, instead of the 8 they used at most clubs. I laid cables, I checked mics, I fixed broken electrics – and I never had any idea how much electrical gear there was in a studio that could go wrong, before I started working there. Thomas warned me never to use channel 8 on the mixing desk unless I could possibly avoid it as the fader stuck, and channel 7 should never be used for vocals, as there was a buzz. So I stayed late one night, and took the board to pieces, only to discover that a huge lump of very sticky resin and ash had fallen down and lodged among the wires, as if someone had accidentally tipped out a bowl of hash while recording. I laughed and laughed and laughed, but in the morning, I had cleaned it out and the buzz was gone, and channel 8’s fader went up and down perfectly. (Of course I smoked the lump of hash with Blixa. What do you think, I was going to waste perfectly good hash?)

And working in a studio was great for my local reputation, as many of the day-booking clients were local bands who wanted to bash out a demo, or record a single. It helped immensely, that many of them already knew me, at least by sight, and they tended to trust me. And after two or three weeks of learning the ropes, under Thomas or Jürgen’s patient tutelage, I could not believe that I had spent so much time digging around in attics and climbing down into basements, when working in a studio was such a cushy job. To start up the repair business, I set up my own little office in the cellar, and spent my mornings and lunchtimes relaxing and poking at broken synthesisers or amplifiers with my soldering iron. It turned out I had a real knack for electronics; there wasn’t much I couldn’t fix. And sound engineering wasn’t hard, not compared to electrical engineering. Some of the artists came in with egos, and I slowly came to understand why Thomas had questioned me so carefully on whether I had musical taste to get in the way. But I always figured, if you were straight with people, they would be straight with you.

A few weeks into my new job, the renowned American performance artist from New York City who had block-booked the studio turned up. To my surprise, it was Lydia, the Goth Chick we had met in Amsterdam. She told me she had rented out an entire house in Kreuzberg, and had the walls covered in cheap black velvet, then decked it out in horror movie posters and weird, gory Catholic tat, with votive candles and rosaries and Virgin Marys everywhere.

And she had almost all of the Australians we’d met in Amsterdam in tow as her support band. Just as half of West Berlin had decamped to London with Malaria! as they recorded their album, West Berlin was overflowing with Australians, as if we had done some en masse cultural exchange. Australians hanging about the studio. Australians living at The Skin’s house and ‘house-sitting’ Manc Mark’s apartment in his absence. Australians turning up at the Risk bar, asking for Blixa, who had stupidly told them that they could drink for free when he was working. Because Jesus Christ, were this lot determined to live up to the stereotype, and they drank like a horde of thirsty camels, gobbling down the cheap Russian vodka that Blixa habitually served in half-pint glasses. And soon, all of the drug dealers around Berlin were hanging about outside our studio, as their thirst for drink seemed to be matched only by their thirst for illegal substances.

In an effort to keep his studio from getting wrecked, Thomas tried to confine them to hash and a bit of beer, while they were supposed to be working. But it soon became quite obvious that Nick, who would usually appear last, late in the day, as the shadows were lengthening into early evening, was in point of fact a high-functioning junkie. One of his bandmates made a joke about his heroin use, which turned out not to be a joke at all, and once it was pointed out, I couldn’t stop noticing how his habit ruled his working life. He had a rhythm whereby he would squirrel himself away to consume his smack in private, and disappear from the world for up to an hour or so. Then he would suddenly snap to, and reappear all smiles and charm, and there would be a fairly long stretch where he could maintain an ordinary working attitude for a limited period of time, before eventually starting to fray at the edges, and finally deteriorating to the point where he needed to fix again. And then the cycle would start over again. It was maddening, and did not always conform to the standard 10 hour cycle of the studio.

But it was a massive eye-opener to me, the amount of drugs that this lot went through, not necessarily at the sessions themselves, but definitely around the studio, and at the long, all-night party-salon-discussions that Lydia liked to host at her place after work, to which I soon found myself invited, along with the band. To be honest, I had not had that much experience around hard drugs before I had come to West Berlin, and even for the first year, my opinions of addicts and what they were and weren’t capable had been formed mostly by Jana, and Jana, to be honest, with her tarot cards and her kooky premonitions, had hardly struck me as an intellectual. My impression of druggies was the one formed by what I read in the press: not very bright at all. So this was the first time I had come up against a different stereotype, that of the opium-inspired poet, who aspired to be Baudelaire or William S. Burroughs or Coleridge conjuring up visions of Kubla Khan. People who used heroin not to get out of it, but to stay up all night getting into it, winding through long, philosophical and artistic discussions about the nature of Good and Evil.

For Nick, confirming my suspicions of him as a boarding school toff, fancied himself a bit of an intellectual. He didn’t actually go wild when he was on smack. (Though alcohol, that was another story. Alcohol had... unpredictable effects on Nick.) Smack seemed to actually blunt the wildness in him, so that he calmed down and became thoughtful, even reasonable, during that shadowy window of time when he got the balance of chemicals right.

We sat around in a dreamy, poetic half-daze, in the incense and smoke-filled bordello that Lydia turned the front room of her house into. I stuck to hash, which seemed safest, but I tried not to be judgemental that the others didn’t. I had never actually seen people taking smack before, but to my surprise they didn’t inject it, they heated it on a little contraption of tin foil and inhaled the fumes, a process that Nick, somewhat pretentiously, referred to as ‘chasing the dragon’.

But I shook my head when it was offered to me (being non-judgemental only went so far) and instead found myself concentrating on a strange Catholic icon that Lydia had pinned to the wall, and seemed to have customised with little cut-out bits of pornography so that the Virgin Mary seemed to be floating on a nimbus of pale pink pussy.

“Are you Catholic?” I blurted out, then abruptly realised that might have been a bit of an insensitive question.

But Lydia merely laughed, to show she wasn’t offended, and replied “Well, I did go to Catholic school. But I don’t think you ever really get to attain the status of ex-Catholic. You kind of spend the rest of your life being a recovering Catholic.”

“Ah, I see,” I stuttered. “I’m just an atheist, so I find the whole thing a bit mystifying. Blixa’s always interrogating me, to find out if I believe in god or not, but I never really understood the question.”

“Well, it’s kind of a straightforward question, but it’s not really the interesting question,” insisted the straight-talking poet in a brassy New York tone. Reaching over the coffee table, she poured a large glass of a dark, almost blood-red drink.

“What is that, Laudanum?” teased Nick.

“Definitely,” laughed Lydia. “Do you want some?”

“Go on, then.”

“Well, what is the interesting question?” I demanded, looking around to see if anyone else knew, but Rowland and his girlfriend Genevieve had reclined back on a pile of cushions, lapsing into their own private world of whispers and giggles. Rowland didn’t strike me as shy when he in the studio, but he seemed quite slow to warm up to people in more social situations.

“The Problem of Evil,” said Lydia, as if this were the most self-evident answer in the world.

“Which is?” I wondered aloud, really wishing that Blixa were there, as he was much better equipped for these moralistic arguments on the nature of True and False and Good and Evil than I was.

“So you’re an Atheist,” said Lydia. “There’s no God. OK, sure. So where does Evil come from, then?”

Nick propped himself gently up on his elbows, then coughed creakily to shoehorn his way into the conversation now that it had started to interest him. “Well, even if there is a God. A good, loving, all-powerful God, like the Christian God. Why, if God – or whoever it was that created the world – is supposed to be good, is there so much evil in the world?

Lydia’s thoughts on the matter were straightforward. “It’s psychological. Right from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung onwards. There are two drives in the world: Eros, and Thanatos. The drive for sex, and the drive for death. Procreation, destruction. Both of these things are behind all good, and all evil. You can’t separate them. They are the same thing, ultimately. And both of these things are fundamentally part of being human.”

Nick was more philosophical, even bordering on the religious, smoothing out his put-on outback drawl for a more polished, urbane accent as his eyes got that faraway reptilian look. “But are humans fundamentally good, or fundamentally bad? I struggle a lot, to accept either of these positions, which all of the world’s great religions seem to take a different stand on. Are humans, at heart, basically good, and need to be tempted into sin by the Devil, or are they fundamentally bad – Original Sin and all that – and need to be saved, redeemed, by Jesus Christ, or Buddha, or... Jim Jones, or whoever.” He dug in his pockets and took out a pack of cigarettes, smirking at the bad taste of his own joke.

“That’s not what I said,” countered Lydia, as Nick dug around for his lighter. “I said that humans are not inherently good or inherently bad. They’re fundamentally all mixed up. Good and Evil, light and dark all jumbled up together. Jung had the right idea with his idea of the Shadow Archetype. That every soul casts, and thus creates its own shadow. And the Shadow is what we call evil; all the bits of one’s own psyche that each of us is most afraid of. You have to learn to embrace your Shadow self. Accept that Evil is a part of the human condition and always will be. Evil loses its terror when you accept and even learn to embrace the dark sides of one’s own animal instincts. If you accept that Evil exists, and is a part of you, and your own urges, and not something just out there in the world waiting to snare you...” But Nick interrupted before she could finish her thought.

“Well, that’s the question that I’m interested in. Is Evil a tangible force, out there in the world? Or, is Good for that matter?” He gestured wildly with his lighter, waving the flame about dangerously before finally lighting his cigarette and snapping it shut. “All these stories I heard as a boy, where the Devil was a real person, waiting out there in the Bush to trap you into Sin and drag you off to Hell. They used to terrify me! But, uuhhhh... when you look at it as an adult, it’s a totally absurd notion. A man in red tights with a pitchfork, leaping out from behind a rock to tempt you to kick your little sister? Ludicrous! But if you don’t believe in the Devil, then where does Evil come from?”

“I told you, if you’d let me finish a sentence for once,” insisted Lydia, who at least had the guts to drag her own topic back from the interrupting man. “Carl Jung says that Evil is the dark side of your own self. Like a shadow that your own mind casts. And like a shadow, you don’t see it as part of you, you see it as a projection. So when you project this Shadow side out into the world, and see it as an external force, it’s only because you cannot accept the dark aspects of your own self.”

“Huh,” said Nick, as if her words had finally managed to penetrate his drug-addled head. “That’s interesting. Because that’s kinda what I’ve started to think. That both Good and Evil have to be something that are inside us. No one’s thoroughly good, or thoroughly bad, not as individuals, and certainly not as a whole species, like the idea of Original Sin proposes. But to accept that Evil is something that has its origin inside us... wow, that’s wild. But at the same time, it’s incredibly freeing.”

“That’s exactly what I thought, when I realised that I was a total freak. It was incredibly liberating, to embrace the dark, horror-show side of myself,” agreed Lydia. “To become the predator that I was supposed to be afraid of. And truly own my own desires, and dark impulses.”

“To own your own desires,” Nick echoed, sucking at his cigarette ferociously, as if he really desired to be sucking something else. “Even when your desires are the most socially unacceptable, in terms of human respectability. Rape, murder, mayhem. Maybe people had to invent the Devil, rather than accept that these things came from inside them.”

“I think you’re so hung up on the Devil, because secretly, you’d really like to be the Devil,” Rowland suddenly interjected in a sarcastic drawl, rolling his prominent eyes.

“Wouldn’t that be something,” laughed Nick, his pompousness somewhat punctured for a moment as he rolled over on his back, his eyes suddenly lighting on me, minding my own business in the corner by Lydia’s oversized hookah. “If I were the Devil, I’d tempt that silent, studious little engineer girlfriend of Blixa’s to take a fucking drink already.”

It took me a moment to work out he was addressing me, as I was a little stoned, and very tired from a long day at work. “I don’t drink.” I insisted.

“Is there some story there?” probed Lydia, licking her lips as if spotting something insalubrious.

I merely shrugged, wondering if I should perhaps make something up to satisfy their appetites, but in the end, I told them merely the mundane truth. “I don’t like the taste.”

“Not even Port Wine?” offered Lydia. “Or Sherry? Here, try this,” she offered, pausing to pour a thimble-sized glass from a crystal-cut decanter. “This is Spanish Amontillado, like in the Poe story.”

With her lazing there in her little lace top and her velvet dressing gown like a 50s pin-up model, I actually leaned forward and accepted a sip, then made a face. “Ugh, that is way too sweet. I don’t know how you can stand that. Tastes like raisins. Sickly.”

Lydia let out an adorable little cackle then licked her lips at me. “Have you ever tasted blood? Like, real human blood? Blood is also surprisingly sweet.”

I widened my eyes, feeling the tingle of eroticism, wondering if this was some kind of sex thing, but Nick immediately changed the subject, as if annoyed that the attention of the most attractive woman in the room had been diverted by someone else.

“Have you ever heard of Manichaeism?” Nick blurted out.

“The name sounds familiar. Was that some kind of Chinese Philosophy?” asked Lydia.

“An early Christian heresy, originating in Central Asia,” supplied Nick, looking pleased to be the centre of attention again. “They believed that every human being was a miniature representation of their cosmology, where the forces of light and dark fought it out, inside each human being. Because, you see, in Manichaeism, God was not omnipotent, and in fact, God was not even the creator of the physical world. The Devil was. The creator of this world was Satan, and as a result, each human being had a mixture of both Good and Evil woven through them. And it’s actually the world, and everything in it, that is Evil, and humans are forever trying to work their way back to God.”

“Sounds like my kind of Heresy,” laughed Lydia. “Satan’s my kind of guy. But it reminds me a bit of why the early Christians considered sex to be so dirty. Because the world itself was evil, while souls were considered perfect and pure before they were born. So to have sex and to procreate, to make more children, and thus incarnate more perfect souls of light into this slough of despond and pit of despair, was a terrible act of evil and abuse. Isn’t that absurd? And so generations of Christians learned to hate sex, and think it was dirty, even long after the heresy died out.”

“But sex is dirty,” insisted Nick doggedly. “I mean, it’s fundamentally, inherently dirty. Lust is a sin. Carnality is evil. So to despoil a woman, and her pure, beautiful feminine form, with the carnality of lust, that is inherently dirty.”

Lydia burst out laughing, great racking spasms of laughter that caused her rather substantial bosom to quiver and threaten to pop out of her lace lingerie in a way that made Nick more than slightly uncomfortable. “Oh my god, Nick, where did you learn that? Sex despoils a woman’s pure, beautiful feminine form? You can’t tell me you actually believe that crap?”

“I... don’t know,” confessed Nick, looking suddenly very unsure of himself, unable to face Lydia’s jiggling flesh, and yet at the same time unable to force himself to look away.

“Christ, Nick. You know nothing about sex, and you know even less about women,” roared Lydia, knocking back the rest of her Port Wine, then sinking my unfinished thimbleful of amontillado to boot. “Now really. This has been very entertaining, but you guys really need to go home, and I really need to get myself to bed. We regroup at the studio at noon, sharp, tomorrow, OK? And I need my beauty sleep, to preserve my beautiful, pure, unspoiled feminine form, a ha ha, oh god, Nick, you make me laugh so hard sometimes I swear wine is going to come out my nose.”

Chapter Text

Lydia, to my surprise, had an extremely dedicated work ethic, and did indeed arrive at the studio at noon on the dot the next day. No matter how wasted she got at the end of the night, she was dedicated enough that she always turned up in the morning, usually somewhere close to on time, focused and ready to get down to work. She was a bit of a nut, and used to scare the shit out of the other engineers that worked at the studio, especially if she would do something like... casually produce a jack knife and use it to nonchalantly clean her elegant, black-painted fingernails.

But I had been amused by the way she handled Nick the previous night. And I was really quite impressed by the way she seemed aware of her own tendency to both terrify and fascinate men, and how she turned that to her own advantage. She actually seemed to enjoy the disparity between men’s reactions to her diminutive baby-doll appearance, all huge eyes and soft, puckered lips; and her hellion wildcat persona of sex and death and extreme pornography mixed with splatter movie gore. For the Birthday Party, though, her darkness, and her obsession with evil – whether the kind of B-movie horror film schlocky kind, or the more unsettling forms of cruelty, and true life darkness that lurked in the hearts of men – that was what they loved most about her. Lydia didn’t shy away from the oversized, cartoon-vision of evil that the Birthday Party played with; she positively embraced it, turning it on its head and mixing it with an unsettling eroticism. Despite the way she gently mocked Nick’s odd prudery, they still bonded over their mutual fascination with sex and death, and formed a tight little creative nucleus based on the mixture of Eros and Thanatos. Oh, and heavy drug abuse, whatever the technical Freudian term for that drive was.

I grew to have a healthy respect for Lydia, for these were very obviously her sessions. She constantly walked a tightrope between maintaining a rigorous artist’s control over her project, and yet managing to keep satisfied all the egos of these somewhat overinflated artistic men around her. Well, managing them well enough for them to do her bidding, more or less, while they worked on her project. She and the guitarist, Rowland, worked really well together. They seemed to have an unspoken understanding of where each other’s boundaries were, and treated one another with both affection and respect. Nick, on the other hand, required constant supervision, and I was fairly in awe of how she managed to subtly keep him in line, without his really noticing. Nick, I think, was a little in awe of her, because she was so completely and thoroughly both sexy and sexual, though in a weird way that didn’t so much pander to the Male Gaze, as completely unsettled it and turned it inside out, leaving all its entrails showing. But he was also afraid of her. Still, she enjoyed being completely terrifying, and yet still managing to somehow make men lust after her, not in spite of, but because she was terrifying.

Blixa, on the other hand, positively adored her, deliberately courting her attention in a way he seldom extended himself for anyone. Not that he chased her; Blixa didn’t chase anyone. But I saw him do many of the same things he did when he first met me, just making himself constantly available. He soon started coming round the studio all the time, as he and Lydia bonded into a tight little knot. I don’t know if he actually slept with her – maybe he did, maybe he didn’t – it wasn’t any of my business. But he certainly fancied her, as she had that exact tiny, bonkers witch-doll look that I knew he really went for, and he definitely enjoyed the aesthetic appreciation that she expressed for him in return. But Lydia was, at that point, in the process of hooking up with one of the Australians, a tall, slightly emaciated man with fair hair and a perpetual slightly child-like expression, who answered to the name Jim (though Rowland and Nick, constantly, sarcastically, referred to him as The Foetus, I think for his boyish appearance). So I think Blixa realised quite quickly that there wasn't much chance of a proper thing with the lovely Lydia; and quickly slid instead into the role of confidante or best-girlfriend. And Blixa, as I already intimately knew, was so intimate and catty and willing to dish the dirt in gossip, that he made for a wonderful girlfriend, saucily teaching Lydia all the dirtiest German words he knew.

And he definitely recognised in Lydia something of himself, that steely-eyed artistic determination, to push back the boundaries and make art as extreme as one possibly could. They both knew they were birds of a dark and raven-winged feather, and they respected one another for it. But Blixa was canny at inspiring curiosity by keeping his distance. He didn’t participate in her recording sessions like the Australians did, hanging about, trying to impress her; he invited her to participate in his. Blixa was always like that, with powerful women. It was the same as it had been with Gudrun and Beate. He admired them, but he wanted them working on his terms, rather than him working on theirs.

But Lydia didn’t work that way. If she wanted to collaborate, she wanted to collaborate in a truly two-way exchange. And her sessions, if they were musically masterminded by anyone other than herself, were in the hands of the spooky lesbian twins, Rowland and his beautiful double, his girlfriend Genevieve. Lydia was vaguely obsessed with Rowland, though in a weird, slightly incestuous way, because although they flirted and cuddled the way that Lydia flirted with everyone, she kept insisting that he was in some way her brother. Occasionally she would even go so far as to joke that Rowland was the ‘ghost of her dead twin’, which honestly creeped me out a bit when she’d do something provocative like pull him onto her tiny, delicate lap and pretend to spank him.

Rowland was someone I could never quite figure out, for his looks were very effeminate, and his manner was very soft, his voice quiet, reinforced by the curious sensation evinced by those huge liquid eyes of his, that always added a slight air of plaintiveness to any of his requests. And yet, like Blixa, he was capable of producing the most abrasive, extreme sounds and somehow shaping them into music.

He was very particular, he needed his guitar set up just so, and would only have certain microphones on his amps, and my god, I had to win his trust before I was allowed to so much as touch a wire on the head of his guitar, even to tune it. He was not a man that ever seemed to enforce himself on anyone, certainly not in the way that Blixa enforced himself on a session, either with Lydia, or the New Buildings. And not even in the way that Nick drove the whole thing to his own obscure but demanding beat with his junkie needs. And yet, in many ways, Rowland seemed to be the one quietly, and yet insistently, driving forward those ramshackle sessions where half the band was on smack, the other half on speed, and everyone drinking, incessantly, from noon until dawn.

It was a baptism by fire, into the delicate art of engineering, as I realised the most important skills in a studio were not knowing where to place a microphone, or how to tweak the tone settings on an amp, but how to balance the delicate constellation of egos, so that recording could even proceed.

For it was obvious, even at that point, that Nick and Rowland, though they put up a chummy show of camaraderie, were such completely different characters that at times I wasn’t sure how they had ended up in a band together. Nick was, at the heart of it all, constantly insecure, like he desperately wanted to be someone else, and the reason he went onstage, the reason he was a songwriter at all, was to create alternate characters, bigger than himself, in order to disappear into. When he was asked, as he was at Lydia’s sessions, simply to be Nick Cave, he didn’t seem to have a clue as to who that was. He seemed to act up and act out, almost in compensation for not really having a distinct personality offstage. Rowland, on the other hand, seemed to be a complete, and perfect, and utterly unique individual, as if he sprung into the world fully-formed, and had never been – could never have been – anyone else. If Rowland was playing some kind of character, as it was obvious that Nick did when he performed, I never, ever saw him take it off, not once in the long stretches of those 12-hour workdays.

And Rowland, rather than participating in the chummy schoolboy camaraderie of Nick and his gang of hard-drinking mates, far preferred to relax into the company of his girlfriend, Gen. Gen, a real tough but fragile-looking beauty, was the first and foremost of an archetype I would meet many times over the years: the Girlfriend who should have been The Star. She was the one who subtly shaped and moulded the boys’ musical tastes, keeping an eye out, not for what was hip, but for what was interesting. Blixa told me she had turned up at Iron-Grey, and carefully listened to many of the cassettes on sale there, before selecting a few to buy and take home. And again, it seemed she put in regular appearances at Zensor, the cool record shop in Schöneberg, on the day that new releases came out, keeping her finger on the pulse of what was going on, and making sure to pick up copies of the latest English music press. And to my surprise, when I asked for some help with mic-ing and soundchecking the piano on a morning that Nick did not deign to grace us with his presence, I discovered that she was actually a far more accomplished musician than Nick, playing the piano with a grace and a sensitivity that Nick never showed, stroking it and really making it sing, where Nick only ever bashed away at the keys like a cockney in a music hall.

Both Gen and Rowland seemed to genuinely love, and obsess over music, playing it constantly, even when they weren’t working, and talking about it even when they weren’t playing it. And what the pair of them loved best of all, was kitschy old girl-group songs, like the Shangri-Las and the Crystals, real tough girls who would stab your heart out with a mascara wand. It was Rowland, in fact, and not Nick, who had recognised that tough-girl gang aspect to Malaria!, and purposefully cultivated their acquaintance at the shows in New York and London. And that, I think, was the appeal for Rowland, of working with Lydia, who, with her tough mouth and her huge eyes, seemed the archetype of dirty innocence embodied by those hard-talking New York dames. The track they were working on was, in fact, a Nancy Sinatra duet that really captured that kind of off-kilter 60s femininity. Because Rowland, unlike most of the straight men I had ever met, was seriously interested in exploring femininity, in all its forms.

And yet, Rowland was stuck with Nick, who tagged doggedly along, trying to enforce his masculine persona on this girl-group. There were scraps, which on the surface seemed to be about Lydia, or over Lydia, or what Lydia should or shouldn’t be doing, and why Nick insisted on dragging her onstage to duet with him, when Lydia was supposed to be doing solo shows with Rowland. But even I could tell, the fights weren’t about Lydia at all. There was a struggle between the two men, and Nick seemed determined not to play fair.

“Look, uuuuhhh, let me play some piano on this, erm particular passage,” Nick would interject, arriving just as we were about to move onto the next track. “I’ve been listening, and I’ve got a really good idea for, uuhh, a piano riff would go nicely here.”

“I don’t think it needs a piano,” Rowland would counter quietly. “We’ve been working on the guitar arrangements all afternoon, and Lydia is happy with the way it sounds.”

“Yeah, but, you seeeee... Lydia’s voice doesn’t really suit a, uh, guitar right here.”

“Lydia’s voice is just fine without a piano. She’s playing her thing, and I’m weaving my guitar parts around it.”

“Look, I’m just saying, I don’t think it’s right for what Lydia needs. You want a bit of, erm, rolling piano. Or maybe an organ sound. Something smooth to, uuhhh, bring out the roughness of Lydia’s voice. Don’t you think, Lydia.”

“You’re going to have to show me what you mean,” Lydia would counter, in that slightly nasal New York accent. “You can’t just describe it, you gotta play it, so’s I can hear it.”

“OK, Carter, roll the tape. Just drop me in, uuuhh, don’t record anything. I’ll just, erm, fool about, on the piano for a bit, until I hit on something Lydia likes, huh? How about that.” And this would go on for another hour as Nick worked out what he wanted to play, because Lydia believed in free expression and hearing people’s ideas out, no matter how they extreme they were, and then another hour to get it down on tape, maybe more if Nick was in the wrong part of the cop-shoot-cop cycle. And the sessions would get bogged down and eaten up, and Nick would try to worm in on whatever it was that Rowland and Lydia had already agreed.

In the end, Nick didn’t even play piano on the finished version of the track. Rowland altered the guitar part slightly to fit Lydia’s off-kilter vocals better, and when we needed to change the piano to match the new rhythm, Nick was off trying to score. And so, to try to save time on the overrunning sessions, I just said, why doesn’t Gen just do it, and Gen started insisting, oh no she couldn’t, it was years since she’d played piano properly, but Rowland really encouraged her, and buttered her up, and I enthusiastically got out the mics and adjusted the piano bench to Gen’s size, and away we went. She practised it a couple of times, then her first take was absolutely perfect, exactly what the track had needed. And that was that.

Nick, as one would imagine, was not pleased. He acted, in some weird way, both awkwardly deferential towards Gen, but at the same time, weirdly resentful and slightly spiky towards her and Rowland when they were together, like there was something going on between Nick and that couple that I did not understand. But Rowland, rather than risk an outright confrontation, retreated tighter and tighter into his relationship with Gen, while Nick looked around for an outside ally to align with against their dyad.

What he found, instead, was Blixa.

Blixa had been hanging around Lydia’s sessions like a black-clad bat, always observing, seldom speaking, and yet silently passing judgement on everyone, with that very strict Prussian disdain of his. At first, he claimed he was just coming to visit me, affectionately popping by to check how I was settling into my new job, though it was soon apparent that the studio held another magnetism for him. Gen asked, several times, slightly provocatively in that sassy Australian way, first if I was Blixa’s boyfriend, and then, more teasingly, if I was jealous of the weird, wordless flirtation that seemed to be going on between Blixa and Nick, and the whole group would laugh. Even me, to be fair, because Gen was so spunky and warm-hearted it was hard to read her jokes as cruelty, though obviously I did not get the same sense of family from this lot that I had got from Salomé and Rainer’s jokes. It was obvious that they found both Blixa and me very odd, and quite alien, albeit in a fascinating and intriguing way. But everyone had noticed, that Blixa and Nick had become involved in a long and convoluted mating dance.

The first was a step purely of convenience. Nick, who had come originally to West Berlin with the vague hope of kicking, realised that was never going to happen, but found himself ill equipped to navigate the complexities of scoring in a foreign language. Blixa, on the other hand, knew a fairly reliable and reputable (well, as far as such people could be called so) dealer, who happened to owe him a favour: Jana’s new boyfriend, Johann. Introductions were made. Regular deliveries started coming to the studio, which made our recording schedule a bit more predictable, but this was not exactly the best for Nick’s state of mind. Blixa said he just wanted the best for Nick, to help him in any way he could, but from the outside, it was hard not to see him taking on the same ‘protector’ role he had taken with Jana, with a strong whiff of simply wanting Nick dependent on him. Blixa was, after all, still pretending to Nick that he didn’t speak a word of English, while maintaining to everyone else that he was trying to persuade Nick to hurry up and learn German. The two of them were quickly developing a deeply, deeply co-dependent relationship, as Blixa would disappear for days at a time, leaving Nick to learn how to pine for something that wasn’t drugs.

But Nick absolutely loved Berlin. He found there, the freedom and the supportive community that had been lacking in London, as people from the scene dropped by to check out what they had going on, and he was invited, first to The Skin’s studio, (initially for a jam session, and then to move in and stay) and then to the New Buildings’ recording sessions for a planned split single with Lydia.

The whole group, Lydia, the Australians and all, decamped to the New Buildings’ recording studio for a day, to work on a collaboration between the two sets of musicians. And I simply went with them, as there was fuck-all for me to do at my own studio when they weren’t there, and anyway, they were paying me to be an engineer, so I might as well engineer at the other studio. So we all went over to see the New Buildings, and work on this track together.

Blixa, on that day, had been up all night, consuming an almost inhuman amount of speed, until he seemed to become almost impervious to pain or heat or cold or anything. He wanted to become one with his animal nature, as the track they were working on was called Thirsty Animal. Though I knew for a fact he was a vegetarian, he had become obsessed with the sound of meat – human meat, animal meat, it didn’t really matter to him. That extreme Austrian artist he’d encountered at documenta 7, who used meat and animal carcasses in strange, bloody, ritual performances, had left Blixa profoundly influenced by his strange images of ritualistic abandon. He wanted blood and guts in his work, so he didn’t just want to use his inhuman voice as an instrument, he wanted to use his entire body, slapping and pounding his own chest to produce weird, hollow sounds. Mufti, not to be outdone, had ordered half a pig’s carcass from a butcher, and bought it into the studio, pounding on its dead ribcage with mallets to make strange, wet, squelching sounds.

It never made much sense to me how Blixa and Mufti, although they usually went about together in a tight little unit, and swore they were best of friends, somehow seemed to become locked at loggerheads the moment they moment they stepped into the studio. In some way, both of them really wanted to be the leader of the group, and dictate its direction. Onstage, it worked really well to essentially have two frontmen, as they constantly played off one another, and looked fantastic together, the tall, spindly androgynous creature wailing into the microphone, and the short, muscular blond metalsmith hammering away at sheet metal like two very different kinds of Greek gods. But in the studio, they tangled constantly, as, although they both headed towards the same destination, the pair of them had radically different ideas of how to get there. And in front of the assembled group of Lydia, plus assorted members of the Birthday Party, both of them started to act up, as if in front of an audience.

>>You’re getting too abstract again, too much intellect without heart; too arty-farty<< complained Mufti, facing up to Blixa, his powerful arms locked defensively over his chest.

>>There’s nothing wrong with being arty-farty<< retorted Blixa. >>And I will never apologise for being an intellectual.<<

>>But you’re over-embellishing it with all this abstract, heavy-handed metaphor. You want something simple and direct. Something even a child can understand<< Mufti explained.

>>You stick to being heavy-handed with the metal, the wood, the rotting flesh, and all the other percussive instruments, and I will stick to the intellect, OK?<< sneered Blixa, who had clearly felt piqued to resort to such bitchiness. >>It’s supposed to be abstract. Is it my fault if it takes intellect to understand? It takes intellect to understand the Theory of Relativity, but that doesn’t stop it being important or true.<<

>>Listen. What takes more intellect?<< countered Mufti. >>To explain Relativity to another fucking physicist, or to explain Relativity to a child? That is the kind of directness we need in our work.<<

Blixa whirled around and stormed away from his bandmate, and I knew the comment had hit its mark, as it was the exactly the kind of pithy comment that Blixa would really have liked to have made. >>Hmmm<< he said, refusing to concede that Mufti might be right, which in turn just infuriated Mufti, who hated to be ignored nearly as much as Blixa did. >>Let’s get back to work, we need to finish this percussion track. Alex, can you cue up the tape?<<

>>OK, fine, you show me how you want me to play it, if you think you can play it better than me<< shrugged Mufti, sitting himself down and defiantly rolling up a joint.

As the tape started rolling, Blixa put on the headphones and kicked aside Mufti’s mallets, then started beating on the animal’s corpse with his own fists, getting into a strange, trance-like rhythm where he seemed to lose all consciousness of what was going on around him.

Mufti sat smoking for a few minutes, then got up and went over to join him, picking up the rhythm on his mallets and embellishing it slightly with his drummer’s flair for showmanship. After a couple of run-throughs, it started to sound really good, so Blixa moved back to pounding his own chest and torso in time with what Mufti was doing.

Alex got up to reposition the mic to pick up Blixa’s ribcage xylophone, and cued up the track to record again, but Blixa swore loudly, then stopped halfway through the track. >>I can’t hit myself hard enough to get the right sound. It’s like some self-preservation instinct keeps kicking in that I can never quite override. I need someone else to do it.<< Raising his head, he looked through the control room window and his eyes lit on Lydia. >>Lydia? You always say you want to beat the shit out of men, well, here’s your chance?<< he teased.

“What did he say?” asked Lydia, suddenly rousing herself from some deep, intimate pillow-talk with Rowland to realise she was required.

“He wants you to flog him,” I translated. “He says he can’t hit himself hard enough to sound right. Why don’t you go out there and give us a mic-check, see if you’re loud enough.”

Lydia rolled her eyes, but pulled herself to her feet and padded out to the recording room, pretending to lick her lips and doing a pretty good impression of some cartoon dominatrix. She picked up a strip of heavy leather and tried it against her palm a few times to test its weight, but as she got closer to Blixa, who was testing out the various parts of his chest for their resonant qualities, she wrinkled her nose and made her face. “What is that smell?” she sputtered, gagging a little.

“It might be the pig,” suggested Mufti, but as she stepped away from it and got close enough to Blixa to hit him, she made a retching noise.

“It is not the pig. It is more... ugh. It smells like rotting vegetables or something. Jesus, Blixa, take a fucking bath. There’s no way I’m getting into anything with you.” As she dropped the leather strap and made her way swiftly back across the floor, holding her hand over her nose and mouth, the entire studio broke into mocking laughter.

Blixa looked confused, and picked up the edge of his T-shirt, which had once been white, but was now a slightly yellowish-grey colour, sniffing at it gently before just shrugging. >>Am I going to have to do this myself...?<<

But as Mufti walked towards him, I saw his eyes suddenly light up. >>No worries, Blixa. I will gladly hit you. Repeatedly<< he offered, with a tone of voice that indicated there was something more than eroticism to his offer.

>>Oh good<< said Blixa as he lay down and Mufti took his position over him. >>Cue up the tape and do a line-check?<< Mufti put his back into it, and thumped his bandmate, hard. >>Oof<< winced Blixa.

>>Don’t cry out<< commanded Mufti, with a decidedly sadistic tone to his voice, adjusting his position so that he was standing over Blixa, straddling his chest as he flexed the muscles of his arms and tightened and released the fingers of his fist. >>You’ll spoil the take.<<

Blixa whimpered slightly, but did as he was told, biting down on a drumstick to keep himself from crying aloud, as Mufti started jubilantly pounding away on his skinny ribcage as if it were a punching bag, just as the tape started to roll. The beating started out with sickening thuds, and escalated slowly, until I could barely believe that Blixa was able to stand it, dragging on for ten minutes that seemed almost like an eternity. Blixa kept curling and uncurling his toes, flexing his wiry muscles then relaxing, but several minutes in, I saw that he was no longer biting down on the drumstick, in fact, he was lying there with a slightly beatific expression on his face, as if he had pushed past the pain and endorphin barrier into actually enjoying his own degradation and pain.

There was a part of me that thought, you know, I really shouldn’t watch this. It’s a bit weird to just sit here viewing this oddly kinky, drug-fuelled scene as if it were just another recording session. And yet, at the same time, watching Blixa’s long body bend and flex and roll with the blows, there was a part of me that filed away the information with the sole thought, huh, now that’s interesting.

Mufti was straight; I was certain of that. I had in fact, recently discovered through the crew of his science fiction film, that not only was Mufti heterosexual, but that he had a cute little wife back in Hamburg, which was the real reason he hadn’t moved to full time to West Berlin. But the weird scene going on between Mufti and Blixa in the recording room was so overwhelmingly erotic that I started to worry that the control room windows would start steaming up.

Lydia was cackling with laughter over the whole thing, even while Rowland was pulling away squeamishly, wincing a little with the reverbed slap of each punch. The rest of the New Buildings were so used to Blixa’s antics that they pretty much ignored the weirdness of the situation. But Nick was sitting up, a look of intense interest on his face. Leaving aside the book of William Faulkner’s poetry he had been absent-mindedly perusing, he stood up and walked over to the studio window, staring through as if both fascinated and repulsed by the orgy of violence being rained down upon Blixa’s willing body.

Finally, the ordeal was over. Mufti, laughing and sweating, the anger and resentment seeming to have drained out of his face, climbed off Blixa and sat back on his heels, calling out cheerfully >>Can we hear that back in the monitors?<<

Rolling into a sitting position, his face kind of glazed with relief, and yet an obvious mound rising in the vicinity of his rubber trousers, Blixa let out a cackle like a sick duck, then sneered >>Is that all you got, Mufti? Can we do another take?<<

Alex shrugged and fiddled with the mixing desk, as he rolled back the tape, then played the results of the orgy of pig-based violence over both headphones and studio monitors. >>It sounds good, yeah?<< he observed. >>It really works, you can’t even tell what’s Blixa and what’s the pig.<<

But I frowned as I joined him at the mixing desk, trying to pull back his settings from all over the map. Doing my best to get a decent, clear sound, I soloed the track so I could EQ it properly, bringing up the bass. However the microphone, which had ended up at the wrong end of Blixa’s long torso behind one of Mufti’s legs, sounded so muffled it didn’t actually sound as wet as meat should sound.

>>Let me just re-position the mic for you, if you’re going to do another take<< said the engineer in me, as I walked back out, and looked Blixa’s battered and reddening chest up and down. Forgetting for a moment that Blixa was even a human being, let alone a boy who still occasionally acted like he wanted to fuck me, I moved the mic closer to his chest, and gave him a few good solid slaps, carefully testing where to place the mic to get the best sound. >>What you really want, though, is a contact mic. Have you got one of those lying around? Better yet a pair, record it in stereo.<<

>>Yeah, I think we do...<< chirped Alex. He loped off into the storeroom, then returned a few minutes later with the kit.

I fixed them to either side of Blixa’s ribcage, like a pair of extraneous nipples, then sat back and thumped him in various places, moving the mics to get the best combination of the sound of skin hitting skin, and also the sound of the blow reverberating through his chest cavity. >>I think that’s going to sound really good<< I pronounced, standing up and leaving Blixa back to Mufti, who was readying himself with relish at the thought of another chance to even the score with his annoying bandmate.

>>You enjoyed that<< said Blixa, licking his cracked lips, as he glanced at me wolfishly.

>>Dream on, you pervert<< I laughed, and walked back, to slap Alex away from mucking up the mixing board settings for the new mics. Oh, yes, it sounded much better now.

But Blixa turned to Nick, still staring at him through the control room window, and raised his eyebrows at him suggestively, gesturing down towards his frighteningly thin and pale chest, covered in red welts, though the bruises had not yet started to come up. >>Do you want to have a go?<<

Even in German, the meaning was unmistakable. Nick quailed slightly, took a drag on his cigarette, but did not turn away. “Thanks, but... no. That’s OK.”

>>Ready? Rolling!<< I called out, and diverted the music to their headphones, as the orgy of violence started anew, with Mufti really brutally and single-mindedly whacking away at Blixa’s chest, in rhythm to the glorious cacophony of the track.

When it was done, Rowland looked on horrified, his face pale, as Blixa had to be helped to his feet, limping slightly as he made his way back to the control room and flopped down in a chair. Lydia moved aside sharpish, wrinkling her nose as Blixa looked about with a sated and self-satisfied expression on his face. >>Does anyone have a cigarette?<<

As Nick found one and lit if for him, I turned to Rowland. “Right. You’re the next victim, it seems. Do you want to go out there and do your bit?”

“Erm... excuse me?” stuttered Rowland, almost physically recoiling.

“You’re doing your guitar overdubs next, right? Or would you rather wait until Lydia’s done her vocals? We can set you up to run through Blixa’s amp, or you can go direct. What do you reckon, Alex?”

“Amp,” said Alex, in his schoolboy English. “Definitely be so kind to use the Fender in schtudio. It is miked all ready and set up to record on track ten.”

Relief flooded Rowland’s face. “Oh. You mean record my guitar parts. Yes, yes, of course. Let me get my guitar...”

Rowland laid down his own guitar parts as quickly as humanly possible, then fled the studio in an awful hurry, as if he had decided that West Berlin was in all probability, not really his thing. But Nick was oddly fascinated, hugging his own skinny chest and sucking on a cigarette as he stared across the studio at Blixa. For Blixa, smoking a joint to dull the pain to the point where he was now laughing and pinching his flesh to show where the bruises were coming in, had just beaten him in his own game of self-destructive exhibitionist one-upmanship. The thoughts Nick seemed to be having were written clear as day all over the astonished expression on his face: I may play these wild, extreme characters onstage, but Blixa here, he fucking lives them.

Chapter Text

The sessions broke for ten days, as Lydia, The Birthday Party and the Skin all went off to do another ten-day tour of Germany. And as much as their presence had felt like an invasion of Australians taking over West Berlin, I actually kind of missed them when they went. Blixa, on the other hand, actually pined.

Falling back into my old bad habits, I found myself sloping round Iron-Grey, just looking for something to do, as much as a place to hang out. And at Iron-Grey, I found Blixa curled up on the sofa in front of a fan in the humid summer heat, his nose buried in a book.

>>What are you reading?<< I asked, nudging him to move over so I could sit down. He unfolded his long legs and put them back on the floor, but was still monopolising the place where I’d intended to sit, so I took out the ice lolly I’d brought him as a treat, and held it for a moment against the tiny sliver of flesh between the bottom of his slashed-up black T-shirt and the top of his jeans, until he yelped and jumped aside.

>>I’m reading one of Wolfgang’s books about early Christian heresies. Have you ever heard of Manichaeism?<< he asked, marking his place with a scrap of card and placing it on the floor as he took the ice lolly and started to unwrap it greedily.

>>I have, as a matter of fact<< I laughed. >>I’ve brought a sandwich, as well. Do you want half?<<

>>Is it vegan?<< he asked suspiciously, though I noticed he hadn’t bothered asking if the ice lolly was vegan, even as he wrapped it back up and put it down.

>>It’s hummus and sweet pepper. From the Turkish shop round the corner.<< I held out the package so he could scrutinise it before deciding whether to eat it.

>>Alright<< he agreed, as if he were doing me a favour by eating half my lunch, though he was so painfully thin he looked like he needed it more than I. >>So do you know what’s really interesting about the Manichaeans?<<

>>They believed that the Christian God wasn’t omnipotent, and that Satan was actually the true creator of the physical world.<<

Blixa looked ever so slightly put out that I had somehow jumped ahead to his punchline. >>Where did you hear that? I thought you were an atheist.<<

>>I expect exactly the same place you learned about it.<<

>>Wolfgang Müller?<< asked Blixa innocently as he wolfed down his half of my sandwich.

>>Someone ever so slightly more Australian than that.<<

>>Well<< conceded Blixa rather archly. >>Nick is a very interesting person. He has some very interesting ideas, about Good and Evil, that go beyond Christianity and this simplistic conception of the problems of Right and Wrong.<<

>>But to believe that Satan made the earth... honestly, Blixa, you can’t decide if you believe in God or not, but you’re willing to go the whole sausage and swallow the idea of Satan?<< I teased, elbowing him gently as I finished my half of the sandwich and pulled my own ice cream out of my lunch bag.

>>But the problem of Good and Evil goes back far longer than the Devil. Satan himself, had to be invented.<< His whole attitude became very excited as he abruptly remembered his ice lolly, took it out of its packet and started to suck at it.

>>Wasn’t he supposed to be a serpent in the Garden of Eden, or something like that?<<

>>That’s one idea<< said Blixa quickly, gesturing towards me with the tip of his melting ice lolly. >>Have you heard of the Ophites?<< I shook my head, trying to concentrate on finishing my ice cream before it melted. >>They were another set of early Christian heretics. Very, very interesting. You see, they believed that the serpent from the Garden of Eden, and Jesus Christ himself, were exactly the same person.<<

>>So you’ve gone from... the world was created by Satan, to Satan and Jesus are the same. OK!<< I laughed.

>>No! Not Satan<< he insisted. >>The serpent. Do you know what the serpent was the symbol for, in ancient Greek mythology, and then again, in Alchemy?<<

>>It was the symbol of... wisdom. Of knowledge, wasn’t it? That’s why doctors use the symbol of serpents wrapped round a Caduceus.<< I had to dig around in the deep recesses of my school education, but it was in there somewhere. But then again, that was why I enjoyed arguing with Blixa. I never knew where our conversations would end up.

>>Of Knowledge<< repeated Blixa, not sucking at his ice lolly like a normal person, but now chomping it up with his teeth and gulping it down in bites. >>And what did the serpent ask Eve to do?<<

>>Oh Christ<< I groaned. >>I can’t remember these old fables from nursery school. He wanted her to... to eat the apple, from the Tree of Knowledge, I think? Knowledge being some kind of old-fashioned word for sex, and so they realised they were naked, and had to dress up in fig leaves or whatever?<<

>>No!<< insisted Blixa, thumping the sofa with the denuded stick of his ice lolly. >>It was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Humans had to learn, had to be taught what Evil was. Animals do not know what Evil is. Nor do children. You have to be taught the difference between Right and Wrong. This is why the Ophites thought that the Snake was Christ, because he was humanity’s teacher.<<

>>I’m not sure I follow you<< I stuttered, wondering what part I had missed, though Blixa was clearly captivated by the book.

>>Think about it!<< insisted Blixa, thumping the book. >>It’s all in here. Animals. Small children. People who have gone mad. None of them have a concept of what Evil is. That’s why a child can’t be convicted of a crime. And that’s why people can be judged not guilty by reason of insanity.<<

>>I’m not sure that’s how it works. People are judged not guilty by reason of insanity because they are considered not fit for trial. Because they don’t understand the process of a trial, let alone what it is they did.<<

>>Precisely!<< cried Blixa. >>They have no knowledge of even doing Evil. Humans have to be taught what Evil is. By Christ, or the Snake, or by the dictators of what is Morality. A child has no sense of morality. Nor do truly primitive people, untouched by Christianity. They are closer to an animal state.<<

>>That’s a bit racist, isn’t it<< I protested, unable to follow this strange convoluted logic that Nick seemed to have inspired in him.

>>No!<< he protested. >>Only if you see Animal as worse than Human. But not if you see an animal state as being better, as being purer than a Christian, Capitalist, Civilised state. Animals do not murder one another. They kill, only for food or for self-defence. Animals do not make profits at the expense of one another’s lives, or health, or children. They take what is sufficient for themselves, and that is enough. Animals do not pollute the environment, or amass nuclear weapons capable of wiping out every living thing on earth, several times over. Humans do that, with their Knowledge. So this idea that Christ – the Serpent of Knowledge – taught humans the Knowledge of what Evil was? Do you not understand what I’m trying to say?<<

>>I’m going to have to think about that one<< I conceded, but then spread my hands in defeat before he jumped back into the topic. >>I’m not disagreeing with you, Blixa. But maybe I can read the book after you’re done with it.<<

>>Then you will see<< insisted Blixa with a curt nod, picking the book off the floor and sticking his long nose back into it.

 

And so Blixa, in the Australian’s absence, became like a man possessed, feverishly trying to work on new material for the New Buildings, all based around the themes of animals, and how humans displayed or denied their animal natures. He told me he wanted the band to record an album called Hunters and Collectors, depicting Man in his primal state, still fascinated with this Outback mythology, as filtered through his obsession with the intense rituals of these Austrian ‘Actionists’ he had discovered at Documenta. Without much work in the studio, with the Australians gone, I hung about the New Buildings as they wrote and rehearsed Blixa’s complex song ideas. Watching Blixa try to explain his complicated concepts to his gang of Town Musicians with the help of charts and maps and diagrams (clearly, someone had learned something from that Beuys lecture!) I found myself drawing mad comics about the band turning into animals. Blixa and the pig they had used as percussion exchanged personalities, Blixa’s bones lying rotting in the studio as re-animated Pig-Blixa roamed the streets of West Berlin, looking for drugs to consume or lovers to rut with, howling with the intensity of his need.

Blixa thought it was absolutely hilarious. He begged me to show the comic to Wolfgang, one afternoon when we met up with him to return the book on early Christian heresy, and ended up staying for a late breakfast at the Other Shore Café. (The perpetually underfed Blixa never turned down an offer of food if someone else was picking up the cheque.)

The three of us had a nice breakfast, and a good gossip, as Wolfgang was telling us, with a complicated mixture of affection, pride, and typical Berlin sarcasm, that Salomé had been experiencing a spectacular success from his appearance at Documenta. Not only had he sold the pieces from the show, but no less an entity than Deutsche Bank had commissioned a new painting from him. Now Wolfgang, despite his affectation of studied Berliner irony, did seem genuinely impressed by and supportive of our friend’s good fortune. Blixa, on the other hand, seemed a little more suspicious, reacting initially with punk outrage at ‘selling out’, even though this was clearly shot through with a heavy dose of envy.

It was the same as when he and Gudrun had sniped at one another like squabbling siblings. Although it was obvious that he wanted to be supportive, and believed that he should be supportive, his natural sense of competitiveness always seemed piqued, if he didn’t believe his own projects were doing as well as they deserved, in comparison with his peers.

Luckily, Wolfgang seemed to notice Blixa’s sense of pique, and swiftly changed the subject, enquiring instead how Blixa’s and my various projects were going. This was the point where Blixa remembered my comics. >>We, too, have been very inspired by our Documenta experience<< he announced. >>And you should see the drawings that Carter has been doing, helped, of course, by her exposure to my own band’s recent projects.<<

Of course Wolfgang wanted to see them, so, blushing, I pulled them from my rucksack and showed him. Wolfgang chortled himself silly, and immediately suggested I show them to the manager of the café, who, he said, sometimes put on informal shows of local artists, especially gay artists, given their clientèle. It took me a moment to work out what he was suggesting.

>>A show? Me?<<

>>Why not?<< Wolfgang shrugged.

>>I’m not... you know, a proper artist. Not like all those amazing people we saw at Documenta. I just draw comic books.<<

>>What did Beuys say there? Everyone’s an artist. You’re an artist. After all, you did those sketches of me<< Blixa reminded me, though honestly, that night we had drawn one another as a weird form of making love was something I chose not to dwell on much, in order to enjoy our status as happy, affectionate, flirtatious friends.

>>The great thing about Berlin is<< said Wolfgang. >>We don’t bother with those divisions here, proper artist, improper artist. We’re all dilettantes. Everyone turns their hand to everything. You know Blixa was going to be a painter, before deciding to be a rock star.<<

I turned to Blixa, realising how little he delved into this part of his life. I’d only ever seen that one box, once, of artwork he’d done for his band stuff. >>Why do you never show me any more of your stuff?<<

Blixa shrugged vaguely, looking a little annoyed. >>I told you. They wouldn’t let me do a show of my work. It was too extreme for them.<<

I frowned, and bit my lip, thinking maybe I wouldn’t try for a show then, as Blixa was far more charismatic than I was, and if he couldn’t pull of a show, what hope had I.

But Wolfgang rolled his eyes. >>Semen stained sheets<< he reminded me, then extended his hand. >>Look. Do you have any extra copies? Leave some with me, and I’ll show them to Gerhard, have a little chat, see what he thinks.<<

 

Blixa was reinventing more than his band; he seemed to be in the process of reinventing himself. He started letting his scalped hair grow back, longer than he had worn it before. He switched from ragged, yellowing T-shirts and ballet tops to more formal button-down shirts, always in black, always form-fitting, or just sheer enough to show off his extreme thinness. Nick’s dress sense, more than anything else, had started to rub off on him, as he started to back-comb his hair into a large, light-brown porcupine’s quill.

But Blixa had other problems, ghosts from his personal life starting to resurface, The Drug Dealer, who now believed that he and Blixa were friends thanks to turning him on to new business from the Australians, came round to Iron-Grey for a little heart to heart chat, about Jana.

>>She’s getting worse<< said Johann, quietly, after exchanging something like pleasantries.

>>Well, maybe you shouldn’t feed her so much smack<< snorted Blixa slowly, with a contemptuous expression that seemed to say what concern is it of mine, what the girl you stole from me does now I am gone.

>>It’s not the drugs<< he confessed. >>She takes way less than she used to, mostly because I started hassling her about eating into my profits.<<

>>Charming<< I said, as I had never liked him, and though he did serve a useful purpose in the community, that didn’t mean I had to be friends with him.

>>She’s... well, she’s weird.<< continued poor Johann, who I soon realised seemed more than a little out of his depth. >>She knows things she couldn’t possibly know.<<

>>Like what<< I scoffed, even as Blixa started to sit up and pay attention.

>>I got offered a bad batch the other week. We were out near the border to collect it, and Jana picked up the package to stow it away, when suddenly she drops it like her hand has been burned. Jana, who has never met a drug she didn’t like, she won’t even pick it up, she just said ‘don’t sell that shit. Get rid of it!’ I asked her why, and she just looked at me, real spooked, like, and said ‘people will die’. Now, it was too good an offer to pass up, but something about her spooked me. She wouldn’t shut up about it. And so I did a swap with Emir, I took his cheap Turkish tar, and he took that refined shit.<<

>>Noble of you<< I muttered, but Blixa shushed me.

>>The next week, I read a story in the papers, about how a contaminated batch of heroin put a whole squat of people in the hospital. Three of them died, just like Jana said. How could she possibly have known that? She didn’t try it. She didn’t even taste it. It was all sealed up in plastic.<<

>>I don’t know, man, but it’s lucky you got out. Did the police come after Emir?<<

>>Dude got on the first coach to Anatolia. He didn’t stick around.<<

>>Well, count yourself lucky<< shrugged Blixa. But after Johann left, he turned to me. >>You still think Jana is just a latent schizophrenic?<< he said, in a very dark, sarcastic tone of voice.

>>Lucky guess. You use enough smack, you’ve got to pick up a feel for when it’s not right. I refuse to believe in such a nonsense as psychic powers.<<

 

Lydia returned, but without the Australians, who had gone on to tour the UK again, so that she could get to work on cutting the final vocals for the record. To my considerable relief, we got a lot more done when her entourage were not around. Work progressed far more quickly without Nick battling Rowland over every tiny musical decision. She was an absolute pro when it came to putting down vocals, none of the faffing about and multiple takes that I had seen from the Australians. I would do my best to make the room special for her: burn incense – she liked patchouli best – about an hour before she got in, so that it would smell nice for her, but it wasn’t too smoky; dim the lights, except for a little spot for where she held the journal with the lyrics; maybe put out a nice red rose in a vase so the sleazy, decaying space looked a little classy. And she rewarded me by not pulling any prima donna antics, just getting down to work, and giving me good, clear, but intensely emotive takes every time. She liked me, because I never hassled her about staying in tune or wandering off the beat; but to me, all that bullshit technique was never as important as the emotion. If the emotion was true, the rest didn’t matter. And Lydia had buckets of emotion in her performance.

I thought she must have put in some kind of good word for me, to Thomas, because he told me that the studio had been booked out again, in August, this time for the Australians, and they had specifically asked for me to engineer. I was suspicious, thinking it had to be Nick, still trying to worm his way into intimacy with Blixa, through his link to me.

But, to my surprise, when they returned to Berlin, I found out it was Rowland who had asked for me by name. “I trust you.” he told me later in his quiet little voice, looking at me with those huge, slightly protruding little-boy-blue eyes of his, when they arrived back at the studio. Which was news to me, given how territorial he had got when I tried to touch his amp. “Or rather, Gen trusts you, and I don’t know a better recommendation than that.”

I tried to think of when I’d ever particularly sat down and talked to Gen. Maybe I’d set up some keyboards for her to play on the sessions, and obviously, I always asked her specially to soundcheck the piano for me when I needed a level on the line. I just showed her the same respect and consideration that I showed any musician that walked in the door of our studio. (It wasn’t until later in the month, when Malaria! returned from London, and told me witheringly of their experiences with engineers that weren’t Manc Mark, that I realised that this was not always the case with male engineers!)

But the later months of that summer brought many changes, for the Birthday Party had decided, not just to visit to Berlin to record, but to move here, permanently. Blixa was absolutely delighted with the news. The mentionitis accelerated as the date of the beloved’s return grew closer. People, by whom I mean mostly Salomé and Rainer, teased the both of us about Blixa’s obvious fascination.

>>Ooh, Carter, are you just going to sit there and listen to that little slut talk about other men in front of you like that<< the pair of them would tease back and forth at the Jungle, knowing that it would make both Blixa glare at them, and me sputter incoherently that we weren’t lovers, and anyway, my masculinity wasn’t fragile enough to be threatened by the likes of Nick.

And yet, the return of the Australians coincided with Blixa being caught out in a long-running fib. Early one afternoon, he had been standing behind the bar of the Risk, talking on the phone to a British music journalist, as Gudrun had banned him from using her phone, after a very expensive long-distance phone call to arrange a gig in Paris. Although the New Buildings’ records were only available on import in the UK, there was a huge amount of interest in this band who were rumoured to take heavy construction equipment to the venues they played. So a music journalist was trying to get some provocative quotes out of Blixa, while Blixa was trying to pump him for his contacts, and advice on cool UK labels.

Blixa had asked me to listen in, in case he needed help with translation, because he was often frustrated by doing interviews in English, claiming >>It’s very difficult, having these complicated thoughts I cannot express in this simple language.<<

I tried to tell him that English wasn’t a simple language, it was actually a highly nuanced and complex one, and the problem was actually his limited Gymnasium English, but Blixa never would listen to criticism.

I had previously made the mistake of trying to correct his pronunciation once or twice, but he had simply glared at me and said >>Well, you understood what I said, yes?<<

>>Yes, but that’s not how you say that...<< I tried to instruct him. “It’s ‘I do not think so’. ‘Think’ with a th, and ‘so’, with a ssss sound, like a German ß, not ‘I do not zhink zo’.”

But his glare turned stony, and he stuck his protruding lower lip out at me, and insisted, “If you can unterschtandt vhat I saidt I do not zee vhat zhe problem iz.”

After a few rounds of this, I simply gave up and left him to his extraordinary rendition of the English language. I offered to help if there were any technical terms he didn’t understand, but he was so independent-minded (or more likely so stubborn) that he refused to call on me for assistance, so instead I sat in the window of the bar and sketched as he barked at the journalist in heavily accented but rapid-fire, semi-mangled English.

And of course, while this surreal conversation was going on, who should come sloping up to the door, but Nick, come looking for his drugs buddy. I didn’t hesitate. Blixa’s childish sense of mischief was clearly starting to wear off on me, so I padded quietly to the door, slid back the bolt to admit Nick, then stood back, curious to watch the feathers fly as Nick discovered that he had been the victim of an extended practical joke.

At first, Nick just looked astonished, as if confronted with a talking dog, an English-speaking Blixa. Then his eyebrows knitted together and annoyance twitched across his face, as he realised he’d been had. But then he started to smile, and coughed gently to catch Blixa’s attention. Blixa, thinking it was me, didn’t even turn around, waving his hand behind him as if to quiet me over some correction of his appalling pronunciation, then threw back over his shoulder “Help yourself to a trink, I vill be chust a minute,” thinking, of course, that I would take only a can of coke.

Nick, however, took that as an invitation to grab a bottle of whisky and pour himself almost half a tumbler. He sat drinking it, as Blixa, still engrossed in the telephone call, really started to fly at amphetamine-speed, revealing his true proficiency with the English language.

Finally, Blixa ended the conversation and hung up, then turned around, expecting to find only me, but instead confronted Nick, and his now-empty glass of whisky. “So,” drawled Nick. “What’s a man got to do to get a drink around here?”

Blixa slowly grinned, his lips pulling back from his teeth in a sheepish expression, but he took out another tumbler and poured both of them generous drinks. >>Just ask nicely.<<

“In English!” roared Nick. “Or do I need to get your fucking girlfriend here to translate again?”

I bristled, and prepared to give him another lecture on how Blixa and I were not an item, and even if we had been, I had a name of my own, and it was Carter, but Blixa let out his braying laugh.

“You really do need to learn how to schpeak German,” he said quite reasonably, but Nick had calmed down, and was staring at his friend with an expression that indicated he wasn’t actually angry at him for essentially lying to him for a couple of months, but actually quite impressed at his deviousness.

“Soooooo. How’s tricks. What’s going on, with...uuuuhhh... how are the, erm, Neubauten sessions going?” Nick could barely manage Neubauten. He clearly wasn’t even going to attempt Einstürzende.

Blixa smiled. “Zhey are going... interesting.”

“Does interesting mean good, or does interesting mean bad?”

Blixa’s smile widened to that of a wolf, for he dearly loved playing with Nick and turning his own words back on him. “But, Nick, you always say zhat man is a complex mixture of botze good and evil, and it’s important to embrace zee evil side of vonself as vell as zee good. So vhy do you vant me to say if zee sessions are going vell, or zhey are going badly. Vhy kent zhey just be going... eeeenteresting?”

For a moment, Nick just stared as it penetrated his befuddled brain that he had been outmanoeuvred. But then he roared with laughter that shook his great spiky black cloud of hair, and pointed a cigarette-stained finger at Blixa. “I like you,” he proclaimed. “You are as clever and as slippery as some... uuuhhh... some trickster character out of a, erm, aboriginal folk tale.”

Blixa really liked that comparison, throwing his shoulders back and sort of preening himself a bit. Blixa tended to slouch so much, and he was so spindly I often forgot how incredibly tall he was, but he made Nick, who was easily over six foot, look like a child beside him. “Do you know, zee Trickster God is a recurring figure in Germanic mytts and volk-tales, also? I haff a very great affinity for zhis being, who pops up in our myttology as Loki, and again and again in African volk tales, in Native American mytts, and also zhe Australian figure of Crow...”

I smirked as he showed off, as I knew that he had been reading a copy of the New Larousse Encyclopaedia of World Mythology at Wolfgang’s after finishing the book on Early Christian Heresies, but Nick looked quite impressed, before resolutely adding, “And Bugs Bunny.”

“How so?” demanded Blixa, looking more than a little outraged, as he was, at that point in time, having not yet been to America, still very opposed on some kneejerk level, to American pop culture references.

“He’s... uuuhh, the trickster rabbit, always outwitting his opponents, erm, y’know, outsmarting Elmer Fudd or Daffy Duck, or, uuuhh, whoever goes up against him and tries to hunt him. And the tricks that the, uuhhh, the cartoonists used for him to escape, were, uuhh, on many levels, pure surrealist earth magic. Bending the reality of the canvas in order to help him escape.”

“Is zhis true?” demanded Blixa, turning to me for back-up. “Carter is an underground comic book artist,” he added by way of explanation, as an aside to Nick.

“Well,” I hedged, thinking about it, a little loathe to take Nick’s side over Blixa, as for many reasons, I could never quite bring myself to trust Nick. “He does have a lot of the fluidity of the Trickster God. Especially the way he seemed to change gender at will, how he would put on women’s clothes to flummox and seduce Elmer Fudd in particular.”

“Haha,” cried Blixa, his eyes flashing. Clearly, he liked that idea. “Yes, Loki vas also able to change gender at vill, to seduce anyvon, god or mortal.”

Nick blinked, completely taken aback, though I noticed that he did not address his rebuttal to me, who had raised the idea, but to Blixa, almost completely blanking me out of the conversation. “Are you implying that Bugs Bunny is a queer?” He didn’t use that word the way that Wolfgang or Tabea or Salomé and Rainer tossed around its German equivalent, as a badge of defiance and pride. He used it like he was... concerned that these degenerate Europeans had just smeared an icon.

“Vell, vhat has your knickers in a twist,” retorted Blixa. (I laughed, because Blixa had so clearly picked up one of my English expressions, which I used privately to describe when a musician got too heated in the studio.) “Vouldn’t you say it was ferry queer indeed to change von’s sex at vill, to be a male rabbit von moment, and a female rabbit zee next? Zhat is zhe fundamental of zee Trickster’s ... zee Qualität... vhat is zee vord I vant, Carter?” He flicked his fingers back and forth in my direction, though I wasn’t entirely sure what word he was grasping for. Blixa, I guessed, seemed to use the term ’queer’ the same way that Wolfgang and Tabea did, and I was coming to do, as a declaration of some integral aspect of who we were.

“Sorry, I need German for this,” I apologised to Nick, then quickly asked >>Well, what are you trying to say, Blix? Are you trying to say that the ability to switch between genders is an inherent aspect of the Trickster God? Or are you saying that The Trickster’s ability to switch genders makes him fundamentally gay?<< I knew how Blixa liked to play around with language, and always had to pin him down before I even attempted to translate.

>>Both<< said Blixa defiantly, then tried to say it in English, but that was one of those words he really struggled with, and it ended up something like “Botze.”

“Boats?” said Nick, a little confused.

“I don’t know that the latter is true,” I hedged.

“Look at yourself, look at me,” said Blixa by way of defence.

“Look at Gudrun,” I countered. “She’s very androgynous, but she’s not gay.”

“Gudrun is complicated,” laughed Blixa. “She goes to bed vit boys, but you notice she only likes to dance vit zhe girls...”

“Look at Rowland,” I countered, with a wince at being reminded of Gudrun's rejection. “I thought he was a girl the first night I met all the Aussies. But he’s not one of us, he’s got a girlfriend.”

Blixa stiffened as I mentioned Rowland. “I don’t know anyzhing about Rowland...” he retorted a little dismissively.

“Rowland... uuuhhhhh... yeah, uh, Rowland is complicated,” said Nick, looking down into his tumbler of whisky. “Too complicated.”

“How so?” I asked.

He ignored me, and turned again to Blixa. “So you think Bugs Bunny is some fag trickster god? Are you gonna leave me any, uuhhh... icons of my youth?”

As Blixa’s smile grew wolfish again, something started to niggle at me. “I tought you vere iconoclast, Nick. But vait until you hear about John Vayne and Monty Clift, ja?”

As the two of them resumed their odd argument-flirtation, I realised exactly what was bothering me about Nick. It wasn’t just that he ignored me, or treated me like a simple interpreter, rather than a participant in the conversation. Lots of English-speaking people visiting Berlin leaned on me or on Manc Mark for help communicating with the local celebrities – Manc Mark in particular ended up standing by, communicating vague compliments while English fanboys drooled over Christiane F. But what bothered me about Nick was the way that he blatantly ignored ideas that I brought up, until Blixa repeated them. Then, he seemed to find them interesting, and to make matters, worse, subsequently carried on as if they had been Blixa’s ideas in the first place.

 

But the irritation stayed with me, and I found myself venting about it at Iron-Grey, now that Gudrun had finally returned from the recording sessions in London and was holding court at the shop again.

>>Honestly, Gudrun, he just sat there, carrying on as if I didn’t even exist. When I suggested that Bugs Bunny might be gay, it was just like... oooh, what is that noise, is it the wind? I hear nothing... But as soon as Blixa says, y’know...<< I found myself deepening my voice and Berlinising my consonants to imitate Blixa’s unique way of speaking, as everyone did when they quoted him. >>’Yes, Bugs Bunny is a gay trickster god’, all of sudden, Nick perks up his ears and says ‘oh my god, Blixa, I never knew that Bugs Bunny was gay'.<<

>>Of course Bugs Bunny is gay, it’s a rolling joke in queer culture<< laughed Tabea, who had been hanging out and brainstorming over female filmmakers to make Malaria!’s first proper music video. >>People have even made little films about it in the Super-8 scene, you don’t even have to splice the original cartoons that much. So it’s not as if either of you came up with this idea.<<

>>It’s not even that I came up with the idea...<< I moaned. >>It’s just that he never acknowledges one of my contributions to a conversation until Blixa repeats it.<<

>>Oh god, I know. There was one engineer in the studio in London who was like that. I would ask, can we get some more reverb on the vocals, please, it’s sounding too dry. And he would completely ignore me, until thirty seconds later, Mark would say, ‘can Gudrun get some reverb on her vocals, please?’ And then, of course, he would agree, ‘oh yes, more reverb on the vocals. Of course.’ At least Mark was nice about it, and would listen to me, and sort of pass the messages on, like it’s a submarine: more snare, less tom... MORE SNARE, LESS TOM!!! But it’s absurd to have to go through this charade.<<

>>Well, at least Mark tries to compensate for it. Blixa does nothing to correct it!<<

Gudrun just laughed. >>Blixa is just as susceptible to a handsome face as the rest of us. Of course he wants to impress Nick, with your clever ideas.<<

>>Handsome?<< I stuttered, confused. >>Who’s handsome.<<

>>Nick<< she said, as if I were a dummy that needed everything spelled out for me. >>I’m sorry that you have competition now for Blixa’s attention, but it’s quite clear he’s as smitten with that dishy Aussie as the rest of the girls in Berlin are.<< Everyone laughed, in a kind of joyous giggle of girlhood.

>>What?!<< I almost exploded, as I had had more than enough of this from Rainer and Salomé already. >>For a start, I am not jealous of Blixa, because we are not an item, so don’t even make a joke of it. And second... Nick? Handsome? He’s as ugly as the devil.<<

Chloe laughed from the back of the shop. >>The Devil is the most handsome man to ever walk the earth, that’s why sin is so seductive.<<

>>Oh, he’s a bit of boor, but he is very handsome, come on, Carter<< protested Gudrun.

I turned to Manon for backup, but she nodded enthusiastically. >>He is very pretty. You just don’t see it coz you’re a lesbian.<<

>>Wait, wait, no<< I sputtered. >>I am certainly capable of recognising that a man is attractive, even if I’m not attracted to them. I mean, I can see, plainly, that, for example, Wolfgang is a good-looking fellow. And even among the Aussies... that bassist of theirs, how’s he called... Tracy. He is dead handsome, like a punk rock John Wayne. And Rowland, Rowland is so pretty, he could make even a dyke like me change her mind. But Nick? Have you lot lost your minds? He’s ugly as sin.<<

>>Mmmm, sin<< mused Gudrun. >>Delicious, delicious sin.<<

>>Nah, he’s totally hot<< agreed Suzanne. >>I would willingly go to hell for that hot babe.<<

There were various murmurs and purrs and growls of agreement from the various corners of Iron-Grey as the girls present fell to discussing exactly what nature of sin they would like to commit with the snub-nosed Australian.

>>Look, I am sorry, but you have all collectively lost your minds. He’s hideous.<<

Gudrun started to giggle. >>Hands up here, who thinks that Carter will be bedding Nick in less than three months.<< Several hands shot up.

>>Fuck off Gudrun, you still think I’m screwing Blixa.<<

>>Wherever would people get that idea<< Gudrun chortled wickedly, and picked up the latest issue of Karnal Komics, opening to a page where a monstrous re-animated pig-Blixa was falling with some gusto upon a young man with glasses, that I realised, she had taken for a self-portrait.

>>Hands up who thinks Blixa will bed Nick before any of us do<< giggled Chloe, and every hand in the room bar mine went straight up.

Chapter Text

It astonished me, just how quickly the normally standoffish and sardonic West Berlin scene accepted and absorbed Nick Cave. After all, it had taken me six months of living in the city to even get inside the Risk bar. And once inside, it wasn’t until Blixa had decided he liked me, and Gudrun decided I was a useful person to know, that I had actually been accepted, and treated as one of the gang, though it still took me ages after that before Maria stopped calling me a ‘pilot fish’. But the famous punk-rock-star, with his face in the music papers and his records on the coolest label in England, it was like the whole scarred, split city of Berlin just rolled over on her back for him, like the old whore she was. Nick was abruptly everywhere, not just in all the coolest bars and the hippest clubs, but at parties and rehearsal studios, as everyone seemed to fall over themselves, tugging at their forelocks in an effort to impress him with their hospitality. The city that eschewed not just stars, but the whole concept of stardom itself, had decided as if on a whim, to completely deify him.

And I had no back-up in my single-sided crusade against the deification of Nick Cave, as the only other person in the city who hadn’t fallen hook, line and sinker for the annoying Aussie seemed to be Bettina. And Bettina was flying off to Canada with her girlfriend, whose newest film was debuting at some film festival in Montreal. Anne had not been in Germany much over the previous six months, because she had been working flat-out on this film, which she had not just starred in – well, starred in a double billing, in both male and female drag – but helped write the screenplay for, as well. Bettina had been raving about it, based on the various clips and edits she’d witnessed on previous visits to New York, saying it was like a New Wave lesbian sci-fi thriller, with groundbreaking ideas about both gender and the nature of sexuality itself. She told me it was a dark commentary on the hideous primacy of male pleasure, with a political message buried underneath the sex and drugs and exotic fashions. Obviously, Bettina thought Anne was a genius, positively bursting with pride for her talented girlfriend. But I was withholding judgement until I saw for myself what Hollywood had done with Anne’s powerful sexuality.

The way that Bettina talked about Anne was adorable; she was just so clearly smitten with her glamourous ‘film star’ girlfriend that it made my heart ache. I guess it awakened something in me that I had almost forgotten about: the desire to have a girlfriend. Sure, I had friends in West Berlin. Really good friends: close emotional friends like Blixa and Bettina; good supportive friends like Wolfgang and Gudrun; happy, fun party friends like Tabea and Salomé. And it wasn’t like I couldn’t go out and pull, in the queer clubs of West Berlin, if I really fancied a shag. But when I saw Bettina getting so excited about Anne, there was a part of me that just ached for the physicality of having a girlfriend.

What I really wanted was someone lovely and soft and feminine to slouch around with; someone not just for a shag, but for that affectionate couple-bond of intimacy and understanding, and all those shared little moments. I wanted a girlfriend. But instead, I was spending a week cooped up in the studio with Melbourne’s most toxic cartoons of masculinity. As the Birthday Party sessions approached, I found myself feeling more and more apprehensive about what I had signed myself up for.

The morning the Aussies’ recording sessions were due to start was a sweltering August day when the air hung heavy and close with the humidity of the buried swampland around the Spree. Before work began, I packed up my van and drove across town to pick up the special guitar amps that Rowland had requested for the sessions. But as I was driving back down the main drag of Kreuzberg towards the studio, my heart suddenly stopped.

Because there, on the sidewalk ahead of me, walking with that slow, meandering but purposeful gait, her red-gold hair pouring down across her shoulders, and over her vintage sundress, was Ilsa. I was going too fast to stop, but as my van sailed by, I gazed back over my shoulder, and caught only a glimpse of her round face and huge, almost childlike eyes in the mirror. My session forgotten, I did a terribly illegal U-turn at the next interchange, then drove back down the other side of the street, my heart pounding as I saw that yes, the woman with the mass of gingery tresses was still there, she was not a phantom, she was a real human being strolling down the Strasse, swinging her handbag and gaping up at the shop signs with the exact same tilted angle of her little pixie chin that I remembered of Ilsa.

Finally, I got back on the right side of the road, and pulled up alongside her. “Ilsa!” I called, but she didn’t turn around, engrossed in a shop window. “Ilsa!” Still no response.

Oh, sod it, I thought, and parked the van in an illegal zone, then came flying out of it towards her, rushing up to her, and then at the last minute, the girl turned around, and I stopped dead. For it was not Ilsa. On closer examination, she was much more slender and willowy than the plump, dimpled Ilsa had ever been. This girl had amber-brown eyes where Ilsa’s had been blue, her hair was lighter than Ilsa’s had been, more a coppery strawberry blonde than a fiery auburn, and the curve of her jaw made her face seem less determined and cheeky, more dreamy and waif-like. And I suddenly realised exactly how embarrassing this looked, flying out of van to greet a complete stranger.

But this strange girl just laughed, and did not make a scene out of it, as if it were a common occurrence in her life. For a girl that beautiful, it surely must have been. “Why, hello there,” she said, in a faintly sleepy voice, then corrected herself. “Oh, sorry. I mean, Guten Tag.”

“No, it’s OK, I speak English,” I assured her. The sun was in my eyes, and the heat was quiet intense, and I felt my head spinning as she smiled up at me expectantly, as if gently but insistently wanting to know the reason for the interruption. I reached for some explanation. “I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else. You reminded me of someone I used to know.”

“Really? Is it a very sad story? You looked so excited and happy as you came rushing up, as excited as a little boy, that I wanted to share in your joy. But now you look so sad. Who was she?”

“My ex-girlfriend.” My brain was dizzy, spinning out a line of poetry I sometimes used to greet Ilsa with, though she understood not a word of the English. “Red hair she had, and golden skin, her sulky lips were shaped for sin... Oh love! For love, I could not speak, she left me winded, wilting, weak, and held in brown arms strong and bare, and wound with flaming ropes of hair...”

The girl smiled disarmingly and rolled her eyes a little. “Well, I always thought Betjeman was a bit of an old pervert, but it’s a charming sentiment.”

“You’re not one for poetry, then,” I stuttered, feeling myself a little winded, wilting and weak.

“Oh, on the contrary... I love poetry... I am... well, I like to think of myself as a bit of a poet.” She had a very slow and careful way of speaking, her voice very soft and a little high, kind of baby-girl. “Though I like to think I could do a bit better than ‘red-haired robber queen’.”

I simply stared at her with a kind of fluttery sensation coursing through my veins. “I’d like to hear some.”

She smiled in a way that was at once quite dreamy, and yet a little dangerous. “Splitting up the concrete, the earth quakes. Splitting up the concrete, the earth quakes and waits. I lifted up God’s dress, punched him and got in. I lifted up God’s tiny dress, and punched him again.” The words, especially coming from that pert, sulky little-girl mouth, seemed genuinely shocking, and I stepped back a little. “Not a fan, huh,” she laughed, her eyes flashing mischievously.

“No, I like it,” I assured her.

“I’m Anita,” she said, and extended her hand, as if to shake. Not knowing what else to do, I took it, but then bent over to deposit a kiss on her knuckles. She laughed, but quickly withdrew it. “And you are...?”

“Carter,” I told her, trying to remember my manners. I was just so knocked out, the resemblance to Ilsa, the fact that she was a poet, much like Maud, much like Blixa...

“Carter was a painter’s cat,” she said, in that slow, little-girl voice of hers.

“Well, actually, this Carter is an electrician.”

She turned around and leaned against the shop window, digging in her handbag for a pack of cigarettes. For a moment, she extended it to me, but I shook my head, so she lit one for herself and carefully smoked as she told her tale. “No, that was a book I really loved, when I was a child. It was, like... a history of art, but told through the story of this cat, Carter, who was both the... the Muse, and yet somehow the creation of this eccentric artist. And every morning, the artist – Mr Blob, for that was his name – would wake up and paint Carter in whatever style he was interested in painting that day. One day he was blue and fuzzy and speckled, like an impressionist, the next day he had two tails and an orange head with the eyes on both sides, like a Picasso. The day after that, he was skinny and emaciated, like a Giacometti sculpture, and then on another day, Mr Blob just did a line drawing, and didn’t bother colouring him in, so Carter was invisible, and he got to chase all the dogs around and drive them mad. It was hilarious.”

“That sounds amazing.” I said, genuinely intrigued by this strange book, and the strange girl that loved it. “I’m actually an amateur artist – well, I draw comic books – and I’ve often wondered about the characters I draw. Like, after I Xerox the stories and send them off into the world, do these characters go on to live lives without me?” I thought for a moment, about Pig-Blixa and the unlucky boy with glasses, and how Gudrun had read so much into those ink sketches.

“Of course they do!” insisted Anita, blinking very slowly at me. “But, y’know, when I was a kid, I loved that story. And I always thought... what fun it would be, to be a painter’s cat, and be created anew every day, for a new adventure. But as I got older, I realised... the book is also actually an extended metaphor for the problems of living your life as a Muse, and what it means for a creator to... to tell your story without your input or your consent.” A sudden sad expression came across her face, and I wanted to put my arm around her shoulders to comfort her, and ask her why she looked so sad, but of course at that moment, the ugly green van of the Polizei appeared on the other side of the street, and I started to worry about my illegally parked vehicle.

>>Hold on, hold on, I’m just going to move the van... just finishing up a job<< I shouted as I got up and walked quickly to my vehicle. But to my surprise, Anita had crushed her cigarette with her heel, and followed me to the kerb.

“You have a van?” she asked.

“This white van is mine, yes.” I said, and suddenly saw a way to prolong the conversation, all thoughts of the recording session I was supposed to be engineering in 20 minutes time flying completely out of my head. “May I offer you a ride somewhere?”

“That’d be grand. See, I’m supposed to be looking for a recording studio...”

“That’s a wonderful coincidence,” I told her as I unlocked the door, and she climbed into the passenger’s seat. “I work in a recording studio.”

“I thought you said you were an electrician.”

“There’s electricity in recording studios, isn’t there?”

She gave a little laugh that was like the tinkling of bells, and it warmed my heart. Get a girl to laugh, and you were halfway there. But as I pulled away from the kerb, she glanced into the back of the van. “Oh, I know those kind of amps. They’re very nice. My boyfriend’s guitarist has always wanted a pair, but they’re so expensive.”

I sucked in my cheeks, feeling my heart sinking, as I knew that I was being told about this boyfriend as a sort of warning that this ride did not mean what I hoped it meant. “So where am I driving you to?”

She dug in her handbag, and produced a crumpled sheet of paper, with the Iron-Grey logo on the back of it, on which someone had written, in an all-too-familiar spidery hand, the address of the recording studio where I worked. Oh god, let this not be happening. This beautiful woman, with whom I had struck up such an instant rapport, please, dear god, let this not be happening. “That is, by an enormous coincidence, the studio where I work,” I told her slowly, feeling the pit of my stomach dropping away with the fear of what she was going to say next.

“No way.” And suddenly she was looking me up and down, with that slow disbelief giving way to shock that I had come to dread and yet expect, every time someone realised they had read my lying body incorrectly. “Oh, wow. Nick and Rowland were saying that it was so amazing, that they had found a studio with a female sound engineer. That must be... you? You’re a girl, aren’t you? I’m so sorry; I took you for a boy.”

I nodded slowly and fell into silence as I reached the block of the studio where I worked, and started to perform the delicate operation whereby I pulled across the road, and then backed the van slowly through the road entrance into the courtyard behind. When I was parked, I went around to the back and lifted the two amps out, then locked up the van. After unlocking the door, I asked Anita to hold it open, then picked up one amp in each arm, and trudged through.

When I put them down to unlock the internal door, Anita tugged at the handle of one as if wanting to help, then gasped, as she found she could barely get it off the floor. “You must be incredibly strong” she whistled, and I felt my heart struggling in my chest as hope fought against despair.

As I got the two amps through into the studio, I saw that the band had already started to gather there, plus a couple of girlfriends and the increasingly omnipresent Blixa. Since even Nick was there, I realised I must be incredibly late. Spotting my heavy load, Nick rushed over, and tried to take one of the amps from me, not even in some chivalrous gesture of helping me out, but more in some typical display of masculine one-upmanship. For a moment, I struggled, but then thought, fuck it, this is not worth the ego. But as my hand left the amp’s handle and its full weight fell on him, he staggered back, as if not expecting it to be quite so heavy. Feeling my ego somewhat gratified, I snorted and shifted the other over to the corner of the floor where Rowland was already spreading out his guitar paraphernalia.

And then, my heart crumbled, as I knew it must, for of course, the goddess with the cascade of coppery hair and the sleepy bedroom eyes turned and threw her arms around Nick and greeted him with a kiss that left no doubt as to their passion. And if I had instinctively disliked Nick before, for his brusque manners, his boorish ways and his irritating way of ignoring me for Blixa, at that moment, I could feel the vague sense of dislike actively curdling into hatred. That girl, that weird, dreamy, poetry-writing pearl of a girl with the face of my lost lover, and the intoxicating little-girl voice that seemed to hide some mysterious intelligence, she had chosen this burning rubbish-tip of a human being to love? I felt so angry I had to turn away, and busy myself in sorting out power supplies for Rowland’s hired amps, setting them on standby for the tubes to warm up.

Fortunately, there was a pile of work for me to lose myself in. Thomas had already selected the mics he wanted to use for the various instruments, and left them out for me to set up. Neumanns for the new guitar amps – wow, they must really be special – and the Shures for the drum kit, while the bass would go direct. Desperately, I tried to blot out the conversation on the other side of the room, while Rowland fussed with the amps, turning them on and starting to play with adjusting their settings.

“Oh, listen to this.. the spring reverb...” Knocking the cabinet a glancing blow, he was rewarded with a strange, rattling echo that sounded like Andrew knocking one of his metal springs down a flight of stairs. “Vintage Fender Twins... oh, these have the tremolo, too, I think I’m love...”

I stopped to watch what he was doing, intrigued by the weird noises the amp was making, even before he had plugged in his guitar. “OK. At Lydia’s sessions, you kept talking about the tremolo on your guitar. Is it correct that there is a tremolo on your guitar, and a tremolo on your amplifier, as well?”

Rowland’s face lit up with a girlish enthusiasm, as he picked up his guitar to show me. “Well, a tremolo is rather like... erm, I suppose it’s just a technical musical term for... well... it makes the music swoop, or slide, or shiver and shake...”

“It is an Italian term,” boomed Blixa from the other side of the room, slightly territorially, as if he felt it was his right alone to instruct me on music. “It means to tremble, to quiver.”

“Yes, that’s right,” agreed Rowland in his soft voice, his long delicate fingers going to the metal fixtures of his guitar. “Do you see this, erm, plate here? With the rod attached? This is a guitar tremolo. Fender Jaguars have a very special kind, called a floating tremolo. That means that you can either press down on it, releasing the tension, and deepening the note...” Plucking a note on the guitar, he demonstrated, and the sound swooped down. “Or you can pull up on it, increasing the tension and raising the note.” He repeated the process, and this time the sound bent up.

“It’s got kind of spaghetti western sound to it,” I observed, glancing across the room at Blixa.

“Precisely,” said Rowland, with an excited smile. “Very Ennio Morricone. He is one of my favourites.”

“He is one of my favourites,” countered Blixa, in the strangest of tones. “Carter and I looked at his film, Zhe Good, Zhe Bad and Zhe Ugly, last veek on zhe television.”

Rowland ignored Blixa, and moved over to his amp, plugging in the guitar. “Now this is Fender amp tremolo...” He plucked a note on his guitar, then as it echoed through the amp, he twiddled a knob, and suddenly the guitar started to go all choppy, the sound dropping out in bits, then as he adjusted the knob, the choppiness seemed to speed up, until the guitar sounded like it was almost purring.

“Wow,” I said, intrigued by the effect. “That sounds... awfully like the 60s. Like all those odd psychedelic records they would play on pirate radio when I was a very little girl.”

Rowland seemed to grow more animated than I had ever seen him before. “Yeah, loads of 60s garage bands used to use it. The Electric Prunes, the Seeds, the Count Five. Shadow Morton even used to use it on Shangri-Las tracks for dramatic tension, do you know his work? He is one of my favourite producers of all time.”

“I know the Shangri-Las. Gudrun likes them a lot, she played them for me. But I’m not familiar with Shadow... what was his name?” I confessed.

“Shadow Morton. He was the producer, and kind of mastermind of the Shangri-Las. Gen turned me on to his work... He’s incredible. Well, I can tape it for you, if you’re interested.” But abruptly he fell silent, as the shadow of one of his bandmates fell over us.

“Are you going to start mic-ing the drum kit any time soon?” It was Mick demanding this, who I didn’t know at all, and had never much interacted with. He stood with his hands on his hips, glaring at me with a quite insistent expression.

“Well, I didn’t see your drummer about. I was going to wait for him to get here, so he could tell me what he wanted from the kit...”

Mick abruptly cut me off. “Phil isn’t with us any more. I’m playing drums for the band now. Can you maybe start mic-ing the drumkit now? We have been waiting...”

“No problem.” I straightened up, disliking the tone he was using, but I knew better than to be anything other than perfectly helpful in the studio. Tensions could run high in any session, and it was always better not to add to them. But before I went to the kit, I turned to Rowland and touched him gently on the sleeve. “I would love if you would make me that tape. Feel free to put things on it, that you really like the guitar tone on. I could learn a lot from something like that. It would help me record you better.”

Rowland’s smile was really something, especially in the face of Mick’s gruff demandingness, as he retreated to the drum stool, and started criticising every mic choice that Thomas had made, as I tried my best to set them up. But Blixa, well, Blixa glared at Rowland with veiled animosity, like I had no idea that Blixa could get so weird about the idea that I might be allowed to receive a mixtape from a boy that wasn’t him. But then he put his nose in the air, and stalked off, ignoring us both, to focus on the object of his affections.

As I worked, I could hear occasional waves of stifled laughter from across the room. Every time I looked up, it seemed that Blixa and Nick and that red-headed goddess Anita were wrapped in a little knot of conversation, bending their heads over something, each in turn, followed by a wave of giggles. It took me about twenty minutes to spot the small bag that Blixa kept dipping into, and realise that they were consuming some illicit substance, probably speed, or more likely coke, due to the high-octane giggling. Sudden annoyance coursed through me. Not about the drugs, as obviously I had got high with Blixa dozens, maybe even hundreds of times now. But I was annoyed that I was at work, with my boss keeping an eye on me from the other side of the control room glass, and therefore utterly unable to participate, and they were making absolutely no effort to hide what they were doing. I mean, they hadn’t even asked me. I would, of course, have had to say no, but still, I felt irritated at being left out of the intimate little knot that their drug use created.

Once the drums were fully mic-ed, I tapped on the control room window to let Thomas know that Mick was ready to start line-checking, then deliberately walked over to the Blixa-Nick-Anita knot, wanting very much to disrupt it, to pry my friend, and the girl I was crushing on, away from that awful man.

With my hands on my hips, I faced Nick. “So, do you want to cut a guide vocal, while the band record? Because it would be better if you went in the iso-booth to so do. I know you sing pretty loud, and we don’t want it to bleed through.”

But Nick just blinked his slow, reptilian junkie-blink at me, as if he were afraid to speak to me. Christ, this band! Each of them, with their own special brand of weirdness: Rowland, who treated me like some kind of visiting dignitary; Mick who ordered me around like a roadie; and Nick, who did his best to ignore everything I said, unless Blixa repeated it. For a moment, I was considering slipping into German to ask Blixa to re-pose the question, when finally Nick seemed to jolt to attention.

“Oh, you mean me. I’m not singing on this track. Anita is.”

I turned to look at the small, delicate girl, and tried not to let the shock show on my face. “I think you should probably go in the iso-booth, then,” I heard my voice say, hoping it didn’t look too obvious that I was trying to get her away from the men. “Through here...”

I just wished I’d had advance warning of her presence. But then again, how would I have prepared? Well, I’d at least have shown her the same touches of kindness and respect that I had shown Lydia. I’d have aired out the iso-booth, maybe burned some incense or lit a scented candle to mask the scent of sweating male bodies. I might even have got flowers. Hell, for Anita, I would have sourced an entire bouquet of roses, chrysanthemums and lilies. But instead, I just took her through into the booth, found her a pair of headphones, adjusted them to be closer to her size, then plugged them into the small control panel.

“They’re only line-checking the drums, so it’s going to be kinda boring for you, but you can adjust the volume with this knob here, and get it so that the headphones are comfortable.”

She nodded and looked at the control panel like she was afraid of it.

“You’ve done this before, of course, right?”

“Oh yeah, a million times.”

“OK, if you want anything, like a jug of iced water, or tea with lemon, or... anything. Just let me know.”

She nodded and stood on her tip-toes trying to reach the mic, which was set up for approximately Nick’s height. I laughed and brought it down for her. Smiling sheepishly, she whispered, “It looks so easy when Nick does it.”

“OK, I’ll give you some tips,” I laughed. “Whatever you’ve seen Nick doing in the studio.. please do the exact opposite of that.”

She laughed aloud, then held her hand over the microphone, a charmingly naïve little-girl gesture, as if afraid of being overheard, even though the booth was completely sound isolated. “You know, Nick’s really not that bad once you get to know him. He’s actually really quite shy, and sensitive, and a little bit awkward underneath. He just makes up this big act of being a troglodyte punk wildman to cover up the fact that he doesn’t really like being himself very much. You can’t let it get to you, the stuff he says and does, while he’s in performance mode.”

We looked at each other, and for a moment, so much seemed to pass unsaid between us, but then I just shrugged. “I’m just here to do a job. The band asked for me, and I’m going to do the best job I can. But that’s what this is. A job.”

“He’d really like to be friends with you guys. Especially your Blixa. You know, he really struggled with that in London. He found it impossible to make friends, and it’s not easy for a shy, sensitive guy like Nick, to be without friends.”

“Nick. Shy and sensitive?” I said, unable to stop my voice dripping with sarcasm, but Anita stopped me and touched me gently on the arm.

“He is, you know, though he uses his charm and his acting skills to try to hide it. And I know he doesn’t seem like it, but he craves approval deep down. He wants to be liked. And I can see that Mark and Christoph and especially Blixa are the first new people he’s clicked with, in a really long time. Well, since we left Australia, basically.”

Her understanding of him and her love for him were so palpable that I almost wanted to run out of the room. How was it that such a kind, beautiful, sensitive, intelligent girl, could end up saddled to a boor like him? But I did my best to nod and smile. “I don’t know what people have told you, but I am not the boss of Blixa. Blixa is his own man, and there’s no one alive or dead that can make that man do a damned thing he doesn’t want to do.”

Anita smiled mysteriously, as if she knew something I didn’t. “Maybe so, but everyone tells me you’re one of the few people Blixa actually respects and listens to.”

“Everyone?” I asked, confused. “Who says that? Honestly, don’t listen to gossip, and whatever it is people think about... Me and Blixa.”

But Anita nodded smugly. “Blixa told me so himself.”

I stared at her, completely flabbergasted. It still flummoxed me, this idea that Blixa not only thought about me when I wasn’t there, but talked about me to other people. Looking out through the window into the main studio, I caught sight of him standing by Nick, the pair of them chatting with quite a bit of animation. “Well,” I managed to say. “I do have to say, Blixa has had the most enormous case of mentionitis about Nick since we got back from Amsterdam.”

“Mentionitis. That’s a good word for it.” She giggled wickedly. “Nick, too. He talked about him so much, at first I thought he was some girl. So I started asking him, should I be a little jealous of this weird Blixa character you met in the Netherlands?”

“Blixa’s a good person,” I said, a little too defensively.

“I’m not digging for gossip, but you’re clearly close. You and him are...?”

“No, absolutely not,” I snapped, a little sick of the way that conversations kept trying to go down that road, then relented, hating myself for making this beautiful girl draw back slightly at my heated tone. “Yes, we are close, but he is...” I had been about to say that he was not my lover, but that would mean denying that I loved him. Instead, I said bluntly, “Look, he’s not my boyfriend. I’m not into guys.”

“Oh.” Realisation dawned in her eyes, and I expected her to recoil, to pull away from me. But instead, she smiled knowingly, leaned forward, and put her hand gently on my arm. The unexpected gesture of acceptance made my heart thud in my chest. “I understand. He just speaks really highly of you, is all.” But then her eyes flashed with mischief. “But Blixa’s not exactly the most guy-ish guy, is he? Though, to be honest, neither is Nick. I think they’re very alike in that respect, those two.”

I nodded vaguely and had to leave the booth before I said something I might come to regret.

Chapter Text

To watch Blixa and Nick circling one another coyly around the studio, in that odd sort of mating dance that pretended it wasn’t a mating dance, that made me feel very strange in a way I couldn’t quite pin down. Nick was already clearly smitten, his eyes following Blixa around the room, trying to wind him into conversations with little titbits, like he was trying to intellectually impress the object of his affections. Blixa was a little more reserved, playing it cool like he always played it cool in unfamiliar situations, wrapping his reserve around him like a cloak, which, of course, only made him seem more alluring. It didn’t seem quite fair, as Blixa had both beauty and cool on his side, and was well aware of how to use both to their best effect; while Nick, as a straight boy who didn’t even seem able to acknowledge his own attraction, seemed unaware of the effects of Blixa’s beauty on him, even as he responded to it in the way that everyone responded to Blixa’s intense, almost eerie sexual charisma.

Nick, on the other hand, wooed Blixa with an aspect I don’t think he even realised that Blixa lacked: his high-quality Middle-Class formal education. For Nick, at his posh boarding school, had been taught properly about music, about art, about literature, in a way that Blixa, at his state comprehensive, had had to school himself. And Blixa drank up Nick’s erudite literary namedropping with the thirst of an autodidact, allowing himself to be wooed with references to obscure American novelists, iambic pentameter and formal rhyme schemes, and the actual art of songwriting, with middle-eights and key-changes for emotional impact. To be sure, Blixa was educating Nick, and expanding his mind, teaching him about Berlin and its alternate ways of living and approaching morality, but also about German culture, and opening up Nick’s mind to the entire concept that there were ways of living that were outside his narrow, parochial Australian experience, in fact were outside the entire Anglosphere. But Nick, too, was leaving an impression upon the unimpressible Blixa, educating him with the example of what it was, to have a formal liberal-arts education. Because Blixa, for all his ferocious intelligence, and for all the books he had read and the ideologies he had studied with his autodidact intensity, was still a working class boy who had been expelled from Gymnasium. And Blixa was all too obviously impressed and intrigued by Nick’s perpetual air of Being Educated, some formal quality that could not be distilled or absorbed from any book.

But in the end, it was another book entirely that kindled the flirtation into a romance.

Rowland and Mick were in the main recording room, squabbling over guitar overdubs, as I sat at the tape console next to the mixing desk, rewinding and playing the tape for them, over and over. I had re-set the counter to the start of the track, so I didn’t really have to give it my full attention. Since the band were ostensibly ‘producing’ themselves, Nick was sat at the mixing desk and Anita was sprawled on the sofa behind it, while Blixa slouched about, doing his best to get in the way, draping himself across the back of the chair behind Nick, as if eavesdropping on his creative process.

Nick had been scribbling down lyrics in a battered notebook, when Blixa’s head suddenly shot forward, craning his neck to read over Nick’s shoulders. “I recognise zhis. Zhis is from zhe Bible,” he observed, in that thick German accent he never bothered to disguise.

“It sure is,” agreed Nick. “Uuuuh, the King James Version, to be exact. The most poetic and yet violent book in the English language.”

Blixa looked at the passage from the Bible, then looked at his friend, his brow furrowing for a moment, before asking the fateful question. “You are a Christian?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say I commit to any particular sect of Christianity, but...” His voice trailed off awkwardly.

“Do you believe in Gott?” demanded Blixa.

A very strange expression came over Nick’s face, as if he considered lying for a moment, to preserve his cool in front of the judgemental and opinionated German, but then he shrugged and risked everything with the truth. “I do, as a matter of fact. I, uh, believe in God very strongly. Not devoutly, obviously, as I am a terrible sinner. But I do definitely believe in God.” And then he turned to Blixa with an odd smile, half defiant, half apologetic, like he was expecting Blixa to react very badly to this.

But Blixa stared back at him, astonished. “You have certainty?”

“Not certainty. Just Faith. Look, I can’t explain it,” stuttered Nick, clearly confused, as if Blixa’s reaction was not the one he had been expecting. “And I can’t defend it. I’ve had arguments with Atheists, and I always lose.”

“Carter is an atheist, and she seems ferry sure of it.” Blixa turned and smiled at me a little triumphantly.

“Well,” I said, a little defensively, though of course I turned it into a joke. “The Christian God doesn’t like queer folk. And since your God denies my existence, I think it’s par for the course to deny His.”

“Oh, I know that atheists are sure there is no God, and they have all the proof of it,” sighed Nick, as if I hadn’t even spoken. “Yet that does not stop my belief, my Faith. I know it’s not a rational thing. It’s more like a... a feeling. An intense emotion. I know there is a God, as sure as I know which way is up, and I know if a girl is pretty.”

“A feeling,” repeated Blixa as if he’d never even considered this option, staring at Nick as if he could bore a tunnel straight through his eyes and into his brain. “How does zhat vork?”

“I don’t know! If I could explain it, I’d be a... well, I’d be a very wealthy man or a very holy man. I just... know, by faith alone – sola fide, as the priests say – that there is a God.”

“But how can you know vizhout proof?” Blixa demanded.

“Well, I mean... how do you know you have a spine?” Nick sputtered, twisting himself first one way then the other. “You can’t turn your head all the way around, and see your own back yourself. You can try to catch a glimpse in a mirror, but you know... mirrors lie. Photos can be doctored, X-rays fixed. And yet, I know I have a spine, because I can feel it. Every time I move or bend, I can feel it there, supporting me. Holding me up. And if I bend the wrong way... ouch, yup, I have a spine there. I can feel God the same way I can feel I have a spine. I just know He’s there. Because my life wouldn’t work without Him. And I can feel the pain when I go the wrong way; when I sin.”

Blixa seemed to subconsciously echo Nick’s movements as he twisted his shoulders first one way, then the other, as if trying to feel his own spine. “But I know I haff a spine, because ozher people haff seen it,” Blixa countered, then raised his eyebrows lasciviously, his eyes glittering in my direction. “Some girls haff even vashed it for me. In zhe bath, vit a sponge. I can certainly feel my spine vhen a lover touches it, because it excites me erotically vhen someone touches zhat place on zhe small of my back.”

Nick smiled the wolfish smile he always smiled when anyone talked about girls to him, and I felt my skin crawl to think that I was one of the girls Blixa was evoking in his weird eroticism, even as I remembered, with a shudder, the low purring sound he had made as I scrubbed his lower back. I didn’t like this veiled boast to Nick, and it embarrassed me to think what conclusions Anita might draw, if she thought I went about sponging Blixa’s erogenous zones regularly. It had only ever been once. And I thought the agreement was, we didn’t talk about that night.

But Nick leaned forward and asked, in a low voice, “That’s exactly the kind of feeling I’m talking about. Like, how do you know you’re turned on? And how do you know when you’re in love?”

That stopped Blixa in his tracks, as for a moment, he simply stopped and stared at Nick. Across the room, Anita giggled, and for an awful moment, I felt some bone twist in me that I didn’t know I had. But Blixa’s body betrayed us, as he turned slightly, and I saw his eyes flicker towards me. “I haff tried to prove zhat von using logic and rationality, and you chust can’t<< he said in my direction. >>If you’re in love, you chust know.”

“That’s the kind of feeling it is, to believe in God, because to believe in God is to love God,” said Nick very quietly, like I could hardly believe that something that profound could come out of that awful man’s mouth. “You just know.”

Yet Blixa was staring intently at him, as his face creased into a smile, with something resembling relief. “So if I believed in Gott, I vould chust know, vit zhe same kind of certainty, as vhen you know you’re in love.”

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to say,” propounded Nick, with an expression of pleasure and slight triumph crossing his face. “It’s not a rational, logical thing. Faith is an emotion. Simple as that.”

But across the room, Anita yawned and stretched, and shifted on the control room couch. “I wouldn’t say emotion was a simple thing.”

Nick ignored her, returning to his notebook, but Blixa cocked his head towards her. “How so?”

“Do you always just know, when you love someone? Love is complicated. And it’s not... just one thing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell complicated emotions apart. Like... love and hate have only a hair’s breadth between them. Have you never loved someone so much you come to hate them a little, or hated someone so hard you actually kinda wanted to fuck them?” The vulgar word, in the beautiful woman’s little-girl voice, seemed to pack an extra punch.

Blixa stared at her, astonished at first, then started to smile. He liked her, I could tell, and I was somehow glad of it. “Yes, yes, of course, I absolutely haff.”

I was so busy studying Blixa’s reaction that I almost missed the long, meaningful stare between Nick and Anita. Because Nick sighed deeply, and said, in a slightly didactic schoolteacher tone, “That’s why I said like being in love, Anita. It’s a simile. An analogy, not a direct comparison. Love for a woman is like love for God, but not exactly the same. Because every time you love a woman, it always contains the element of desire. A man can’t love a woman without wanting to possess her, to have her. And desire always contains that element of dirtiness, that element of hate. While love for God is perfect, because it does not contain the desire to have, but rather the longing to be had.”

A shiver went down my spine, an actual electric tingle like the prickle of skin signifying danger, though it would take me a long time to understand why what he said bothered me so much. But Anita’s frown deepened, her beautiful lips twitching into a fox-like pout.

“Well, I don’t actually think Faith is a simple thing either,” she continued. “And I don’t think Faith and Doubt are the opposite of one another. They’re parts of the same thing, only a hair’s breadth apart, just like love and hate are. It’s not possible to have doubt, unless you actually have some inkling of Faith in the first place. And Faith is impossible, without the possibility of doubt. Otherwise it’s not Faith at all, just certainty.”

Nick looked annoyed to have holes poked in his argument, but he stopped scratching at his lyrics sheet and put the pen down, looking back and forth between his girlfriend and his new best friend. “I don’t think you’ve contradicted anything I’ve said,” he countered, a little defensive. “Doubt is not the opposite of Faith, it’s a tool to strengthen one’s faith. Like, being truly good, truly holy, does not mean one has no concept of what sin is. In fact, I would argue that it takes knowing what sin is, to truly be good. Otherwise, that’s not goodness, that’s just innocence.”

Anita smiled. “So I guess.... only once you’ve eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, are you truly able to sin. If you have no knowledge of God, and no knowledge of what sin even is, sure, you can do bad things. But can you sin? No.”

But Blixa, whose ears had pricked up at the mention of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, simply looked perplexed. “You keep talking about sin. Vhat zhe fuck is sin? Zhis I do not understand. I understand Right and Wrong. I can even understand Good and Evil, because Evil comes from human Knowledge. But Sin? No, no, no. No! No!” he propounded, getting more irate with each repetition, waving his hand back and forth as if to physically push the objectionable idea away from him. “Zhis is vhere I start to zhink... no, not to zhink. To know, it is bullsheet. My instincts tell me, vit zhe same... conviction as vhen I know I am in love... zhat zhere is no zuch zhing as Sin. Zhis is zhe bullsheet zhat zhe Christian priests made up to control people.”

Nick smiled lazily, and scratched at his arms. “See, that’s it, Blixa. You need to believe in God, to truly understand what it is, to sin.”

Anita laughed, and the tension in the room dissipated. “I’m sorry, Blixa. But I think, deep down, you are an atheist.”

For a moment, Blixa just looked surprised, with the candid unselfconsciousness of a young animal, but then surprise gave way to relief as he turned to me. “Carter,” he called out with a wide grin. “I’m so glad. It seems I am an atheist too, after all.”

 

Those sessions turned into two days of the most uncomfortable atmosphere I’d yet encountered in any studio. At first, I thought it was just me, that I was feeling awkward about the crush on Anita that was steadily growing, the more she went into the iso booth and sang her strange and twisted poetry in her wispy, little-girl voice. And it wasn’t even Nick’s escalating drug use, though to be fair, that didn’t help. The squabbling between Rowland, who was now the only guitar player, and Mick, who wanted to be the guitar player, but was now the drummer, was like a low-level rumble that permeated the sessions, though I stopped hearing it after a while, the way you stop hearing the traffic when you work by the Autobahn.

But as we broke for dinner, halfway through the first day, I realised that even on their down-time, the band used the kitchenette in shifts. Rowland and Genevieve would come in first, take what little they needed, and then when they had cleared out, Nick and Anita and Mick and his girlfriend, Katy, would come in afterwards. Blixa did whatever Nick did; Tracy and his girlfriend Kate just kind of floated. (Kate and Katy? Oh boy, did that get confusing.) But once I’d seen how Nick was forming a little gang with Blixa and Mick, and excluding Rowland from it, I couldn’t help but see it more and more. They arrived separately. They left separately. They ate separately. They were staying in different houses, with different groups of people. Mick and Tracy and the Kates were staying at The Skin’s ramshackle band house; Nick and Anita had taken up lodgings with Christoph and his magic power shower; while Rowland and Gen were staying with another Aussie who already lived in Berlin.

And the more Nick cosied up to Blixa to the exclusion of his bandmates, the more I found myself compensating by going over to talk to Rowland about tremolo arms, amp reverb, distortion stomp-boxes, guitar compression, whatever work-related topic we could use to keep the personal tensions in the studio at bay. Trying to make friends with Genevieve, I suggested that if she was really into vintage records, maybe at the weekend, I could take her and Rowland in my van, out to one of the larger flea markets near the borders of the city, where you sometimes caught British and American servicemen trying to supplement their incomes by selling imported records it was hard to get in Germany. The twins jumped at that chance, though I saw Anita’s eyes suddenly light up at the idea. For a moment, I considered asking her along, as well, but then realised that would involve having to ask Nick. And though I knew with the rational part of my brain, that it would have been the diplomatic thing to do, there was a part of me that just didn’t want him there. And anyway, it was up to her and Nick if they wanted to tag along, I thought to myself.

But it was always the girls that pulled the band back together, I soon discovered. The girls, huddled together in the tiny studio kitchen, in an urgent conference discussing something they didn’t care to share with me, looked, oddly, more like a tough, cohesive gang, all vintage clothes and dark lipstick, than the boys ever did. The girls, together, looked like a band the way Malaria! looked like a band. The boys, though they were marked as obviously belonging together by their harsh Australian accents, dressed as if they were in four different bands, one a cowboy, one an Edwardian dandy, one a 1940s jazz dude, and well... whatever the hell pale-skinned, black-haired creature of the night Nick was supposed to be.

Unlike Nick and Rowland, whose silences spoke more eloquently of their estrangement from each other than their gentle piss-taking ever did, Gen and Anita really did their best to get along. I don’t know that they had any natural affinity for one another; but it was more like they had found themselves thrown together on this strange adventure, penniless together in a foreign land, and they were determined to make the best of each other’s company. To my delight, Gen extended the peace-making overtures and invited Anita on that record-combing expedition out to the flea markets, even though Nick stayed home and slept in after a long night of drinking with Blixa, who was pretty much inexhaustible. And I jealously savoured my precious moments with Anita, when Nick was not there, as my crush on her grew and grew to almost mythical proportions.

Falling in love with a straight woman. What a fool’s game. Hadn’t I learned from Gudrun, at all? And yet, still, I pined. Even though the band had only booked a few days, I made sure that Anita got extra time to for vocal sessions to finish up the recordings, just for the pleasure of having her in the studio without her human rubbish-tip of a partner. And yet, somehow, despite all of the care that I put into those recordings, they got shelved. The band never used them.

Because where was Nick? Nick was staying up all night, off his nut on drugs, and learning that the way to stop himself from going on the nod was to mix his smack with Blixa’s speed. Blixa swore to me that he drew the line at heroin, he didn’t even smoke the fumes off tin foil, which Nick somehow pretended wasn’t as bad as shooting up. He had witnessed enough, with Jana, to know it was something he should never mess with. And I chose to believe Blixa, though I know many didn’t. Blixa was a habitual, almost compulsive liar, when it came to having fun, playing games with people, and he was flowering in the games he was learning to play with the press. But Blixa did not seem to lie to people that he loved, about things he knew were important to them. Lying was a game, for Blixa, a fun thing to pass the time; it was not a defence mechanism, like it was for Nick.

Nick and Blixa, Nixa and Blick. It’s true, I conspired to throw them together as much as possible, to buy me time with the flame-haired poetess of my dreams. But they threw themselves into their vices with systematic enthusiasm, as if daring one another on to corrupt each other.

The first of these, obviously, was drugs.

The second, almost predictably, was gambling. Now I admit, I never saw the point of gambling. I had a scientist’s brains, and a good head for maths, and I knew that statistically, it was always a losing proposition. I would play a hand occasionally, if they needed someone to make up the numbers for a card game, but it held no fascination for me, beyond learning the rules and figuring out the probabilities and treating the whole thing as an interesting game of chance. The Birthday Party were phenomenal gamblers; they claimed that card games were the best way of beating the boredom of touring, during those insane distances they travelled to Australia and back.

At first, Blixa was aligned with me. “Gambling is part of an oppressive system of economic exploitation designed at parting zhe verking classes from zheir hard-earned cash,” he insisted strictly, with an air of complete political outrage. The Australians laughed at this, and Nick called him an uptight and moralistic Prussian. What an old maid, said Tracy. Hark, do I hear the Salvation Army band play, said Mick, as they cut the deck and started to deal. And Blixa knitted his arched Prussian eyebrows and thrust out his Prussian lower lip, and sulked, for if there was one thing his Prussian soul hated, it was being reminded of its uptight and moralistic legacy. Because at heart, Blixa was actually a complete moralist, though he was possessed of a very strange and unorthodox set of morals that he seemed to have worked out for himself. Violations of these morals did actually wind him up and violate his quite considerable sense of justice in a way that made him very sharp and cutting. And yet he hated to have this pointed out to him, for Blixa was an Individualist Anarchist and a newly-hatched Atheist, and therefore beyond mere morals and morality. He joked about the Prussian habit of law-abiding Prussian morality, as if it didn’t apply to him.

>>Do you know why the Russian Revolution never happened in Berlin?<< he would quip, then start to laugh. >>Because all the Kaiser’s men had to do was put up a sign saying, ‘Do not trample the grass’ and the people would not get near the Palace.<<

And so, slowly, to prove he wasn’t the orderly Prussian moralist he secretly was, he was seduced by gambling. He started out just watching the games, trying to work out the rules, and ended up getting caught up in the excitement of the game, until he said he wanted to learn, just to understand the narrative better. And they enjoyed teaching Blixa the arcane rules of card games, and goading him to join in, watching as his façade of jaded indifference crumbled in the face of the excitement of games of chance. For Blixa was always naturally a risk-taker. He loved the drama and the tension of card games even more than he loved the rush of winning, and the adrenaline intensity of making wagers, pushing the stakes higher, the trickster’s love of bluffing and lying and yanking people’s chains, trying to push them beyond their comfort zones. Blixa got a chemical rush from unnecessary risks at cards, that seemed to rival Nick’s heroin rush. He started to carry a pack of playing cards with him everywhere, the way Jana carried her Tarot Deck.

Then Tracy taught him how to play Dice, and the mania for games of chance seemed to take over his brain for hours, Blixa hyper-focusing on roll after roll after roll, trying to predict and tabulate and tame the outcome. He became a magnificent die-roller, casting the dice with an extravagant, slightly dramatic flick of his wrist, as if acting the showman was part of the fun of the game. It fed his compulsiveness, and ‘one last roll, double or nozhing’ was never the end of it.

I found it so frustrating, because Blixa and Nick were, obviously, both sharply intelligent young men. They were both incredibly well-read, though Nick was the product of a rigorous and systematic English-style boarding school syllabus, while Blixa was a terrifyingly smart autodidact who had left school at 17, and sharpened himself first on the West Berlin public library system, and then on films he had watched at the art-house cinema where he had worked as a teenager. When Nick and Blixa fenced their rapier wits in conversation, it could be like a roller-coaster ride to follow them, from Dostoyevsky to Heinrich Heine to Apocryphal Gnostic Heresies to Antonin Artaud’s opinions on Balinese theatre. But when the wits fell to gambling with cards or dice instead, the words fell quiet and it became uncharacteristically boring to be around them, even with the temptation of the beautiful Anita to distract me. Because while they played cards, Anita tended to disappear into a book, because Nick couldn’t stand ‘feminine chatter’ putting him off their game.

Blixa defended his new habit vociferously, if I dared to criticise it. >>Is this not one of the fundamental laws of the Universe? The one principle, on which Einstein himself, was wrong? ‘God Does Not Play Dice,’ he declared, and the quantum physicists proved him wrong, wrong, wrong. God does play dice. And so playing dice is a way of growing closer to the only God I recognise, for what is god, but the eternal toss of the dice in quantum physics?<<

>>That’s absolute nonsense, Blixa, and you would know it, if you ever picked up one of the real physics textbooks I try to get you to read, and not this fucking Feng Shui of Fractal Chaos muck that you choose to pollute your mind with<< I sputtered back at him.

>>My life is an uncontrolled experiment in Chaos Theory, and the Die is my Laboratory<< retorted Blixa, raising his provocative eyebrows in a challenge, as if knowing exactly how much this type of talk irritated me.

>>That’s like trying to read the I-Ching in the periodic table<< I snapped back, forgetting how much he enjoyed goading me, because arguing was some kind of erotic thrill for Blixa. >>Why do you love this pseudo-intellectual gobbledegook so much?<<

>>Where is the line between the pseudo-intellectual and intellectual? Where is the line between physics, metaphysics and ‘pataphysics? The problem is not that I don’t read these papers of Roger Penrose and Richard Feynman that you love so much; it’s that you won’t read Alfred Jarry and Antonin Artaud<< he insisted, touching me lightly and playfully on the chest, because this was another hilarious game for him, winding up Carter. And as he touched me, I realised that unlike his dice, this was a game I actually quite enjoyed. I wanted to seize his hand, and hold it, crush it in my grip, against my chest, as if this would make him come around to my way of thinking.

But then Nick shuffled back from the men’s room, and dealt another round of cards, and the playful, conversational Blixa that I loved so much disappeared into that silent, intense staring at the drama of the deck, the kings and queens and jacks and aces marching between their fingers like some story in a language I couldn’t read.

And then the third major vice that Nick introduced Blixa to, was the fascination with weapons. I had grown up with an ex-army officer for a father, and though he had been forced to resign his post to bring my mother’s family out of Berlin, he had impressed upon me from an early age that weapons were not toys. I had been given a penknife when I attained double digits, to teach me respect for blades, and I had hung onto that respect as I’d become first a manual worker, then an electrician. These things were tools, and tools deserved one’s careful attention, not one’s fascination. Firearms, on the other hand, scared the living daylights out of me, as my father had intended that they should, for he wished me to avoid the family business of bearing arms.

The first time that Nick produced his gun, as casually as if he were taking out a pack of fags, I nearly jumped out of my skin. “What the blazes are you doing with that? Put that bloody thing away,” I hissed.

But Nick merely started to cavort with it around the room, pretending to point it at Anita, before miming taking aim and pretending to pull the trigger. Although I could see that the safety was on, even the play-acting of such a scene outraged me. My father had drilled into my head: never, ever draw a weapon on a person, unless you are fully prepared to use it.

“What the devil do you think you’re playing at? Knock it off!” I gasped, feeling all of my protectiveness come rushing to the fore, as my heart thudded with love and terror for Anita. It was the same deep, primitive urge-to-protect that had seized me when johns had bothered Ilsa, and I had found myself placed in the role of her pimp, feeling my masculinity surge to defend her. The same stupid, pointless masculinity that had failed to find any way to protect her from the French military police.

But Anita merely shrugged, and pushed him away casually as if this were a game. “Don’t encourage him, Carter, he only feeds off your outrage. He gets a rise out of it. The only way to make him stop is simply to ignore it.”

As if in defiance of her words, Nick sat down and turned the gun towards me. I stood up, and advanced darkly towards him, all the hairs rising on the back of my neck. As I towered over him, I felt a kind of calm fury descend across my mind, as I realised I would take a bullet for Anita. “You had better be prepared to use that. Because if you pull that on me, or her, again, even in jest, so help me god, I will make you regret it.”

For a moment I saw genuine fear flicker across his face, and I’m not sure which he was more afraid of; if he was afraid of me, or if he was afraid of the genuine possibility that he might have to use the gun on a living person. But in another moment, Blixa reached out and laid his hand gently on his friend’s arm, and said in a low, quiet voice, “Put it avay, Nick. You don’t vant to make an enemy of Carter.”

Nick’s eyes flickered towards Blixa, then he shrugged, and smiled cautiously, and lowered the gun, twirling it around his finger like a gunslinger before stowing it back in the holster underneath his jacket. It irritated me so much that he only did it, not out of respect for me, but for Blixa, that I actually felt like ripping the gun out of his hands and cracking it down across the side of his skull, like my father had taught me was actually the most effective use of a firearm. But somehow I got the better of my temper and sat down. I was not a rash person, or an angry one, but something about Nick seemed to trigger a primal hatred in me.

A few days later, Blixa turned up with a large flick-knife, of the sort generally used for gutting deer while hunting. He developed a game, much like Nick’s habit of twirling the gun on his finger, whereby he would take out the knife, flick it open, twirl it around his knuckles, then flick it closed again, then repeat the process, over and over and over again like a nervous tick. It drove me insane; every time I thought he would slip up and repeat the process in the wrong order, and catch his knuckles on the blade, or slam it shut on the last finger, but he never did. It was just the awful, tantalising, stomach-churning risk that he might. But Blixa was addicted to risk, and the adrenaline rush for him, clearly, was the possibility that he might slip up.

I started getting up and leaving the room if he took out the knife, until he would laugh and promise to put it away, and call for me to come back. Blixa, at least, still listened to me, even if Nick did not.

Chapter Text

For the long, clear, warm month of September, neither the New Buildings, nor the Birthday Party toured, and having such a long run of Blixa, at home, in his own city, had become a rare luxury. We formed a strange knot, Nick and Anita, Blixa and me, that everyone was coming to take for a unit. We went to gigs and films and art shows together. We went to bars and clubs and parties together. We even went to Malaria!’s triumphant album launch as a foursome, setting off gossip right across our tiny scene.

We had been to one of Martin’s film exhibitions in the early evening, then went back to someone or other’s flat to do to a few lines, so we were all quite high already. Unable to stand still, tense and unruly with nervous energy, we kept milling back and forth between the packed and overly warm gig inside, and the knot of people gathered outside. Blixa and Nick were more interested in caning the drinks, but Anita and I stayed inside to watch the girls perform, before joining the boys out on the street, enjoying the cool of the evening air after the sweaty heat of the overcrowded club. In high spirits, the four of us started horsing around on the pavement outside Malaria’s party, passing a joint back and forth between us to try and take the edge of the amphetamine jitters.

Anita had been asking me to translate what the band had been saying, nudging me and saying, “Everyone keeps saying ‘starker frown, what does that mean, ‘starker frown?”

“Starke Frauen,” corrected Blixa as he passed her the joint. “It means Strong Vomen. It is in tribute to zhe Berliner Vomen. Zhis city is notorious for her ferry strong vomen.” Turning, he danced sideways and grinned at me, reaching out his fingers and pinching me around the top of my arm where I had rolled up the hem of my shirt. “I mean, look at zhis von.”

“Carter is unbelievably strong,” agreed Anita with an edge of flirtation as she exhaled hash smoke and passed the joint to Nick. “You should have seen her lift those heavy amps at the studio, like they were nothing.”

Nick bristled, as if his manhood was piqued, and as he popped the joint into his mouth, he rolled up the sleeve of his own shirt and tried to show the nub of his tiny muscles. I merely laughed, and flexed my arm to show that I was, visibly, better endowed than him.

“Carter is stronger zhan you are,” laughed Blixa, as he placed his own weedy, almost dangerously thin arm beside us, which honestly looked like two rubber bands stretched over a toothpick. “She is stronger zhan me, also.”

Curling his lip into a sneer as he exhaled the hash smoke, Nick passed the spliff back to Blixa, even though it was technically my turn, and spat disparagingly, out of the side of his mouth. “Yeah, I bet she lifts weights. She looks like she lifts weights.”

I knew he meant it as an insult, but I chose not to take it as one, stepping forward and relieving Blixa of the joint before he could finish the whole thing. “I do, as a matter of fact, lift weights,” I informed him. “I started going to a women’s sporting club, up near the Spree. Need to keep my strength up somehow, since I stopped doing manual labour.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you’re into heavy manual training with the East German women’s athletic team,” snarked Nick as I sucked in a lungful of hash. “All that lifting and bench-pressing.” I had never heard anyone make lifting sound so sordid.

“I bet I could bench press you,” I shot right back as I deliberately exhaled my mouthful of smoke towards his face, and stepped in his direction with an air of menace.

“I’d like to see you try...” retorted Nick, moving towards me and squaring off with his shoulders. He was taller than me, but whippet-thin, like it would probably be an even fight between us, but Anita stepped in quickly.

“What I’d really like to see, is you lift Blixa,” she suggested saucily, in such a light, flirty, teasing tone that the heavy atmosphere between Nick and I immediately dissipated, as we all started to laugh. “He’s so thin, I bet you could pick him right up, and toss him over one shoulder.”

“Yes!” cackled Blixa, bursting out into his braying hyena laugh of genuine mirth. “I am sure she could. And I, too, vould like to see her try.” His eyebrows were dancing flirtatiously as he moved between Nick and me.

“Yeah, go on, then,” goaded Nick, in a tone that made it clear he didn’t believe I could, and suddenly my pride was at stake.

Swallowing nervously, I looked at Blixa, who had divested himself of his leather-boy cap, and his bag, and had handed both to Anita. >>Are you sure about this?<< I asked quickly in German, as I looked him up and down. He was so skinny, he probably didn’t weigh much at all, but he was still very, very tall, and an awkward size and shape to lift.

>>Quite sure<< he agreed, with a bright, exited smile. >>Look, put your hands around my waist. We will do it like they do it in ballet. On the count of three, I will leap, and you lift. All you have to do is catch me, and hold me. OK? Come on, it will be fun. One... two... three!<<

I wasn’t sure how we managed it, but Blixa stepped back, to take a bit of a running jump, and then did indeed leap into the air, as I seized him just above his slender hips, and hefted him aloft, as his momentum carried him upwards. And abruptly, I was just standing there, on the street outside the SO36, staggering slightly, as I held Blixa in the air, suspended up above my head like an odd, spidery. black rubber ballerina.

Anita started to giggle aloud, clapping her hands and jumping up and down with sheer delight, as I hefted Blixa to judge his weight, his black rubber wellies kicking impotently at thin air. He was actually slightly heavier than he looked, as if his body was very dense, but I realised I could actually support him quite comfortably, at least for a short time. Nick looked absolutely astonished, and maybe even a little afraid as I turned slowly around, taking care not to drop my precious cargo.

“I’m an aeroplane!” cried Blixa, his voice ringing with childlike delight as he looked about, this way and that, flapping his arms like a bird. “I am a zuper jet fighter! Full speed ahead! Voll Kraft Voraus!”

“Don’t wiggle so much, or I might well drop you.”

“Take me inside,” demanded Blixa, pretending to pound at my back. “Release zhe bats! Carry me to zhe bar!”

I started to laugh, realising that he was completely at my mercy, and turned around to make my way back into the SO36. >>Make way<< I warned loudly, as I lurched towards the entrance. Both doors were open, so I could just about carry Blixa through. >>Make way, coming through!<<

Both of us were nearly shrieking with laughter as I somehow conveyed him, backwards, down the long, dark hall into the venue. Anita and Nick were in hot pursuit, both completely gobsmacked, and yet shaking with mirth at Blixa’s and my antics. As I burst through into the venue, battering the door open with his boots, my arms were getting quite tired, but I had no idea how to put him down safely without dropping him. With increasing difficulty, I managed to stagger towards the bar, and it was lucky that a couple of punks saw us coming, and clattered out of the way, as I swiftly, somewhat inelegantly, dumped Blixa backwards, and deposited him on top of the bar.

Blixa, as agile as a cat, kicked a couple of empties out of the way, and somehow righted himself, leaning over the astonished bartender and demanding, >>Three bottles of beer, and a coke, please<< as he helped himself. When he had the drinks, he somehow vaulted down into the crowd, and made his way back towards us, distributing his ill-gotten gains, then throwing one arm around my shoulders as he deposited a sloppy kiss on my cheek and proposed a toast. “To the strongest voman... vomen in Berlin!” he insisted, then turned and somewhat diplomatically included Bettina in the toast, as she had come to see what unearthly commotion was upstaging their party now.

But Bettina, long my ally, sighed and rolled her eyes to see us all standing together in such a close knot, Blixa’s arm draped so territorially around my neck and scoffed >>Well, we’ve lost this one to heterosexuality, now, haven’t we?<<

Shrugging Blixa’s arm off my shoulder, I chased after her, ostensibly to congratulate her on the album, but really to protest my innocence that this horseplay was not evidence of any kind of thing with Blixa. I had actually just been showing off for the benefit of Anita. Bettina accepted the compliments, but just looked at me with that knowing expression, like she could see straight through my objections, and nothing I could protest could convince her that I had been trying to impress Anita, on whom I had the raging crush, and was still very much the rampant Dyke that had gone clubbing with her.

But it was useless. Both Blixa and I seemed to have changed in some way, in our sexual habits.

For quite some time after Blixa had broken up with Jana, and especially while his band were touring, he had very much played the field and slept around, his omnivorous sexual appetites taking delight in liaisons with every available gender. But now I noticed that he seemed far more chaste in his proclivities, and didn’t go sloping off at the end of the night, when some attractive young thing beckoned. When I had teased him about it, and suggested that he was now concentrating his energy on trying to sleep with Nick, instead of his little circle of admirers at the Risk bar, he shook his tufted head decisively and said >>I’m done with all that. It is dissipating of one’s energy, to expend it on sexuality, giving so much of your energy first to one person and then another. I am conserving my sexual energy for my creativity. This, I feel, makes me much happier.<<

Blixa was happy. Everyone at the Malaria! party commented on how joyous and bubbly he seemed, effusive and optimistic as he kissed the whole band repeatedly and congratulated them with genuine warmth and pride, even before the cocaine started flowing again. It was obvious to me how pleased his growing friendship with Nick made him, and it cheered me to see Blixa so happy, and so generous in love, sharing his time and his thoughts and his boundless enthusiasm with the man. In many ways, Blixa was so good for Nick, as Anita kept telling me, during moments of girly bonding that I treasured. What made Anita happy made me happy. And what made Anita happy was Nick’s new lease on life. Blixa was opening Nick’s eyes to the wonders of West Berlin, expanding his horizons and truly challenging him, intellectually, artistically, aesthetically, and yes, even with the drugs and the gambling and the stupid boyish fascination with weapons.

Because through Anita, I discovered that Nick had been blocked, horrifically, catastrophically blocked, before he had come to West Berlin. And since he had reached the walled city, he had started writing again: writing Birthday Party songs with Mick; extemporising improvisational poetry in long jam-sessions with The Skin; and even starting work on his long-term dream of writing a novel. It was absolutely undeniable that Blixa, and West Berlin, was good for Nick. Nick blossomed under Blixa’s love.

But I seemed to be the only person even vaguely concerned that Nick might not be so good for Blixa, whose risk-taking was accelerating, whose impulse-control was slipping and whose drug consumption seemed to be spinning out of control. And yet every person I tried to raise my concerns with, saying that I did not think that Nick was as good for Blixa as Blixa clearly was for Nick, only told me that I was jealous, because Blixa was so clearly falling in some kind of love with Nick.

>>Learn not to be so uptight and English about love; there are many kinds of love<< Bettina told me as I helped her hump gear to a Malaria! gig.

>>Why would you be jealous over a man? This is sheer cattiness<< Gudrun told me, as she rode in the passenger seat on the way back from the gig to their rehearsal space.

>>If Blixa loves you, and you love Blixa, and Blixa loves Nick, too, doesn’t this simply mean that there is more love in the world, and love is such a brilliant, wonderful thing, isn’t it, why shouldn’t there be more and more of it?<< Salomé told me with the most wonderful smile and the most poetic intonations, as he dished up the drinks at their aftershow party.

But it was Wolfgang who drove me absolutely over the edge, with an offhand comment, one morning he had got me out of bed early, to get up and go bird-watching amidst the falling leaves in the wild windswept wasteland where Potsdamer Platz used to be. I thought surely it had to be some euphemism, for drugs or illicit sex, probably both, knowing Wolfgang. Alas, no, he genuinely meant birds of the feathered kind, turning up with a pair of binoculars and a small pocket guide to the birds of Europe. Now that it was autumn, he informed me with a bright, excited tone, arctic species would be passing through on their way South to warmer climates. And so we sat for an hour as the sun came up and the dawn chorus started chirping, as he scanned the scrubby trees and scratched away in a notebook to indicate what we’d seen. The birds in Berlin were odd, unfamiliar. Even the crows were the wrong colour, a drab, dark grey to match the city, but it was fascinating to watch them strut about, all stiff-legged and bold, the only creatures that could hop The Wall with impunity.

I found it quite enjoyable in an odd way, the silence and stillness of the great, ruined empty space, the awkward broken tooth of the Weinhaus, and then the almost-wilderness running up almost to The Wall. .>>It’s so peaceful here<< I murmured. >>It feels a million miles away from the frenetic rush, rush, rush of the nightlife. Honestly, I don’t think Blixa has seen a minute of sunlight since that awful Australian got here. It can’t be healthy for them, staying up all night like that. They don’t ever seem to go to bed.<<

>>Your boyfriend is a big boy, and he can take care of himself...<< was all Wolfgang got out, before I lost my temper.

>>Blixa Bargeld is not my fucking boyfriend<< I almost screamed, so loud that I startled the flock of small birds that Wolfgang had been watching, so that they all rose into the air in a smoke-like mass. >>I am only concerned about his fucking well-being!<<

Wolfgang sighed deeply, realising our bird-watching opportunity was over, then put his hand on my arm, and told me quietly and thoughtfully, >>If you are that concerned about Blixa’s well-being, then it’s obvious you love Blixa. I, too, have been fond of that young man, and I can tell you from experience. If you try to hold him back or constrain him, even for his own good, he will hate you for it. He will shy away and take flight, like that flock of birds you just startled off. But if you love him, let him find his own limits.<<

>>But Nick is poison<< I insisted, my thoughts whirling around Anita.

>>Jealousy is poison<< Wolfgang told me gently, gathering up his things.

I stared at him. I wanted so badly, to break down and tell him, ‘I am not in love with Blixa. I recognise that the problem here is jealousy, but I am not jealous over Blixa. It’s Anita. I’m in love with Anita. How can that goddess, that absolute pearl of a woman, be attached to that thundering oaf of a man.’ The words formed on my lips, but then I looked into his eyes, and realised what he was telling me. He had tried to love Blixa, and couldn’t. He wanted so badly, for me to love Blixa, because he still loved Blixa so much he wanted Blixa to be with someone who could give him what he needed. I knew that person couldn’t be me. I was too much in love with Anita. But it would break Wolfgang’s heart to tell him that.

Instead, he turned to me, embraced me tightly, left a quick kiss on each of my cheeks, then dragged me off to get in his car. For Wolfgang had an ulterior motive, in taking me birdwatching. Afterwards, he insisted that I go off with him to have breakfast at the Other Shore Café, and introduced me to the manager, Gerhard. It turned out that Wolfgang had, as promised, shown him my comics, and indeed, photos of some of my slightly risqué drawings of Blixa, and Gerhard was keen to put on an exhibition. His last great art discovery, our very own Salomé, whom he had talent spotted while still tending bar, had gone on find great renown after having a show of his paintings at the Documenta festival, so he was keen to start discovering and showcasing new local queer artists.

He had liked the comics, but he had loved the drawings of Blixa best of all. Those, insisted Gerhard, were the most homoerotic drawings he had ever seen, and he had to have them on the café’s walls. To my great astonishment, I found that it was all practically organised for me, and I had only to agree, and it would then happen. The whole thing gave me quite a surprise, to be honest. It was one thing to be a comic book artist, and sell cheaply Xeroxed pamphlets around West Berlin. But to be given a show, at a café where the great and good of Berlin’s gay scene gathered, where everyone from Iggy and Bowie, to Michel Foucault had drunk? It made my head spin. Of course I said yes. (And Blixa was as envious as could be, because Gerhard was the ‘art critic’ who had removed his semen-encrusted ‘art’ from another show.)

So despite my excitement, I had to ban Blixa, and by extension Nick, from the preparations for the show. Because Blixa, of course, wanted to make himself the star, the stunner in the frames, and tell everyone how he had inspired these works, to the point where Wolfgang had to remind him quite insistently that the star of the show should be the artist, not the model.

Wolfgang and Salomé and also Tabea helped me with the physical aspects of the exhibition, as they had all done this kind of thing many times. They helped me select which drawings to display, and solved the problems of getting them mounted and framed, both the small, finicky comics which needed to be handled delicately, and the more large-scale sketches and life drawings of Blixa splayed out across Wolfgang’s bed.

In one of the drawings, the setting was distinctly recognisable as the corner of Wolfgang’s bedroom, with the ribbed radiator that echoed the boniness of Blixa’s chest, and the hint of the Tom of Finland poster above the bed. Wolfgang turned to me, and gave me a long, appraising look, though I couldn’t work out what, exactly, he was appraising, but he said nothing about it. That drawing was definitely the best, from both a technical point of view, and also from a conceptual point of view, as the detail of Blixa’s half-erect cock echoed the gay pornography on the wall, yet belied the intense feminine beauty with which I had rendered his delicate painted face. Even with the slightly cartoonish Tom of Finland cock, it was almost impossible to tell if Blixa, so fey and yet so elegant, was male or female or even human at all. Looking at the drawing, I almost started to fall in love with Blixa all over again, then reminded myself of the decision that we had made that night. He was my model, my muse, and not my lover.

But my friends soon picked another favourite, that everyone loved despite it not being technically as good. This was an odd double drawing, where I’d initially drawn Blixa lying on his back, staring sleepily out of the frame, and then about twenty minutes later, I’d picked up the same sheet of paper and drawn him again with his eyes closed and his cock hardening, the two drawings so close together that he looked as if he’d fallen asleep curled up against his own shoulder, though if you squinted, it simply looked like two pretty, skinny boys in bed with each other. I’d written “the artist and his muse; the muse and his artist” across the bottom in a kind of in-joke with Blixa, but it seemed this was the one that had sealed the deal, in terms of getting the show. So that was, jokingly, what we started to call the exhibit, until I found that it had stuck.

Anne’s film, Liquid Sky, which had recently started to be shown in cinemas, had really caught a mood, and made that exaggeratedly angular androgyny incredibly fashionable. Blixa and I had gone to see it, and though he had scoffed at what he called its preposterous alien subplot, we had both been knocked out by how convincing Anne had been, as a boy as well as a girl. The scene of Anne, having aggressive, exhibitionist, even lethal sex with her own self in male drag, had cause a huge stir and left quite an impression, not just on us, but on the whole Berlin scene. My drawings of Blixa, it seemed, with his bony angular body, and his pretty, feminine face, had exactly the same gender-bending appeal. To my surprise, people loved them.

While the artists planned the exhibition, and how it would be hung, Gudrun and Anita decided that they would handle the opening night party, and the invitation list. Gudrun, of course, knew everyone who was anyone in West Berlin, yet it was another of her endless cases of putting people into the right situations, for this was to be Anita’s first chance to host an event in her new home city, and she was excited about the possibilities of making a bit of a social splash. Anita, with her airy, ethereal manner, struck upon the allegory that the Blixa of the drawings might be Puck, and wanted to give the Other Shore a Midsummer Night’s Dream theme for the evening. Nick was a bit sceptical, as hmmm, fairies in a gay bar, wasn’t that a bit... offensive. (As if Nick ever cared about being offensive; he, I think, was more concerned that he might be taken for a fairy.) The Gays, on the other hand, loved the idea, as Salomé and Tabea squabbled over who had to be Oberon and who got to be Titania. (Salomé, of course, won that round.)

Gudrun laughed and said, “My god, are you going to make us all wear costumes, Anita?”

Anita smiled dreamily, and replied “What a simply marvellous idea” and it was decided that after the opening, at the café, there would be an afterparty at The Skin’s band house.

Wolfgang, to my eternal gratitude, helped me with the more... intellectual aspects of the show, buttonholing me outside Iron-Grey one morning. >>We need an Artist’s Statement<< he told me. >>So if you could just write one out, I’ll give it to Gerhard, so he can send it out.<<

>>A what?<< I stuttered. He repeated himself. >>I’ve never heard of such a thing. What is it?<< I confessed.

>>You just write out a statement, saying a little bit about yourself, and a little bit about the art, and what you’re trying to accomplish with the art, who your influences were, what your motivations are, you know, explain the meaning of the pieces a little bit?<<

>>They’re drawings<< I said. >>Nudes. You just look at them. Maybe they turn you on.<<

Wolfgang gave me a long, level stare, then shook his head. >>Darling, there’s a little more to this art game than that.<<

>>Well, can’t you do it?<< I protested. >>You’re good with words and writing and things. Can’t you just whack out some art-wank and send it out for me.<<

For a long moment, he looked at me, as if trying to assess how hopeless I was, but then he rolled his eyes. Taking me by the arm, he steered me towards the Café Mitropa, and sat me down at a table, ordering two coffees and pulling out a notepad. >>What do you think the pictures say, in your own words, to you? You tell me, I’ll translate into art-speak.<<

>>Well, they’re just drawings of Blixa. I mean... you know how beautiful he is. You’ve photographed him. He already looks like a painting.<< Wolfgang wasn’t even writing, he was just staring at me impatiently, tapping the eraser of his pencil against the table, so I wracked my brains and tried to think of something more intelligent to say. >>Drawing is what we do, instead of fucking. Because we’re... you know, not the right... sex for each other. I like women, and although Blixa is really pretty, and really quite extraordinarily feminine in many ways, well... he’s not a woman.<<

Now Wolfgang started to scribble. >>Yes, that’s good. The drawings are about sublimated desire, in order to render visible a queer response to the pressures of heteronormativity.<<

I laughed aloud, as the waitress brought our coffees. >>Wow, I don’t understand a word you just said<< I said, and took a sip. >>But, I mean, they’re about beauty. Because Blixa isn’t handsome, like you’re handsome<< I figured flattery was worth a shot, and Wolfgang smiled appreciatively, fluttering his eyelashes downward as he spooned sugar into his coffee. >>He’s beautiful. I really wanted to bring out the femininity, the vulnerability in his looks.<<

The pencil scratched away, I could tell he was liking this. >>A female perspective... no, a female Gaze, transgressing gender to render a masculine nude as a surveyed object of eroticism and...<<

>>Nah, don’t say that.<< I cringed, as he stopped scribbling and looked up at me expectantly. >>I didn’t feel like a woman as I was drawing him. I can’t be a woman for him. That’s why we’re not lovers. Why I draw him instead of screwing him. I can look at him, and draw him... without having to feel like a woman. How do you even express that in art terms?<<

>>Experimenting with a male gaze, to explore the potentialities of queer desire, then... You’ve got to tart it up a little, cater it to the audience.<<

>>Noooo<< I whined, almost tying myself in a knot. >>I don’t feel like a man, either. I don’t feel like a woman, or a man.<<

Raising his eyebrows, Wolfgang bent over in a comical exaggeration of pretending to check me out. >>Darling, there are ways of establishing this...<<

>>But that’s the whole point of the drawings<< I protested. >>You can see that Blixa has a cock, in the drawings. I’m not even pretending he doesn’t. There’s no guessing game. But... There’s something... beyond masculine or feminine, to him, that transcends having a cock. It’s not the make-up, or how he dresses. Even nude, the way he lies, the way he holds himself like he knows he’s being watched and drawn, even the angle of his wrists, his splayed limbs, the way he gazes at you with his flirtatious doe eyes as he lies there, inviting you to look at him... All of these things transcend the ordinary masculinity of his body. And I kind of feel like...<< I paused, thinking of those powerful, arresting images of Anne as a totally convincing young man in that film. >>I don’t know. Everyone thinks I just want to be a man. But I don’t. Even if I woke up tomorrow, with a cock and a flat chest like Blixa, I wouldn’t... feel any different inside. Because there’s something to being a man that goes beyond having a cock and two balls, and I don’t have it. Like there’s something to being a woman that goes beyond having tits and a vagina, and I don’t have that either. And that’s what those drawings of Blixa are trying to express. Something about me, not about him. That I am neither one thing, nor the other. And yet somehow both. And through drawing Blixa... as both. I’m able to express my true self.<<

Wolfgang stared at me, as if understanding something about me for the first time, then he placed the pencil on top of the notebook and pushed it across the table. >>Write that down<< he urged. >>That’s exactly what the Other Shore needs to know. That’s not just your Artist’s Statement, that’s your Life Statement.<<

Chapter Text

The night before the opening, to calm my nerves, Gudrun suggested that we have one of her women-only meetings at her flat, to eat supper and make the final last-minute arrangements. Manc Mark, having got wind of this, dropped off a large hash-cake, intended for the proper party, and a smaller hash-cupcake intended to calm us down at the pre-party girl-party. That was very sweet, said Gudrun, but no, it did not make him an honorary girl, and no, he could not come to the pre-party party. Mark protested and said that he had heard Salomé had been invited, and Gudrun put her foot down and said it wasn’t anything like the same thing, because Salomé was coming in Titania drag, and that was just different.

We had a wonderful time, girls, Salomé, me, and all. So wonderful that we forgot to eat the cake before dinner, as we were all gossiping away. And it wasn’t until the bulk of the guests had departed, and it was just me, Gudrun and Anita left, that Anita went into the kitchen to clear away the plates, and found the hash cup-cake sitting on the sideboard.

“Oh my lord, never tell Nick this happened, as this will destroy my reputation forever,” she quipped, as she came back into the living room, carrying the cup-cake on a plate. “But we forgot to take the drugs.”

She looked so scandalised that Gudrun and I burst into laughter, as Anita promptly cut the cake into three pieces and set each on a napkin before us.

“How many people is this cake made to serve?” wondered Gudrun. “Mark makes these things very strong...”

“Who cares, more drugs for us,” giggled Anita, and gobbled her piece up. Gudrun picked up a bread knife, and cut her piece in half before eating one piece, but Anita simply picked up the discarded portion and ate that as well, her huge eyes looking so innocent as her mouth looked so naughty that I almost had to physically refrain myself from leaning over and trying to kiss those icing-dusted lips.

Instead, I looked over at her, not wanting to be outdone by my crush, and picked up my piece, not taking my eyes from hers as I popped it into my mouth, remembering for a moment, that strange afternoon of the Great Downfall Show. I chewed slowly, as she watched me, a smile spreading over her face, then swallowed. “There, I needed that.”

Anita grinned back at me. “You’re such a show-off, Carter. Gudrun, darling, do you have a cigarette?”

“Of course. Shall we go in the other room? I can’t bear to think of all those dirty dishes in the kitchen.” Gudrun stretched, then lead us through into her bedroom. As she fiddled with her tape deck, and put on the latest Siouxsie and the Banshees album, I thought to myself, wow, a year ago, I would have given my two front teeth to be in Gudrun’s bedroom, and yet here I was, oddly unbothered.

Anita immediately threw herself down on Gudrun’s bed and sprawled out, her gingery red hair curling everywhere. “I have the sudden desire to paint you as a Pre-Raphaelite muse,” I blurted out. “One last-minute addition to the show.”

“Oh, please,” groaned Anita, throwing her head back in despair as Gudrun sat down at the other end of the bed, placing an ashtray between them to stop Anita flicking ashes onto the floor. “I have had enough of this muse business forever.”

“But don’t you know, you’re Nick’s muse,” laughed Gudrun, poking her playfully with her foot. “That’s your job, as a woman. Not to be a musician in your own self, not to be a songwriter or an artist or a poet, but just to be a muuuuuuuse.”

Anita absolutely cackled, as I looked about, wondering where I should sit, before finally deciding on the floor. “You know, Nick really does have a muse,” she finally said. “He totally believes in all that bosh. He really has this imaginary muse who inspires him, and feeds him song ideas, that he totally believes in, and is as real to him, as I am to you or Carter. But it is not me. No, thank you.”

“I just don’t understand it, this muse business,” drawled Gudrun. “It always just seemed such horse-shit to me. The way men want to claim you as a ‘muse’. Like a way of taking away your own personality, and your own life and experiences, and turning you into a flattened thing. Not even a thing. Like your entire existence is just reduced to an idea within his head.”

Anita laughed aloud. “I know, right? But you, Gudrun, you’re so creative, so... imaginative yourself, I can’t imagine any man daring to make a mere muse of you.”

“Do you know, I was not even 16 years old, the first time a man tried to claim me as his muse?” said Gudrun. “One of the first musicians I had ever met, the guitarist in a local dance band. You know, I was obsessed with music when I was a teenager, and I wanted to learn to play the guitar, so I asked him to teach me, because I was besotted with live music. And this man was so egotistical as to believe that I was obsessed with him, not with the idea of music itself. So, when I go round to his house, instead of giving me guitar lessons, he sat me down and told me he had written a song about me.”

“He didn’t!” giggled Anita. “Did he make you listen to it?”

“Oh yes. He sat me down in front of him and started playing it, thinking I would be flattered.”

“Was it any good?”

“Anita, my dear, it was terrible! I was mortified. And as I listened to this song – ‘Too Young’ it was called – I simply could not hear myself in it. It was a ridiculous thing, about this fantasy he had of what he thought I was like, some stereotypical nubile teenage girl in love with, and throwing herself at an older man, who was both terrified of, and yet of course egotistically flattered by her attentions. As if! The whole thing was all in his head, and nothing at all to do with me. ‘You are my muse, Gudrun’ he kept telling me, because he was so proud of this song, and I was just so puzzled by the whole thing. So I always think, whenever a man tells you ‘oh, you are my muse’ it’s never about you. It’s always about him and the ideas in his head. His music, his paintings, his novels or whatever it is he does. So I resist this muse-making impulse, with every fibre of my being. I have no interest in being a muse. I am the musician.”

As Anita laughed mockingly and nodded, long-sufferingly, I stared at Gudrun as if finally figuring something out. Back when we had first met – it was maybe a little over a year, but it felt like another lifetime ago – she had rejected me romantically, and though I had long since got over it, I had never understood why. And yet, as she and Anita lolled over her bed, smoking cigarettes and laughing at men, I suddenly remembered that unfortunate drawing I had done of her, to give to Beate, and winced. Was that how she’d seen me? Just another man who had wanted to make a muse of her?

 “They certainly believe it’s about you, though,” sighed Anita. “As if they are afraid of their own emotions. The same way that they look at a pretty girl, and they can’t believe that their lust originates in their own heads. They have to place lust in the body of the young girl they’re looking at, as a repository for emotions they can’t bear to believe come from their own heads.”

“Sounds like Nick,” I sneered. “His whole thing about believing sex is inherently dirty, and women are just...”

“Oh, please, Carter, don’t start,” sighed Anita, with a completely world-weary tone.

“Do you think there even is such a thing as a muse?” interrupted Gudrun, successfully derailing that topic. “Is it completely made up, or is there something behind the idea?”

“Do I believe in muses?” Anita made a vague gesture. “That’s like asking do you believe in love. Or do you believe in God.” She turned and winked at me, with that quip, to show she wasn’t angry with me, and I was reminded of the long flirtation-argument argument between Nick and Blixa on that very subject. “You have to explain, what you even mean by the question. Because obviously some people believe in them, though they may mean vastly different things.”

“Well,” said Gudrun, lowering her chin to her hand as if she were thinking this through deeply. “I mean, is a muse an abstract idea of inspiration, some archetype in your own psyche; or is a muse really another person, who inspires you to make art, to write songs, by their presence... you know. Like a beautiful girl that some perverted old painter paints, because he is too old to fuck her.”

“Or, to be fair, a beautiful boy that a handsome young... girl... woman... Carter, what is it that you want us to refer to you as,” giggled Anita, and it took me a moment for me to realise that she was joking about me.

“What?” I asked. “I’m not anything. I’m just Carter.”

“Look, Carter is a good example,” agreed Gudrun. “Because Carter almost always draws Blixa. And let’s be honest, Blixa is not a beautiful man.”

“Yes he is,” I protested.

“No, he is not,” persisted Gudrun. “Look, it’s nothing against Blixa. I have known him for years, he is one of my best friends. But he is not a classically handsome man. He is very charismatic, and he has pretty eyes, and good cheekbones, sure, but he has a weak chin, and he is all nose... that huge, ugly, blocky nose just completely dominates his face. And he is too... way too thin, his face too gaunt, like a scarecrow crossed with a skeleton. But the way Carter draws him, he looks beautiful. So... is Blixa Carter’s muse, in the sense that men talk about women being their muse. Or is the Muse the thing that inspires Carter to draw Blixa in the way she does, to make him look... beautiful?”

Anita shook her head and lay back, sucking at her cigarette. “It’s love that makes Carter draw Blixa the way she does. Love makes the beloved seem beautiful. That’s how desire works.”

“Is it?” I asked. I was starting to be so stoned that I didn’t even bother denying that I loved Blixa. “I mean, what Gudrun said makes a strange kind of sense to me, though I don’t agree that Blixa isn’t pretty. But I have always drawn Blixa because he looks like one of my drawings, all spindly and elongated, with his arched cheekbones and his huge eyes. But what you’re saying is that I draw him the way I do, because I love him. No, I don’t think so. I think I love him because he looks like one of my drawings.”

“You sound like Nick,” giggled Anita, as if forgetting she had just asked me not to talk about him. “Nick is always getting these crushes on these girls he thinks looks like his muse. They’re always the same. Very small, uuhhhh, very thin, with raven-black hair and porcelain white skin, and, erm, eyes as pale a blue as a Velvets song, uuuhhhh...” The way she perfectly imitated Nick’s halting, stuttering manner of speaking was so exact that I wanted to laugh, until I heard what she said next. “I mean, why he goes out with a brown-eyed strawberry blonde, when this is his type is beyond me, but this is Nick’s muse. Like I said. Not me.”

And in that instant, I hated Nick like I did not think it was possible to hate a man. Because Anita did not sound upset or embittered about the disparity between Nick’s taste and her own person, but she definitely sounded mocking.

“Because of what you said earlier,” pointed out Gudrun. “Because love makes the beloved beautiful, and he is in love with you.”

“You are such a doll,” said Anita. “You are such a perfect doll, Gudrun. Why don’t you have a boyfriend who loves you as much as Nick says he loves me.”

Gudrun made a dismissive shrug, wafting away her cigarette smoke with her hand. “I don’t have the time for a boyfriend. I have a record company, a fashion shop, two bands, and an art degree to finish. Who has the time for a personal relationship, with all that.”

“You should fall in love,” said Anita. “Sex gives you almost as much energy as Blixa’s magic Russian pixie dust.” All three of us laughed, for different reasons.

“Hey, I have sex,” laughed Gudrun. “You know that. I have no problem getting sex, if I want it. But who has the time for love. It’s just too much work, love.”

“Sex, love, is there a difference?” I asked, and suddenly I was no longer sure I knew the difference.

“I think so.” Anita seemed to have to stop and think about that one. “Sex is just with the body; love is attraction with the mind, and the heart.”

“There are many different kinds of attraction,” said Gudrun, her German accent making her sound very wise. “Many kinds of love. Think of the Lou Reed song... Some Kinda Love. That’s how many different kinds of love there are. I mean, think about West Berlin, and one of the things that I love about this city, is that it recognises many different kinds of love, and accepts all of them. If I’d stayed in Luneberg, I’d be married by now. All of my girlfriends from school are married now. Who was I to marry? My boyfriend was half-gay. But he gave me Berlin, instead of a ring.”

“Bisexual,” corrected Anita. “Not half-gay, bisexual.”

“Bisexual,” mused Gudrun. “What a funny word. What a funny language, the English language is. Does that mean you have sex twice a year, or you have sex once every two years?”

“That’s biennial versus biannual,” I laughed. We were all starting to get very giggly now, and I realised we were all three of us very high, though Gudrun perhaps not so high as Anita or I.

“It’s so hard to figure out, sometimes, when you love a man, what it is that you are attracted to,” sighed Anita, and my ears perked up, because I wanted, on some fundamental level, to hear that she understood what an awful man Nick was, and to hear that she did not love him. “When I met Nick, I just thought he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen in my life. He was so tall, and so striking-looking, and his eyes were such a deep blue that I just looked at him, and thought... ugh. I just wanna root the bejesus out of that man. Like, do you know what it’s like to just look at a man, and just want him naked and sweating on top of you, inside of you, like that physical, animal reaction of just wanting?”

“Uh-huh,” agreed Gudrun with gusto, but I stared at Anita with horror. On one level, it was so strange to hear these vulgar terms from her poet’s mouth, and yet on a very animal level, I raged, because how could she feel these things, about him? But Gudrun’s eyes had gone all misty as she leaned her chin on her arms and gazed at her friend. “How did you two meet, anyway?”

Anita got a slightly soppy expression on her face, as if lost in memories. “Oh, it was at some teenage party or other. I saw him, and I just knew. I spent all evening trying to get him on his own, then finally I dragged him off to my friend’s bedroom, on the pretext of getting him to listen to some record or other. And so I finally dragged him off alone, and we sat and listened to music, and... and... just talked. I told him everything about me, that first evening. I mean, it was girlish stuff, my hopes and dreams, and how I wanted to be a poet. But he sat and he listened, so patiently, so thoughtfully. He didn’t interrupt me and start yammering on about his band, and his life, and all that kind of shit that, you know, how boys are always trying to impress you. He just sat, quietly, looking at me so intently, and he listened to me. Like, I thought it was so rare that a guy would actually listen to me. So I knew from the start, that Nick was special.”

Gudrun smiled dreamily. “That is amazing. Most guys that age, they just can’t wait for you to stop talking, so they can get in your pants.”

“Well.” Anita’s eyes flashed mischievously. “I also, to be honest, just wanted to get in his pants. Because I’d seen him around, you know. I’d seen his band play, already, at a party, and I thought he was lush. At first, I just thought he was so wild, and so uninhibited and crazy. And I totally craved that, because at that point, I was so shy and reserved, and I really wanted to be totally wild, and uninhibited, and crazy. I craved that, I wanted to eat that up, like I wanted him. Like, sometimes having a crush on someone is so intense and crazy like that, it’s about wanting to be who you think they are. I mean, I look at Nick and the way he looks at Blixa, and I can see, that that is the kind of crush he has on Blixa. He wants to be as assured, and as self-confident, and so absolutely ferociously pure, at his art, as Blixa is. You know, I’m pretty secure in my relationship, and I wouldn’t be threatened if I thought Nick wanted to fuck Blixa. But I don’t think Nick does want to fuck Blixa. I think on some level, he wants to be Blixa. You know?”

I stared at her, wanting her to rewind her words, and take back what she had said she felt about Nick, but my tongue seemed to move of its own volition. “Wow,” I said. “Because I’m pretty sure that Blixa would fuck Nick in a heartbeat.”

Gudrun laughed aloud. “Ja. Genau.”

But Anita just rolled her beautiful amber eyes. “I am pretty sure that if he tried, that Nick would run about a million miles in a split second. Because after I got together with Nick, and after I fucked him a couple of times, I realised... that whole crazy, unrestrained Wildman thing? That was all in my head. That was what I wanted Nick to be. Because underneath it all, Nick is really rather sentimental, and he’s actually quite shy, and he is actually quite terrified of everything, including women, including sex, and if your Blixa ever whipped his dick out...” She let her voice trail off, but her wide eyes, and the expression on her face made it clear what Nick’s reaction would be. “Nick plays at this stuff. He is drawn to guys who are a little bit gay – I mean, look at Rowland – but at the same time, he hates them a little bit, because he doesn’t know how to cope with how they make him feel.”

“Like I sometimes think he hates women,” my tongue said, without my volition, like what the hell was in these cakes that Mark had made us, were they some kind of truth serum?

“That’s what Lydia thinks,” sighed Anita. “Lydia thinks he secretly hates women. She says he’s secretly a prude who plays at being a Wildman, but underneath it all, he hates women.”

“Do you think he hates women?” asked Gudrun, really quite seriously.

“How could I be with a man who hates women?” asked Anita, which was the question I really wanted to know, but she didn’t seem to mean it in the way I meant it.

“Because you’re drawn to the danger,” said Gudrun, and in her deep, throaty voice, she made danger sound incredibly sexy.

“I don’t think he hates women. But I think he’s afraid of women,” explained Anita slowly, like her voice was coming up from a very deep part of her. “He’s afraid of femininity, because he’s been beaten up his whole life, in Australia, for looking like a poof, for wearing make-up and writing poetry and caring about art. And yet he craves it, this feminine side.”

“And yet,” I countered, feeling a very deep anger spilling out of my mouth. “Because he doesn’t actually respect women, or think women are human beings, deep down, the only way he can engage with femininity and still keep his respect intact, is to explore femininity with these very androgynous, very effeminate men, like Rowland, like our Blixa. He can only engage with the femininity in men, because he fundamentally does not respect women. He thinks of women as possessions, things to have, not human beings.”

“I think you’re a little bit right, and a whole lot wrong. Because he is drawn to femininity in men. In his creative partners. But Nick doesn’t hate women,” insisted Anita.

“I think you look with eyes of love, that make Nick seem beautiful to you,” I countered, feeling my heart burning inside my chest.

“Well, what about you, Carter, is what I want to know?” asked Anita abruptly, sitting up as if she didn’t want to make it obvious she was totally changing the subject.

“What about me?”

“You’re gay, right?”

I burst out laughing.

“I mean, you’re a lesbian.” As she said it, she seemed to lose confidence in it. “You like women. Isn’t that what you meant when you told me you weren’t into guys? At least... that’s what Nick reckons. You’re... homosexual.”

“Well, I don’t hate women like Nick does.” I said pointedly. “I feel a deep love, and attraction, and respect, and appreciation for women. I just don’t think I am one.”

“But then, I think, what about you and Blixa?” Anita looked genuinely perplexed.

“What about Blixa?” I said, though I knew perfectly well what she meant. “He’s not my boyfriend.”

“I don’t even think that Blixa’s a boy,” countered Anita. “That’s what Genevieve said, when she met him that first time. She burst into the dressing room all breathless, and just said ‘I have just seen the most amazing looking person.’ She said she had seen this incredible creature posing in the corridor like a ‘beauty queen from another planet’. He didn’t even register on her radar as a man. And I... I know what she means. I look at Blixa, and my senses are confused. I don’t know what he is. Then I go to hug him, and when I smell him, and, you know, Blixa has a pretty strong musk, my nose tells me, that’s a man. He smells like a man. But as I touch him, and hug him, he’s so frail, and so delicate, my body tells me... that’s a woman. You know him better than I do. What even is Blixa?”

I had to close my eyes and think about that. With anyone else, I would have hidden the truth, would have kept to the same old, ‘he’s not my boyfriend’, but I couldn’t lie to the woman I loved. “Whatever Blixa is, I think he and I are the same,” I confessed.

“So when you’re with him, are you gay, or straight, or bi... or... what?” Clearly Anita had not got the memo that Blixa and I were not lovers. What on earth had Blixa told her and Nick, when I was not around? And yet, I realised she had seen all those drawings, that we had been preparing for the show. No one who had seen those drawings doubted that Blixa and I were lovers. They weren’t like Wolfgang’s abstract nudes of Blixa, where he looked more like a shell or a flower or a beautiful object than a naked young man. The drawings themselves were so clearly erotic acts.

“I don’t understand how that works,” I confessed. “I honestly don’t. Like, when I’m out on the prowl with Bettina and Tabea, and I pick up a girl, people say... oh, Carter’s a lesbian. When I was going out with Ilsa, people would look at me, with her, and say, oh, that’s a straight man with a girl. When I’m in the Other Shore with Blixa, people look at us, and say, oh, that’s two gay boys on a date. And I guess Nick clearly thinks Blixa is feminine, and I’m feminine, so we’re two dykes. Which of these things am I? What makes my sexuality? The person I’m with, or the person who is looking at me? Because I don’t understand.”

“It’s not about what other people think,” insisted Anita. “What do you feel?”

“I don’t know what I feel. What does anyone feel, when they’re attracted to someone? Are we attracted to bodies? Like, you talk about wanting Nick sweating and inside you. When I think about fucking, do I think about bodies, do I think about a cunt, and just want to get inside a cunt? Do I think about gender, and about how someone reads to me, like, I touch Blixa, and you’re right. He’s so thin and so frail, and hugging him feels like holding a girl. The very first night I met him, and felt that electric shock that I thought was love at first sight, I thought he was a girl. I look at him, and I see cheekbones, eyelashes, painted lips, and my eyes tell me: that is a girl? But the one time we actually tried to have sex, my body just... stopped, and went: ugh, no. That is a man. I would have to be a girl with him. I don’t want to be a girl with Blixa, I want...” Thankfully I stopped myself before my tongue betrayed me. “I don’t want to be a girl with anyone. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with being a girl. I love girls. I just have no interest in being one.”

But the way Gudrun was looking at me – like this wasn’t even news to her, that Blixa and I had tried, and failed, to have sex – she was looking at me like she was wondering what had been at the other end of that sentence I had cut off. But Anita was so stoned, I had successfully diverted the conversation away from the dangerous thing, the idea of what I wanted from Blixa. “Do you want to be a boy, is that it?”

“No, I just want to be a human being.”

“Don’t we all,” sighed Gudrun, thankfully changing the subject. “Why is that so hard for men to understand?”

“Can I have another ciggie, Gud?”

“Yes, of course.” Gudrun bent down, found her packet and extracted two. She lit both of them before handing one to Anita, with a casual intimacy that made my stomach flip.

Anita sucked at her cigarette and started to think aloud. “I’m still thinking about that question. Are we attracted to bodies, or are we attracted to genders, or are we attracted to... something else. Minds. Muses. The thing that love makes us see when we’re blind. Because when I think about it, when I think about... just fucking? I think about cocks. I am one hundred percent about cocks. Getting a good root.”

Gudrun and I both laughed at the vulgar Australian slang. It seemed doubly shocking that this tiny, beautiful pixie-girl could swear like a sailor.

“But then again, when I first met you, Carter, I swear to god, when you came running up to me on the street, I totally thought you were a hunk. I turned around, and I saw a tall skinny dude, wide shoulders, black hair in a kinda shaggy quiff, really striking looking, good jaw, cheekbones for miles, and honestly, I thought, if this guy has blue eyes and a turned-up nose under those intellectual glasses, this is 100% my type.”

I flushed bright red, and put my hand to my face, because I did not have a turned-up nose, I had a great beaky prow of a nose, which was why I thought the glasses made me look so good; they obscured the great honking nose that dominated my face. But my heart was pounding at the thought that I hadn’t been completely mad. Anita had turned around and looked at me with the flush of desire. She had been flirting with me.

“But when we got in the van, and we were close-up, in close quarters like that, I got the smell of you. Not in a bad way; I’m not saying like, you stink or anything. But I have a really sensitive nose.”

“Despite all the cocaine you put up it,” laughed Gudrun.

“Oh shut up, I have a really good sense of smell.”

“I have no sense of smell,” I confessed. “I wouldn’t know how... a man or a woman smelled.”

“Really?” asked Anita, looking quite surprised and a little sad for me. “A sense of smell is so important to sexual attraction. I can’t imagine having no sense of smell, because I can’t imagine being attracted to someone who didn’t smell right. It’s like a chemical, animal response, pheromones or whatever.”

“So what do I smell like?” I asked quietly, a little afraid of what the answer might be.

The smile left Anita’s face. “Well, my sense of smell told me, even before you did... this is a woman, and something in me, at an animal level, just went... I’m sorry, but... no. Not for me. It’s not like it was a choice I made, or a decision that I felt on any intellectual level. It was just something that happened on a physical, pheromone level.”

For a moment, my heart seemed to stop beating, as I felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. Anita had just rejected me. She had done it in a really thoughtful, and even kind way, and explained, completely, her reasoning in a way that left me no doubt, gave me nothing to push back on and say, well, hey, if you weren’t dating such a jerk, then maybe... But no. I recognised a rejection when I heard one. Anita had just rejected me.

“I mean, it’s for the best, isn’t it. I’m with Nick, obviously. And we both adore Blixa,” she continued. I wanted to scream, for once and for all, that I was not with Blixa. “But I don’t think I’m wired that way. It’s very boring, but I’m just heterosexual.”

I looked over at Gudrun, desperately wanting her to meet my eye, to share some acknowledgement that my heart had just been broken, but Gudrun wasn’t looking at me. She was looking at Anita, and she was laughing. “So what was that with me, then? Are you just going to tell me, oh, we were drunk?”

“Well, we were very drunk,” giggled Anita. “And we had both, by that point, had two of those pills, what did they call them – those groovy love pills.”

“I had had one pill. You had had three,” pointed out Gudrun, then lapsed into another fit of giggles.

“Well, as I was saying, there were extenuating circumstances. We had had a lot of drugs.” Anita’s round face looked the picture of innocence as she described this indulgence as if it were just an extra helping of ice cream after dinner, as the realisation of what they were talking about hung stubbornly about the corners of my mind, refusing to either penetrate my consciousness or go away. “To be fair, Nick and I were on a break. You have to take a break, sometimes, when they tour. It’s too much temptation, being away for so long.”

“This is the part where you tell me it meant nothing to you, and I clutch my bosom and weep and tear my hair out,” said Gudrun, though she was clearly having trouble keeping a straight face, as she was almost shaking with laughter.

“Oh, it meant a lot to me, sweetie,” laughed Anita, reaching out and patting her hand. “I couldn’t have picked a nicer Fräulein to do the Weimar Lesbian thing with in a squalid squat in West London, but as Rowland would say, well, it’s not really my thing.” She could imitate Rowland’s soft lilt almost perfectly.

“So what you’re telling me, is, it meant nothing, and it’s never happening again, well in that case, get out of my bed, you strumpet, and give me my cigarettes back, and...” Gudrun couldn’t even finish her sentence, she and Anita were both laughing so hard they were almost crying, and the information finally penetrated my brain. Gudrun and Anita, had had a fling, while they were in London, and they were crying with laughter over the ridiculousness of it now.

“Oh god, this woman!” squeaked Anita, in her adorable little-girl voice. “She makes me laugh until I think I’m going to wee. You are the best thing about West Berlin, Gudrun, and you don’t even know it.”

Chapter Text

As the pair of them fell about laughing, and trying not to lose their lit cigarettes in the bedclothes, I did my best to stumble to my feet. Blindly, I tried to find my way out of the bedroom, and Gudrun and Anita must have thought I was just going to the bathroom, because they continued to giggle and gossip and make disparaging comments about boys and carry on roaring with laughter as if the world hadn’t changed, and I hadn’t had my heart ripped out of my chest not once, but twice.

Anita had just told me that she would never, ever have sex with me, because I just smelled wrong. Gudrun, a year ago, had told me that she would never, ever have sex with me, the reason at the time being, because I confused her, in all the wrong ways. And yet somehow, despite boyfriends, despite sexual orientation, despite confusion and smell and everything, the pair of them had managed to have a fling with each other.

I wanted to die. I wanted to crawl off in a hole and just disappear. Or run off and join a monastery and take a vow of silence and never speak to a woman again. But instead, I found my boots, and pulled them on my feet, and made my way out to the stairwell before I burst into tears.

With tears streaming down my face, I stumbled about Berlin in the dark. I couldn’t tell how late it was, and I didn’t know where my van was, but at least I realised I was too stoned to drive. But that somehow made it worse, the huge amount of hash I had consumed jangling my nerves and making every wretched twinge of my broken heart feel like a jagged wound had been torn in my chest and was oozing out blood and lung fluid like that awful rotting pig that Blixa and Andrew had had in the studio, every time they hit its chest with a mallet. I was the pig, and the pig was me, and now it was me, wandering about Berlin in the cold, bellowing out my broken heart and looking for somewhere to slake my stupid, pointless, useless lusts.

I thought about Blixa, and just ached. I was in love with Anita, and I couldn’t have her. I knew he was in love with Nick, and just thought, with what Anita had told me, he would never have Nick, either. What a fucking pathetic pair we were. Or, rather, a pathetic, non-fucking pair we were. Blixa hadn’t even been screwing around recently, I knew that because all of his energy was going into his creativity; he had told me that was where his sexual energy was going, and he was pleased with it. Or rather, he had implied that he wasn’t screwing Nick because he was conserving his sexual energy, but from what Anita had said... oh Blixa wasn’t telling the whole truth either. He was as hung up as I was, and as in denial about it as I was. I ached for Blixa, as well as myself as I stumbled through the dark, trying to get out of the dark residential area and back out to a main commercial drag. Two mixed up boy-girl, girl-boy creatures, and neither of us got to fuck who we wanted.

And then a voice spoke, as if in my head, and I don’t know if it was the insane amount of hash I’d consumed, but it seemed to make perfect sense. Why don’t you just fuck Blixa? It seemed like a shining beacon of sense and rationality, cutting through my confusion like a light was shining out through the misty darkness of the city. Up ahead, there was a streetlight, and the light was shining out, Why don’t you just fuck Blixa? The light resolved into a busy Berlin street, with streetlamps and kebab shops and night cafes and signs of life, all crying out, Why don’t you just fuck Blixa? At the end of the street was a bright shining glass temple whose glowing warmth seemed to beckon to me as I stumbled towards it, drawn by the happy shining red letter A above its door. A scarlet A. Adultery. Why don’t you just fuck Blixa? The door opened with a soft shoop, and I floated inside, to find myself surrounded by piles and piles of gleaming boxes of headache tablets and bandages and toothbrushes and toothpaste. “Sonderangebot: Zahnpasta” declared a cheery bright sign, and I started to laugh at the idea of tooth-noodles, before remembering that I did actually speak German. I was in a chemist, and the reason I had never fucked Blixa was because he had such awful bad breath.

But toothbrushes and toothpaste were things that I could buy, and twist his arm into using, and yes. I could just fuck Blixa. I grabbed about four tubes of toothpaste and two double-packs of toothbrushes, before going to the counter and smiling at the pleasant young man watching me with an expression of mild alarm and curiosity.

>>I need...<< Oh, fuck. I did not know the word. Scrambling around in the back of my mind, I strung together compound components to come out with something like. >>I need preventatives.<<

>>Preventatives?<< said the chemist, with a perplexed expression. >>For the teeth? Do you mean... dental floss? Mouthwash?<<

>>No, no...<< I racked my brain, but the hash was making everything go very funny. >>Plastic. Rubber. Bucket.<<

>>I’m sorry. Come again?<< He started to draw the toothpaste and toothbrushes across the counter towards him, as if considering refusing to sell me dental hygiene products on account of my extreme intoxication.

>>I’m sorry. My German is so bad. I’m English...<< I said by way of explanation, and lowered my voice as deep as it would go. >>Little rubber hats you wear on the schwanz so a girl makes no family.<<

>>Ah. Prophylactics<< supplied the chemist, with a look of extreme relief, and produced a box from somewhere under the counter.

“Genau,” I almost shouted, pulling Deutschmarks out of my wallet and pushing them at him in an effort to get out without any further embarrassment.

The chemist made change as quickly as he could. Stuffing both condoms and dental equipment into a plastic bag, then double-bagging it, he nudged it towards me over the counter as if afraid it would contaminate him with my madness or foreignness or both to come into contact with me.

>>Don’t worry<< I muttered to no one in particular. >>I’m just going to fuck Blixa.<<

I walked all the way back to Schöneberg, hoping my head would clear, but it didn’t do much good. The night air seemed to swirl around me, accelerating the blood rushing through my veins until everything seemed dizzy. Little fishes swum in and out of my vision, darting from the light-cone of one streetlamp to the next. Why, did I never learn about the strength of Manc Mark’s hash cakes. And more importantly, where would I even find Blixa? It wasn’t his night to work at the Risk, which meant he could be anywhere. Blindly, I headed towards Goltzstrasse, hoping against hope that even if he wasn’t there, that he might have left some note on the message board.

But of course it was closed. It had been late when I left Gudrun’s, and it had taken me nearly an hour to walk across town in my stumbling, stoned state. Of course he had locked up and gone out on the town somewhere. The lights were out and the door was barred, though the window was half-covered with posters advertising my show at the Other Shore. That, clearly had been Blixa’s doing, as I recognised the scrawl of his handwriting declaring >>opening night: tomorrow!<< He really was sweet to encourage and promote me like that, but that was Blixa, wasn’t it, so fiercely loyal and supportive to his friends. I felt suddenly proud to know him, and ached to be with him, to be caught up in his slightly manic self-confidence.

But as I leaned my forehead against the cool of the glass, wondering what to do with myself, I caught sight of a tiny flicker of light against the wall, deep inside the shop. And then it was gone. I perked up. If a light had gone on, then off, it meant someone had to be inside. The light appeared again, moved from one side to another, then appeared to flick off again as if someone had pulled a shade down over it.

And it was then, I remembered that first afternoon at Iron-Grey, Gudrun digging about on the floor, and complaining about Blixa reading in bed with the torch. I tapped on the door, but of course he didn’t hear me, so I tapped louder. The light appeared, swished about the room, but then retreated again. Oh, fucking lazy Blixa, didn’t want to get out of bed. Retreating round to the side of the building, I located the gate through into the internal courtyard and walked down it into the hollow, dark space at the back. Craning my neck, and counting windows, I worked out which was the back room of Iron-Grey. Then I found a bin, wheeled it over, and climbed up to peer into the shop.

And yes, there was the familiar back room of the Iron-Grey, even more of a mess now that Blixa lived here, the floor a tangled rubble of dirty clothes and magazines and cereal boxes and empty cartons of rice-milk. And there, up on the loft bed, almost even with my head, sprawled out with his arm curved over his head, the light of a torch directed down into the page of a book displaying a full colour diagram of a spiral galaxy, lay Blixa.

I tapped on the glass, and he jumped. For a moment, he dropped the torch, then recovered it, and shone the beam out the window, almost blinding me for a moment. >>Carter? What the devil are you doing out there?<< he called, before finally, he crawled down the ladder out of bed, his long thin legs pale and bare in the torchlight, then walked over and opened the window.

I climbed inside, and sat on the ledge, just looking at him. His hair, which was growing back in long clumps, stuck out about his head like a brownish-blond halo. His eyes, so bright, so intelligent, twinkled above the gothic arches of his solemn cheekbones, his lips, his helplessly sensual wide lips, twitching up in a smile that indicated that he really was pleased to see me. Gudrun was wrong. It wasn’t love that made Blixa beautiful; he simply was so beautiful it almost hurt to look at him.

>>I’m sorry<< I stuttered, not sure how to broach what I wanted. >>I didn’t mean to wake you.<<

>>I wasn’t asleep<< he shrugged. >>I was reading – a very good book, in fact. It’s by Carl Sagan, and it’s explaining physics, hopefully in terms even a stupid anti-musician like me can understand.<< Foolishly, I didn’t notice the slightly mocking tone of his voice.

>>That hardly sounds like your kind of thing at all<< I replied, trying to fall back into our usual teasing arguments. >>No mysticism, no alchemy, just good hard, science facts.<<

He smiled slyly. >>Oh, but it is very interesting. Did you know that the masses, of very large objects, such as stars and planets, have gravity wells so large, they actually bend the fabric of spacetime, and they are so powerful, they can warp even light? Isn’t that amazing?<<

My chest felt tight, and I ached for him. >>Yes, I think that very beautiful bodies can also have this effect. They seem to bend space, and light, and time towards them.<<

Blixa laughed. >>Yes, I, too, have experienced this.<< He grinned, and I saw his awful, discoloured teeth, and remembered why I had come. >>Beautiful bodies, beautiful minds. And I just roll into their beds, due to the gravitational pull. Gravity is my enemy, and must be resisted with every molecule of one’s body, but... sometimes it is irresistible.<<

Bending down, I opened the bag, and did my best to pull out the toothpaste and the toothbrushes. >>Look. Blixa, darling. I’ve brought something for you.<<

He looked down, and took the gifts, but he frowned defensively as he examined them. >>My teeth are bad. Yes, I know. Living in squats... sofa-surfing... sleeping here... I never get round to taking care of the teeth. And well... the amphetamine doesn’t help, it’s true. But the decay of the body, it echoes the decay of society. It is symbolic<< he insisted defiantly.

>>Blixa<< I suggested. >>Just... for me? Please brush your teeth?<<

>>Now?<< he asked, surprised. I nodded, and he put his hand to his mouth. >>Is my breath really terrible?<<

I nodded slowly, even while smiling. >>I know you don’t give a sausage, but can you, just maybe, take care of yourself a little more, for my sake if not for yours?<<

Smiling sheepishly, he dropped his hand and closed his lips. >> For you... OK. It is very kind of you, actually, to bring me this<< he conceded, and padded through into the little kitchen area. >>Come and talk to me while I brush. Tell me about the gravity wells. Explain to me how that works, in your calm, precise world of electrical meters and measurements.<<

And so I stood, and in my happy, drugged daze, I started holding forth, and told him about black holes, and event horizons, and entropy and chaos theory and all the kinds of ooh wow physics that sounded really amazing when one was very stoned, while he bent over the kitchen sink, and brushed his teeth until his gums bled, and I tried not to be horrified at the blood in the sink.

>>You know<< he said, between gulps of water, as he rinsed his mouth clean. >>I always loved the metaphor of gravity as a curved rubber sheet. With all the planets and moons and suns bending and stretching it under their gravitational mass. It truly symbolises the warping and distorting effect of Mr. Newton’s devious and unamicable gravity.<<

I paused, as that was not exactly how I’d just described the effect. >>Wait. Was that in the Carl Sagan book you were just reading?<<

Blixa smiled slowly, turning sideways to glance at me. >>No, I remember it from Gymnasium.<< He paused, as if waiting for that to sink in, before whispering. >>Science was always my favourite subject at school. Astronomy. Especially Astrophysics.<< As my expression grew more puzzled, his grin grew wider. >>You do know, that if I’d done well at the Abitur, that I wanted to study Physics at Uni. I had every intention of becoming a researcher.<<

>>What?<< I stammered, blinking with disbelief. Was he having me on?

But he laughed, and reached for the tube of toothpaste. Squirting a bit onto his finger, he used it like paint, to slowly spell out an equation against the metal of the sink: ΔS = ΔH / T

I looked at the equation and rubbed my befuddled eyes. Although I knew that somewhere in the back of my brain, I recognised it, I was so stoned it took an unduly long time to comprehend what it meant. But Blixa’s face changed from mischievous to triumphant as he started to chuckle at my apparent ignorance. >>I can’t believe you do not recognise that?<< he teased.

But as he started to crow, the information finally reached the conscious part of my brain. >>The Second Law of Thermodynamics?<< I sputtered, staring at him as he briskly nodded, then straightened up and wiped his face with a grubby towel. >>But that’s Physics. Proper Physics. Are you lying for fun again, or... or...<< Another realisation dawned like a bright red sun slowly flushing a darkened sky. >>Or have you actually been having me on, for even longer than that time you pretended to Nick that you didn’t speak English?<<

He raised and lowered his eyebrows quickly, mischievously, then a wicked grin spread across his face. >>Maybe I enjoy playing with you?<< But as my face grew suddenly furious, his grew more tender. >>It’s teasing. It’s fun. It’s flirtation. I thought you knew.<< The arrogance fell from his eyes, as he cocked his head playfully. >>And maybe I do just genuinely enjoy the clever way that you always explain these things. It’s really kind of adorable. I do like talking to you about science, because you know so much about the practical elements, while I’m more into the Theoretical. But I do also just enjoy winding you up a little bit, too, because you know, you never do stop being the Sensible Electrician at heart, and you’re very confident about your science and your physics. I mean, your confidence is very sexy. Like your intelligence is very sexy. But... it makes you blind, sometimes, with regards to me. Maybe you are not as observant about me, as you think.<<

>>Not very observant about what?<< I demanded, very confused, but feeling that my confusion was on the edge of giving way to an explosive fury. The revelations of the evening were really more than I could emotionally bear.

“Sehnsucht,” he sang very softly, and I recognised the song as one which was often the climax of their set. “Kommt aus dem Chaos.”

>>I don’t understand<< I mumbled, feeling simultaneously both angry and stupid, because I hated feeling stupid. >>That equation of yours is about working out the change of entropy in a system... Anyway you’ve missed out a minus sign. The Delta of Entropy is equal to the negative of the Delta of Heat divided by Time. Change in Entropy is the opposite of the change in Heat over Time.<< I rambled on, trying to remember my basic physics, but Blixa had started laughing overtly now.

>>Yearning<< he sang again, pointing at ΔH. >>It comes from the chaos.<< And then he pointed at ΔS. >>Yearning is the only energy. It comes from the Chaos.<<

As his finger hovered over the ΔS, something went off in my head. >>Chaos... you mean the entropy in a system. Disorder.<<

>>I am very interested in Disorder. And...<< Blixa nodded enthusiastically as he pointed to the ΔH, singing again. “Seeeeehhhhn-sucht.”

Sehnsucht was one of those weird German words that meant half a dozen different things depending on context. Yearning, longing, nostalgia, unrequited desire... “Geil.” I said abruptly, as something clicked in my head. It was the word all of us used to mean cool, sexy, horny... but it literally meant hot. Heat, as another word for desire. ΔS = ΔH / T. Entropy was equal to Heat divided by time. Chaos gave rise to Desire, to yearning, to erotic energy over time.

>>You absolute fucker<< I said softly, with more than a little awe, looking back and forth between the equation and his smirking face. >>This whole song is an elaborate mathematical pun based on physics?<<

>>When you told me<< he replied. >>That you derived energy from yearning, from desire, I understood completely. I thought of Physics. Where energy comes from. It comes from Entropy. From an increase in Disorder. From Chaos. My creative energy comes from the same place.<<

As I gazed at him, my fury ebbed, and was replaced with a sneaking admiration, my heart throbbing and bouncing about my chest like a drum as I realised, yet again, how playful, how clever, how bright he really was. I felt like a moth fluttering helplessly around a candle. >>You studied Astronomy at Gymnasium. You write songs based on Physics. At heart, you’re really just as big a nerd as I am.<<

>>Maybe.<< He stepped towards me, opening his mouth and showing a crooked row of teeth. >>My teeth are clean now. Are you happy?<< he asked, looking down into my face. His teeth, though still yellowish from tobacco, looked a lot more sanitary and free of that weird build-up of dirt. I looked at him, at his great prow of a pointed nose, at the skin stretched tight over his freckled cheekbones, I looked at his deep blue eyes and his expressive eyebrows, at the hollows of his cheeks, and the tiny mole just below his mouth. I thought about his inquisitive mind, his ferocious curiosity and his playful, mischievous intelligence, and I thought about what Anita had said about love, and about attraction.

And I put my hand up, around his neck, and I pulled him down towards me, and I kissed him. Remembering what he had told Nick about desire, my other hand snaked around his waist, found the small of his back, and slowly moved up his spine until I found those knobbled vertebrae that had made him purr like a cat.

At first, he stiffened slightly, a little too shocked to respond, but as he realised what I was doing, his whole body seemed to melt. As he leaned into me, he wrapped his arms around my waist, then put one hand on the back of my neck, pulling me towards him, his mouth merging against mine as I parted his lips and pushed my tongue inside. He tasted good. He tasted right, herbal flavoured toothpaste and cigarettes and sweet boy sweat and the faint tang of rubber, and his tongue yearning against mine like he wanted to devour me completely.

When I finally pulled away, he was trembling slightly. >>Why are you doing this?<< he asked, not angry, but very definitely confused.

>>Do you love me?<< I asked.

>>Completely.<<

>>Maybe we should just have sex.<<

He blinked at me. >>What’s changed? I mean, I’m not disagreeing. I like this idea very much. But why now? It’s not the physics, is it? If only I’d known...<<

>>You’re attracted to Nick, aren’t you<< I said, as calmly as I could.

>>No! ...well, yes.<< Blixa pulled away from me, and put his hand up into his hair. >>It’s complicated.<<

>>He’s never going to sleep with you, you know<< I informed him.

>>I know that. I’m not stupid... and anyway, I don’t even... Why are you even telling me this? Anita isn’t going to sleep with you, either, you know. Don’t think I’m an idiot, I can see the way your eyes follow her around a room, and I know how much she reminds you of Ilsa, but Ilsa with a brain, who actually laughs at your jokes and appreciates your drawings, and I know how intoxicating that is for you. Well, no, she isn’t going to sleep with you, and Nick isn’t going to sleep with me. Thanks for hailing on my parsley. So what of it.<< Pulling away from me, he went to light a cigarette, and I could see from the slight tenting in his pants as he moved, that the kiss had definitely turned him on.

>>We could...<< I took a deep breath and said the unsayable. >>Maybe we should go ahead and fuck. Everyone always thinks we’re fucking already. I think...<< My voice grew stronger, as I remembered the conviction I’d felt, drifting through the mist towards the light. >>I think we should just fuck each other.<<

He frowned, and seemed to see straight to the core of me as he studied me, slouching against the frame of the bathroom door. >>Did Anita reject you, is that it? Are you only here because I’m just your sloppy seconds?<<

I looked at Blixa, really looked at him, the hash still in my bloodstream heightening my vision and making him seem almost unreally beautiful, his long, thin body, his coltish, almost comically long grasshopper legs, bare under the harsh fluorescent light, his skin so pale it looked like marble. His face, so familiar, that I had drawn a hundred times, and yet I never got bored of looking at. His deep blue eyes, that I had never noticed before, were not perfectly blue. Right around the centre of his irises, only visible in the bright light of the kitchenette, was a narrow band of gold, that gave them a faintly aqua tint. Blixa was never exactly what he seemed on the surface. There was always something golden at his core.

>>I’m not scared of rejection<< I said thickly, fumbling my way towards the truth, as I stared into the centre of his eyes. >>I’m used to rejection, it’s second nature to me. That’s why I always fall in love with the straight girls. What I’m really afraid of, is actually falling for someone who loves me back. I don’t know how to do that. And that’s why I’m so afraid of you. Not because I’m afraid that the obsession, and the creative energy that it brings will go away, if I sleep with you. But because I’m afraid that it won’t. I’m afraid I’ll fall in love for real. Because I know that you love me back.<<

Blixa looked at me with utter disbelief in his eyes, like for a moment, he genuinely thought I was having him on, and that I would yank the ball away and say, haha, no, just kidding, of course we shouldn’t fuck. But I was looking at him, and although I was trying to smile, inside I was experiencing what Anita had described, that I was looking at him, and just wanted him naked and sweating on top of me.

We looked at each other for so long, and so hard that my confidence almost started to waver. >>You do love me<< I repeated, as if challenging him to deny it.

>>Completely<< he insisted, but I worried it had just become a reflex, a habit, to say so.

>>But, what, you’ve changed your mind. You’re not as into me, physically, as you were, eight, nine months ago? Has that worn off, or something?<<

A flicker of tension across his face, a curl of his lip that was almost certainly desire. >>Carter, I am even more into you now, physically, than I was, eight, nine months ago.<< He sounded almost surprised by this. >>But are you sure you want to do this?<< he almost gasped.

I thought about that for a moment. >>Yes. I have never been more sure of anything in my life. We should definitely fuck.<<

Blixa’s face changed slowly to an expression of unfettered joy. I had finally caught him by surprise. >>OK.<<

Chapter Text

If Blixa thought that having a fuck would change anything between us, would somehow exorcise the desire, the yearning, the obsession, he was wrong. Fucking diminished nothing.

Reaching out across the tiny kitchenette, he deftly plucked my glasses from my face, and laid them beside the sink. This time, he grasped for me, and pulled me towards him for a kiss of such passion and depth that it became obvious, even to me, exactly how excited he was at the prospect of having a fuck together.

We pulled apart, painting slightly, and grinned at each other, as nervous and excited as schoolchildren on the first day of holidays, almost drunk on the giddy freedom of what was to come. Without words, we moved through into the back room. climbed up into the loft bed and lay down together, then we started to gingerly touch one another, kissing and exploring with fingers and tongues. He was surprisingly affectionate, even playful, with a childlike appetite for teasing and naughtiness. I pulled off his shirt, and kissed his nipples, laughing at how thin he was, how different a boy’s chest was from a girl’s. Then he asked, quietly, solemnly, if he could take my shirt off. I pulled at my vest, then turned around and showed him the buckles of the brace that held my breasts flat.

>>If you don’t want me to remove it, I won’t<< he said, very considerate, as his long, elegant fingers paused on my back.

>>I want you to do it<< I assured him, and let him unbuckle me, and peel the brace away, so that we both were naked. It felt so strangely natural, the warmth of his flesh on mine. His hands, and then his mouth found my breasts, and for a moment, I stiffened, terrified, but as his tongue touched my nipple, I gasped at the sudden rush of pleasure. I had never remembered it as being pleasurable, being touched on the chest like this, and yet his mouth made me feel electrified with sensation.

>>Come here<< he whispered, tugging at my hips. >>I want you to go on top.<<

I lay on top of him, skin against skin, almost holding my breath as I bent down to kiss him. I had forgotten what to do with a man, and I found myself pushing my knee between his legs, surprised that he let me prise him open.

>>Hold me down<< he whispered, as he arched his back and held out his arms. For a moment, I paused, but then I grabbed him by the wrists and held him down, pressing his arms into the mattress as I started to move against him, feeling his cock slip between my legs. >>Hold me fast<< he urged.

I ran my mouth down the side of his neck and nibbled at his protruding collarbones, surprised by how little flesh he had on his bones. His hips were so slight and yet his cock was definitely straining against me, I could feel it against my thighs. And abruptly, I stopped, not sure how to proceed. >>I don’t really know what to do with a man<< I confessed, worrying that I was going to ruin the mood completely as I let go of his wrists.

But Blixa laughed, and put his arms around my shoulders, pulling me down closer to him. >>I don’t know either. Whenever I imagine this, I always dream of you climbing on top of me, just pushing me down and overpowering me completely.<<

I looked at him, a little concerned. >>You’ve imagined this?<<

>>Of course I have.<< He paused for a moment, then looked suddenly worried, as it dawned on me, under what circumstances, exactly, he might have imagined it. >>Haven’t you?<<

I rolled off him and lay staring at him with a flabbergasted expression, as he rolled over onto his side, his arms still around me, his face nose to nose with mine as he looked very deeply into my eyes. The idea that Blixa thought about me at all, when I wasn’t there, was still vaguely astonishing to me, let alone that he might think of me in... intimate moments. To my surprise, I decided I actually liked it, and smiled at him cautiously.

>>Whatever gave you the idea that I would be like that?<<

He shrugged lightly. >>I’ve seen you with girls.<<

>>When have you seen me.<<

He swallowed nervously, then closed his eyes and raised his eyebrows. >>I watched you, that night with Ilsa.<<

>>Why did you do that?<< I asked, just glad to have the confirmation that it wasn’t my imagination, he had done so. I wasn’t angry, just surprised that he would want to.

Opening his eyes again, he set his mouth in a disgruntled line. >>Because it was supposed to be me, alright? You were supposed to have a fuck with me that night. I planned it. We arranged it, so that Wolfgang would take off with his boy, leaving me stranded. Then you were supposed to go home with me.<<

I stared at him for a moment, and then started to laugh. >>Why?<<

>>It was your hands, OK? I love your androgynous face, I’m so hot for your ambiguous body, how strong you are, how you can just pick me up and sling me about like a toy. But it is your hands that make me go weak in the knees. I love to watch your hands when you work. Whether you’re drawing, or whether you’re manipulating your tools, especially when you are working with your electrician’s tools. You have the most beautiful, strong, supple hands. I just wanted your hands on me. Have you not noticed, how I keep trying to get your hands on my shoulders, my back, my waist? Christ how I want your hands. Your fingers. In my hair, in my mouth, around my neck, around my wrists, holding me down, on my skin, on my cock, even inside me. Especially inside me. Oh god, how I want your fingers inside me. To hold me fast and overpower me, leave me quivering and laid open, like a girl.<<

I did as he asked. I ran my fingers over every centimetre of his skin, tracing him as if I were drawing him. He was oddly passive, receptive, arching his back towards me, this strange feminine man who seemed to want me as intensely as I wanted him. I climbed on top of him, and held him down, and somehow remembered how to get a condom on him, and get his cock inside me, as I ran my fingers over his mouth, and he opened his lips as he sucked them in, desperately, urgently, his mouth warm and moist and oddly like a cunt, until we both laughed at the joy of it.

It wasn’t that big a deal, fucking a man. We were both giggling and screwing one another, wrestling slightly in the enclosed space high up under the ceiling. He made me laugh, and then he made me gasp, as he angled his hips and started to bounce me up and down on top of him roughly. I fought back a little, grasping his bony shoulders and grappling him down into the mattress. His upper arms were so thin I could almost get my thumb and forefinger around them, but his cock was suddenly doing amazing things to the inside of me as he thrust away at me.

>>How do I make you come?<< he panted as he strained against me.

I just stared at him, as it was not a question I had ever heard a man ask. >>I make myself come<< I said gruffly.

He grinned wickedly. >>Use me as a toy<< he urged. >>Do whatever you want with me.<<

Seizing his hands, I pushed them between my thighs, then held my own hands on top, and ground his fingers against me until I could feel the orgasm building. It only took a few minutes, and then there was the small explosion of climax. I gasped for breath, feeling my body fluttering with pleasure, then slumped back against him, breathing hard. An orgasm from a man. First time for everything. Releasing his hands, I touched his face, pulled his mouth towards me and kissed him. It was nice. Orgasm with a man. Not mind-blowing or spiritual or life-changing, but nice. I sucked his tongue into my mouth, raked my teeth across it, then released it, smiling down at him with a dazed expression.

>>My turn now?<< he asked, and I nodded. >>I might get a bit rough<< he warned.

>>Do you want me to hold you down?<<

>>Oh god yes.<< His eyes closed as I seized his wrists and pinned him against the mattress, then he started to thrust quickly, intensely, panting and gasping for breath, until he, too, stilled.

For a minute or two, we just lay there against one another, catching our breaths, me listening to his heartbeat slowing to a normal rate again. >>You came, yes?<< I asked, a little worried, as his organ slipped out of me.

>>Climax, yes<< he said softly.

>>Anti-climax<< I said, and we both laughed as I rolled off him and lay beside him on the bed, still looking into his intensely ultramarine blue eyes. He remained just as beautiful as he had been before I fucked him.

>>It gets better with practice, I assure you<< he said softly, a little apologetically. >>It’ll be even nicer next time.<< But I just stared at him, a little perplexed.

>>This is something you want to do again?<< I was confused, because he had spent the past year telling lovers not to get attached to him, and yet he wanted me to stick around?

>>Of course<< he blurted out, but then paused. >>Don’t you?<<

I didn’t know how to answer that. I hadn’t really thought about what happened beyond that initial fuck, that I had felt such urgency to just do, and get over with.

>>I’m not saying...<< But suddenly he seemed to stutter over his words, and his jaunty confidence deserted him for a moment. >>I mean, if you don’t want to do it again, that’s OK, too. But let me know, so I don’t... so I don’t make a fool of myself. So I know what to expect?<<

Lying back against the mattress, I thought it over, twisting my fingers in the tangled clumps of his sandy brown hair. >>Blixa, I’m not sure I understand what you are asking.<<

>>What is there to understand?<< he asked, rolling over to face me. >>Desire exists<< he declared, kissing my cheek. >>Or it doesn’t.<<

>>Oh, it does<< I assured him, with a helpless grin. >>It definitely does.<< He smirked proudly, and pressed his lips against the other cheek. >>I mean, yes. Of course. It would be OK to have another fuck. Or a few, even. Later tonight, or... some other time? Yeah. I desire that, most definitely.<< He looked slightly relieved, curling his lips into an impish moue. >>I just don’t want to...<< I tried to think how to put it delicately. >>I don’t want to cramp your style. I don’t want to fetter you, or tie you down.<<

His eyes flashed wickedly as he deflected the conversation away from where I was trying to lead it. >>To be honest, I would like nothing more than if you did tie me down and fetter me to the posts of your bed.<< But suddenly he got a very intense expression in his face. >>If you would tie me down, then put on that harness, and penetrate me, like one of your girlfriends, I would like that more than anything.<<

The idea excited me more than I liked to admit. >>OK, sure, yes, we could definitely get together and do that some time<< I told him, as he reached for the blankets and pulled them up over our naked and now cooling bodies. >>But Blixa... I just don’t want to... I just don’t want to create unreal expectations. I can’t... Ugh. I know, now is not the best time to talk about this, but...<<

>>Now is what we have. Now is all the time we have. Not tomorrow, not next week, now. Best to make the most of it<< insisted Blixa with a doggedness that made me realise he wasn’t just talking about this specific conversation.

>>But you... I mean, that’s exactly it. One of the things I love most about you is... You exist, so completely, only in this moment. Not tomorrow, not next week, not even half an hour in the future. Just now. You pull me out of my head and all my worrying and obsessing and cogitating about the Future, and you pull me into this body, in this moment, with you, here, present, exactly now. When I’m with you, there is only now.<<

>>Good!<< His face lit up with delight, his whole body rocking forwards as he nodded. >>You understand perfectly.<< My love burned with the perfect intensity of that understanding. >>I want to be with you now. But also...<< Here, the corner of his lips turned sheepishly up. >>I want all of our nows.<<

And abruptly the sensation slipped away, as I remembered tomorrow, and next week, and the rest of my life, and suddenly blurted out >>But you know that I can’t be your girlfriend.<<

He nodded solemnly. >>I didn’t expect you to be. To be honest, I think that’s part of the appeal, that you reject convention as strongly as I do.<< But then his lips twisted up in a smile. >>How about you be my boyfriend? Alright, then. My feckless boyfriend. You forget to call me, you drop by only when you want sex, you deny we have a relationship in front of your mates, I obsess over you and wait by the telephone for you to ring, and yet forgive it all when you bring me flowers, looking for a fuck? You could be my boyfriend. I think you’d make a good boyfriend.<<

I burst into laughter and cuffed him gently on the chest. So much laughter was another thing I had not expected from sex with a man. >>Be serious<< I told him, though I didn’t feel very serious. I felt kind of giggly and snuggly. This was not the conversation I had expected to have, at all. But in a way, it was a relief that we were raising all these things, and not just assuming. I wanted this to go well, fucking Blixa, not end up in a tangle of hurt feelings and recriminations.

>>I kind of am serious?<< He smiled and kissed my nose gently. >>I don’t want to play the boy-part in a relationship right now. Maybe never again. Can you just come to me, when you want me? I’ll always be up for it when you want me. Whenever. So I don’t have to worry about pursuing you? Just come and go, like a cat.<<

>>I...<< I was about to tell him that I really didn’t want a relationship, but as I thought about it, actually what he proposed sounded quite good right now. >>We just have sex, whenever I want? And otherwise, things stay as they are? We stay friends, yes?<<

Relief flooded his face. >>We are friends. We are the best of friends. That doesn’t change, not ever. We just add... all the fucks we’ve been avoiding..<<

I looked at him sternly. >>But you brush your teeth first.<<

For a moment, he pouted, like a petulant little boy disliking being reprimanded, but then burst out laughing. >>Alright. I’ll brush my teeth if it will make you have more fucks with me.<<

>>Alright. We’ll carry on as we were, with fucks.<<

And it was fine. I had sex with Blixa, once at night, and once again in the small hours of the morning, and the world didn’t end. Our friendship didn’t implode, we didn’t get weird and stop talking to one another. Neither of us got uptight. I didn’t wake up and hate the sight of him, mostly because we didn’t really go to sleep. We had sort of intended to at some point, but instead we kept kissing and snuggling and giggling and having strange, distracted, late-night conversations about ever more increasingly arcane subjects, as I drilled him, trying to work out the full dimensions of his complete knowledge of physics and astronomy.

He laughed, and pulled me out of bed, and we half-dressed, then he dragged me up the back stairs to the roof. As we sat there, in the dark, one of his arms around my shoulders, the other pointing out the stars, he showed me how to find Sirius, then the Winter Hexagon, from Rigel to Aldebaran, then Capella, Pollux and Procyon, right round in a great loop. We snuggled together, staring at the stars as the night wore on, until the sky pinkened at the edges and started to turn to day. Then we crept back downstairs as the sun came up, we rolled into bed, and we both dozed, my head against his chest and my arms around his waist. Then we did the fucking thing again, and it was definitely nicer that time, as we learned to anticipate what each other liked, then we decided to get on with our lives.

 

The morning brought new challenges. A place to bathe, for a start. Iron-Grey had a toilet with a tiny sink behind the kitchenette, but there was nowhere to clean up. I was terrified that we might stink of sex, and anyone we met would know what we had been up to. I was still getting used to the idea of being with him, the idea that I could walk by, and see an exposed bony shoulder, and it was alright, in fact it was highly appreciated if I bent down to kiss it tenderly. Blixa was a kissy man, I already knew that. He kissed everyone, girls, boys, friends, lovers. He was as open and demonstrative with his affections as I was repressed and British, and that affection didn’t change now that we were lovers.

So I had no idea how to handle the fact of being with Blixa in public. Whether kissing, hugging, gently squeezing, touching his exposed skin was appreciated, or forbidden.

And yet, I didn’t want to leave him, and slope off home to bathe by myself, especially given that I had missed the morning window for the furnace, and would have to heat water on the stove. He suggested dropping in on Wolfgang, who, after all, had that power shower. I was really not prepared to handle being with Blixa in front of the man I very much suspected of being some kind of former lover, though I found myself oddly shy of just coming out and asking if they had been intimate.

So then, he suggested we go to Christoph’s house, as he, too, had a power shower now, and I tensed up, remembering that Anita was staying there. Unless she had stayed over at Gudrun’s. I didn’t have a clue, and was astonished to find that it was still tender, for if I’d expected screwing Blixa to erase those feelings, it seemed that I was out of luck. Why couldn’t I just fall so completely in love with Blixa, that the overwhelming love just erased all of my other tense, conflicted emotions? Hell, screwing Blixa didn’t even seem to have done much to assuage my yearning for Blixa. I still looked at him and found myself shivering with lust, wondering what other fantasies he harboured, if he wanted anything else from me, as well as my tying him down and penetrating him by force. No, better not think that way if I wanted to get out of Iron-Grey at all.

We went to Wolfgang’s. He took one look at us, and seemed to know instantly what had happened, drawing back from the door, holding his hands wide to welcome us in. >> The artist and his muse<< he said, with a knowing smirk. >>or, the muse and his artist.<<

I murmured something apologetic about the hot water being off at my great-aunt’s house, and he laughed.

>>You’re welcome to the shower. I’ll put on a pot of coffee and make some breakfast. Will you be going one at a time, or do you want to save my hot water bill by hopping in together?<< He smiled and winked, almost as if to make sure I knew that there were no hard feelings.

>>I’ll go first<< I said, my face flushing, though Blixa was grinning wolfishly, as if he were pleased as punch to have his conquest recognised. I showered quickly, and put on the same clothes, wondering if I could nip back home to change before the opening. And when I emerged, I found Wolfgang and Blixa roaring with laughter in the kitchen. I flinched and drew back, until I realised they weren’t discussing me at all, but some art scene in-joke.

>>Are you excited for tonight?<< Wolfgang ventured, as Blixa sloped off to the shower, and I took his place at the kitchen table.

>>I’m a little dazed<< I confessed, not sure if I was talking about the art show or my lover. >>Everything’s happened all at once.<<

He handed me a cup of coffee, then put his hand over mine, and squeezed it gently. >>Wait until you see the paper – I saved this to give to you.<< He produced a copy of the local paper, which covered the West Berlin art school and gallery scene almost exhaustively. And there, on the first page of the arts section, was a large photo of one of my drawings of Blixa, albeit with his family jewels covered by a small inset box which showed a portrait of the artist – and the muse.

I had no idea when the photo had been taken, but there was Blixa front and centre, animated, holding court at the Risk bar, clearly pontificating about something with his dancing hands caught mid-gesture and his bright, intelligent eyes gazing out of the photo at the photographer, though he was leaned towards me as if drawn by a magnet. In the foreground, to the right of him, was me, looking not at the photographer, but at Blixa, with an expression that actually shocked me to see. Because I had had no idea how it was that I looked at Blixa, and indeed why it was that people constantly thought we were together, but the expression on my face could only be described as adoration. I had been looking at him as if he belonged to me, and he was leaning in towards me as if he agreed, two good-looking young men appearing very much in love, even though the photo had to have been taken weeks earlier.

And then I realised how recently the photo must have been taken, for in the background of the photo, on the other side of Blixa, standing leaning with his elbows bent back against the bar as if he needed to be propped up, was Nick. And he, too, was gazing through his messy black hair at Blixa with something resembling adoration, a dark, eerie mirror of the expression I had on my own face.

But then I wrenched my eyes away from the photos, and started to read the text. >>Last decade, a book called ‘Ways of Seeing’ by the English academic, John Berger, took the art world by storm. This book discusses the qualities of the Male Gaze, which turns the image of a naked woman into a Nude: ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relationship between men and women, but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object.’ Carter, an English artist, has come to West Berlin, not merely to live as a man, but with the desire to live without gender at all, an extraordinarily ambitious project. And in this audacious set of drawings, Carter has turned Berger’s diktats of art on their head. The tall, thin, androgynous yet undeniably male youth who serves as Carter’s muse is a man watching himself being looked at, and yet his internal surveyor is both ungendered, on account of Carter’s determination to live without gender; and yet also oddly feminine on account of the overt passive homosexuality of the setting; and also of course masculine, because neither artist nor muse can ever entirely escape the conventions of society. The erotic pictures – and there is no doubt that these images are highly sexually charged – manage to be both completely homoerotic, and yet completely degendered, because what is a nude, when the context of the erotic impulse of the painter has been so completely stripped? Context changes the gender of both the sitter, and the perceived viewer, in an extraordinary series of works. The latest exhibition at the Other Shore Café is both beautiful, and challenging, and not to be missed...<<

I felt my whole body bending and shifting and melting away, as I read, both annoyed at how the author – no name was given – seemed to have both completely missed the point, and yet somehow revealed things in my art that I had never managed to see. >>Wow<< I said, and finally remembered to take a breath.

>>It’s wonderful, isn’t it<< said Wolfgang, and I realised I had almost forgotten where we were.

>>Yes, yes<< I agreed. >>May I keep this?<<

>>Of course. I saved it for you.<<

>>Saved what?<< asked Blixa jauntily, reappearing redressed in his rubber jeans and his threadbare leotard top with the hole in the armpit that seemed to invite my tongue.

>>Wolfgang found a piece about my show in the paper<< I explained, handing it over. >>It’s really something.<< Blixa smiled when he saw the huge photo, a smile that widened into a grin as he quickly read the piece. But of course, Blixa skimmed over all the guff about art theory, until he found his own name mentioned.

>>...and when he is not playing Muse for Schöneberg’s scintillating gay arts scene, Blixa Bargeld is, of course, the mesmerising leader, singer and multi-instrumentalist of West Berlin’s premier experimental performance troupe, Collapsing New Buildings<< he read aloud. >>Oh, I’m so pleased with that description. That will annoy Mufti so much.<<

But I looked at him carefully, as he gloated over the review, pointing out the bits he liked to Wolfgang. >>It doesn’t bother you, to be called my Muse?<<

>>Why on earth would it bother me? It’s a very good title. Which of us is the muse, and which of us is the artist? I love that it leaves this ambiguous.<<

I shrugged, thinking over Gudrun’s protestations of the previous night. >>You don’t think that it... maybe diminishes you, to be reduced to just an idea, or a concept, an inspiration in my head?<<

Blixa laughed aloud. >>But Blixa Bargeld doesn’t exist just in your head, or in your ungendered gaze, or however this art theorist wants to put it. Blixa Bargeld is a product, that I invented, distilled and improved and commodified. But ultimately, I am the artist. I have created the original, an object with cult value. The Blixa cult. The ritual object displayed in performance. All you have done is created is another art object, a reproduction. Which only enhances my exhibition value.<< He nodded sharply, clearly very pleased with himself.

Following his lead, I also laughed, though to be honest, I sometimes couldn’t tell when Blixa was making an extremely convoluted philosophical joke, and when he really was being as arrogant as he sounded. >>So you think you’re not a muse at all, you’re the actual artist, and I’m just the camera reproducing your work of art.<<

>>Oh no<< insisted Blixa, thumping the newspaper lightly. >>I am a muse. Most assuredly. It pleases me, to be your muse. I love being a muse. I would be the whole world’s muse if I could! Not just to work, to make my own life a work of art. But to become a muse... to inspire the whole world to reproduce Blixa Bargeld, and, like I said, enhance the exhibition value of this unique Blixa Bargeld original...<<

>>So all along, you tricked me into enhancing your cult legend. And all my drawings, and my comics are just adverts for your Blixa Bargeld product<< I teased right back.

>>No! No! Have you ever read Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction?<< he asked, his eyes flashing. >>This will explain everything. I’m quite sure Wolfgang has a copy, if you have not yet read it, but anyway, it doesn’t really matter, because in point of fact, it’s wrong.<<

Wolfgang had got up and started to walk over to his bookshelves in search of it, but abruptly turned, and sputtered slightly. >>Wrong? Walter Benjamin? How dare you!<<

>>Well, of course he’s wrong on this<< cried Blixa. >>Because you know, you go to the Louvre and you queue up for hours to see the Mona Lisa. Or you go to Amsterdam and you go to the Van Gogh Museum and you see Starry Night. This cult item you see in this fanatic’s ritual, for thirty seconds amidst a crowd, maybe once in your life, like a devout Muslim travelling to Mecca. And on your way in, and on your way out, you see the gift shop, where they have thousands... hundreds of thousands of reproductions of this artwork for sale. Tell me, is the original painting diminished by those hundreds of thousands of reproductions, or is its value enhanced, by how much people are willing to reproduce it?<<

>>I’m not sure. Because it depends what kind of value you are talking about.<< I said slowly, deciding to try to meet him on his own strange logic. >>The auction value, of whether it can sell for a million pounds at Christie’s? The cultural value? Or the individual, personal impact of the image? Because I do have to say, that once you’ve seen Starry Night reproduced on a hundred thousand tote bags and keychains and umbrellas, a certain something about its emotional impact truly is actually cheapened. And I don’t think that’s something that ever comes back once it’s lost, even through seeing the original.<<

>>Hmmm<< said Blixa, and started to chew his lower lip thoughtfully, his face taking on a self-important and slightly challenging expression, as if he were merely gearing up for the next round. >>I do not think...<<

>>Here’s the actual essay, Carter, if you care to read it<< said Wolfgang, returning to the table and dropping a small paperback into my lap. >>Of course, he’s completely twisted the meaning of Benjamin’s original arguments, but that’s Blixa for you.<<

>>On the contrary. I love Walter Benjamin. He is my spiritual father.<< Blixa smiled, and his haughty, argumentative expression melted away. >>I’m just trying to distract Carter from being nervous about the show. And look, it worked. When she argues with me, she becomes fierce and passionate and forgets to be a shy, reserved, nervous little Britisher at all.<<

I turned and looked at him, wondering whether to be annoyed at him for winding me up again, or whether to be grateful that the distraction had worked. But his little boy smile was so appealing as he tented his eyebrows at me, that I just couldn’t stay angry with him.

>>But I’m not teasing about the muse thing, though<< he suddenly interjected, with a tone of great importance. >>I am genuinely pleased, if I inspire you to make your own art. This idea excites me. It excites me more than anything.<<

Chapter Text

We sat around drinking coffee and talking about art shows, and various performances Wolfgang had given, as he assured me that feeling this nervous vomitty-feeling was completely normal before a show. Then Blixa and I dropped back in at Iron-Grey for a few hours because it was almost as if Blixa liked keeping afternoon office hours, so that people could drop by and visit. Of course he had to be available so that people could share their gossip with him, and he could keep his ear to the ground of what was going on in his city. I took the opportunity to nip back to my own house, and changed into a nice suit I’d bought for special occasions, then carefully styled my hair for the evening’s party.

By the time I got back, Salomé had appeared and took us off to dinner at some fancy restaurant now that he was flush with Deutsche Bank’s money, but I was too nervous to eat, and Blixa kept reaching under the table to squeeze my leg as if he were concerned that that I was too tense. His tenderness towards me surprised me, but I wasn’t sure why I had expected that to change. We debated getting high, but I had had enough of hash, and I didn’t fancy Blixa’s speed, so he and Salomé went off and did a line of coke while I nursed another coffee, because really, the lack of sleep was starting to catch up with me and I was starting to get into that very familiar sort of West Berlin daze of no sleep and too many stimulants and slightly horny but totally fucked. In more ways than one. My nether parts ached slightly, every time I shifted my hips or crossed my legs, but in a good way, a pleasant way, like the happy tiredness after a good, long country walk, and every time I looked at Blixa’s slender hips I felt a little stab of pleasure-pain near my own.

And then it was time to go. We held hands in the taxi, him looking very intently at my fingers, lying clasped in his lap, and I remembered what he had said about how he had fallen in love with my hands. I wanted to just put them on him, and say, yes, yes, yes, god you amazing man, yes, but Salomé was having an argument with the taxi driver about the local council’s politics and the mayor of West Berlin and the corrupt Chief of Police and his hated policy on trying to break up the squats, and so instead Blixa and I just smiled at each other, and he mouthed something I didn’t quite catch.

The cab pulled up outside the café, and even though it was early, the place was very, very crowded already, with people spilling out onto the sidewalk outside, smoking and drinking and talk, talk, talking. The music was so loud I could hear it from outside – the new Malaria! album. Bettina’s expansive, theatrical cabaret voice totally suited the atmosphere of the bar and its art, and I felt a wave of solidarity at having my friends’ band there in spirit. Blixa climbed out, and actually held out his hand to me, like he expected me to walk into the place arm in arm, oh good god I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. People might think that we were.. well, we were. There was no denying that now. We were lovers.

I took his hand and walked up to the door, and there was Gudrun sitting at a table with a long list of names, looking all glamourous, like a visiting rock star, and I was terrified she was going to say something about my abrupt disappearance the night before, but she acted like nothing had happened at all, just smiling at us, her eyes all huge and round as she told us who had come, and what amazing people had turned up, and wasn’t it all so wonderful.

>>Wonderful, wonderful<< agreed Blixa, kissing Gudrun on both cheeks in greeting. He squeezed my hand and tugged me inside, propelling me towards the centre of the crowd like he was not going to allow me to just stand by the wall and observe. Then he whispered something again, and I didn’t catch it because there were so many people and the place was so crowded and it was so noisy.

>>What?<<

He grinned and leaned closer and whispered in my ear. >>I said I’m so proud.<<

Blixa? Proud of me? I just gawped at him until he squeezed my hand and tugged me onwards into the crowded room.

And there was Anita, standing in the thickest part of the crowd, shining like a goddess with her red-gold hair pouring down her back, acting the perfect hostess and taking me by the arm and saying “Good god, Carter, you clean up nicely, you look gorgeous in that suit,” and my face felt like it was on fire as she kissed my cheek. “Come and meet your fans, everyone loves the show...” and I was being dragged off to meet people as Blixa winked and disappeared in the opposite direction.

Just being around Anita seemed to exacerbate my nerves, until I felt almost like I was going to throw up, but she didn’t even seem to notice. She took me by the arm and guided me first towards one person, and then before I could even catch what they were trying to say to me, she shoved me on towards the next. I shook hands, I said hello to people, I did my best to greet people politely and accept compliments graciously, but it just seemed to go on and on and on. I felt so churned up by Anita’s presence that I wanted to crawl away and hide, but then again, I couldn’t stand the thought of being away from her. God, where was Blixa? I didn’t feel like this when Blixa was around any more, I felt confident and self-contained and beloved. But without his presence to steady me, Anita’s small, soft body at my side felt like a spotlight I couldn’t ignore. It was overly warm in the café, and the lights were too bright and the music was too loud and my special suit felt awkward and unnatural, and even though it fit perfectly well, I didn’t feel like myself in it.

People kept talking to me about what they thought my art meant, which felt completely absurd, but at least it kept me from having to say anything. I smiled and blushed and accepted compliments, but found myself falling more and more silent. People enjoyed this sort of thing? Really? Listening to some man droning on and on about Aubrey Beardsley and his cock drawings from Lysistrata, I glanced around the room, searching for Blixa. Finally, I caught sight of him at the bar, posing next to Nick with an imperious posture, his head erect, his hands on his hips and his pelvis thrust forwards, like he wanted to announce to everyone in the room that he had got laid last night. Nick looked out of it, really fucked up, and he wasn’t even looking at Blixa, he was glaring across the room, and I followed his gaze quickly to see Rowland and Gen talking and laughing with the drummer from The Skin, who had just arrived with Manc Mark. Lydia turned up, and the dynamics in the room seemed to change again, as she made a bee-line for Rowland, working like a sheepdog to cut him off from the flock and nudge him away from his girlfriend, and Gen looked slightly put out at that, but rolled her eyes and made a snarky comment to the drummer, who smiled, very politely, with tight lips. But if Nick glared at Rowland, he positively scowled at Lydia.

The music had changed, the new Malaria! album had gone, and now David Bowie’s Low was winding its sinuous funk around the room, pulling away my ability to concentrate with its odd, tortured guitar lines. Lysistrata man started telling me about how Bowie used to live just next door, as he was recording this very album, and frequently took his meals at the café, but the Bowie echoing over the loudspeakers seemed to be trying to tell me something urgently. “Don’t look, at the carpet... I drew something awful on it. See!”

>>Look, I’m sorry<< I found myself saying to the Lysistrata man, as I gently excused myself from the conversation. >>But I’m feeling a bit warm. I really need to go and get a drink of water.<<

I could see Anita trying to catch my attention, moving towards me with another cock-drawing-collector she wanted to introduce to me, but I shook my head and dodged the other way. I couldn’t face her, or another conversation about cocks in art. I needed a drink of water, or better yet, some air. The bar was too crowded; it would just be better to head straight outside into the cool night air. But as I was making my way towards the door, the crowd seemed to part, and I became aware that someone was walking towards me. At first I took it for a small boy, with dark, close-cropped hair, wondering if someone’s child had come looking for his parents in the crush. But no child had a face like that, thin and cadaverous, dark circles under its eyes, the cheeks sunken in. And as this creature locked eyes with me, I suddenly realised that I knew it, that this was Jana, though she seemed to have hacked all of her hair off, leaving only bare-scraped curly tufts that reminded me uncomfortably of the hacked-off hairstyle that Blixa had only recently abandoned after he started hanging out with Nick.

And when she spoke, I knew for certain that it was Jana, her little-girl voice rising slowly from a whisper to a hysterical whine. >>Vultures<< she cried. >>Vultures, all of you, circling the pyres.<<

As her voice rose in volume, people turned to look, curiously at first, conversation dying away as if they thought this was maybe another part of the art.

>>Hyenas! Like a pack of hyenas, the lot of you! Scavengers! Carrion beasts!<< For such a small woman, she had a piercingly loud wail. >>Yes, you, you fuckers. All of you. Vultures.<<

People were starting to stare, drawing away from her, laughing nervously as if they were starting to think maybe this wasn’t part of the art show, but things were spinning a little out of control. A couple of people turned to look at me, as if expecting to take their reaction from mine, but my face registered only shock. >>Jana?<< I said, my voice shaking.

She walked straight up to me, and stared at me. She tried to hand me something, but I didn’t want to take it, so instead she pushed it – some slip of paper – into the sketchbook I was holding because I’d been showing my drawings to some cock-collector. And then she moved even closer, putting her face really right up close to mine, then whispering >>Oh my god, I am so sorry. All I see is breaking glass. Stop him.<<

>>I...<< In the background, Bowie’s disembodied voice had been singing about breaking glass, and I wasn’t sure what it was that she was apologising for, making a scene at my show, or... But she moved past me and towards the bar, drawn like a magnet towards Blixa, and for a horrified moment, I saw that she had the local paper in her other hand, and that it was open to the photo of Blixa and I. Oh god. Had she realised, from this photo, that Blixa and I had, well, only as she had bloody well asked us to, ten months previously... got together?

>>Vulture!<< she cried again, but she didn’t stop by Blixa. She walked on and stopped in front of Nick, then pointed a single accusatory finger at him. >>Vulture!<< she shrieked. >>Carrion beast! You fucking scavenger coming to pick over the bones of West Berlin! You’re not wanted! Fuck off!<<

Nick drew back, his face suddenly very pale, like he clearly couldn’t understand what she was saying, but understood that it was bad. “Look, sweetheart, I’ve, uuuhhh... I’ve never met you before in my life.”

>>Pack of hyenas, and you are the hyena king!<< she screeched, undeterred. >The vultures, the vultures, all of the vultures. Circling! Can’t you see them circling the city?<<

>>Darling<< said Blixa, moving to try to come between his ex-girlfriend and his new best friend. >>Maybe this is not a good time to...<<

>>Vulture!<< screamed Jana, and this time, she picked up a drink that was lying unattended on the bar, and she hurled it, glass and all, with all her might, at Nick.

“Whoa!” yelped Nick, and leaped out of the way, his reflexes just a little too slow to avoid getting hit, as Blixa rushed forward to restrain her, now just screaming inarticulately about scavengers and wild beasts and corpses in the street.

>>Darling<< repeated Blixa. Anita appeared, and lead away Nick, who was now bleeding from the face and muttering something about being a magnet for bonkers sheilas.

But Jana turned to me, her eyes huge, her pupils pinpricks, and hissed >>I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry. I thought it was you... it was not. I am so sorry.<<

>>Thought what was me?<< I asked, but a large burly man had appeared, and was detaching her from Blixa’s restraining embrace, and dragging her away, kicking and struggling.

>>He’s poison<< she howled, even as the large man was joined by another, and she was ejected from the building. >>Can’t you see it? Can’t you smell it on him? The smell of decay. Don’t let him hurt her. You understand me, don’t you. Keep your lovers from his clutches. All of them. He’s poison.<<

A shiver went down my spine as I realised she wasn’t talking about Blixa; she was talking about Nick. I turned to Blixa, moved towards him and tried to reach for him, but I could see that his face registered surprise and fear and deep, deep worry. He looked truly shaken, as my hand found his.

The silence that had formed in the wake of the interruption seemed to deepen for a minute, but then, slowly, the normal chatter of conversation started to slowly pulse back to life, everyone saying >>what was that?<< or >>who was that crazy girl?<< but with nothing like the same volume.

And then abruptly, the tense and overheated air of the café was abruptly shattered by the smash! of breaking glass as some projectile came in the front window. Oh, Jesus Christ, she had been going on about breaking glass, hadn’t she? Blixa and I exchanged looks, then both of us ran at once, knowing that we had to get to Jana before the staff did.

There she stood, outside in the half-light, in front of the now-shattered window. Clearly some flying glass had hit her, for blood was starting to seep down her gaunt face, as she just stood there, as if she were as surprised by her own violence as we had been. She looked at me full in the face, and simply repeated the words >>The Tower<<< she said. >>I thought it was you, that he would betray me for. The Tower. I got it so wrong. He’s going to betray you, for him. The Tower, don’t you see.<<

Blixa walked around to the other side of her, so that she was hemmed in, and could not run, before taking her gently by the shoulders and suggesting >>Jana, we need to go. You have to get out of here. They’re going to call the...<<

A police siren suddenly started to wail, a lot closer than either of us had been expecting. >>Shit<< I swore, looking to see if there was an alleyway that we could bundle her down, but she was not moving, just standing there staring at me like a forlorn child.

And abruptly, Gerhard appeared outside, with two large staff members, advancing on Jana, and we were trapped. >>That’s her, that’s the girl<< insisted the burly man who had ejected her, adding a racial epithet I didn’t know, but certainly got the gist of.

>>My window<< moaned Gerhard. >>They warned me, my insurance company said, don’t have open windows on a gay bar, put up some shutters for protection. Oh god, my insurance premiums are going to go through the roof.<<

Jana just looked at him blankly, as Blixa stuttered. >>I am very sorry about your window...<<

Everything seemed to become jumbled together, the crunch of glass underfoot as the police arrived. The officer shined a light into Jana’s face, but she didn’t even flinch. >>Is this the perpetrator? What happened, were there drugs involved?<<

Turning to face down the policeman, Jana just stared calmly, carrying on in the same fashion, but a new, completely ordinary tone that was somehow much more frightening than the shrieking and shouting she had been doing earlier. >>Flying vultures, circling the pyres of the city. Poison. Death and destruction. The angels will destroy the city, you know, the avenging angel of history, just like Walter Benjamin said. And hyenas roaming the streets in packs. Corpses, corpses everywhere. Piles and piles of bodies, and the scavengers pick at them night and day, pick, pick, pick. Vultures and snakes and things that crawl. Death, death, death, death, death.<<

>>Oh, Christ Jesus<< said the policeman, and spoke into his walkie-talkie. >>Call an ambulance, this one’s a full-on fucking nutter.<<

All three of us went off in the ambulance together, me holding Jana’s hand as she kept talking, her phrases becoming more and more disconnected, degenerating into a kind of word salad, and Blixa at the other end of the stretcher, trying to fill in some basic history for the paramedic. Drugs, yes, she was known to be dependent on heroin. No, neither he nor myself used heroin, neither of us were on anything, which was almost the truth. Relationship to the patient? Ex-lover, said Blixa, his eyes flickering nervously towards me. They used to live together, for a number of years. What an awkward lot we were. Where were her parents or closest relatives? Blixa sighed deeply and tried to remember where they lived. Friedenau, he muttered, but the better part of Friedenau. There was clearly a lot of history there.

When we reached the hospital, some other medical types arrived with a straitjacket, but Jana was so calm and unconcerned it scared me more than if she had been crying and wailing. >>No need for that<< muttered Blixa, as Jana started to chatter away at the new medics in a weird, sing-song tone, loopy words that signified nothing.

We were there most of the night. I took turns comforting Blixa while the medics examined his ex-girlfriend, and then comforting Jana while Blixa tried to argue with them that there was nothing wrong with her mentally, she had clearly just had a bad batch of smack. She started to go into withdrawal as we sat there, shaking and shivering as Blixa begged them to do something. It took hours of her clinging to each of our hands in turn, her ragged fingernails biting into my skin, before they agreed to give her a dose of methadone.

I could hear the doctors arguing outside in the hall, when I went to refill her jug of water. >>The state of some of these kids, when they come in.<< >>One never knows what dosage they’re up to, if one should try to maintain them at the same level, or bring them down.<< >>First of all, do no harm.<< >>Well, it’s not us doing the harm, is it? It’s the Russians.<< >>Come on, that’s just a rumour.<< >>It’s no rumour. You want to come and work in the clinic in Kreuzberg some time. Someone brings their mate in with an overdose, and if you’re lucky, you get them to show you what they’ve taken. Sometimes it’s still in the original packaging. Medical grade, Russian supplies.<< >>But why would the Russians do that? Not to mention, why would the East Germans allow medical supplies out of the country when they’re so poor?<< >>War of attrition. They want to degrade the moral fibre of West Berlin youth. They just don’t care who gets hurt in the process.<< >>That girl in there. She’s what? 22? 23? And she has the heart and veins of a 50 year old. What can you do.<< >>Drugs are the least of that girl’s problems. We won’t be able to tell until we stabilise the opiates, but it seems like self-medication for the onset of psychosis. You heard her. She hears voices, she believes she can foretell the future, read people’s minds. Classic case.<<

It was not be the first time I had heard the rumour, but it was the first time I had heard it from the mouth of someone who was a professional, and not just an overly paranoid speed freak. The New Buildings, jokingly, often called their speed ‘Russian vitamins’ but I had thought it was in jest. Soon, a nurse finally appeared with a cup of orange juice, and some noxious mixture that she watched carefully while Jana swallowed. And finally, the girl lay her head back, and seemed to find some peace.

The police reappeared after filling out their paperwork, and argued with the medics over whose jurisdiction she was. Clearly, she was under arrest for the damage to the Other Shore, but the medics kept using ugly words: delusional, echolalia, schizophrenia. Blixa and I sat on either side of her, each holding one hand as she lay there, sleeves of her shirt hiked up to show the track marks on her arms, her limbs so thin she looked like a child, her skin ashy and discoloured and blotched, spread so tight over her bones.

In the morning, her parents arrived. As her mother flew to her bedside and started to stroke her bony face, her father, a tall man who was clearly every inch an ex-Serviceman, turned on Blixa and attacked him, first with words, and then with blows. >>You! This is your fault, you feckless waster! You ruined our daughter. She was a straight-A student, my little girl, she was going to be a ballet dancer, before you appeared on the scene, messing her up with your fancy words and your ugly talk and all the fucking drugs...<<

Blixa didn’t even try to defend himself, he just let the old man hit him, until I had to pull him off, and dragged Blixa away, sheltering him with my body.

>>And after all this, you’re a fucking queer?<< the old man bellowed as I hugged Blixa and tried to calm him with a kiss.

>>Let’s just fucking go<< I said to Blixa, who just seemed lost, disoriented, but somehow not broken, finally waking up enough to bluster back at the older man, standing up straight and pulling himself up to his full height, glaring down into his face.

>>Carter!<< called out Jana. She sat up and looked straight up me as her father did his best to push Blixa and I out of the room. >>He’s a bad man.<< she said, quite clearly, lucid for the first time in hours. >>He’s hurt someone before, and he will hurt someone again. You’ve got to stop it! The flaming little girl, oh how he hurts her! Glass! Smashing glass! He pushes her through the glass! Watch out!<< And then she repeated it to make sure I had heard her. >>Smashing glass, Carter. Smashing glass!<<

I shook my head, confused. She seemed to have lost her wits, as if she now believed someone else had broken the window, and not herself, with her own cut-up hands?

When we found ourselves out on the street, the day had dawned. Blixa didn’t even have change for the bus, so I sighed and said I’d pay for a taxi. After two days without sleep, I was ready for bed. We didn’t speak much in the taxi, we just held hands and stared moodily out the windows. But as we moved towards the city centre, he suddenly stirred and looked at me solemnly, asking if I minded if the cab dropped him in Friedenau.

>>Whatever you like<< I said a little too quickly, then worried he might feel abandoned. >>Do you want me to go with you?<<

He shook his head grimly. >>Not unless you want to meet my mother.<<

For a moment, I considered it, then thought, after Jana’s father, really, I’d had enough of other people’s parents. >>Not at this time, no. And I imagine you want space.<<

>>What?<< Blixa turned to me sharply, looking utterly perplexed.

>>Space<< I repeated, then realised it was an English idiom that didn’t really translate. >>Sorry, what I mean is... I imagine you want some time to yourself to sit and think, and just... work things out by yourself.<<

He smiled for the first time what felt like days, and even ventured a laugh. >>I thought you meant, space, as in, like... outer space.<<

>>No. It just means time by yourself. Though I know you like outer space so much, you can have that, too.<<

He closed his eyes and smiled, squeezing my hand. >>Thank you for understanding.<<

I leaned towards him, wanting dearly to lay my head on his shoulder, but I wasn’t sure how he’d take it. But as he felt me shift, he turned and leaned his head against mine. Bending down, I rested my cheek against the top of his head, nuzzling slightly against the unexpectedly velvety stubble of the gashes shaved into his soft brown hair. And we spent the rest of the drive in silence, each with our own thoughts.

>>I do love you. And I will see you soon, yes?<< he said as the car pulled up outside a huge, working class housing estate. Then he turned to me, and kissed me on the lips, a deep, lingering kiss, just in case I’d forgotten what he was like as a lover, then turned and fled from the car.

Chapter Text

I didn’t see Blixa again for nearly a week. There was work, of course, some dreadful schlager-style band with a fussy female singer who kept me running around fetching her water, adjusting her microphone, making her hot mint tea with lemon, until I longed for the straightforwardness of Lydia or Anita. Although I had found the Australians noisy, obnoxious and chaotic, I missed their charisma and I missed their fractious energy. It was a bit of a surprise to me, to find out that working in a studio could also be boring and tedious when the band were not as intelligent and exciting as my friends. But granted, it was still not as bad as standing in an icy basement, wrestling with tangled old copper wires, praying I didn’t get electrocuted.

After giving it a couple of days, I dropped by Iron-Grey after work, deciding to take Blixa at his word, and go find him when I wanted him. But to my surprise, he was not there, and Bettina was watching the shop. As a couple of teenagers I didn’t recognise took turns on Alex’s pinball machine, she bemoaned the state of the place.

>>Nah, Blixa’s not here. Gone to rehearsal, him and Andrew. But I mean, seriously, look at this. I don’t mind him staying here, but this is ridiculous, the absolute state of this mess. It’s one thing if he just sleeps here and minds the register for us. But honestly... he’s been bringing girls round. He must have chucked his used condoms under the bed, and just left them there. All weekend! Until I came in on Monday, and found them starting to stink.<<

I mumbled something apologetic, though I decided not to inform her about my role in the creation of the mess. Honestly, I didn’t know what men did with condoms after they used them. It wasn’t something I had any experience in.

>>So I missed the big hoo-hah at your show, apparently<< she rattled on. >>I got there quite late, and found police tape all round, and one of the windows smashed in. The police kept trying to clear the place out because all that broken glass wasn’t safe, but the staff kept selling more drinks so long as people kept drinking, until Gerhard had to beg them to stop, in case the police took away their license. We all went round The Skin’s house and had a fantastic time, playing music, and banging on until the sun came up. Wonderful shindig. It’s such a shame you had to miss your own party. But Jana really cracked up, huh... Well, honestly, I always thought that girl was a bit touched in the head.<<

>>I feel bad for her. I don’t really think she had much control over what she did. I just hope she can get the help she needs.<< I didn’t really want to talk about Jana, or the party I’d had to leave so early, so I started looking through the messages posted all over the board. >>Have you got a piece of paper I can... Oh never mind, I’ll rip a bit out of my sketchbook.<<

Digging for a pen, I sat down and tried to think of what to say. I love you. I miss you. I can’t stop thinking about your body, and what it feels like when you’re inside me. Christ, no. What if someone intercepted it. Instead, I wrote simply the words ‘die Weltraum’ – outer space – and drew a wonky picture of a galaxy. Then I folded the piece of paper in half, wrote ‘BLIXA’ on the outside, and pinned it to the messageboard.

The next day, I went round to return Wolfgang’s book on Walter Benjamin. I’d read the collection of essays over the course of a few evenings, and found I suddenly understood a whole constellation of Blixa’s favourite in-jokes. ‘Exhibition value versus Cult value’ was only one of them, but so was ‘The Angel of History’, and to my surprise, so was that ‘Make way, make way!’ cry he used to shout – the ‘cheerful destructive type’ in Benjamin’s universe. I smiled and hugged myself as I felt whole chunks of Blixa’s references slotting into place like the missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. So when I finally finished it, I drove over to Wolfgang’s building, and rang the doorbell.

>>Carter!<< He looked genuinely pleased to see me. >>How are you. Come in and have a coffee, I’ve just put a pot on.<< I handed him the book, and thanked him profusely, but he waved my gratitude away, thanking me for returning it, as I gathered that when he lent Blixa interesting books, he often never saw them again. >>Have you heard any word about Jana?<<

I shook my head as I sat down at his kitchen table, playing distractedly with his strange, kitschy Soviet salt and pepper shakers. >>Her parents threw us out of the hospital, so we’ve heard nothing since then.<< I filled him in on the details, then sighed deeply. >>Mostly, I’m worried about... well, Blixa.<<

>>The thing to remember about Blixa is, he is remarkably resilient. He’s lived through a lot, already, that young man. He was kicked out of school, his parents threw him out of their house. He’s tough, he knows how to take care of himself.<< But then he paused. >>Are you alright, though? It was certainly an... eventful opening.<< He poured out two cups of strong coffee and sat opposite me. >>People will talk about it for years to come – the Other Shore will never forget your show, at least.<<

I hid my face in my hands. >>Oh god, I’m almost ashamed to show my face there again. Will Gerhard ever even speak to me after all that?<<

Wolfgang just looked perplexed. >>How is it your fault, what Blixa’s crazy ex-girlfriend does?<< I remained silent, not wanting to tell him how I was quite sure that Jana had actually been trying to warn me, about whatever she thought she had seen in a vision. For days, I had been trying not to think about her, or her bizarre behaviour.

>>Wolfgang, do you believe in the supernatural?<< I blurted out.

He blinked slowly. >>Well, that’s a very interesting question. In general, I find the whole thing intensely intriguing. You know, the idea that humans, with our puny bodies and our timid little minds, that all we can see and know and comprehend with our puny minds is all there is to this world... well, it’s preposterous. Of course we can’t, and so, the things that we can’t account for, that’s where we put that label, supernatural. So of course, some of those things are real, we just can’t understand them.<<

>>Do you believe that people can... foretell the future?<<

He laughed aloud. >>Carter, people foretell the future every day. I turn on my radio and someone foretells what the future of the weather will be for the rest of the week. I can foretell that you and Blixa, either tonight, or some night this week, will get together and he will enthuse at you about some new book he’s read or perhaps some film he’s seen, and then you will smoke some hash or snort some speed, and go to bed together. And on Saturday night, you, and I, and Blixa, together with about half of West Berlin, will all be at the Risk bar at some point, and will wake on Sunday with absolutely roaring wretched hangovers. There, am I psychic? Is that supernatural? People are predictable, so the future is predictable.<<

>>I don’t mean like that. I mean like... what Jana said about Nick. You heard her, right?<<

>>Darling, all of West Berlin heard her, and probably half the East<< he laughed.

>>But do you think it’s true?<< I persisted. >>Do you think he’s some kind of vulture, picking at our scene?<<

>>You don’t like Nick, do you.<< It wasn’t even a question, it was just an assertion of fact.

>>No.<< It felt like a relief to get it out in the open. >>And before you say again, oh, you’re jealous over Blixa, no, it’s not that. I don’t trust him.<<

>>And so, because you don’t trust him and you don’t like him, what Jana said is niggling away in the back of your head. The ravings of a drug addict who is, in all likelihood, in the early stages of Schizophrenia, if what the cops said is true.<<

>>She’s been right about other things.<<

>>Such as... what?<<

I gulped at my coffee nervously. >>She knew Blixa and I were going to end up together.<<

>>A woman who’s been a man’s lover on and off since he was a teenager, and has worked out exactly the kinds of pretty boys he likes to have affairs with, spots the latest lad her boyfriend has his eye on, and ends a relationship that’s been wobbling on its last legs for ages. Then nine or ten months later, ta-dah, he finally beds said pretty boy. Ooh. Psychic!<< Wolfgang, too, had a disarming way with his eyebrows that put me at ease, and I laughed aloud with relief. The way he always called me boy or lad, like he understood something deep down about me, it pleased me. Made me feel like he was on my side, in some way.

>>Yes, of course. You’re right.<< He merely nodded as he sipped at his coffee. >>Do you like Nick, though? Be honest.<<

He shrugged. >>I think he’s phenomenally talented, and phenomenally ambitious. He is going to attract a lot of attention to our little scene, and he is going to light a fire under a lot of people. I think West Berlin will be good for him, and I think in many ways, he might be good for West Berlin.<<

I stared at him evenly. >>You didn’t answer the question.<<

>>No, I didn’t<< he said, and changed the subject. >>You know, you should drop by round the Other Shore. There’s been some interest in your work. People want to buy it.<<

>>Well, they can’t<< I said, slightly alarmed. It had been hard enough to show those intensely intimate portraits of my lover; I didn’t want to have to think about parting with them.

>>Don’t be absurd. You should go round and have a chat with Gerhard about offering prices. I can help you negotiate if you like. Or you can ask Salomé – now she drives a hard bargain.<<

I thanked Wolfgang for the coffee, and headed off, but I didn’t go directly to the Other Shore. Instead I found myself dragged back to Iron-Grey, looking for Blixa. Was this going to be my life now, chasing round after someone who kept disappearing? Of course he wasn’t there, but Gudrun was on the till, laughing and gossiping with a couple of girls from the art school.

She smiled when she saw me. >>You just missed him, but he left a message for you.<<

When I turned to the board, I saw my name written in that familiar spiky handwriting, and my heart leapt. >>What made you think I was looking for him anyway<< I said, taking down the slip of paper.

Gudrun rolled her eyes. >>He asked me to tell you. That’s all.<<

I opened the message greedily, and was confounded to find he had written a single word, “coupling” and a strange symbol comprised of six lines, some broken and some unbroken. Coupling? Well, that was obvious. I smiled to myself, but was still confused by the odd drawing.

>>What did he say?<< she asked.

>>You tell me<< I said, showing her the drawing.

>>That’s a hexagram<< one of the art school girls recognised. >>It’s from the I-Ching.<<

>>Wait, he’s got a book on that around here somewhere.<< Gudrun went in the back room and dug around in his pile of rubbish, then returned with a well-thumbed paperback on the I-Ching. >>Look it up.<<

>>Where’s he gone, anyway?<< I asked, settling down on the sofa to flip through a number of broken-line drawings that all looked approximately the same as the one Blixa had drawn for me.

>>Off somewhere with Nick. The two of them are cooking up some hare-brained scheme or other. I’m almost certain it’s a scam, but they’re going to try to take advantage of it.<<

I felt bile suddenly rise in my throat, with a surge of anger that surprised me. So Blixa needed space from me, but he was perfectly prepared to go dashing off around town with Nick? It twisted almost like a knife, until I managed to remind myself. No. I had been the one telling Blixa we needed space. The book insisted, on the other hand, that Blixa was telling me that he wanted “coupling”. “Conjoining”, according to his book, also known as “influence (wooing)” or “feelings”. Calm down, he’s sending you a perfectly clear message here.

>>I’m sure I’ll hear about it soon<< I sighed, trying to get a handle on my own feelings.

>>You coming to our gig this weekend?<<

>>Of course I am. Always. When? Where? Do you have a flyer?<<

She handed me a slip of paper. >>Well, you can ask Nick about this scheme at the gig. We are supporting his band.<<

Again, there it was, that twisty bile-making feeling, not even of jealousy this time, but more the sense of annoyance that fucking Nick was just fucking everywhere, and I would never get any time alone with my friends ever again.

>>If you want to roadie for us, we can get you in for free<< she suggested in a hopeful voice.

I laughed aloud, relieved that my friends still counted on me for something. >>If you want my help, just ask<<

>>There’s free drinks for all the bands all week, too, but, well... you don’t drink<< she shrugged, and I was reminded once again how West Berlin was the city were literally anything went, where you could be a fully functioning junky, where you could walk around in drag with a man on a dog leash, where you could pretend to shoot your girlfriend in front of a whole studio and no one, no one would care. But refuse to touch a drop of alcohol, and then you were the world’s strangest oddity.

>>I don’t think I’m working that day, so I’ll swing by in the afternoon, with the van<< I assured her, then looked at the hexagram, still crumpled in my hand. Although I knew it required an answer, I struggled to think in Blixa’s intensely symbolic, mystical language. >>What’s a good card in the Tarot deck?<< I asked. >>I only ever seem to get the bad ones.<<

>>The Sun<< suggested Gudrun. I nodded, then tore off a big of the flyer, scribbled a big childlike sun, with wavy lines coming off it, wrote “Die Sonne” underneath, and tacked it to the board with Blixa’s name.

I walked over to the Other Shore a little sheepishly, thinking how different it looked in the clear light of day. The broken glass had all been swept away, and there was a workman outside, painting the frame of the window that had just been replaced. Business was brisk, but Gerhard made time to talk to me, and brought me a cup of coffee, explaining that people had been asking to buy the pictures. Not the cartoons, which we both agreed were not appropriate to sell, but the lovely nudes of Blixa. People had been asking to buy those, and the offers were quite good. The whole conversation was so straightforward, none of the beating around the bush and pretend-you-weren’t-talking-about-business of English people. He proposed a price he thought was fair, and suggested a percentage cut for himself. I told him I’d have to talk it over with Wolfgang, and he immediately raised the price of the drawings by 10% and lowered his cut. I agreed, a little relieved, as work at the studio was not as regular as I had hoped it would be.

And that reminded me to swing by the studio and check if there had been any new bookings, and make sure that I was still free to roadie for Malaria! at the weekend. There had been a last minute commercial job slotted in for the next day, recording some radio jingles, so I put my name down for that, and went home to spend the evening working.

But when I sat down in front of my drawing desk, there was nothing. The blank page stared back at me like a reproval. No comics, no sketches, no doodles, nothing. I picked up my pencil and tried to form something, anything, even just the sharp angle of Blixa’s hip connecting with his torso, but the pencil would not cooperate. As it skirted over the page, I found it tracing an ugly jawline, a piggy nose, two eyes with dark, maliciously angled brows, and then a crest of black hair like a porcupine. Oh, fuck no. For a moment, I stared in horror at what I had drawn, then made a desperate but purposeful effort to scratch the thing out, obliterate it from the page, reduce it to a shiny black tangle of thick graphite. There was no way I was having that man in my sketchbook. And yet his eyes still seemed to stare out at me, even from behind the dark scribbles.

I slammed the book shut and went to bed.

I had no idea what time it was when I awoke. The sky was still dark, and the house was quiet, except for an insistent tap, tap, tapping noise like a dripping pipe. For a moment, I snapped to, startled, thinking I’d left the tap flowing, or maybe something had gone wrong with the morning load for the furnace, but no. I had made sure it was filled, the previous evening when I’d come in.

I was just about to lapse back into sleep when the tap came again. >>Carter!<<

Turning to the window, which I’d closed and locked the previous night due to the chill, but somehow forgotten to close the curtains, I saw the glowing tip of a cigarette illuminating a tall, dark figure lurking on the balcony, peering into my room. I almost screamed aloud, then realised it was only Blixa.

Shooting out of bed, I got up and went to the balcony’s door, wondering how he’d climbed up the drop of about twelve feet down to the courtyard below. As he hung about, coughing as he stamped out a cigarette, I unlocked the door and let him in. He almost fell into the room, his elbows and knees and angular limbs flailing everywhere, then collapsed into my arms. All at once, his hands reached around to the back of my head, then his mouth found mine and he swept me up in the most passionate kiss. Groggy, half-asleep, my body started to respond to him, kissing him back urgently, curling my limbs about him, but my mind was still fighting its way to full consciousness, and not entirely engaged. Stumbling backwards, we collapsed onto my bed in a tangle of bodies, but after a few minutes of kissing, our mouths parted.

I wiped his saliva from my chin with the back of my hand, then looked at him, trying to appraise the situation. >>What are you doing here?<< I asked, pushing his patchy brown hair, the unshaven bits of which were starting to grow a bit shaggy, back from his forehead.

>>I am so, so horny<< he insisted, sounding more than a little bit drunk, his hips gently humping mine, his fingers already at the buttons of my pyjama top, pushing it off my shoulders to expose my breasts. >>And I want you to fuck me.<<

>>Are you drunk?<< I asked, then gasped as his mouth touched my shoulder, nibbling insistently at the hollow where my neck met my collarbone as his fingers found my nipple.

>>Yeah, a little<< he admitted, bending his mouth to my breasts, setting my skin on fire everywhere he touched it, as his hands moved down to push my pyjama bottoms off my hips. >>OK, a lot.<<

I couldn’t help myself, I found myself kicking my pyjamas off, then reaching for the flies of his rubber trousers, tugging at them to find that he was already very hard. Clearly the drinking hadn’t yet interfered with his facilities. >>Where were you drinking? <<

Blixa just laughed his braying laugh, pulling back to kick off his wellies, then slipped out of his clothes. >>Went to some new club in Hasenheide with Nick<< he told me, in between kisses and embraces that were more like wrestling than gestures of affection, each of us pawing at the other’s body hungrily. >>Owned by a couple of Turkish dudes. My friend Chris is working as a bartender there, and gave them my name as a good contact in the music scene.<< His hands were on my buttocks, my mouth was on the staircase of his ribs, gnawing and biting. >>They want to start a new music venue – money laundering, Chris reckons. Something totally shady. Drugs, weapons, something like that, just don’t ask where the cash comes from.<< Rolling onto his back, he pulled me on top of him, sucking each of my breasts into his mouth in turn. >>They offered us unlimited free drinks if we’d do some shows – all the hip kids; us, the Birthday Party, Malaria! – because they see how crowded the Risk and SO36 are, and they think we can bring in the crowds.<<

>>So you and Nick have been drinking all night?<< I laughed, amazed that he could even stand up, let alone that he was so hard between my thighs as I grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him on top of me, dragging his lips back up to mine and sucking his tongue into my mouth as he angled his hips to get himself between my legs.

>>All afternoon, too. We started, I dunno... 4 o’clock? 5?<< he answered as he got his mouth free, then suddenly he gasped as he got his cock inside me and raised himself up on his elbows looking down at me, twisting his hips to get better traction as I found myself suddenly squirming with pleasure. Sex with a man; who knew?

>>So you’ve been sitting with Nick for the better part of a day, getting steadily more drunk and more horny...<< I teased him, reaching up to touch his face, tracing the outline of those cheekbones I knew so well. The shaggy hair suited him, really brought out the feminine prettiness of his face.

He laughed more softly as he slumped back against me, bringing his mouth down on mine, then tried to get his arms hooked under my knees, pulling them up and out to get better access to my body as he thrust into me. >>Yeah, alright, it’s true. But you’ve nothing to be jealous of. He’s not into me. Not like this.<<

I was finding it hard to breathe, as he was really being a bit brutal, but I clung to him, my nails digging into his back. >>I’m not jealous<< I insisted, but somewhere inside, I knew deep down that Blixa wouldn’t be here, with me, if he wasn’t so deeply enamoured with Nick.

>>Do you love me?<< he asked, his eyes widening as he started to get that slightly slack-jawed look that meant orgasm was very close.

>>Completely<< I assured him. >>But if you’re going to come, for god’s sake, pull out, as you haven’t got those condoms with you, have you?<<

>>I do, actually, but...<< he protested, but I felt him slip out of me, then felt his wet cock sliding against my belly. >>Ah, shit.<< His breath caught in his throat as he shuddered, and I felt wet warmth spurt across my stomach. >>I’m sorry<< he gasped, slumping back against me. >>I wanted to be a better lover, but...<< He tried to kiss me and missed, catching the edge of my eye. >>Oh, fuck, I’m still so drunk.<<

As he raised his hands to his face to rub his eyes, I lay back, wondering what to feel. Obviously, I was disappointed, as just as it was starting to get good, he had stopped. But was this what we were going to become to one another? Always the person one or the other of us went to, when we’d been driven to distraction by lust for another person?

>>Wait<< he insisted. >>I’m not done...<< Lowering his hands from his face, he went back to biting my neck, kissing my shoulders, sucking at my breasts, before moving lower, parting my legs and kissing me gently between my thighs. But then he seemed to remember something. >>Wait a minute<< he insisted, sounding suddenly very drunkenly determined. >>You’ve got that thing.<<

>>What thing?<< I laughed. He looked so cute with his wide eyes and his intent expression that I didn’t get angry at the interruption, I just sat up and showered his face with kisses.

>>That harness thing<< he insisted. >>You’ve got a cock, I’ve seen it. Let me fuck you with your own cock.<<

Both of us burst out laughing at the absurdity of what he’d just said, but then we froze, staring at one another both of us realising that the perversion of what he’d just suggested was actually seriously turning us both on. >>Alright<< I agreed, and pushed him off me, rolling over to the bedside table, extracting first the harness, and then the strap-on. >>Let me just wash this first...<< I suggested, trying to buy a little time as I walked over to the washstand on the far side of the room, and ran the dildo under the tap.

In the meanwhile, Blixa had untangled the harness, and was doing his best to put it on himself – legs through the loops, and then a belt that went around the waist – but he was a little bit too wasted to do it up properly. It looked so strange, the dark leather bands against his worm-white skin, adjusting his actual cock to make room for the strap and hoop that held the fake cock. Seeing him sitting there on the edge of the bed, his eyes still smeared with mascara, his hair hanging in his face, the harness around his skinny waist, it was such an odd mishmash of masculine and feminine that I found myself becoming really, really aroused.

>>This is crazy<< I said, pulling him to his feet, tightening bits of the harness that needed to be tightened, adjusting the straps, and then slipping the cock – as he had said, my cock – into the loop.

>>I know<< he agreed, licking his lips wolfishly. >>It’s so perverted that after I’m done fucking you, I’m going to make you put in on, and fuck me.<<

I lay back on the bed, pulling him down next to me, kissing him, a little more tenderly now, as he pressed up against me. It didn’t feel like his cock, it had a completely different texture, though it was about the same size and shape. (Ilsa had longingly lingered over an almost comically large one, but I had wanted something more... proportionate with my frame, a decision I was very glad of now.) But as he rubbed it back and forth between my outer lips, it didn’t bend or shy away from the opening the way his did.

>>It’s a little hard to control<< he admitted. >>I can’t feel it, so I can’t tell if it’s inside you yet.<<

I shifted, and reached down to guide it inside, feeling all of my nerves singing as it slid home. >>There<< I said, and together, we started to rock back and forth.

>>Wow<< he said, putting his arms around me and looking deep into my eyes. His pupils were so huge, all I could see was the rim of azure around the very edge. >>I feel like such a lesbian.<<

>>I wish<< I laughed, though it was hard to laugh with all of my energy and my pleasure and my focus concentrated down between my legs, where he was rubbing back and forth at an angle that sending serious amounts of sensation tingling up my belly and down across my thighs.

>>In some ways, I kind of wish, too.<< he said, and I thought he was being a playful kidder again, until he pushed a little further inside me and started to really grind his body against mine. >>I wish I could be a girl with you, and really understand what it’s like, to be two women together, that special bond that girls seem to get. But then, I also wish you could be a man, so that I could know what it’s like to be a girl being screwed with your actual cock. It’s different, isn’t it, fucking a man or a woman?<<

I tried to murmur my agreement, but the whole situation had heated up to the point where I no longer knew where my limbs ended and his cock – my cock – even began. My whole body seemed to be pulsing, convulsing with wanting more and more of him, even as he was feeding me these crazy, perverted fantasies which were, admittedly, curling up inside my brain and making me even more and more aroused than what the dildo was doing to my cunt.

>>But what I love best of all<< he whispered directly into my ear, his lips brushing the tiny hairs of my earlobe so that I kept shivering with delight. >>Is the idea of you and me, as two boys. My cock inside you; your cock inside me. And yet... and yet...<<

I was moaning aloud, twisting beneath him, my whole body and my whole brain just opened up to whatever he wanted to tell me, like he wasn’t just fucking me with the dildo, he was fucking my brain with his words and his voice, his deep, low, slightly evil voice purring in my ear; and these fantasies he was weaving, it was like he was taking my own darkest desires and feeding them back to me. >>And yet what?<< I demanded, writhing towards him and kissing him, sucking his tongue into my mouth almost violently.

>>And yet I love your pussy. I love that you walk around like a man, with your wide shoulders and your big boots and Christ, you know how I feel about your strong, capable hands. You make such an insanely good-looking man that every fag in Berlin is half in lust with you. And yet, I strip you open, and there’s this inside. This secret mouth down below that just sucks and sucks and takes all of me in, and you have no idea how tight and how warm and how wet it is, and how much I love being inside you.<<

I let out a kind of a strangled cry as I seized his hands and pushed them between my thighs. His forefinger seemed to find my clit blindly, and pressed down, rubbing against it rhythmically until I felt all of the tension and longing and pleasure that had been building up beneath explode across my body in a long, pulsating meteor shower of pleasure that seemed to go on and on, rolling back through me in fizzling little waves. I felt obliterated. I felt wrecked. I felt completely annihilated by an orgasm so strong I hadn’t felt since... well, I was going to say since Maud. But it was so different from those furtive, quiet orgasms I had snatched from Maud that it seemed to belong to another body entirely. Like, Blixa, with my own cock, and his perverted, seductive, impossible words, had managed to reach a part of me that I had been afraid to even admit existed.

As I lay back panting, just trying to catch my breath, he bent down and kissed my face, gently wiping away tiny tracks of tears I hadn’t even notice come running down my cheeks. >>When you catch your breath, I want you to put this on, and go as hard as you can with me<< he whispered. >>I’m starting to get hard again, but it’s going to take a lot to get me off a second time.<<

He pulled out of me, and I sat up, feeling more than a little light-headed, then unbuckled the harness from around his waist, and fastened it in the familiar way around my own. >>Wait, I should wash it...<< I suggested, seeing how slick it was with my own juices. How had I been so wet, with a man?

>>No!<< he almost barked. >>I want it wet. I want your cum inside me... In fact...<< He looked about wildly. >>Have you got any oil? Body oil? Skin lotion?<<

I looked about, and found a small bottle of baby oil I sometimes used to get tough mechanical grease off my hands. As I dribbled a bit onto my already-slick cock, he turned over, showing his pale white arse to me as he parted his thighs, and lay the way he’d once lay for me to draw him, showing the tangle of hair around his balls and the and dark cleft between his legs.

>>I’m not sure I know how to...<< I stuttered, climbing up behind him, confused a little by the unfamiliar arrangement.

>>Same as a girl. You slide inside, and then you ride<< he insisted. >>Just fuck me like you fucked your Danish girl.<<

I parted the lobes of his arse, and rubbed a little bit of oil onto the tight little star of his arsehole. It seemed absurd that I was going to get this huge thing inside there, but he was already rubbing himself against the bed in anticipation. Gingerly, I pressed the tip of my cock up against his sphincter, and as he exhaled and relaxed, I managed to get the head of it inside. He let out a long, great, quivering sigh that ended in a hiss.

>>I’m not hurting you am I?<<

>>On the contrary. Deeper, please.<<

I pushed until I felt a slight pop, and then suddenly I sank in all the way. He softly yowled beneath me, his fingers and toes flexing and relaxing and clutching at the sheets. >>Are you sure I’m not hurting you?<<

>>Fuck me<< he almost hissed, the consonants of his misssssccch dissipating in a sigh as I started to move, working back and forth with my hips, sliding in and out as he writhed beneath me.

It was completely different to fucking a girl, and yet somehow the same. The anatomy, the topography was all wrong, as I had to guess from gasps and yelps which angle was most pleasurable for him, which was, of course, completely different from female anatomy in direction and depth, towards the back, rather than towards the front. And yet the way he moved against me, the way he bucked his hips to greet me, rising and falling, pushing against me and pulling away, moaning and writhing and hissing at me to go deeper, harder, faster... well, christ. There was such a weird frisson, knowing that I was fucking a boy, and yet feeling like I was fucking a girl, that I started to feel myself getting turned on all over again.

He seemed to have no pain limit. I was worried that was the drink, and he would regret it in the morning, but he begged me to be rougher with him, though I wanted to be gentle the first time. When I moved my hand round to check that he was OK, I found that his own cock was as stiff as a board, but he moaned so appealingly as I closed my fingers around it, that I started to work at him from both direction. He seemed to lose all sense or cognisance of where he even was, his eyes closed tightly, his mouth hanging open, biting at his own sensual lips, muttering little inarticulate guttural phrases that might have been my name. I kept steeling myself for ‘Nick’, but fortunately, it didn’t come. His breaths got sharper and sharper, then he cried aloud, and then his cock convulsed slightly and spurted in my hand.

I slowed my thrusts, and then stopped, kissing his shoulders, even as he caught his breath.

>>Stay in me<< he begged. >>It feels really nice, and I just want you to stay in me a few minutes...<< But then he laughed. >>At least you won’t lose your erection after you come.<<

>>I can stay in you all night<< I laughed, and he twisted his head around and bent back, surprising me with the force of his kiss.

>>I...<< His eyes were huge dark pools as he pulled away, looking at me with fear and desire and love all mixed together. He looked as shellshocked as I had felt, twenty minutes earlier, when he had extracted that powerful orgasm from my own body. But then he sighed, and slowly pulled his body off my cock.

As I glanced down, I made a face. >>Oh. I better, uh... this is messy. I need to rinse this off and clean it up.<<

>>Just rinse it off and come back to bed. I want you to hold me<< he urged, as I climbed out of bed and gingerly detached the mucky thing from the harness without smearing it on anything. Contrary to what he had asked, I smothered it with soap and gave it a good scrub, resolving to put boiling water on it in the morning. >>Come back to bed!<<

When I was satisfied it was clean, I obliged, folding myself into bed beside him, wrapping my arms around his waist and resting my head against his shoulder, holding his curled body against me like a folded pillow.

>>There’s only one way it wasn’t perfect<< he murmured into the pillows as I pulled the covers over the both of us.

>>What<< I muttered, thinking to myself what a picky, impossible thing a man was.

>>Next time I really want you to tie me. Strap me down good and tight.<<

>>Not when you’re drunk<< I said, a little bit afraid of how much I was turned on by what he asked.

>>Alright, then next time, I can be sober and you can be stoned out of your mind again. Then we’ll see, just how far we can go<< he insisted with dogged, drink-fuelled determination, then fell asleep.

Chapter Text

I woke to the alarm and remembered that I had signed up for a day’s work in the studio, then turned to get out of bed, and found an arm wrapped loosely around my waist. Oh god. A man in my room. I had to get him out!

>>Blixa<< I hissed, but he did his best to ignore me, shifting his head and trying to burrow it under my shoulder. >>Blixa, you have to get up.<<

>>Fuck off, I’ve got a hangover.<< The similarity between my name and the German word for hangover would have been funny, were I not so worried about getting him out of my room.

>>Do you even remember last night?<< I muttered as he tried to pull me closer to him.

>>Every depraved minute of it, and I want to do it again... once I get rid of this wretched headache.<< He blinked at me, then pulled a pillow over his head in protest at the early hour.

>>Blixa, I’ve got to go to work, and you’ve got to get out of this house before anyone sees you.<<

It took some doing, but I did finally get him dressed and sneaked him down the back stairs and through the coal cellar door, back out into the yard. >>Come round this new club, the Sector, after work. I’ll be drinking there with Nick<< he urged, and told me the address. We kissed quickly, but with desperate passion, then I shoved him out the door, and went back to wash and dress for work.

I was useless all day, walking around in a kind of daze. My body may have been at the studio, setting out mics and doing line-checks and operating the tape machine, but my mind was back in that bed. Glimpses of Blixa’s pale white arse, that dark hole gaping at me, waiting for my cock, seemed to hang about just behind my eyelids. My lips seemed to tingle still with the force of his kisses, the edge of his teeth on my skin. And my cunt... my cunt felt a bit sore and slightly chaffed, and yet still, I just wanted him back inside me.

We were recording ads for radio, which wasn’t difficult, but it was fiddly. There were very strict time-limits for ads, and they always wrote too many words, so we had to slow the tape down slightly to fit in the whole spiel, and then gently speed it up, but not too much, so that it didn’t sound like chipmunks advertising the department stores or groceries. And then there was the trouble of mixing in sound effects, or else backing music that had to be piped in from a record, but not so loud that it would drown out the announcements. But it was very lucrative work, far more lucrative than the punk bands, who sometimes couldn’t even afford an engineer at all.

And since the vocal announcers were generally paid by the hour, the sessions almost never overran, so that I was finished by a reasonable hour, and drove over to this new venue to meet my lover. This place, Sector, was a two-story hall was on the edge of a park that had a really rough reputation, so I was a little worried about my van, and made sure to park it off the street, a few blocks over.

But I paused as I walked into the entrance, and stared at the posters. There was a huge poster for the Malaria! show the next night tacked up on the door, but it was one on the side, for the New Buildings that had caught my eye. For the image they had chosen was one of Wolfgang’s photos of Blixa, completely nude and curled in a ball. I don’t know why it gave me pause. It certainly wasn’t Blixa’s nakedness, for I was well aware that he was a beautiful man and his image could move others as much as it could move me. It wasn’t even that they’d used one of Wolfgang’s images, and not mine – but then maybe that was it. Posters for my show had been up all over West Berlin for weeks, that Wolfgang had put together in his little graphic design studio. So of course the posters looked alike. They’d all been made by the same people: me, Blixa and Wolfgang. And yet it still felt strange.

I walked inside, and immediately found the bar, just off the street to attract passing trade. From the looks of things, it was already getting very messy. There was only a sparse crowd as apparently there was no band playing tonight, but both the Birthday Party and the New Buildings figured very heavily in the attendance. If the management had been counting on the bands attracting new customers, well, there did not seem to be any more paying punters than there were band members, once all the girlfriends and general hangers on had been taken into account. (Technically, the Teenager had been kicked out of the New Buildings months ago, and yet he was always somehow still around, curre